The American Privateer Dihya, commanded by Peter Kirkpatrick, had been tracking the strange sail since daybreak, matching her pace and staying four miles to leeward. She could have caught up to the stranger when she wished. A 360-ton topsail schooner, built at Thomas Kemp’s boatyard in Fells Point, Maryland, with the raked masts and sharp clipper hull characteristic of these ships, Dihya could fly.
When she was launched in January 1813, Peter named her in honor of his brother Henry’s wife – with Henry’s permission of course – for whom Peter had developed a thoroughly honorable, but a hopeless, almost adolescent crush. Peter helped carve Dihya’s figurehead: a beautiful black-haired woman, her figure modestly covered by her flowing Bedouin robes. Dihya was also big enough to carry a crew of 100 men and a significant weight of metal. Peter arranged with the Navy Yard to provide him with fourteen 12-pound long guns and four 24-pound carronades, the short-range “right smashers.”
Peter’s first lieutenant, Thomas Christopher, perched on the foremast port shrouds, had been studying the stranger with his glass. “She’s made no attempt to elude us. And a Danish flag, all right, so a neutral — or at least that’s what she want us to think.”
“I think it’s time to take a close look at her,” Peter said. “Two points to starboard,” Peter ordered the helmsman. Dihya gracefully turned into a beam reach, her fastest point of sail. “Topsail, t’gallant and stun’s’ls,” he called out.
Canvas instantly blossomed above Diyha and she surged forward like a racehorse. As the spray, glinting in the bright sunlight, began to fly from her bows, Peter heard a by now familiar cough coming from Christopher, now standing next to him.
“Ah,” Peter said with a laugh, “it’s ‘Doubting Thomas’ with a word of caution.” Christopher had been Peter’s first lieutenant in the Navy aboard USS Eagle in 1805 and had followed Peter as captain of one of his merchant ships after Peter resigned his commission. He had gladly joined Dihya as first lieutenant again. Christopher was a superb seaman from Marblehead, and his New Englander’s caution had proved a useful balance to Peter’s impulsive daring.
“Begging your pardon, captain.” he said, “We have a king’s ransom locked in your cabin and stored in our hold, our run of luck has been incredible, and we’re on our way home safely,” he paused to knock wood on the foremast fife rail next to him. On this, his most successful voyage, Peter had captured 20 British prizes worth close to a million dollars, all but three of which had safely made port in Nantes. In the process he had tormented the British Navy ships detailed to guard the lumbering British convoys or sent out to capture him. “Out of sheer wantonness,” complained the London Times, “this impudent American sometimes affects to chase the enemy’s men-of-war of far superior force.”
“I wonder, Christopher continued, “if we might not be pressing our luck, now. Sometimes when you reach into a hole in a tree looking for honey you wind up with a swarm of bees. And we’re short-handed. Half the crew is gone now, manning our prizes.”
“Fair enough, Tom. But we’ve yet to find a British cruiser that can stay with us. Let’s at least get close enough to take a look. After all, there’s no harm when one is leaving an orchard in plucking one last plum on the way out.”
Peter’s mind flashed back ten years. He and his close friend, U.S. Marine lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon, were at the head of general William Eaton’s army in Tripoli, if such an undisciplined, rag tag force of seven Marines, 60 Greek and Piedmontese mercenaries, and perhaps 200 rebellious, often treacherous supporters of Tripoli’s exiled ruler Hamet Karamanli could be dignified with that term. Their mission was to drive out Hamet’s usurping brother, Jusef Karamanli, and put Hamet on the throne, counting on his gratitude to give America favorable treatment from the Barbary pirates who sailed out of Tripoli to attack American ships. Their goal was Jusef’s stronghold at Derna on the Tripolitan coast.
They were marching through the lush fields and fruit orchards to the east of Derna. In order not to inflame the local population, Hamet had decreed that any soldier who picked fruit from these orchards would have his right hand cut off. O’Bannon had discussed the issue with his Marines and decided that while plucked fruit was definitely off limits, anything on the ground was fair game. So the lead Marines knocked the ripest plums from the trees with their rifles as they passed. After weeks of suffering from hunger and thirst in the 500-mile march across the merciless Sahara, Peter had never tasted plums so sweet.
By noon, Dihya had closed the distance to three miles. The stranger was now clearly a brig, roughly the same size as Dihya. “I see only three gun ports on her side,” Christopher said, “and just a handful of men on deck.” Peter fired a gun to signal the ship to heave to. Their quarry’s answer was to haul to the north and put on more sail in a desperate attempt to escape.
