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First Name: William

Last Name: Bainbridge

Birthplace: Princeton, NJ, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Navy (present)


Date of Birth: 07 May 1774

Date of Death: 27 July 1833

Rank or Rate: Commodore

Years Served:
William Bainbridge


William Bainbridge
Commodore, U.S. Navy

William Bainbridge was born on 7 May 1774 in Princeton, NJ, eldest son of Dr. Absalom Bainbridge and Mary Taylor Bainbridge. His father, a loyalist during the American Revolution, served as a Surgeon in the British Army and was convicted of high treason by the State of New Jersey and successfully filed for damages with the American Loyalist Claims Commission.

William had two brothers: Joseph, who also became a Navy Captain, John T.; and a sister, Mary. He was raised by his maternal grandfather, John Taylor, Esq., of Middleton, NJ, as his father left for England in 1783 and his mother remained behind due to her ill health. (His father returned to the U.S. and died in New York City in 1807.)

At the age of 14, Bainbridge 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 U.S. 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.

The U.S. Navy was organized on 13 October 1775. In 1798, Bainbridge was included in the Naval officer corps and appointed commanding Lieutenant of the schooner USS Retaliation. On 20 November 1798, Lt. Bainbridge surrendered the Retaliation to two French frigates without resistance after he mistook them for British warships, and approached them without identifying them. The Retaliation was the first ship in the nascent U.S. Navy to be surrendered. Bainbridge was not disciplined for this action.

In 1799, Bainbridge was appointed Master Commandant of the brig (a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts) USS Norfolk of 18 guns and ordered to further cruise against the French.

In 1800, Bainbridge attained the rank of Captain (the highest rank attainable at the time) and was given the ignominious task of carrying the tribute that the U.S. 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 allowed the harbor pilot to guide him directly under the guns of the fort overlooking the harbor. The Dey demanded that he ferry the Algerian Ambassador and tributary gifts to Constantinople, and that Bainbridge fly the Algerian flag. Bainbridge raised the Algerian flag on his masthead and delivered gifts of animals and slaves to Constantinople.

When the U.S. found that bribing the pirate Barbary states did not work, and decided to use force, Bainbridge was placed In command of the USS Philadelphia, tasked with enforcing a blockade of Tripoli. Bainbridge mistakenly ran the ship aground on an uncharted reef on 31 October 1803. All efforts to refloat her under fire from Tripolitan gunboats and shore batteries failed, and Bainbridge decided to surrender. Soon afterward, the ship floated free after high tide and was captured by the Bashaw of Tripoli. Bainbridge and his crewmen were imprisoned in Tripoli for nineteen months.

Lieutenant Stephen Decatur commanding the USS Intrepid executed a night raid into Tripoli harbor on 16 February 1804 to destroy the Philadelphia. Admiral Horatio Nelson is said to have called this "the most bold and daring act of the Age."

The capture of Philadelphia and its crew also motivated President Jefferson's decision to send William Eaton, a former Army officer known for his brash and defiant diplomacy, to Tripoli in 1805 to free the 300 American hostages in what was the first U.S. covert mission to overthrow a foreign government. Eaton established a group of about 20 Christian (eight of whom were U.S. Marines) and perhaps 100 Muslim mercenaries to begin the takeover of Tripoli starting with Derna. He managed to trek with a small detachment of Marines led by Presley O'Bannon and his mercenary force over 500 miles. Supported at sea by Isaac Hull, Captain of the USS Argus, in an effective "combined operation," Eaton led the attack in the Battle of Derna on 27 April 1805. The town's capture, memorialized in the "Marines' Hymn" immortal "to the shores of Tripoli" and the threat of further advance on Tripoli, were strong influences toward peace, negotiated in June 1805 by Tobias Lear and Commodore John Rodgers with the Pasha of Tripoli.

Bainbridge was imprisoned until 3 June 1806. A Naval Court of Inquiry tasked with looking into his surrender found no evidence of misconduct, and he was allowed to continue serving. On his release, he returned for a time to the merchant service in order to make good the loss of profit caused by his captivity. With the conclusion of the campaign against the Barbary states, the U.S. Navy was downsized and nearly all of her frigates remained in port. Congress forced a change to this policy in early 1809. Bainbridge took command of the frigate USS President in 1809 and began patrolling off the Atlantic coast in September of that year. Bainbridge was transferred to shore duty in June 1810.

When the War of 1812 broke out between the United Kingdom and the U.S., Bainbridge was appointed to command the 44-gun frigate USS Constitution, in succession to Captain Isaac Hull. The Constitution was a very fine ship of 1,533 tons, which had already captured the HMS Guerrière. Under Bainbridge she was sent to cruise in the South Atlantic.

On 29 December 1812 he fell in with the 38-gun HMS Java, a vessel of 1,083 tons, formerly the French frigate Renommée. She was on her way to the East Indies, carrying the newly appointed lieutenant-governor of Bombay. She had a very inexperienced crew, including very few trained seamen, and her men had only had one day's gunnery drill. The U.S. Navy paid great attention to its gunnery, which some captains in the British Navy had neglected, having grown accustomed to easy victories over the French or lacking the time and resources for gunnery practice. In these conditions, the fate of the Java was soon sealed. She was cut to pieces and forced to surrender, after suffering heavy losses and inflicting very little damage to the Constitution, other than removing Constitution's helm with a well-aimed shot. During the action, Bainbridge was wounded twice, but maintained command throughout; even to replacing the missing helm on the Constitution with the one from the Java before she sank. To this day, the still-commissioned Constitution (anchored in Boston Harbor) sports the helm that Bainbridge salvaged from the Java.

After the conclusion of the war with Britain, Bainbridge served against the Barbary pirates in the Second Barbary War.

In 1820, Bainbridge served as second for Stephen Decatur in the duel that cost Decatur his life. Bainbridge had actually harbored a long-standing resentment of Decatur.

Commodore Bainbridge was named commander of the U.S. Navy in 1823. Between 1824-27 he served on the Board of Navy Commissioners.


Several ships of the Navy have been named USS Bainbridge in his honor, including the U.S. Navy's first destroyer (DD-1), a unique nuclear-powered destroyer/cruiser (CGN-25), and a contemporary Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (DDG 96).

Bainbridge Island, WA, is named after Commodore Bainbridge, as well as Bainbridge Township, OH; Bainbridge, GA; Bainbridge, IN; and Bainbridge, NY.

Bainbridge Street in Philadelphia; Bainbridge Street in Richmond, VA; and Old Bainbridge Road in Tallahassee. Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx, NY, is also named for William Bainbridge; it runs near Decatur Avenue, named for Stephen Decatur, Jr. in the Norwood section of the Bronx.

The now-deactivated Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Port Deposit, Cecil County, MD, was named for him.

Death and Burial

Commodore William Bainbridge died on 27 July 1833 in Philadelphia, PA. He is buried at the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia, PA.

Honoree ID: 2091   Created by: MHOH




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