William Bainbridge

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William Bainbridge (May 7, 1774 – July 27, 1833) was a Commodore in the United States Navy, notable for his victory over HMS Java during the War of 1812.



Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Bainbridge at the age of 14 went to sea in the merchant service, and was in command of a trading schooner (a fore-and-aft-rigged vessel with two or more masts) at an early age. The American trading vessels of that period were supposed to be excluded by the navigation laws from commerce with the British West Indies, though with the concealed or very slightly disguised assistance of the planters, they engaged in a good deal of contraband commerce.

By 1798, post-revolutionary France was no longer allied with the United States but was preying upon U.S. merchant shipping. This, coupled with the French Foreign Minister's refusal to discuss the matter with U.S. envoys unless substantial bribes and concessions were paid, known as the XYZ Affair, led in part to an exponential increase in popular support and federal funding for a standing navy to combat French predation on U.S. shipping. With the organization of the United States Navy in 1798, Bainbridge was included in the naval officer corps and appointed commanding Lieutenant of the schooner USS Retaliation. On November 20, 1798, Lt. Bainbridge surrendered the USS Retaliation to a French cruiser without opposition, the first ship in the nascent United States Navy to be surrendered. Bainbridge was not disciplined for this action.

In 1799, Bainbridge was appointed Master Commandant of the brig USS Norfolk of 18 guns and ordered to further cruise against the French.

In 1800, Bainbridge was given the ignominious task of carrying the tribute which the United States still paid to the dey of Algiers to secure exemption from capture for U.S. merchant ships in the Mediterranean. Upon arrival in the 24-gun USS George Washington, he made the tactical mistake of anchoring in the harbor of Algiers—directly under the guns of the fort. The dey demanded that he ferry the Algerian ambassador and retinue to Constantinople or be blown to bits on the spot. Bainbridge raised the Algerian flag on his masthead and submitted to the embarrassment of serving as the dey's messenger service.[1]

When the United States found that bribing the pirate Barbary states did not work, and decided to use force, he served against Algiers and Tunis. In command of the USS Philadelphia, he mistakenly ran the ship aground on the Tunisian coast on October 31, 1803. He surrendered his crew despite the fact that his ship did not suffer any battle damage. In fact the ship floated free of the unmarked sandbar after high tide and was captured by the Bey of Tunis.

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