Illustrations By David Geister
At his President’s House work desk, Thomas Jefferson’s long, freckled face was bent intently over a note that he had just composed. It was March 23, 1801, the 20th day of his presidency. Without consulting his Cabinet, Congress, or the American people, Jefferson had just ordered the Navy to ready a squadron to send to the western Mediterranean.
Jefferson, who in his inaugural address had pledged “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations,” was about to plunge the United States into its first distant foreign war—in Tripoli, more than 3,000 miles away.
Yusuf Karamanli had become Tripoli’s ruler in 1795 after murdering his oldest brother, Hassan, in front of their mother and then expelling a second brother, Hamet. Yusuf’s great ambition was to supersede Algiers as the leading naval power among the Barbary States of the north African coast, and he had already tripled his warships. In 1800 Yusuf flexed his new naval muscle by seizing the U.S. merchant ship Catherine in the western Mediterranean and then releasing the ship, with an ultimatum: Tripoli would declare war unless America began paying tribute.
Instead, Jefferson was sending warships to Tripoli as he had long wished to do. The new American republic, he believed, had not thrown off one tyrant, England, only to bow before a lesser one.
Yusuf’s threat was entirely in character for Barbary: Since 1600, Muslim Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco had grown rich by extorting hundreds of millions of dollars from Christian Europe. The Muslim rulers christened their corsairs with cries of Allahu akbar!—God is great!—and with lamb’s blood poured over the prows, symbolizing the hope that Christian blood would be shed. The Europeans called the sea marauders the Terror and paid exorbitant amounts to trade in the Mediterranean.
The Barbary powers took the money and broke the treaties; loot and slaves were irresistible to them. Between 1660 and 1830, nearly 250,000 captured Europeans were sold in Algiers’ slave markets alone.
By 1801 Barbary was in decline, its old rapacity dulled by a century of easy success and economic stagnation, and its population recently ravaged by plague. Europe, however, continued to send it cash, gifts, ships, and arms. England and France, which could have easily crushed the Barbary powers, cynically sustained the tribute system to squelch rivals to their Mediterranean trade hegemony. English businessmen liked to say, “If there were no Algiers, England ought to build one.”
In just five years, the United States had paid more than $1 million, and its treaties were already unraveling.
In May 1801, when four warships were nearly ready to sail, Jefferson asked his Cabinet, “Shall the squadron now at Norfolk be ordered to cruise in the Mediterranean?” The Navy, vastly expanded during the recent Quasi-War against France, was being slashed to just six active frigates under the Adams administration’s Naval Reduction Act of 1801. While this squared with Jefferson’s philosophy of keeping government small and paying down the Revolutionary War debt, he had always believed it cost little more to send the remaining ships on a war cruise than to keep them idle.
War Secretary Henry Dearborn declared, “The expedition should go forward openly to protect our commerce against the threatened hostilities of Tripoli.” The president could act without Congress’ authority when the country was faced with an imminent threat, asserted Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin. Secretary of State James Madison saw the squadron’s purpose as more than just cannon’s-mouth diplomacy; it was also “the instruction of our young men: so that when their more active service shall hereafter be required, they may be capable of defending the honor of their Country.” War with England was never far from the minds of America’s leaders.
Jefferson and his Cabinet didn’t know that on May 14, Tripolitan soldiers had chopped down the U.S. consulate’s flagpole. Tripoli had declared war. On June 2, 1801, Jefferson’s squadron went to sea.
At Tripoli, squadron commander Richard Dale tried to dissuade Yusuf from war by proffering a $10,000 gift and a letter from Jefferson pledging friendship. But Yusuf would have none of it. Dale responded, “The Squadron under my command will do Every Thing in [its] power to take and distroy [sic] the Corsairs and other Vessels belonging to your Excellency.”
Peace at a price
Tripoli’s navy would not come out and fight. The 12-gun USS Enterprise had taught Tripoli not to tangle with U.S. warships. On Aug. 1, 1801, the Enterprise had expertly shredded the 14-gun Tripoli, killing 30 crewmen without a single American casualty.
