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Destruction of Intrepid Engraving

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The sixth battle in the First Barbary War took place the evening of September 4, 1804. Using the cover of darkness, Commodore Edward Preble gave the order to launch an infernal, a floating bomb, that was outfitted by carpenters from the USS Intrepid (previously the captured Tripoline vessel Mastico). A small volunteer crew, led by Master Commandant Richard Somers, would get the ship close enough to her targets, ignite the combustibles, and then swiftly depart on rowboats. 

However, as the 1810 hand-colored engraving shows, the Intrepid did explode but far too soon for the crew to escape. All 13 sailors were killed, including newly promoted Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth of Constitution. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was his nephew, born three years after his uncle’s untimely death in this “bizarre mode of attack.” Tragically the loss of lives did not result in any victory for the U.S. Navy: the ship exploded before it could get close enough to cause any damage to the Tripoline fleet. 

This illustration is from “The Portfolio” an American literary and political magazine and incorrectly depicts the Intrepid erupting in flames in view of the other American vessels. Due to the darkness and the gun smoke from the exchange of fire, the ship completely disappeared from view. The flash of flames from the Intrepid lit up the sky, illuminating the engulfed masts of the ship, and resulted in a deafening explosion that caused both sides to temporarily cease fighting. 

Even today, there are many theories as to what occurred. Did Somers get stuck on the rocks in poor visibility and was hit by a stray shot? Did someone on board accidently set the fuse before it was time? Regardless, this failure and loss of American lives was felt deeply by all crew members. It was the last attack by Preble as Commodore, when he was relieved from service upon the arrival of Samuel Barron a few days later on September 9th. The inscription on the illustration is a direct quote from Preble’s letter about the attack to the Secretary of the Navy dated September 18, 1804.

"The Portfolio"

Date Created
December 1810

Paper, Ink

[H]11 3/8 in. [W]14 1/2 in.

Catalog Number

Credit Line
USS Constitution Museum Collection.

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