According to Exmouth’s information, the Algerine ships tended to hide within the jutting headlands and deep anchorages along the coast near the Cade de Gata, waiting their chance to emerge rapidly and intercept prey. Decatur ranged his squadron in cruising order, wide enough to cover a large range of sea while still close enough to communicate and support each other should Algerine vessels appear. In a steady breeze from the north-northwest, Constellation, on a port tack, was in the van, roughly 20 miles offshore, followed by Ontario, Epervier, Guerrière, and Dihya, Decatur wanting to keep in close contact with Peter. Macedonian had been detached to chase some strange sail to the south that turned out, unfortunately when she caught them, to be neutral merchantmen. The rest of the American squadron, the smaller, shallow draft Firefly, Spitfire, Flambeau, and Torch, worked closer to the land.
At midmorning, Constellation’s lookout spotted a large warship, a mile or two off. She was sailing easily, under just topsails, flying the Union Jack, as were all the American ships. Moments later, Charles Gordon in Constellation signaled “Enemy in sight.” Decatur pulled the stranger into view with his glass and instantly agreed. The French and Spanish no longer had large frigates cruising the Mediterranean, and from the way the stranger was rigged and handled, she wasn’t British either. That left Hamidou and the Meshuda. Decatur signaled, “Follow But Do Not Arouse Suspicion.” The American ships altered course to follow Meshuda. Hamidou, with no notion there were any American ships in the Mediterranean, let alone an enemy squadron, and seeing the British ensigns, maintained his leisurely course. Decatur could see that the American ships, still only under topsails themselves, were steadily gaining on their quarry.
Decatur signaled “Clear For Action” and the American ships beat to quarters. Then Gordon, closest to Meshuda and perhaps misreading Decatur’s signal, raised the American flag and began firing at long range, long before the rest of the flotilla was within striking distance. A few of his shots hit home, one unleashing a cloud of splinters on Meshuda’s quarterdeck. Hamidou was badly wounded in the leg, but instead of going below, ordered a chair brought up so he could sit and direct Meshuda’s fight.
Hamidou might have been fooled, but he was not foolish. His well-prepared crew instantly spread a cloud of canvas and Meshuda leaped forward in flight, surging ahead of the Americans. “Quicker work” Decatur respectfully acknowledged, “was never done by seamen.” Spotting an opening in the American’s formation, Hamidou changed course to the southeast towards Algiers and safety.
It took the Americans, cleared for action and under minimal sail, precious minutes to respond, as top men scurried aloft to release furled sails from their gaskets and run stuns’ls out on their yards. The Americans turned to chase Meshuda. She was a trim ship, well-commanded and well-handled. But the sharp-lined Americans, most built clipper-style in Baltimore, were racehorses. They closed rapidly again on Meshuda.
Seeing this, Hamidou wore ship to the northeast on the port tack again, but closer now to Ontario, Guerrière, and Dihya, who by now were flying. Ontario shot ahead of Meshuda and raked her savagely with a broadside, but Ontario’s speed carried her past the Algerine ship and out of range. Guerrière next caught up to Meshuda, and from less than 100 feet, unleashed the nightmare of her 840-pound broadside, ripping apart Meshuda’s masts spars and rigging, and turning her deck into a bloody shambles. In the midst of rallying his men, Hamidou was blown in half by a 42-pound carronade ball. Barely a minute later, as Meshuda’s crew fled the main deck to seek shelter below, Guerrière second broadside slammed into Meshuda. But Guerrière’s speed also carried her past the crippled Meshuda, and the officer now in command put Meshuda’s helm over in a desperate attempt to slide by as Guerrière swept ahead.
Peter, who had been following the action, brought Dihya smartly up to position a stone’s throw from Meshuda’s unprotected stern. Dihya ‘s broadside ripped into the Algerine warship. Backing and filling his sails as if he were a small pleasure yacht on a calm lake, Peter held position and raked Meshuda again and again with astoundingly rapid and devastating fire. Watching Dihya from Guerrière, Decatur exclaimed, “My God! I would never have imagined such pretty ship-handling — and such heavy a fire from so small a ship.” Peter’s attack was the final blow. Just 25 minutes after Constellation opened the battle, Meshuda struck her colors.
* * * * *
There were still Algerine ships at sea, and Peter needed a ship to capture in order to execute the plan. He found what he needed that afternoon. Decatur had sent his smaller ships, Firefly, Spitfire, Flambeau, and Torch along with Peter, and Downes in Epervier to scout closer to shore, while he held the frigates and Ontario four to five miles out. The day had remained fine, with a steady southeast breeze. The American ships, still flying British colors, with Epervier and Dihya in the lead, rounded a curving headland to find two strange sails in the broad bay ahead of them, one a brig, the other a xebec. Remarkably, both were flying American colors.
The brig, which Peter rightly guessed to be the Estedio, immediately cut towards the safety of the shallower water by the shore—and promptly ran aground. The smaller American ships darted in after her, more mindful of the shoals and breakers ahead. The xebec was standing further out to sea and decided to run for it, taking advantage of her huge lateen sails to point more closely into the wind than square-rigged ships. It was a bad decision.
Signal flags broke out on Guerrière: “Peter. Take Her.” Dihya sprang forward like a greyhound released from the leash. Within an hour, now well out to sea, Dihya had drawn within a cable’s length of the xebec. The Algerine tried a poorly-timed long shot with her 24-pound stern chasers. The balls plunged harmlessly into the sea ahead of Dihya.