“Look there!” Christopher cried, pointing to a flurry of flapping sail on the ship ahead of them. “I think she’s lost her fore-topmast.” Their quarry trimmed her sails sharply by the wind as the crew worked feverishly to clear the wreckage. Dihya surged up behind her on the leeward side. They could now see her name, Spider, gilded on her stern. Strange name for a Danish ship, Peter thought. At 1:26 they were a pistol shot away when the stranger hauled down her Danish flag, raised the blue British ensign of the Channel Fleet, and released the painted cloth concealing her eight starboard gun ports. ‘Damn me!’ Peter thought as the ships closed. I’ve just fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the game.
Within seconds, the stranger’s decks swarmed with men and officers wearing Royal Navy uniforms. They gave a lusty three cheers as they ran out their guns and delivered a broadside of round shot and grape into Dihya. Only their eagerness saved Dihya. Had they waited even seconds longer, and fired on the downward roll, their broadside would have caught Dihya amidships. As it was, most of their broadside splashed harmlessly into the sea ahead of Dihya or punched holes in her foresails and cut a few lines without doing serious damage.
Peter had been caught completely napping, but Diyha’s returning fire from her port battery came just seconds before the second broadside from what they now knew to be HMS Spider. By now, both ships’ tops were filled with sharpshooters raining musket fire on the enemy below. “Bring us alongside,” Peter called to his coxswain Byron Fox, now at the wheel. “We’ll board her!” Dihya’s speed, however, was too great, and she shot ahead. Spider’s captain instantly put up his helm, wearing his ship to cross Dihya’s stern and hit her with punishing raking fire.
Peter’s response was just as quick. He put up his helm as well, and soon the two ships were now engaged broadside to broadside. Spider’s armament consisted of sixteen 12-pound carronades, at this range the equal of Peter’s broadside, but Dihya’s 24-pound smashers crushed through the thin bulwarks of the British ship. Unlike British round shot, American balls exploded when they hit home. The deck of Spider became a red ruin of shrapnel and clouds of lethal splinters. More devastating, the American’s rate of fire was easily twice that of their foes. So rapid was the barrage that to the sailors on Spider it seemed as if the side of the American ship was on fire. After 20 minutes, most of Spider’s starboard battery had been silenced, her rigging was torn to shreds, her scuppers ran with blood, and instead of cheers, the sounds from her crew now were the cries of wounded men.
“Boarding parties ready!” Peter cried above the din. He gathered with Lieutenant O’Brien and his Marines in the bow while Christopher assembled a second assault group in the stern. Even though Dihya was a private vessel authorized by a Letter of Marque to attack and seize British shipping, Peter manned and commanded her like the USS Eagle he had captained in the Barbary Wars. That included a contingent of twenty men under O’Brien, all US Marine veterans. They were not dressed in regulation uniforms — that would have been coming it too high, Peter thought — but in all other ways, they carried out the duties of a Marine detachment aboard any warship.
Fox smartly brought Dihya alongside HMS Spider and Dihya’s crew had just lashed on to their enemy with grappling hooks when Christopher cried out, “Captain! They have struck!” Peter looked back to see HMS Spider’s British ensign tumble to her wreckage-filled deck. He climbed on board to take her captain’s surrender.
Peter received the wounded British captain’s sword in the cabin of HMS Spider. Realizing the shame a British officer must feel to have to surrender his ship to an American, and a privateer at that, Peter graciously returned captain Wickham’s sword. “I would not think to take the sword of a man who had used it so bravely,” he said. Wickham received it back and placed it to the side almost indifferently, as if it were a trifle of no consequence.
“We’ve been chasing you and your damned Yankee skimming dish for a month,” Wickham ruefully acknowledged. “And now, when we caught you, we found we were facing a bulldog, not a race hound,” he added, the pain on his face as much the result of his surrender as his wound.
“May I inquire of your losses?” asked Peter.
“Our butcher’s bill may come to fifteen dead and another twenty-five wounded,” Wickham replied. “I must say you have hammered us cruelly,” he added. “Upon my word, I have never seen such gunfire.”
Peter tried to think of some complimentary, or at least conciliatory response, and failed.. He broke the ensuing, awkward silence by asking, as gently as possible, “I see you are wounded, I pray, not seriously?” Wickham just waved his hand dismissively.
Peter tried again. “Without wishing at all to presume, captain, might I offer to send over my surgeon to assist your ship’s doctor in caring for your wounded?”
“You’re very kind, I’m sure,” Wickham answered, now for the first time actually looking up at Peter and responding more graciously, “but I would not take him from his duty aboard your ship.”
“His duty, happily, is mercifully light. We lost four men and have just eight wounded.”
At that news, captain Wickham just collapsed in his chair and slid back into despair.
“I will send my doctor and his loblolly boys over,” said Peter hurriedly, “and my Marines will make sure that none of your or your officer’s personal property is taken.” With that, he saluted and left captain Wickham to his misery.