SALVATORE M. CATALANO
BY: TOM FRASCELLA FEBRUARY 2012
As I have previously written the years between 1776 and 1850 saw approximately 5,000 Italians immigrate to the United States. This period precedes the Unification of Italy and these new arrivals to American shores came from a divided peninsula made up of various Kingdoms, Principalities and foreign dominated Italian States. These individuals viewed themselves as coming from distinctly separate regional locales rather than from a united culture or country. Many of these early immigrants had skills and abilities which allowed them to distinguish themselves in their newly adopted country. However more often than not it is the accomplishments of the central and northern Italian immigrants that is mentioned together with their region of origin. The accomplishments of the southern Italians, those coming from what was then called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, in America have been either largely ignored in the literature or the individuals are not identified by regional origin. In some small attempt to point out that indeed southern Italians were here during this period and also made significant contributions to the new nation I bring up the example of Salvatore M. Catalano. I think this is particularly appropriate as I am writing this in the same month that his acts of bravery in the assault on the captured USS Philadelphia occurred 208 years ago, Feb. 16, 1804.
Salvatore was born in 1767 in Palermo Sicily. Early in life he went to sea as a merchant seaman sailing to the various ports of the Mediterranean Sea from his native Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. From that maritime experience he developed a substantial working knowledge of the many ports, currents, customs and peoples of the Mediterranean region. Eventually his harbor knowledge earned him expert status as a Sicilian harbor master/pilot. In effect a person who is placed aboard ship to guide vessels within the harbor in order to avoid the danger of ships navigating in unfamiliar tight harbors where shoals and submerged objects create an ever present danger.
Catalano’s quiet Sicilian life may never have intersected with the path of early U.S. interests if it were not for the shifting politics of the early 19th century. Once the American colonies declared a War of Independence American merchant shipping lost the protection of the British navy. For a while the French as an ally in the war against
England extended its naval protection to American merchant ships in the Mediterranean. In the late 1790’s however after Independence the U.S. faced declining relations with France and American shipping lost its French protection in the Mediterranean. In order to protect our merchant interests against North African Barbary pirates our nation’s State Department entered into a treaty with the pasha of Tripoli to protect our merchant ships at a cost of $80,000 a year from “pirates” that essentially operated openly from his ports along the coast. Piracy along the Barbary Coast had been the scourge of Mediterranean merchant shipping for centuries and many countries had over the course of time succumbed to such protection tribute.
By 1800 war between Napoleon and England and its allies was heating up. Even Bourbon controlled southern Italy watched with concern as Napoleon’s successes mounted. As a result the war fleets of Europe were engaged. Southern Italian warships had allied with the English in opposition to Napoleon’s territorial aggression. As a result the Italian Navy’s concerns were distracted northward. It did not take long for the pirates of the Barbary Coast with the protection of the Pasha of Tripoli to realize and take advantage of the absence of European protective fleets. Among of the first targets was the unprotected smaller island off the southern coast of Italy. Pirate raids on the islands resulted in great loss of life and many people being captured and sold into slavery.
The Pasha also realized that the U.S merchant fleet was unprotected and now highly vulnerable. As a result in 1801 the Pasha increased his demand for tribute from the U.S. $80,000 to $225,000.00. The newly elected President Thomas Jefferson and the Congress were highly incensed by the demand and determined to stop all payment. The Pasha responded by formally declaring War on the U.S. which realistically meant on U.S. merchant ships in the Mediterranean.
The U.S Navy had been greatly reduced in size after the Revolution and was ill prepared to assume the role of global diplomacy and protection. Nevertheless, Jefferson with the support of Congress sent a U.S. Naval squadron consisting of four ships, including the 44 gun U.S.S. Philadelphia to the Mediterranean under the command of Commodore Richard Dale in the spring of 1802. The squadron was clearly meant as a demonstration of resolve rather than a threat as it was far too small to adequately patrol the area and operated under strict rules of engagement. In fact U.S. war ships were not allowed to engage the pirate vessels unless they observed U.S. merchant ships actually under attack. The squadron accomplished nothing of note and returned to the U.S at the end of the year. American merchant ships continued to be captured, the ships and its cargoes sold and the crews imprisoned and either held for ransom or sold into slavery.
