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Delmarva Heritage Series

* John Trippe, Early Shore Hero

Salisbury Times - April 8, 1960

Shortly after the United States had established a government under the Constitution, and the administration of President George Washington had just begun, the war clouds of Europe and the pirates of North Africa tested our young navy. And, as often the case has been, many men from the Chesapeake Bay region played prominent roles in these naval engagements. 

Although it was not an easy task President Washington was able to keep the United States out of the European conflicts growing out of the French Revolution. But during President John Adams' term the "XYZ Affair" caused American-French relations to be strained to the limit in 1798-99. Many expected Adams to call for a declaration of war. It was this time that Congress created the Navy Department, revived the Marine Corps, fitted for sea the vessels Constitution, Constellation, and the United States, and purchased several smaller sailing vessels. The expected war did not emerge but there was undeclared naval warfare with France in which American ships were authorized to capture French armed vessels wherever found. The Americans just about swept the French ships out of the West Indian waters.

SHORTLY after the Philadelphia had been lost, Commodore Preble obtained six Neapolitan gunboats and two bombo-boats from the King of the Two Sicilies (the island of Sicily and the southern part of present day Italy). These vessels were quite small - 56 feet, 6 inches long, with a beam of 18 feet, mounting a French 24 pounder on the bow, a rig of a one-masted lateen, with jib, and a crew of 35 men. They were manned by the Americans, except for 12 Neapolitans attached to each vessel. Preble reported that these boats were flat-bottomed and heavy, did not sail or row well, and were not intended for the open sea; they were usually used in defense of harbors. Yet, because he was short of vessels, he felt forced to use them in the planned attack, even though they could not be navigated with safety, unless assisted by two ropes from larger and better sailing vessels.

On Aug. 1, 1804, "At 2:30, a general signal for battle was given; at 2:45, bombboats commenced the action by throwing shells into the town. In an instant, the enemy's shipping and batteries opened a tremendous fire, which was promptly returned by the whole squadron. Our boats gave the enemy showers of grape and musket balls as they advanced; however, they soon closed, when pistol, sabre, pike, and tomahawk were made good use of by our tars."

During the engagement Preble had six gunboats to nine of the enemy but was able to bring just three of them into action simultaneously - No. 4 under Stephen Decatur, No. 5 by Decatur's brother, Lt. James Decatur, and No. 6 by Lt. John Trippe.

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EMMETT Andrews, of Cambridge, Maryland, writes: "Trippe ran alongside one of the largest of the enemy's boats and boarded her with only 10 companions, his own boat falling off before the others could follow. Thus, he and his men found themselves face to face with 36 of the enemy, led by a Tripolitan, who had sworn by the Koran never to surrender.

Trippe and the Corsair captain fought with caution, sparring and fencing several minutes; each had several wounds! At last, the Tripolitan struck Trippe a crushing blow to the head.

Trippe, half stunned, fell upon his knees; immediately a second Tripolitan aimed a blow at him from behind, but was killed by an American marine.

Rallying all of his physical strength, Trippe made a fierce lunge at this enemy and drove a pike completely through his body. Fourteen of the enemy lay dead, seven wounded, the rest surrendered.

In the encounter, gunboat No. 6 had expended fifteen 24-lb. round shot, ten 24-lb. grape, 60 musket cartridges, 3 fathoms of match rope, 25 wads, and 1 lbs. of priming powder, according to her skipper's report.

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A more extraordinary action probably was never recorded. The commander of the enemy gunboat was remarkably athletic and a gallant man, about 24 years of age. His height was considerably over 6 feet.

Trippe was undersize, though well-set and extremely agile. He admired the great courage of his foe, and was anxious to spare his life. He gave him repeated invitations to surrender.

His adversary, however, indignantly rejected every overture and fought on with increased fury. Even in his death throes, he made a last dive at his opponent, then keeled

over dead. He had wounded Trippe 11 times. It has been said that when Trippe would retell the story of the battle with his gallant foe tears would roll down his cheeks.

Trippe did not wait for his wounds to heal before taking part in other Mediterranean engagements - Aug. 7, 24, 28, and Sept. 2, 3, 1804.

For his services Trippe was awarded a gold medal by Congress, and presented a gold sword and belt by the Maryland General Assembly for "His Patriotism and Bravery off Tripoli." He was promoted in 1809 to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

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THREE NAVAL vessels have been named in his honor. The sloop Trippe took part in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1812; the destroyer Trippe (1910) was active in World War I; another destroyer Trippe (1938) participated in several Mediterranean engagements in World War II, and received six battle stars.

John Trippe's naval career was cut short by an early death. He died off the coast of Havana, Cuba, July 9, 1810 at the age of 25. His grave is at Todd's Point overlooking the Choptank River.

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