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War of 1812: Commodore William Bainbridge

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War of 1812: Commodore William Bainbridge

Commodore William Bainbridge

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

William Bainbridge - Early Life & Career:

Born May 7, 1774, in Princeton, NJ, William Bainbridge was the son of Dr. Absalom and Mary Bainbridge. One of four children, Bainbridge's early childhood was complicated as his father was a Loyalist during the American Revolution and served in the British Army. Largely raised by his maternal grandfather, John Taylor, he grew up in Middleton, NJ. In 1783, following the British defeat and the Treaty of Paris, Bainbridge's father departed for England though his mother, who was in ill health, remained behind. Eager to go to sea, Bainbridge began sailing on vessels in the Delaware River at age fifteen. Quickly transitioning to the Atlantic trade, he gained a reputation for himself after putting down a mutiny at Bordeaux a few years later. Made a merchant captain at age nineteen, Bainbridge was attacked by a British schooner in the Caribbean in 1796. Fighting back, he compelled the vessel to strike its colors but elected not to take possession.

William Bainbridge - Quasi-War:

As tensions with France came to head in 1798 with the beginning of the Quasi-War, the US Navy quickly expanded. Applying, Bainbridge accepted a commission as a lieutenant on August 3, 1798. The following month he received command of the schooner USS Retaliation (14 guns). Sailing on October 28 with USS Montezuma (18) and the brig USS Norfolk (16), Retaliation began patrolling the Caribbean. On November 20, while away from its consorts, Retaliation approached two frigates which Bainbridge believed to be British. His assumption soon proved false as the two ships were the French frigates Le Volontier (44) and l'Insurgente (40). Badly outgunned, Bainbridge surrendered without a fight. His defeat was the US Navy's only loss during the conflict. Taken to Guadeloupe, Bainbridge was soon exchanged. Returning to the United States, he received a promotion to master commandant in March 1799 and assumed command of Norfolk. Over the next year, Bainbridge actively cruised against the French and captured several privateers.

William Bainbridge - The First Barbary War:

Promoted to captain on May 20, 1800, Bainbridge took command of the frigate USS George Washington (32). Embarking a load of stores and timber as the United States' tribute to the Dey of Algiers, he departed from Philadelphia on August 8. Arriving at Algiers the following month, Bainbridge allowed the pilot to anchor the ship under the city's guns. Upon delivering the tribute, he was compelled by the Dey to transport his ambassador and gifts to Constantinople with George Washington flying the Algerian flag. Completing this humiliating task, Bainbridge sailed for home. In 1801, having tired of paying tribute, President Thomas Jefferson directed the US Navy to begin operations against the Barbary pirates.

Placed in command of the frigate USS Philadelphia (36) in 1803, Bainbridge returned to the Mediterranean with orders to blockade the port of Tripoli. On October 31, while pursuing a Tripolitan cruiser into the harbor, Philadelphia struck an uncharted reef. Enduring fire from Tripolitan gunboats and shore batteries, Bainbridge spent five hours attempting to free his ship. Not believing that it would float free, he finally decided to flood the frigate's magazines, destroy his code books, and surrender. Doing so, Bainbridge and his crew became prisoners of the Pasha. Much to his horror, Philadelphia came loose on a high tide and was seized by the Pasha's men. Unwilling to allow the Tripolitans to retain Philadelphia, the commander of the American squadron offshore, Commodore Edward Preble, directed Lieutenant Stephen Decatur to take a raiding party into the harbor to destroy the frigate. This was accomplished during a daring action on the night of February 16, 1804.

William Bainbridge - Free at Last:

Remaining a prisoner, Bainbridge was not released until June 3, 1805, when after enduring several naval bombardments and suffering a defeat at the Battle of Derna, the Pasha sued for peace. Acquitted in the loss of Philadelphia, he received a furlough upon his return to the United States and spent 1806-1807 working in the merchant service to improve his financial situation. Resuming his naval career, Bainbridge oversaw the Charleston Navy Yard before assuming command of USS President (44) in 1809. Coming ashore the following year, he conducted merchant voyages in 1810 and 1811. Sailing as far as India, Bainbridge hastened back upon learning that war between the United State and Britain was looming.

William Bainbridge - War of 1812:

With the beginning of the War of 1812 in June 1812, Bainbridge prepared for sea. On September 8 he received command of USS Constitution (44) which had recently defeated the British frigate HMS Guerriere. Putting to sea on October 28, Bainbridge moved south in company with the brig USS Hornet (20). Reaching São Salvador, Brazil, he blockaded the corvette HMS Bonne Citoyenne (20). Leaving Hornet to watch the port, Bainbridge maneuvered offshore seeking prizes. On December 29, Constitution spotted the frigate HMS Java (38). Commanded by Captain Henry Lambert, Java had departed Portsmouth on November 12 and was carrying the new governor of India to Bombay. Manned by a largely green crew, the British frigate had yet to conduct meaningful gun drills.

Closing with the enemy, Bainbridge opened fire. As the engagement commenced, a shot from Java carried away Constitution's helm forcing the American ship to steer using its tiller. As the battle progressed, the Constitution's larger size and better-trained crew saw it batter the British frigate and force it to surrender. Though wounded twice in the fighting, Bainbridge remained on deck. Assessing Java, he judged it too severely damaged to take as a prize and ordered it sunk. Having taken damage in the fighting, Constitution returned to Boston for repairs after landing the British prisoners at São Salvador. Hailed as a hero, Bainbridge received a Congressional Gold Medal on March 3, 1813 for his victory. Leaving Constitution, he assumed command of the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. He held this post for the remainder of the war.

William Bainbridge - Later Career:

With the end of the War of 1812, the US Navy directed two squadrons be formed to deal with a new threat from the Barbary States. The first, led by Decatur, departed in May 1815 while the other, led by Bainbridge, sailed in July. Flying his flag from the ship of the line USS Independence (90), his forces arrived too late to see any fighting as Decatur's force had compelled the Barbary States to make peace. After conducting a show of force along the North African coast, Bainbridge sailed for Newport, RI where he arrived on November 15. Later returning to Boston, Independence remained Bainbridge's flagship until 1819. The following year, he served as Decatur's second in his duel with Commodore James Barron.

Taking place on March 22 at Bladensburg, MD, the duel saw Decatur mortally wounded. Long jealous of Decatur, some have posited that Bainbridge arranged the terms of the duel in such a way to make the death or wounding of the participants likely. The following years saw him oversee US Navy forces in Philadelphia and Boston. In 1824, Bainbridge was appointed to the Board of Navy Commissioners. Serving in this capacity for three years, he then returned to his former post at Charlestown Navy Yard. Remaining until November 1832, he requested leave due to failing health. Traveling south, Bainbridge died in Philadelphia on July 27, 1833 and was buried in Christ Church Burial Ground.

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