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Intrepid Sailors: The Legacy of Preble’s Boys and the Tripoli Campaign

By Chipp Reid

6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xii + 294 pages

Illustrations, map, notes, bibliography, index. $35.95

ISBN: 9781612511177


The Barbary Wars (especially the war against Tripoli) is one of those evergreen topics for naval and military historians. Intrepid Sailors: The Legacy of Preble’s Boys and the Tripoli Campaign, by Chipp Reid is the latest addition to that genre.

The book tells the tale of Commodore Edwin Preble’s command in the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War that ran from 1801 through 1805. Preble commanded United States Navy forces during the most dramatic period of the war, in 1803-1804. It saw the grounding and capture of the 44-gun frigate Philadelphia in Tripoli Harbor, the burning of Philadelphia by an American expedition, and several heavy bombardments of Tripoli by the United States Navy.

Reid places the focus on the squadron’s junior officers, especially Stephen Decatur, Charles Stewart, and Richard Somers. In many ways the book is the tale of the war as seen through the eyes of these three, men who had grown up together and attended the same school during their youth.

Reid, a journalist, provides a journalist’s approach. Intrepid Sailors is an adventure tale, and a ripping good one, with an emphasis on action rather than analysis. It is almost a twenty-first-century century update of Fletcher Pratt’s Preble’s Boys.

The book is drawn from original sources, including Congressional and United States Navy records. Unfortunately, Reid occasionally pays too little attention to detail, leading to uneven accuracy. Reid describes Intrepid as having lateen sails, yet drawings of the ship by the squadron’s midshipmen clearly show it as a conventional square-rigged ketch. Intrepid lacked even the lateen mizzen still occasionally used on the Mediterranean at that time, instead having a boomed gaff on the mizzen. Similar errors of varying significance bedevil Reid’s text, including discrepancies in frigate ratings, issues with armament and details such as uniforms for sailors in the United States Navy circa 1803.

Reid is also so focused on what was going that he often neglects the why behind the what. Reid never explores the reasons why Tripoli failed to fit out Philadelphia for sea, and never examines the factors that led to success in burning Philadelphia and failure in using Intrepid as an explosion ship.

Intrepid Sailors does provide a solid description of events in the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War. It outlines what happened, providing a good introduction for those seeking a readable and excitingly-written account of that war. It also offers a workmanlike description of the lead-up to Preble’s arrival, and follows the post-1804 careers of those featured in the story.

Those familiar with the First Barbary War are unlikely to learn much new from Intrepid Sailors. Unless you absolutely have to read everything written about this war, do not feel guilty about giving Intrepid Sailors a pass. For those seeking a rousing basic introduction to the war with Tripoli or simply seeking an exciting tale, Intrepid Sailors is a worthwhile read.

Mark Lardas

League City, Texas