This situation resulted in a larger U. S. squadron being sent to the Mediterranean in 1803 with more aggressive orders concerning rules of engagement. This squadron was under the command of Commodore Richard Morris. After another year in the Mediterranean this fleet also failed to engage the pirates or to effectively impact the attacks on U.S. shipping in the region. At the end of the year this squadron returned to a very cold reception by the President and the Naval War Department.
This second less than successful mission resulted in the need for yet a third mission to the Mediterranean. However, this third mission had two elements added to it that the first and second missions did not. First the squadron that was being dispatched in 1804 was the largest yet and consisted of eight war ships. It was also given very aggressive orders or the rules of engagement to be followed. It was made very clear to the new squadron commander Commodore Edward Preble that he was to exercise maximum force. Second, an alliance had been entered into between the U.S. and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. As part of the alliance the southern Italian King had opened his ports in Sicily and southern Italy to the American squadron, for supply, repair and safe harbor. The Sicilian ports being located only 90 miles from Tripoli would prove an invaluable staging area for the American squadron. In addition, the King provided ten small Italian gunships, with all Italian crews, to be commanded by American officers to supplement the U.S. force. The King further placed Italian Naval Officers on the American ships as liaisons and Italian harbor pilots on the American vessels to insure the safety of the Americans when navigating in the unfamiliar Italian ports.
Success continued to elude the fleet however. Confronted by a larger more formidable joint U.S./Italian naval force the pirates would simply disengage, cut and run upon the appearance of the warships. This tactic by the pirates may have in fact led to the first U.S. disaster of the conflict. The U.S.S. Philadelphia on patrol outside of Tripoli harbor spotted a pirate vessel and entered pursuit following the fleeing vessel into the very entrance of Tripoli’s harbor. Failing to catch the vessel the Philadelphia attempted to turn and exit when it ran aground in what its charts said was forty feet of water. In fact it was later determined that the charts were wrong and the water depth was twelve feet. The crew made a desperate attempt to free the ship, dumping its ballast, many of its guns and one of its masts only to find itself still grounded. The vessel soon found itself surrounded by pirate gunships and under the guns of the harbor fortress. Dead in the water the Captain and crew were forced to surrender. The ship and over three hundred crewman were imprisoned in the dungeon of the fortress at Tripoli.
The news of the capture of the Philadelphia rocked the U.S. squadron at anchor in Sicily. Commodore Preble realized that he had only a small number of marines and combined with his remaining naval forces had only 1060 men left under his command. This was far too small a force to consider a direct assault on the fortress at Tripoli which was said to be manned by twenty-five thousand troops. Preble also realized that the capture of the Philadelphia struck a blow to the status and prestige of the new Nation on the international front, something had to be done. One of his young Lieutenant’s Stephen Decatur who was in command of the fourteen gun USS Enterprise offered an alternative plan to assault on the fortress. Decatur had captured a few days before a small lightly armed Tripolitan merchant ship called the Mastico. Banking on the assumption that too little time had elapsed since he captured the vessel for the Tripolitans to know of its capture, he proposed to take a small force on board the vessel, recapture the Philadelphia and sail it out of the harbor.
Commodore Preble apparently gave the plan high marks for daring and aggressiveness but had little expectation that the plan could be pulled off. Preble’s knew that the Philadelphia would be moved inside the harbor and loaded with pirates. He also knew that the small Mastico would have to somehow pull up along side of the Philadelphia without alerting the pirates to allow for a surprise boarding. Even if this could be accomplished the small number of sailors and marines aboard would have to out fight a larger pirate crew making the Philadelphia’s recapture in hand to hand combat difficult. In addition the recapture would have to occur within a harbor surrounded by manned and armed pirate gunboats. If this was not bad enough the undersized crew would then have to sail the vessel out of the harbor whose currents and depths the Americans clearly did not know and survive a barrage under the fortresses’ formidable guns in order to make an escape.
