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William Bainbridge (May 7, 1774 – July 28, 1833) was a Commodore in the United States Navy, notable for his victory over HMS Java during the War of 1812.


Born in Princeton, New Jerseymarker, Bainbridge at the age of 14 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.

The war tended to make trade difficult for neutrals. Bainbridge had therefore to expect, and when he could to elude or beat off, much interference on the part of French and British cruisers alike. He is said to have forced a British schooner, probably a privateer, which attacked him when on his way from Bordeauxmarker to St Thomasmarker, to strike, but he did not take possession. On another occasion, he is said to have taken a man out of a British ship in retaliation for the impressment of an American seaman by HMS Indefatigable, then commanded by Sir Edward Pellew. When the United States navy was organized, in 1798, he was included in the corps of naval officers, and appointed to the schooner USS Retaliation. She was on one occasion seized by the French, but afterwards released.

As captain of the brig USS Norfolk of 18 guns, he was employed in cruising against the French, who were said to be as aggressive against American commerce as the English.

In 1800, Bainbridge was sent to carry the tribute which the United States still paid to the dey of Algiersmarker to secure exemption from capture for its merchant ships in the Mediterranean. Upon arrival in the 24-gun USS George Washington, he made the tactical mistake of anchoring in the harbor of Algiers—directly under the guns of the fort. The dey demanded that he ferry the Algerian ambassador and retinue to Constantinople or be blown to bits on the spot. With great disgust, Bainbridge raised the Algerian flag on his masthead and submitted to the embarrassment of serving as the dey's messenger service.

When the United States found that bribing the pirate Barbary states did not work, and decided to use force, he served against Algiers and Tunismarker. In command of the USS Philadelphia, when she ran aground on the Tunisian coast on 29 December 1803, he was imprisoned until 3 June 1806. 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 US 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 Kingdommarker and the United Statesmarker, Bainbridge was appointed to command the 44-gun frigate USS Constitutionmarker, in succession to Captain Isaac Hull. The Constitution was a very fine ship of 1,533 tons, which had already captured the HMS Guerrièremarker. 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 Bombaymarker. She had a very inexperienced crew, including very few trained seamen, and her men had only had one day’s gunnery drill. The United States 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 jealousy for Decatur.

Between 1824 and 1827, he served on the Board of Navy Commissioners. He died in Philadelphiamarker and was buried at the Christ Church Burial Groundmarker in Philadelphia.

Namesakes and honors

Several ships of the Navy have since 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, Washingtonmarker is named after Commodore Bainbridge, as well as Bainbridge, Ohio; Bainbridge, Georgiamarker; Bainbridge, Indianamarker; Bainbridge, New Yorkmarker; Bainbridge Street in Philadelphiamarker, and Old Bainbridge Road in Tallahasseemarker. The now deactivated Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Port Deposit, Cecil County, Maryland was named for him.

See also


  1. Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace. New York: Basic Books. 2003. p12

Further reading

  • Harris, Thomas, M.D. The Life and Services of Commodore William Bainbridge. (Philadelphia, Penn.; Carey Lea & Blanchard, 1837)
  • Barnes, James. Commodore Bainbridge. (New York, N.Y.; D. Appleton and Company, 1908)
  • Dearborn, H. A. S. The Life of William Bainbridge, Esq.. (Princeton, N.J.; Princeton University Press, 1931)
  • Long, David F. Ready to Hazard: A Biography of Commodore William Bainbridge, 1774-1833. (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1981)
  • London, Joshua E. Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005. ISBN 0-471-44415-4

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