Dale and his tiny squadron blockaded Tripoli and convoyed U.S. merchantmen, but found no other occasion to confront the enemy navy.
Jefferson watched with sharp interest, happy that America was finally doing what he had always advocated. In 1785, before any U.S. parley with the Barbary powers, he had written to James Monroe, “The motives pleading for war rather than tribute are numerous and honorable, those opposing them mean and short-sighted.”
As minister to France, Jefferson—and his counterpart in London, John Adams—unhappily discovered in 1786 that a one-year treaty with Tripoli would cost America $66,000, and so-called “perpetual peace” $160,000. And treaties would be needed with the other three Barbary states. Jefferson estimated they would exceed $1 million—an impossibility.
Adams favored paying tribute, thereby reviving America’s prosperous prewar Mediterranean trade. Jefferson disagreed; he wanted to build a navy and fight. “I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace through the medium of war,” he said. War would be more honorable, it would earn Europe’s respect, and it would justify building a navy to protect trade, Jefferson argued. But the United States could afford neither tribute nor naval ships; at the time, the Articles of Confederation did not allow the federal government to collect a tax.
From Paris during the 1780s, Jefferson tried to organize a coalition to blockade the Barbary Coast. Smaller European nations, unable to fight Barbary individually, were supportive. But Foreign Secretary John Jay said America could not afford to be a coalition member. As secretary of state in the early 1790s, Jefferson urged Congress to confront the Barbary states. Instead, Congress ratified treaties with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli in 1796 and 1797.
Commodore Richard Valentine Morris succeeded Dale in 1802. With his seven ships, Morris could confront Yusuf’s navy in Tripoli’s harbor, Jefferson believed.
But the commodore also took his wife, his baby son, and their maid, and they visited Gibraltar, Malta, and southern Europe’s pleasant ports, lingering for months. “Nothing of importance transpired in this quarter” said one of his tranquil reports to Navy Secretary Robert Smith. Smith railed that it was “absolutely necessary that the United States should once, and at once, show themselves on the Barbary, and not European coast.”
But when Morris did finally reach Tripoli, in May 1803, he botched several minor engagements and then was recalled, court-martialed, and dismissed from the Navy.
The listless prosecution of the war inspired Yusuf to boast that he would demand $500,000 for peace. Tunis and Algiers were watching to see whether they too could push America around with impunity. Tunis’ foreign minister blew a whistle in Consul William Eaton’s face and sneered, “We find it is all a puff! We see how you carry on the war with Tripoli!”
Itching to fight
Eaton, a former Army officer who itched to get into the fight himself, wrote bitterly, “If America can yield to this and look the world in the face without a blush, let her blot the stars from her escutcheon and viel [sic] with sack-cloth the sun of her former glory.”
It was the war’s nadir. Jefferson unhappily asked his Cabinet on May 8, 1803, “Shall we buy peace with Tripoli?” The Cabinet said yes. But Jefferson wasn’t quite ready to negotiate. He wanted to see whether Morris’ successor, Commodore Edward Preble, would confront Yusuf and his navy in Tripoli harbor and beat “their town about their ears.”
Preble, a husky, sun-bronzed six-footer known for violence and harsh discipline, was the battler Jefferson had dreamed would one day bring Barbary to heel.
But before Preble could go on the attack, catastrophe struck. On Oct. 31, 1803, the 36-gun Philadelphia, while it was chasing a blockade runner, ran aground on a reef in Tripoli harbor. Unable to dislodge or defend his frigate, Capt. William Bainbridge surrendered the ship and 307 men. Two days later, the Philadelphia floated off the reef, and Tripoli rearmed the ship. Preble saw that he would have to destroy the Philadelphia before attacking Tripoli.
At 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 16, 1804, a ketch glided into Tripoli harbor and approached the Philadelphia, guarded by Tripolitan sailors. To all appearances, the ketch was an ordinary trading ship, but it was really the Intrepid, being used as a Trojan horse. The Intrepid’s pilot told a sentry on board the Philadelphia that he had lost his anchors in a storm. Could he tie up to the frigate for the night? Yes, said the guard. Belowdecks on the Intrepid, 70 American commandos gripped their swords and dirks. Lt. Stephen Decatur Jr., their leader, had insisted on using only edged weapons; they killed silently. The men double-checked their matches and combustibles. They were going to burn the Philadelphia.