Commodore Preble thought the plan had no chance of success but in a sign of how desperate the situation was perceived rather than nixing the plan he O.K’d but modified it. His modification was that he placed Decatur under strict order to destroy and sink the Philadelphia where she sat and attempt his escape on the Mastico which the U.S. fleet had renamed the USS Intrepid. Due to the high probability of failure or great loss of life the Commodore insisted that Decatur select an all volunteer crew for the mission comprised of unmarried men. Decatur had room aboard the Intrepid for supplies, including materials to set the vessel a fire and sixty marines and sailors. In addition, Decatur was provided five midshipman and a ship’s surgeon. The final member of the mission came on board when Salvatore Catalano the 37 year old Italian harbor pilot who had served aboard the USS Enterprise and was presently assigned to Preble’s flagship USS Constitution volunteered for the mission.
Catalano was one of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies royal naval personnel assigned to be aboard the U.S ships at anchor. Catalano had sailed the Mediterranean for decades and was familiar with the specifics of the harbor at Tripoli. As Decatur would find out Catalano was quite a linguist as well, and was fluent in English. The plan was that the Intrepid supported by the sixteen gun USS Syren would cross the Mediterranean from the port of Syracuse in Sicily. Off the coast of Tripoli they would transfer the necessary stores for the assault and the Intrepid with most of its men hidden below deck would enter Tripoli harbor with a small visible crew dressed as Tripoli merchant sailors and approach the anchored Philadelphia. The Syren would wait off the coast and arrive to lend what support it could as the Intrepid attempted escape.
On February 14th as the Intrepid approached the harbor Catalano had been observing the currents and sky. Familiar after a lifetime of sailing the Mediterranean Catalano judged that a sudden strong gale was rapidly approaching the coast. Catalano insisted that they abort the mission and seek other safe harbor as the small ketch was not designed for the violent harbor currents or open seas during a gale.. The Intrepid a small Ketch class vessel designed for shallow coastal voyage and was in poor condition. Catalano knew that if the gale struck as he expected the ship and crew would have been trapped inside the harbor or equally at risk in open seas. After a heated exchange with Decatur, the captain reluctantly agreed to abort. Almost immediately a violent two day storm struck the coast. The Intrepid struggled in the high seas but was saved by the Catalano’s knowledge of a small safe harbor cove along the coast.
Two days later on February 16, 1804 at noon the Intrepid, the storm having passed again approached Tripoli harbor. The sky in the distance again appeared threatening but, at the moment, tide and wind were favorable. Decatur made the decision to enter the harbor at dusk. As the sun set the boarding crew took their positions below deck again leaving only a small crew dressed as North African merchant seamen on deck. Catalano judging the currents guided the Intrepid into the harbor where they located the refloated Philadelphia at anchor in the midst of nineteen gunboats, two schooners, two galleys and a brig with combined hostile crews numbering about a thousand men. Catalano skillfully guided the Intrepid through the anchored pirate fleet and approached the Philadelphia without arousing an alarm.
As the Intrepid approached the guarded Philadelphia the pirate crew aboard challenged the vessel in a dialect which was a mix of Arabic and Berber. Catalano calmly responded in the same local dialect that his ship had lost its anchor and requested permission to tie along side. So convincing was his exchange that permission was granted. Once along side Decatur order the assault. Outnumbered two to one the U.S. Marines and sailors nevertheless captured the ship engaging in a brief but ferocious saber fight. In all, thirty pirates were killed, one captured and the rest abandoned the vessel. The Americans then proceeded to set the vessel ablaze discharging shot from its two heavy sixteen pound guns directly into the bottom of the hull.
Completing their mission to destroy the Philadelphia the Intrepid’s crew returned to their small vessel with the Philadelphia completely engulfed in flames and sinking. With the element of total surprise still in their favor Catalano then guided the Intrepid once again through the anchored pirate fleet. Amazingly, even though the Intrepid was within musket range it drew no fire from the pirate vessels. As the small ketch approached the harbor entrance it came under the one hundred and fifteen heavy guns of the fortress. As he did so the fortress came to life and began firing on the small vessel. However, fortune was with them and the fortresses’ shots all missed except for several which passed through the sails. The Intrepid made good its escape, having completed its mission sustaining no fatalities, and only one wounded. Decatur, his crew and Catalano became instant American heroes. English Naval Lord Nelson upon hearing of the mission called the mission “The Most Daring Act of the Age”.
