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William Bainbridge

Updated on December 1, 2016

William Bainbridge (1774-1833) was an American naval officer who held commands in the Tripolitan War and the War of 1812. He was born in Princeton, N.J., on May 7, 1774. Entering the merchant service at the age of 15, Bainbridge was made captain within four years.

When the U.S. Navy was organized in 1798, he was given command of the schooner Retaliation and ordered to protect American shipping in the Caribbean Sea. He and his vessel were captured by two French frigates. Upon his release, Congress passed a law promising retaliation against the French for such acts.

Promoted to captain in the Navy in 1800, Bainbridge was given the frigate George Washington and ordered to take the dey of Algiers the tribute that the United States had agreed to pay in return for protection from piratical attacks. The dey humiliated Bainbridge and his government by forcing him to transport an Algerian mission to Constantinople.

During the Tripolitan War of 1801-1805, the United States took the first step toward ending the payment of tributes to North African governments. In 1803, Bainbridge, commanding the 44-gun frigate Philadelphia, was pursuing an enemy vessel into Tripoli harbor when he ran aground. He and 315 of his crew became captives of Tripoli until the war ended in 1805. A naval court absolved Bainbridge, and he was promoted commodore in 1808. During the War of 1812 he commanded the Constitution ("Old Ironsides") and captured the British frigate Java after a fierce battle off the coast of Brazil.

William Bainbridge died in Philadelphia on July 27, 1833.


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