If you’re a Game Of Thrones fan, then you’ll be familiar with this story, but you may notice different characters this time. I’m referencing the idea of a ‘Fire Ship,’ as seen in the “Battle of the Blackwater” episode in Season 6.
For a more in-depth look at this topic, check out the related podcast: http://innovativehistory.com/starspangledshadows/episode-1-pirates-duels-and-fireships-a-real-life-game-of-thrones-episode
The fire ship is a floating Trojan Horse, filled with explosives. The object of the ship is to maneuver as close as possible to enemy ships and then ignite, taking down as much of the enemy fleet as possible. If you aren’t familiar with this concept from the popular HBO show then you can watch a clip below:
Believe it or not, George R.R. Martin and HBO didn’t invent this piece of Game of Thrones. The US Navy once had the fire ship or ‘floating volcano’ as they called it, in their playbook. It ended up being a complete disaster, which is probably why this incident is hardly ever discussed in our history textbooks. Here’s the story:
EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE FIRST BARBARY WAR
The story of the USS Intrepid, America’s Fire Ship, dates all the way back to the American Revolution. As you may know, it was Benjamin Franklin who helped convince the French to assist the United States in the Revolution against Great Britain. On February 6, 1778, he was in France signing the Treaty of Alliance. This treaty basically said that France would recognize the United States as a country and would assist them against Great Britain if Great Britain were to declare war on France. As soon as Great Britain heard that France recognized the US as a country...it immediately declared war. It was more or less a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, this treaty also stated that France would protect the US from common enemies besides Great Britain. One of the enemies that fell under this category was the Barbary pirates of North Africa.
So even after the battles of the Revolutionary War ended, France still helped protect US ships as they sailed to Europe to trade. The Barbary pirates were infamous for capturing ships and enslaving the sailors or ransoming the crew back to their home country. They were estimated to have captured and enslaved 1 to 1.5 million people over a few centuries. There were even a few organizations in Europe whose sole purpose was to collect donations for pirate ransoms! The only way to stop these pirates was to fight them off with force or pay them a tribute to ensure that they wouldn’t attack your ships.
Here’s a quick overview with more info about the Barbary pirates:
The US was protected by the French until 1783, and had been protected by the British before the Revolutionary War started, so they never really had to deal with these pirates. However, after the Treaty of Paris (1783) which officially ended the hostilities of the American Revolution, the French no longer protected US merchant ships. (In fact, the French started attacking US ships, because America stopped paying its bills from the American Revolution, but that’s a story for another day).
So, the Barbary pirates started capturing and enslaving US sailors. The US tried to combat this, but they just weren’t strong enough, especially in terms of naval forces. The US had dropped its navy after the American Revolution. Instead, they paid tribute to the pirates to keep them away. Thomas Jefferson was paying the pirates almost 20% of the entire US Federal budget by the time he became president. To put that into perspective, that's more than the U.S. currently spends on its entire military. He decided enough was enough. He built a few massive ships to take on the pirates and so the First Barbary War began in 1801. How bad were these pirates? Even Sweden, who currently has a longstanding policy of military neutrality, declared war on the pirates. In fact, the Swedes and the US teamed up against the pirates in the First Barbary War.
(Fun Fact: Sweden was also the first nation not directly involved in the American Revolution to recognize the United States as an independent country. Yay Sweden!).
So the war commenced. In a battle in Tripoli Harbor, one of Jefferson’s massive ships, the USS Philadelphia, ran aground. The sailors couldn’t get the ship off of the shallow shoals. The entire crew and the ship were captured. If the Tripoli pirates were able to unground the Philadelphia, it would have been the largest ship in their entire fleet. Obviously, that would have been devastating to the US. They knew they had to keep that from happening. So they put together a plan.
THE USS TROJAN HORSE
After the Tripoli Harbor battle, the USS Enterprise commanded by the U.S. Navy’s golden boy, Stephen Decatur, captured one of the Tripolitan ships that had fought against the USS Philadelphia. This was the ship that the US would eventually use as a fire ship. They renamed it Intrepid after successfully capturing it. (Intrepid means “Feeling no fear”).
This Tripolitan bomb ketch was one of the few ships that the U.S. had successfully captured during the war. Since they now had a ship that could pass as a Tripolitan merchant ship, they devised a plan to sail into the Tripoli harbor and burn the USS Philadelphia (so it couldn’t be used by the pirates).
Commanded by Decatur himself, the USS Intrepid and 60 men sailed straight into Tripoli Harbor. When they were questioned by guards as to what they were doing, they said they had lost their anchors at sea and needed to dock for the night. More specifically, they asked if they could tie onto the USS Philadelphia. You know, because that didn’t seem obvious or anything. The guards raised the alarm after seeing the anchors still attached to the ship, but not before the sailors were able to make their way aboard the USS Philadelphia to burn it to the ground.
The Tripolitans began firing upon the ship, but the Americans were able to escape with very few casualties. The best part of the incident was that the USS Philadelphia remained loyal to America all the way to the end! As the Philadelphia burned, its cannons were still loaded and the fire caused them to ignite and fire upon the Tripolitans as the U.S. sailors escaped back to the Intrepid.
FIRE SHIP TIME
So, we haven't blown up any ships in this article, so you can probably guess how this all ends. After successfully using the Intrepid to destroy the USS Philadelphia, the U.S. Navy started to get a tad greedy. They devised a plan to fill the Intrepid to the brim with explosives and set its course for the center of the Tripolitan fleet. The Navy gathered carpenters from all of its other ships and began to reconstruct the inside of the Intrepid so that they could fit as many explosives as possible in her hull.
The Intrepid was loaded with around 100 barrels of powder and 150 shells. The fuses were set to give the sailors aboard 15 minutes to abandon ship. Lieutenant Richard Somers took the helm and a handful of volunteers joined him. Two of the Navy's fastest ships accompanied them to help the volunteers get back to safety after they ditched their Trojan Horse.
On September 4, 1804, under the cover of darkness, the men sailed the Intrepid into the Tripoli harbor towards their enemy. It was quickly spotted by shore batteries. They recognized the ship as the same one that burned the Philadephia and they bombarded it with cannon fire. The Intrepid sealed its fate only 30 minutes into the mission, well before it was close enough to damage any of the enemy ships. The ship was obliterated into thousands of pieces of wood, char, ropes, sails, and fireworks as the contents in its hull ignited short of its final destination. To this day, the cause of the premature explosion is unknown. The explosives were possibly ignited by enemy gunfire or Somers exploded the ship prematurely to keep it from being captured by enemy boarding parties. Regardless, all of the U.S. sailors onboard were killed and very little if any damage was done to the enemy.
The U.S. sailors remains did not meet the same fate as the ship. After the explosion, the bodies of the men washed ashore. The angry Tripolitans dragged them through the streets and eventually buried them in an unmarked grave. Over a century later, in 1949 Tripoli actually moved the remains to a local cemetery. The U.S. has no intention of repatriating the remains, but U.S. officials do occasionally visit the site.
So the attempt at the Floating Trojan Horse didn’t work for the U.S. Navy, at least not in this example. This may not be a shining example of our military history, but like any history, it is still worth knowing. The story may never (and perhaps shouldn’t) make it into a young student’s textbook, but now you know just a little bit more about America’s history and perhaps where George R.R. Martin got his idea for a piece of Game of Thrones!