The overall conflict however continued to have its ups and downs for the American forces. A subsequent mission to sail a fire/bomb boat into the Tripoli harbor to attack its fleet was commanded by a young naval officer Lt. Somers and twelve volunteers. Something went very wrong and the ship blew up in the harbor before reaching its target. All thirteen American seamen aboard were killed and their bodies buried in the foreigners cemetery in Tripoli.
In 1804 Decatur and Catalano arrived in the U.S. as national heroes. Catalano returned to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies where he served out the remainder of his enlistment in the royal southern Italian navy. In 1809 he returned to the U.S. where at the urging and support of Decatur and the U.S. Navy he was made a U.S. citizen by special Act of Congress and given a Commission in the U.S. Navy and the rank of Sailing Master.
Later in 1804 the American forces continued the conflict under yet a fourth Naval commander Commodore Samuel Barron and naval agent, former American consul to Tunis William Eaton. Eaton was given permission to raise a mercenary army for a combined land/sea assault on Tripoli. Eaton was given a force of eight U.S. Marines, supported by an Italian artillery company. To this he hired a company of Greek infantry and 500 Ottoman Mamelukes soldiers. In April 1804 the force left Alexandria Egypt and crossed 500 miles of desert attacking, with naval support, the port city of Derne. The infantry units with support on land by the Italian artillery and by sea by the American warships successfully breached the city’s defenses with the Marines first over the walls of the city. The city fell and the Pasha’s attempt to retake it failed. The engagement marked the first land action by American forces on foreign soil since the American Revolution. The Marine action of breaching the city’s wall and raising the American flag is commemorated in the Marine song in the words “to the shores of Tripoli”. It should be noted that one in ten soldiers and sailors serving directly under American leadership in the 1804 conflict were citizens of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Before Eaton could regroup his forces and attack the city of Tripoli, the Pasha agreed to peace terms. The American crew of the Philadelphia was released and the U.S. agreed to a reduced tribute payment of $20,000 a year. One of the lingering issues from this early conflict was the failure to recover the bodies of the U.S. servicemen killed and buried in Tripoli. There have been several failed initiatives over the past two centuries the last being the fall of 2011 to correct this oversight. This is an issue not only taken up by veterans groups but one close to the interests of New Jersey. Lt. Somers was a New Jersey resident, his grandfather founded Somers Point near Atlantic City.
As for Salvatore Catalano he would remain in the U.S. Navy until his death in Baltimore.
Undoubtedly his knowledge of the Mediterranean and its harbors proved invaluable to the Navy. The U.S. would return to Tripoli in 1816 for the second Barbary War. In this conflict U.S. forces were commanded by 1804 and 1812 Naval Hero Commodore Stephen Decatur. Catalano was severely injured when crushed by a beam that broke loose in the naval shipyards at Baltimore in 1819. For the rest of his life he suffered from damaged kidneys resulting from that accident.
It is clear without the contributions of Salvatore Catalano the U.S. Navy’s first success in Tripoli would never have occurred. In addition, without the contribution of Italian soldiers, and sailors the conflict would have had a very different outcome.
As a separate Italian American fact, the U.S. Marine Corps Band was established by Act of Congress in 1798. As such it is the oldest of the service branches’ bands. It has played at every Presidential inauguration and many White House affairs since Thomas Jefferson’s took office in 1801. For this reason it is sometimes referred to as the President’s band. Jefferson was however not impressed with the musical quality of the band as it originally existed and quickly recruited Italian/Sicilian musicians as a supplement performance band. At many affairs during his presidency the two bands would share duties. Generally, the President and the public found the Italians much better. In 1805 General Hall at the direction of the President recruited Gaetano Carusi to reorganize and become director of the Marine Corp Band. Mr. Carusi then recruited an all Italian/Sicilian band. The next three Marine Corps Band directors would all be of Italian birth.
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