Our Country’s Battles


The mission now confronting our nation—to transport a large military force to a distant, hostile, Islamic country; hold together a tenuous international coalition; subdue a brazen terrorist network; and put an end to the random slaughter and harassment of American citizens—may seem like an impossible 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, some two hundred years before, was rife with blunders, delays, and confusion of both purpose and means—as well as stirring feats of heroism and perseverance.

The war waged by the United States of America against the pirates of the Barbary Coast commenced almost immediately after the emergence of the new nation and continued, in one form or another, for over thirty years. It was one of the defining epics of the new republic, a challenge that would, among other things, give birth to the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps, bring us out fully out from behind the shield of the British Empire for the first time, and fixed in the national psyche the principle—if not always the practice—that we would not pay tribute to any other nation. The fight to suppress the pirates struck, for the first time, issues that would resound throughout our history, including 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 for the release of American hostages.

One year after the Revolution, the United States could barely be said to exist. The country was still no more than a loose, querulous coalition of the old, thirteen colonies, bound together only by the Articles of Confederation. Yet American commerce was already booming. Spurred on by a parliamentary edict that forbade trade with Britain’s West Indies possessions, the country’s merchants quickly developed a thriving new trade in the Mediterranean.

By 1784, according to A.B.C. Whipple’s entertaining history, To the Shores of Tripoli, as many as 100 ships—most of them from New England—plied these waters every year, “employing 1,200 American seamen, and carrying some 20,000 tons of salted fish, flour, lumber, and sugar…bringing back lemons, oranges, figs, olive oil, wine, and opium.” Such a lucrative trade could not help but draw the attention of the Barbary pirates.

The Barbary Coast, as the term is generally used, refers to the four states then occupying the northern coast of Africa from Egypt to Gibraltar: Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and the Empire of Morocco—a geography that is little changed today. Nominally under the rule of the Turkish sultan, these were in fact independent nations—as much as they could be called nations. Ruled by a variety of beys, deys, and bashaws, perched precariously on the rim of the Sahara, with little authority over the tribes of Berbers and Bedouins who roamed their vast and trackless interiors, 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, and even launching raids for slaves and plunders against the coasts of Sicily and Naples.

The great powers of Europe undoubtedly could have suppressed such a disruption to their trade. Instead, preoccupied by their own quarrels, they chose a more pragmatic, Old World mode of dealing with the pirates—they paid them off. By 1790, Thomas Jefferson, then our ambassador to France, estimated that the British were paying Algiers alone over $250,000 a year; France paid some $100,000, while smaller nations commonly paid $30,000.

These were considerable sums in the eighteenth century, though they bought another, unstated asset. The Barbary pirates served as a very convenient trade barrier to those states that would not or could not pay such tribute—which by this time meant primarily the United States.

The very word “pirate” has an almost roguish sound to it now, conjuring up as it does pictures of Long John Silver and parrots cawing “Pieces of eight!” The real experience of an encounter with pirates in the 1700s—or now—was much more like enduring a terrorist attack. The pirates would seize not only the cargoes of the ships they took, but also the personal possessions of the crew and any passengers, often stripping them right down to their underwear. They rarely took life unnecessarily—but only because their human plunder was worth more on the auction block. Men were often sold into slavery, and the few women who were captured sent off to harems. Most captured Americans, though, had to endure a double torment, being used as slaves while they were held as hostages.

The first ship to be so interned by the pirates was the schooner Maria, taken by Algerian pirates off Cape St. Vincent in 1784. Soon after the Dauphin would meet a similar fate, off Cadiz. The 21 crewmen aboard these ships would have to endure twelve years of captivity in Algiers before their countrymen were able to buy their freedom. Soon after their capture, a representative from the Barbary states approached Jefferson and John Adams, then our ambassador to Britain, about the payoff. Perfectly suitable treaties with the pirates could be arranged, the Founding Fathers were told, for a mere $1 million.

This was, at the time, approximately one-fifth of the entire budget of the fledgling country. The first American captives of the dey of Algiers would have to wait while the thirteen states held the constitutional convention, organized themselves into a real nation, elected a national government—and only then got down to some serious negotiating.

In the meantime, the Algerians seized another 11 American ships, until they were holding a total of 119 prisoners in the dey’s forbidding prisons. There, they were fed near-starvation wages and put to hard labor. Most of the captured sailors were marched out every day on chain gangs, and set to the dangerous, exhausting work of literally breaking rocks. A few secured slightly better work, scraping barnacles off pirate ships or even as the dey’s palace servants, but more often they were worked, in Whipple’s phrase “as beasts of burden.” Recalcitrant prisoners were subjected to merciless beatings and whippings.

