Name

Edward Preble

Career

Navy

Occupation 1

naval officer

Occupation 2

USS Constitutions

Identifier

Tripolitan War

Region

NA/New England region

Era

Maritime Republic (1751-1815)

Born

1761

Died

1807

Source

ANB

Text

In April 1780 he entered the Massachusetts state navy as a midshipman in the frigateProtector and made two cruises in that ship. During his first cruise, the Protector engaged the Admiral Duff in a bloody battle; the second cruise ended when two British frigates captured the Protector. For a few weeks Preble was a prisoner of war in New York, but he was soon released and returned to Massachusetts, where he was appointed first lieutenant of the Massachusetts state sloop Winthrop. He continued to serve in the Winthrop until April 1783. While attached to that ship, Preble, aided by only fourteen men, accomplished the daring capture of the Loyalist privateer Merriam under the guns of Fort George at Bagaduce (now Castine), Maine. This achievement first brought Preble to public attention.
Between 1785 and 1798 Preble was master and supercargo of merchant vessels sailing from North Carolina and Massachusetts ports, trading to Europe, Africa, and the West Indies, and along the North American coast. When the new federal government established a naval force in 1794, Preble at once sought an officer's appointment but had to wait until the commencement of the Quasi-War with France in 1798 before obtaining one. Commissioned a lieutenant on 9 April 1798, Preble made one cruise to the West Indies in command of the brig Pickering, then was promoted to captain as of 15 May 1799. Shortly thereafter he was appointed to command the frigate Essex and undertook an eleven-month voyage (Jan.-Nov. 1800) to Batavia (now Jakarta), Java. This cruise, made to convoy U.S. merchantmen home from the East Indies, was both the longest voyage an American naval vessel had undertaken to that time and the first occasion one had sailed beyond the Cape of Good Hope. The Essex's cruise was to have been made by a two-ship squadron. Preble carried out the mission alone when the frigate Congress, the second ship and commanded by a senior officer, became separated and disabled, turning back without Preble's being aware of its situation.
In the spring of 1803 Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith chose Preble to command the third U.S. squadron sent to the Mediterranean during the 1801-1805 war with Tripoli. Preble's actions from September 1803 until September 1804 are the primary basis of his historical importance. Commodore Richard V. Morris, Preble's immediate predecessor, had proved unable to meet the many demands, both military and diplomatic, placed on the commander of the U.S. Mediterranean squadron, and he was recalled. Preble's decisiveness was in notable contrast to Morris's inaction, and he immediately won government approval and public acclaim.
On Preble's arrival at Gibraltar in the frigate Constitution on 12 September 1803, he found Morocco at war with the United States. Mobilizing the ships of the returning U.S. squadron as well as his own, Preble amassed a sufficiently overwhelming force that by mid-October he persuaded the sultan of that country to reaffirm the favorable 1786 treaty between Morocco and the United States. Preble barely had time to savor his achievement before he learned that the other large ship of his squadron, the frigate Philadelphia, had run aground near Tripoli and been captured. To ensure that the Philadelphia would never be of any use to the Tripolitans, Preble planned, and Lieutenant Stephen Decatur executed, a brilliant surprise raid on Tripoli harbor during the night of 16-17 February 1804, destroying the former American frigate at its moorings.
The smaller vessels of the U.S. squadron were not suitable for attacking Tripoli's maritime defenses. Preble, acting on his own, borrowed six gunboats and two bomb ketches from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Between 3 August and 3 September 1804 he attacked the city and its shipping six times. The first attack was the most successful, with three enemy gunboats captured. In subsequent attacks the Tripolitan gunboats kept their distance and the firepower available to Preble could not overcome the city's fortifications. Concurrent peace negotiations failed because Preble distrusted the French mediator, Bonaventure Beaussier, and because the U.S. commander was insensitive to Tripoli's political culture. Arrival of a larger U.S. Squadron, dispatched after the capture of the Philadelphia and inevitably commanded by a senior officer, ended Preble's Mediterranean command on 9 September 1804.
After returning to the United States, Preble superintended the construction of gunboats and served as an adviser to Secretary of the Navy Smith. His career was cut short by his death at Portland from a stomach or intestinal disorder from which he had suffered since 1800.

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