I recently finished an interesting book written by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager called, “Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates.” It was an interesting book about a little known American War; The Barbary War. Despite not being well known, this war was important for the development of America as a young, independent nation in the early 19th century. In the two decades after the Revolution, American merchant ships and men were being captured by the Barbary States of N. Africa (Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli). There was nothing that anybody could do except pay expensive tribute in exchange for safe travel in the Mediterranean. The Barbary States were also strict followers of Islam and believed that all Westerners including Christians were infidels, therefore, giving them free range on merchant ships and the ability to take captured sailors as slaves.
Originally, America played nice and payed tribute like everybody else but this became too expansive for our young nation. After much contemplation, Jefferson made the call to go to war in 1801. The original plan was to intimidate the Barbary powers, specifically Tripoli with the small US Navy. They were sent to the Mediterranean to feel out the enemy and attack only if they were fired upon. The first naval commander was slow to make a move and wasted months port hopping and just barely brushed by to blockade Tripoli. He was expediently discharged but the next commander encountered delays and difficult decisions. They did happen to capture a Tripoli ship decisively but other than that this was very much a cold war. Advisors and embassy officials attempted to solve the crisis diplomatically before launching all-out war.
Other Barbary States settled for peace, but the dey of Tripoli, Yusuf Qaramanli, was unimpressed with our show of force. Blockading the harbor of Tripoli was especially difficult because of its shallow depth and rocky coastline. Also the ships that Tripoli used were small and fast while the US Navy ships were big and slow. New ships were being constructed after the approval by Congress and they were subsequently pushed into rotation for blockade duty. The USS Philadelphia was bolder one particular day chasing a Tripoli ship sneaking by the blockade and was run right into a rock and became landed. Tripoli sailors stormed the ship immediately and took everybody captive.
This situation was quite embarrassing for America and now there was a secondary issue; the pirates have now seized a powerful frigate. Thanks to the bold planning of Stephen Decatur, he gathered a handful of men to retake the USS Philadelphia in the dead of night. It was a successful attempt and since the ship was landed still, they had to set the ship ablaze. Things started to pick up after this event, and soon there was another battle near the coast involving Stephen Decatur and his brother. As the US ships bombarded Tripoli, they launched an attack against a score of Tripoli corsairs. Decatur’s brother was killed but Decatur chased after his killer and in a vicious fight killed the pirate captain. In this war, there were many small victories and embarrassing losses but it simply was not enough to turn the tide.
Consul Eaton, who spent considerable time in Tripoli and North Africa, devised a risky plan in attempting to find dey Yusuf’s brother Hamet in exile and joining with his forces to retake the throne in Tripoli. This plan required an attack across land in addition to bombardment by sea. After sailing up the Nile in Egypt, he soon found Hamet and he organized a force of Arabs and Greeks in addition to about a dozen American Marines. This force in April 1805, began marching over the shores and deserts of Tripoli (Libya). There were concerns if this force would last when they were running out of food. The Arab soldiers were ready to fight the Americans over the remaining supplies until a US ship resupplied the force. They launched a two prong attack a few days later on the city of Derne, near Benghazi, and took over the city easily.
Yusuf Qaramanli was terrified at this development and after speaking with American consul Tobias Lear, agreed to peace and freed the captives of the USS Philadelphia. This was a particularly bittersweet moment because Eaton had to break his promise of restoring Hamet to the throne. Also the US paid a ransom to free our POW’s and did not need to because Eaton and Hamet’s forces had the momentum to go after Yusuf and take Tripoli.
Eaton’s actions earned him appraisal in America and was rewarded with a special North African Mameluke sword. This sword became the sword that Marines use ceremonially.
This book revealed to me the importance that this war had on our young nation. The war forced us to expand the Navy and as a result of this war, we gained international prestige. We decided to not be bullied into paying tribute to a hostile nation and fought for respect and freedom of the seas. It was also the first war that we employed American Marines to fight on foreign soil. Overall, this war showed the maturation and development of our nation and it made America stronger. This strength would subsequently be tested in the War of 1812 and the Second Barbary War.
P.S: I cannot leave you here without showing you the song of the US Marines. Listen to the line beginning, “On the shores of Tripoli.”