Under a silver crescent moon, the Intrepid slid next to the Philadelphia as the Americans held their breath.
Then came the chilling cry, “Americanos!”
“Board!” shouted Decatur. Blades flashed in the moonlight, and blood-curdling screams pierced the peaceful night. Other Americans dashed below-decks with matches and fuel, and the Philadelphia’s portholes and passageways were soon belching flames. The raiders leaped to the Intrepid as the giant oars known as sweeps began to row it back to sea. Incredibly, it had all taken just 20 minutes. Twenty Tripolitans were dead, while only one American sailor was wounded. The blazing hulk drifted to the foot of Yusuf’s castle and burned all night.
At last America had something to celebrate. “It is the only occurrence which has forced them to view the American character with proper respect,” said Consul George Davis. British Adm. Horatio Nelson called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Francis Scott Key commemorated the raid in a forgettable song written to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven” (he would reprise it 10 years later as “The Star-Spangled Banner”). Lionized in Europe and America, Decatur was launched on the brilliant career that would earn him the epitaph, after his death in a duel in 1820, “The pride of the Navy, the glory of the Republic.”
Olive branch spurned
In Tripoli harbor, 15 warship skippers watched the Constitution, Preble’s flagship, for the signal to attack while Tripoli’s defenders waited tensely behind 115 shore batteries and on 24 armed vessels. In the city, 25,000 soldiers braced for an amphibious assault.
After the Philadelphia spectacle, Preble extended an olive branch—which Yusuf spurned. The commodore resumed plans for an attack, vowing to “beat & distress his savage highness.”
At 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 3, 1804, that moment came.
Six gunboats sped toward nine Tripolitan gunboats as five warships shelled the enemy fleet. The Constitution blasted the city batteries with broadside after broadside, sailing so close that enemy cannons could not hit the ship.
Two hours later, scores of Tripo-litans lay dead or wounded, including 44 killed on three captured gunboats. Only one American died, Stephen Decatur’s younger brother, Lt. James Decatur. Shocked by the Americans’ violence, ascribed to drunkenness, the Tripolitans struck, spit on, and stoned the hostages from the Philadelphia wherever they encountered them. The dysentery-wracked captives were worked hard every day and beaten unmercifully.
The squadron returned to Tripoli harbor five more times to bombard the city. The enemy would not come out and fight. A commando operation ended disastrously Sept. 4 when the Intrepid, laden with explosives that were to be ignited amid the harbor shipping, exploded prematurely, killing all 13 crewmen.
Two weeks later, Commodore Samuel Barron arrived to take command of an 11-ship squadron, the largest ever, and Preble went home. While he had not won peace, Preble had fulfilled Madison’s wishes by training a cadre of young naval officers; they would forever be known as “Preble’s Boys,” and their squadron as the “nursery of the Navy.”
Barron, bedridden with liver disease, only blockaded. Yusuf relaxed.
Expelled from Tunis after a shouting match with the bey—the provincial governor—William Eaton return-ed to America to promote a daring plan to supplant Yusuf with his brother Hamet. A bright, active man with striking blue eyes, Eaton was a natural leader who was fluent in four Arabic dialects, an expert scout, commando, and horseman, and deadly with a knife, pistol, and musket—in other words, the prototype of the 21st-century special operations agent. Eaton had always believed soldiers, not ships, would win the Tripoli war. After an off-the-record meeting with Jefferson, he received 1,000 muskets, a $20,000 budget, and a new title, Navy agent for the Barbary regencies.
With Barron incapacitated, Eaton was Jefferson’s last hope. If operations in 1805 did not yield a favorable treaty, Jefferson intended to scale back the squadron to just three blockading ships.
