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The mission now confronting our nation—to transport a military force to a distant, hostile, Islamic country, subdue a brazen terrorist network, and put an end to the random slaughter and harassment of American citizens—may seem a daunting one. If it is any consolation, though, we have done it before. And if it will be any help in the months and years ahead, we should also know that the last such effort was rife with blunders, delays, and confusion of both purpose and means—as well as stirring feats of heroism and perseverance.
Attacks on the United States of America by the pirates of the Barbary Coast commenced almost immediately upon our independence. They would prove to be one of the defining challenges of the Republic, one that would, among other things, give birth to the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps and raise serious questions about the President’s right to wage undeclared wars, the need to balance defense spending against domestic needs, the use of foreign surrogates to fight our battles, and even whether or not it was a good idea to trade arms and money for the release of hostages.
At the end of the Revolution, American trade with the Mediterranean was already booming—and thus drawing the attention of the Barbary pirates.
The Barbary Coast consisted of the four states that occupied the northern shore of Africa from Egypt to Gibraltar: Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco. Ruled by a variety of beys, deys, and bashaws, the seafarers of the Barbary states made their living as their ancestors had, off and on, for eons—by seizing the ships of other nations. By the late eighteenth century, the great powers of Europe could have suppressed the pirates. Instead, they paid them off. It was not the most heroic system, but it did put up a convenient trade barrier to those nations that would not or could not pay such tribute. That is, the United States.
The very word pirate has an almost roguish sound to it now, conjuring up pictures of Long John Silver. In reality, being taken by a pirate ship was much more akin to enduring a terrorist attack. The raiders of the Barbary Coast rarely took life unnecessarily but only because their human plunder was worth more on the slave block or as hostages.
By 1796 Algerian corsairs alone had captured 119 sailors from American merchantmen. They were fed near-starvation rations, beaten regularly, and put to work breaking rocks on chain gangs, or scraping barnacles off ship hulls. Some of them had been imprisoned for 12 years, waiting for their countrymen to save them. Only after the payment of $642,000 and thousands more in personal bribes, an agreement to pay an annual tribute of $21,600, and turning over a 36-gun frigate as a “gift” to the dey’s daughter was the U.S. government able to ransom them. It was too late for 31 of the hostages, who had died in captivity.
The humiliating spectacle galled many Americans, and none more than Thomas Jefferson. As the first Secretary of State, he urged George Washington to take action, and, displaying a political acumen he is rarely given credit for, the President got Congress to fund the construction of six frigates by having each one built in a different port, from Boston to Norfolk.
These frigates were superb warships, but bringing their power to bear against Barbary would prove a complicated matter. Within months of assuming the Presidency himself, in March 1801, Jefferson, eager to see what force could accomplish, dispatched a fleet of four warships to the Mediterranean. The main target was Tripoli, with its fierce bashaw, Yusuf Karamanli, and after some early victories the little U.S. squadron blockaded Tripoli’s harbor.
Soon, though, the whole war seemed to fall into the doldrums. Was it indeed a war at all? President Jefferson carefully refrained from asking for a formal declaration of hostilities, thereby giving himself as much latitude as possible. This still didn’t stop Congress from complaining about the cost of the expedition and trying to cut naval expenditures. Moreover, Jefferson often found himself frustrated overseeing a military operation 3,000 miles away in what was still the age of sail. The frigates easily outgunned the pirates but had trouble blockading their swift, shore-hugging xebecs.
This last situation led to disaster. The USS Philadelphia , chasing a blockade-runner, ran aground on a reef just outside Tripoli Harbor. Now the bashaw had 307 more hostages in his dungeon—and a brand-new warship. This enraged the fleet’s new commodore, Edward Preble. A serious, competent, active commander, despite recurrent ulcers and malaria, he was beloved by his young officers, who called themselves Preble’s Boys.
Preble decided to send some of his boys on a daring mission. He had a handsome 25-year-old lieutenant named Stephen Decatur deck out two ketches like Turkish merchantmen and sail them into Tripoli Harbor on the night of February 16, 1804. Decatur was able to bring one of them, the Intrepid , right up alongside the Philadelphia before an alarm of “Americani!” rang out.
It was too late. Decatur and his men were already swarming aboard the captured ship, where they killed some 20 Tripolitan guards with cutlass and saber, chased the rest overboard, and quickly set the captured ship ablaze. When the flames reached the powder magazine, the explosion shook Tripoli to its foundations.
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.