“Nothing into her hull!” Peter cried. “We need this ship to swim after we capture her!”
The xebec’s strange, high-overhanging angled stern blocked a clear view of the deck and made it hard to hit anything but the top of her mizzen mast. Dihya’s guns remained silent. They were now just a pistol length away, perhaps 50 yards and closing rapidly, when the xebec’s stern chasers fired again. One hulled Dihya just to the right of her forepeak; the other plowed into the starboard cathead, ricocheting noisily off Dihya’s starboard anchor, almost dislodging it.
As Dihya surged alongside the xebec, the Algerines got off one ragged broadside at close range. The xebec’s eight 6-pounders hit home but did little damage. Grappling hooks soared across from Dihya, and the two ships were pulled together. Seconds away from bloody hand-to-hand combat, the Turks lining the xebec’s sides waved their weapons and yelled ferociously. Peter quickly estimated their numbers. About 150 men to our 90 boarders. Remembering similar odds in his fights against Tripolitan corsairs in that war, Peter thought, “Almost two-to-one. I like the odds.”
Anticipating such close work, Peter had mounted four 4-pound swivel guns captured from a British merchantman on the fore and after decks. They were double-shotted with grape and langrage, a deadly collection of bolts, nails, and scrap metal from the armorer.
“Clear her poop deck there!” Peter cried, pointing to the xebec’s stern, crowded with men and officers, rising now above the main deck at an angle. With the two ships now lashed side by side, the fire from the swivel guns, as they came to bear, carved a red swath through the packed Turks. Taking advantage of the carnage and confusion, Peter cried “Boarders away!” and Dihya’s crew, armed with cutlasses, boarding pikes, pistols, and tomahawks, launched themselves onto the xebec’s deck.
The Turks pressed forward in an unorganized, screaming mass. The Americans fought in compact groups, each man supporting those alongside him as they pressed forward. It was like an ax chopping through a rotten log. The Turks were used to overawing and terrifying their opponents into quick submission. They had never faced a foe like this before.
Peter killed the first two Turks he faced with his pistols, then drew his cutlass. There was no thought of fancy swordplay here, just a howling crimson fury of hacking, slashing, and stabbing. The American’s surge brought Peter face to face—more like chest-to-chest—with a red-bearded Turk. There was no room to swing a sword so Peter reversed his grip and smashed the hilt of his sword into his foe’s face, knocking him, apparently senseless, to the deck. But as Peter stepped past the man he had just felled, the Turk reached up, grabbed Peter’s leg, and tripped him, bringing Peter to his knees. Another Janissary raised his scimitar for a killing blow, but before he could strike, Fox, at Peter’s side, skewered the Turk with his boarding pike. In seconds, Peter was back on his feet.
To his left, Peter saw MacKinnon, one of his topmen, being hard-pressed by two Janissaries. MacKinnon had been wounded on his scalp, and he kept wiping his forehead with his left hand to clear the flowing blood out of his eyes. Peter vaulted the 6-pounder next to him to stand by MacKinnon. The nearest Janissary, surprised by Peter’s sudden appearance, dropped his guard, and Peter ran him through the chest. As the Janissary fell, Peter tried to pull out his blade. It was jammed in the Turk’s chest. Idiot! The thought raced through Peter’s mind. Roll your wrist when you lunge so the blade goes sideways through the ribs! He leaned back, placed his left foot against the Turk’s chest and yanked the blade free. Turning, he saw the remaining Turk, now not liking the odds, drop his sword and scamper up the shrouds to safety. “Get aft!” Peter yelled to MacKinnon as he hurled himself back into the melee. “You’re done for the day!” Step by step, Peter’s crew drove the Turks back to the main hatch, where they gathered for a final stand.
Peter had placed O’Brien and his Marines in Dihya’s bows as a reserve force. Seeing the moment, O’Brien yelled “Forward!” and the Marines swarmed onto the xebec’s deck, attacking the Turks from behind. A dozen or more Turks fell to bayonet thrusts in the back before they realized there was a new enemy to their rear. Now the battle became a frenzy. The Turk’s scimitars were no match for the Marine’s bayonets. Suddenly, the remaining Turkish officer dropped to his knees, threw his sword to the deck, raised his hands and cried, “Teslim oluyoruz! Teslim oluyoruz!” Then not knowing if the Americans understood him, added, “Nous nous rendons! Pour l’amour de Dieu ne pas nous tuer! For the love of God, don’t kill us!” Instantly, the surviving Turks’ weapons clattered to the deck, and they, too, knelt in submission—and it was over. As the red haze of battle gradually cleared in his mind, Peter thought, Strange, one moment we are clawing and biting each other’s throats like beasts, the next, our deadly enemies have turned into children begging for our pity.
Four hours later, they met Decatur’s squadron at the rendezvous, 10 miles outside Algiers. Peter, now captaining the captured xebec with a hand-picked crew, transferred what was left of the xebec’s crew to the Algerine brig Estedio, which the Americans had captured while Peter was taking the xebec. They would be transported to Cartagena and held as prisoners along with the other survivors from Estedio and Meshuda. Then Decatur’s squadron, with Peter’s xebec in the rear, made sail and headed for Algiers.