Captain William Bainbridge USN
One of the early Fathers of the United States Navy
William Bainbridge (1774-1833) entered the US merchant marine in 1789, the same year that George Washington became President. Through self-education and hard work, he quickly became a mate and, at age 19, was given command of the merchant ship Hope (140 tons with four nine-pound guns). While off St. Johns in the Caribbean, he was hailed by a British schooner to stop and be boarded. He refused and a firefight ensured. Although the schooner carried more guns, Bainbridge had a better-trained crew. They soon forced the British schooner to strike colors. Bainbridge joined the then one-year-old United States Navy in 1798 and was appointed to command the galley Retaliation. While cruising in the Caribbean during the Quasi-War with France, the Retaliation was captured by a pair of French frigates. Bainbridge and the galley were taken to Guadeloupe. He convinced the Governor of Guadeloupe to release him and a number of American prisoners and to restore the Retaliation to his command – and promptly sailed back home. Bainbridge was then assigned to command the ship Norfolk, capturing a number of French privateers before the Quasi-War came to an end. In 1800, he was given command of the frigate George Washington and tasked with carrying tribute to the Dey of Algiers. At that time, the United States and various European powers paid tribute to the Barbary Pirates for safe passage of their merchant ships through the western Mediterranean. Many ships for which tribute had not been paid were captured and their crews forced into slavery. During this distasteful mission, Bainbridge was employed by the Dey to carry gifts to the Sultan of Turkey. Bainbridge was instrumental in securing an order from the Sultan to the Dey obliging him to release 400 US merchant mariners. Upon his return to the United States in 1801, Bainbridge was given command of the Essex and assigned to cruise against marauding Barbary pirates. In 1803, he assigned to command the frigate Philadelphia on the same mission. On 31 October 1803, while pursuing a Tripolian corsair, the Philadelphia grounded on a submerged rock in the harbor of Tripoli. Bainbridge and his crew were captured and held prisoner until a peace treaty was negotiated between the warring entities. When the War of 1812 commenced, Bainbridge was assigned to command the Constitution (Old Ironsides). On 29 December 1812, the Constitution defeated and captured the larger British frigate Java. Bainbridge, twice wounded in the engagement, became a national hero and was awarded a Congressional medal. Bainbridge commanded various other ships and shore units until forced to retire due to failing health in 1832. He established a tradition of bold leadership that continues in the US Navy to this date.