William Bainbridge



Occupation 1

naval officer


Tripolitan War


The World


Maritime Republic (1751-1815)






Naval officer


In 1789 Bainbridge entered the merchant service; four years later he was captain of the ship Hope, a command he retained for five years--not an atypical early career for a young seafarer of good family. Unlike many other American merchants, Bainbridge suffered no losses to the French; nevertheless, in 1798 he gladly accepted a lieutenant's commission in the new United States Navy, a choice that implies a preference for prestige over possible fortune. He received one of the rare lieutenant's commands, the schooner Retaliation. Within three months he rashly approached two French frigates, and Retaliation became the first American warship captured in the Quasi-War.

It seemed an inauspicious beginning for a naval career. Nevertheless, when Bainbridge returned to the United States he was promoted to master commandant and given another command, and in May 1800 he became a captain, a piece of good fortune since the rank of master commandant was temporarily eliminated in 1801. He took the ship George Washington with tribute to Algiers, but having somewhat rashly placed his ship under the guns of the city's forts, he found himself forced to sail under the Algerian flag to carry presents and an embassy from Algiers to Constantinople, a humiliation for himself and his country. Still in the Mediterranean, he commanded the frigate Essex and then the new Philadelphia. Here again bad fortune or bad judgment caught up with him; having sent his consort away, he had no one to assist him when Philadelphia grounded on a rock off Tripoli. He surrendered the ship and crew without resistance, and all were imprisoned in Tripoli from 31 October 1803 until the Tripolitan War ended in June 1805. Although no official censure was applied to his conduct, he was always sensitive about the loss of Philadelphia and hostile to Stephen Decatur, who gained so much glory by destroying the captured ship in Tripoli harbor.

Bainbridge recouped his finances by making merchant voyages in 1806-1807 and 1810-1812; in the intervening years he participated, as did other naval officers, in the building of gunboats and supervision of naval stations on the eastern seaboard. Returning to the United States in 1812 just before the outbreak of war, he helped persuade the government to fit out the seagoing ships but had to wait for one of his own. He took command of Constitution in September 1812, after the ship's successful first war cruise and capture of the British frigate Guerrire under Isaac Hull. On 29 December 1812, off Brazil, the Constitution under Bainbridge took and sank the frigate Java. Twice wounded in this engagement, Bainbridge returned to Boston and the navy yard there, where he superintended the building of the ship-of-the-line Independence. Before Independence or any of the new ships of that class could be completed, the war ended. Meanwhile, a resurgence of trouble in the Mediterranean led the U.S. government, as soon as the war ended, to send a squadron to deal with Algiers. Bainbridge made strenuous efforts to obtain the command until he learned that Decatur would take a first squadron and he would follow with a second. After that he was less eager to go; however, when the qualities of Independence were questioned, and it was even proposed to cut the ship down to a frigate, Bainbridge hastily sailed for the Mediterranean, only to find that Decatur had already forced peace on Algiers and quieted Tunis and Tripoli as well. Bainbridge not only found himself with nothing to do, but he suffered an attack of measles at Gibraltar, which was followed, on his return to the United States, by influenza.

Bainbridge convinced himself that he had been unwillingly removed from command of the navy yard at Boston and that he was entitled to resume the command. He was furious to find that in his absence Hull had been appointed to Boston and intended to stay there. Unfortunately, the Navy Department permitted Bainbridge to remain as commander afloat at Boston, while Hull commanded the navy yard. There is good reason to suspect that many of the troubles with subordinates that dogged Hull at Boston were fomented by Bainbridge.

In 1819 Bainbridge left Boston to fit out the new ship Columbus, and during that winter he was involved in arranging the fatal duel between Decatur and James Barron. Immediately after the duel he sailed for the Mediterranean, returning in July 1821 and again demanding the command in Boston, which he finally achieved in August 1823. From 1825 to 1828 he chaired the Board of Navy Commissioners, then commanded the navy yard at Philadelphia. In 1830 he quarreled with Amos Kendall, the fourth auditor of the Treasury; it was a clash rooted in personalities though expressed in matters financial. The conflict led to Bainbridge's removal from his command. In this difficult period his only son, William Bainbridge, Jr., died.

Reappointed to the Boston yard in January 1832, Bainbridge resigned the command a year later and died in Philadelphia�

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external image head5_william_bainbridge_1836.jpg
Date: 1836
Image Id: 396

Record ID: 86