In Alexandria, Egypt, Eaton and Hamet recruited an army of 400 European mercenaries, Arabs, and Tripolitan dissidents. There were only 10 Americans: Eaton, a midshipman, and seven Marines led by Lt. Presley O’Bannon.
In March 1805 they marched into the western Egypt wasteland, following Alexander the Great’s passage of 2,136 years before.
Mutinies, food shortages, bad water, heat, downpours, sand, and flies plagued the expeditioners, yet Eaton’s iron will and resourcefulness inspired them to persevere over 520 miles and 49 days.
On April 26 the expedition reached the Tripolitan port city of Derna, two days ahead of 1,200 of Yusuf’s troops racing to head off Eaton. Tripoli’s second-largest city met Eaton’s overtures with defiance: His message to Derna’s governor requesting safe passage was returned with the scrawled response, “My head or yours.”
Eaton resolved to capture Derna before Yusuf’s army arrived.
At 1:30 p.m. on April 27, Eaton’s 70 infantrymen began skirmishing with 800 Derna defenders. Three U.S. warships pounded the city battery, from which eight cannons were firing on Eaton’s men. A mile away, Hamet and hundreds of Arab cavalrymen were poised to attack another part of Derna. All the pieces of Eaton’s battle plan were in place.
Raising the Stars and Stripes
As the gunfire intensified, Eaton, seeing that some men were losing their nerve, abruptly ordered the attack. Led by Marines with fixed bayonets, they charged the city—and routed the 800 Tripolitans.
O’Bannon, the Marines, and Greek cannoneers overran the battery, turned the cannons around, and blazed away at the fleeing Tripolitans. Then they raised the Stars and Stripes for the first time over a hostile enemy shore, inspiring the words “To the shores of Tripoli” in the “Marines’ Hymn.” The American sailors erupted in cheers.
Yusuf’s army arrived and tried repeatedly to storm Derna, but Eaton repelled the attacks. He requested that Barron send money and 100 Marines so that he could march to Tripoli, overthrow Yusuf, and free the Philadelphia’s captives.
But Barron informed Eaton there would be no more money, supplies, or Marines. Hamet must “depend on his own resources & exertions. . . . I feel that I have already gone to the full extent of my authority.” Consul-General Tobias Lear was already on his way to Tripoli to negotiate a treaty.
Quailing at Hamet’s approach, in debt to Tunis for $120,000, and with discontent high over his wartime taxes, Yusuf was ready to parley.
The Tripoli peace accord was signed June 3, 1805. The United States paid $60,000 to free the Philadelphia captives and, in turn, released 89 Tripolitan prisoners—the very terms Yusuf had spurned a year earlier. Yusuf had failed to obtain tribute, his chief war aim.
Having vowed to show the Euro-peans how “to emancipate themselves from that degrading yoke,” Thomas Jefferson had now done so.
The lesson was not lost on Europe. Within 20 years, Europe’s newfound defiance broke the Terror for good.
“Should we produce such a revolution there,” Jefferson had written, “we shall be amply rewarded for what we have done.”
America’s reward was a peaceful Mediterranean commerce and a combat-ready Navy that would soon face England’s mighty fleet.
Joseph Wheelan is the author of the Barbary War history Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801-1805. He lives in Cary, N.C.
A Monument’s Colorful History
The Barbary War Monument, the first U.S. military monument, memorializes the six naval officers killed during the war. Fellow officers raised $1,245 to execute the work, completed in 1806 and erected in the Washington Navy Yard. After invading British troops vandalized it in 1814, the monument was repaired and moved to the Capitol grounds. In 1860 it was relocated to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., its present home. Fittingly, it stands behind Preble Hall, named for the officers’ commander, Edward Preble, and home of the academy museum.
145 Years Later, a Ceremony
The remains of the 13 American sailors killed in the explosion of the Intrepid in September 1804 lay forgotten until the 1940s, when U.S. diplomats began an inquiry in Tripoli. Five unmarked graves were found in an old walled burial ground. In 1949 a U.S.-British color guard laid on each grave a plaque that reads: “Here Lies an Unknown American Sailor Lost from the USS Intrepid in Tripoli Harbor 1804.”