The Shores Of Tripoli


Decatur was able to get out of the harbor without losing a man, but the bashaw still had his prisoners, whom Preble tried to shake loose over the next seven months, furiously bombarding Tripoli’s forts and city. He managed to lure some pirate gunboats out to battle, where they were thrashed by the Americans, once again led by Decatur, in a series of running, hand-to-hand encounters. Even this availed little. The Tripolitans fled back into their inner harbor, and the bashaw refused to trade his hostages for the 52 buccaneers who had been taken prisoner. In a last bid to blow up the pirate fleet, Preble decided to send what he called an “inferno” floating into Tripoli Harbor.

This was the Intrepid , now packed almost to the gunwales with tons of black powder, shot, and pig iron, 100 13-inch mortar shells, and 50 nine-inch shells packed with lint. Soaked in turpentine, pitch, and other inflammables, she was to be guided into the harbor by a skeleton crew of 13 men who would tie the helm to keep it on course, set 11-minute fuses, and abandon ship before she exploded.

On the night of September 3, 1804, while the whole fleet watched, the Intrepid sailed silently toward the harbor, disappearing into the misty darkness. The shore batteries opened up, and a few moments later, the Intrepid exploded in what one witness called “a vast stream of fire, which appeared ascending to heaven.” The frigate was all but obliterated. Tragically, it had gone up in the harbor entrance, far from its intended targets, and with all hands lost.

Just what went wrong remains unclear to this day. What was clear was that Tripoli and its fleet were still intact. Worse yet, Jefferson, having received word only of the Philadelphia’s capture, had already replaced Preble with a less effective commodore. The fact was, however, that the United States simply did not have the ground troops necessary to storm Tripoli. William Eaton, a former U.S. consul to Tunis and a Revolutionary War veteran, decided to change all that. He had persuaded Hamet Karamanli, pretender to the bashaw’s throne, to try to overthrow his brother, and he also persuaded a highly skeptical naval command to spare him all of one midshipman and eight U.S. Marines.


Having gathered up another 600 European and Arab mercenaries in Alexandria, Eaton set off to march to Derna, the nearest city in Tripoli, 500 parched miles away. Much of the motley expedition was continually on the verge of mutiny, and small wonder. Eaton and his men were tormented by hunger, thirst, and the terrible North African sirocco.

The glue holding his force together was his group of eight Marines, led by Lt. Presley Neville O’Bannon, who spent his evenings on the march playing his violin and who lived up splendidly to the Corps’ famous motto of Semper Fidelis. “Wherever General Eaton leads, we will follow,” O’Bannon insisted. “If he wants us to march to hell, we’ll gladly go there.”

The Marines had been constituted as a separate service corps only in 1798, but O’Bannon and his men were busy writing the second line of the Corps hymn. After a month and a half on the march, the Marines led the desperate charge that took the town of Derna—only to find that it was too late.

Unable to support the cost of the war any longer, Jefferson had decided to cut a deal with the bashaw of Tripoli. The sailors of the Philadelphia would be released. America’s Tripolitan captives would also be returned, along with $60,000. The administration was careful to depict it all as a prisoner exchange. A furious Eaton called it tribute in disguise and pointed out that the United States had betrayed its surrogate, the pretender to the throne.

All that the heroics of our fighting men seemed to have won was a better price. But the treaty included no provisions for any future tribute, and in the meantime the United States had built itself a navy. When in 1815 the Barbary pirates began to venture out to prey on U.S. shipping again, President James Madison requested and got a formal authorization of hostilities from Congress. This time, the United States won treaties from the rulers of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, in the form of large indemnities for the damage they had done. The Barbary pirates were finished.

It had taken the United States three decades and plenty of missteps to finally rid itself of the terrorists of the Mediterranean, but in the process it had become a stronger, wiser nation, with some invaluable new institutions. Not a bad lesson in nation building right at home.