Finally, after years of negotiations—and desperate attempts by the new American nation to raise the money in the international financial markets—the hostages were ransomed in 1796. The price was $642,000, plus thousands more in personal bribes, an agreement to pay an annual tribute of $21,600, and a 36-gun frigate that was officially a gift to the dey’s daughter. It was all too late for 31 of the 119 hostages, who had died in captivity. Of the rest, the chief American negotiator reported, “Several of them are probably rendered incapable of earning their living. One is in a state of total blindness; another is reduced nearly to the same condition; two or three carry the marks of unmerciful treatment in ruptures produced by hard labour; and others have had their constitutions injured by the plague.”

The whole, humiliating spectacle galled many Americans—none more than Jefferson, who while in Paris floated the idea of an international expedition to stamp out the pirates once and for all. This idea went nowhere in Europe but, recalled to the United States to serve as our first secretary of state, Jefferson had more success in convincing George Washington. Displaying the sort of political acumen he is too rarely given credit for, Washington got Congress to fund the construction of six frigates—in part by having each one built in a different port, from Boston to Norfolk.

This first squadron—which included the legendary “Old Ironsides,” the Constitution, still afloat off Charlestown—marked the real birth of the U.S. Navy. They were formidable ships of war, fast but powerful frigates, sporting 36 to 44 guns apiece, designed and built by the master shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys and marine architect Josiah Fox.

Bringing their power to bear against the Barbary pirates would prove a more difficult matter. The hostages in Algiers were ransomed before the new frigates could be finished—and almost as soon as they were launched, Congress was trying to mothball one or all of them. But treaties with the Barbary states tended to last only until their rulers thought they could extort more money. Within months of assuming the presidency in March, 1801, Jefferson had dispatched a fleet of four warships to the Mediterranean—eager to see just what force could accomplish.

This time the main target was Tripoli, with its fierce bashaw, Yusuf Karamanli, and high admiral, Murad Reis—a wily Scotsman born Peter Lisle, who had converted to Islam and married the bashaw’s daughter. Things started out well enough. The little U.S. squadron blockaded Tripoli’s harbor, and the 12-gun, U.S. sloop Enterprise, under Lieutenant Andrew Sterrett, shot a 14-gun corsair to pieces and captured it without sustaining so much as a casualty.

Soon, though, the whole was 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—taking a tact that all U.S. presidents since FDR have used. It still didn’t stop Congress—or Jefferson’s brilliant secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin—from complaining constantly about the cost of the expedition and trying to cut naval expenditures.

Commander-in-chief that he was, Jefferson often found himself understandably frustrated by the difficulties of overseeing a military operation three thousand miles away, in what was still the age of sail. Commodores were shuttled back and forth, seemingly with little effect. (One of them brought his pregnant wife, and seemed to look upon the whole enterprise as an occasion to tour the leading ports of the Mediterranean in style.) The formidable new frigates proved more than a match for any pirates, but had trouble running down the swift, shore-hugging xebecs that managed to elude the U.S. blockade.

This last situation soon led to disaster. The U.S.S. Philadelphia, chasing a blockade-runner, ran aground on a reef just outside Tripoli harbor. Unable to budge his ship, Captain William Bainbridge soon found himself surrounded by pirates and reluctantly surrendered. It was a decision that would haunt him through the rest of his naval career—particularly when the Tripolitans were able to refloat the Philadelphia and tow it into the harbor. Now the bashaw had 307 more hostages in his dungeon—all of them officers and men of the U.S. Navy—and a brand-new, first-class warship that his men were soon busy refitting for their own purposes.

This state of affairs enraged the fleet’s new commodore, Edward Preble, the man considered by many to be the father of the navy. Preble was an “imposing” figure in Whipple’s description, “with broad shoulders, piercing blue eyes, the nose of a hawk, and the jaw of a mastiff.” A serious, competent, active commander, despite being plagued by ulcers and malaria, he was beloved by his young officers, who called themselves “Preble’s Boys.”

Now 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, the Intrepid and the Siren, like Turkish merchantmen, and sail them into Tripoli harbor on the night of February 16, 1804. While the Siren anchored in the outer harbor, Decatur was able to bring the Intrepid alongside the Philadelphia before an alarmed cry of “Americani!” was heard.

It was too late. Decatur and his men were already swarming on the captured ship, where they dispatched some 20 Tripolitan guards in the space of ten minutes with cutlass and sabre, and chased the rest overboard. They then spread tar and other incendiaries around the decks, and set them afire with sperm-oil candles. Twenty-five minutes after they had boarded, the ship was a tower of fire. As the flames spread, they set off its double-shotted cannons, bombarding the bashaw’s fort, and when they reached the powder magazine the resulting explosion shook Tripoli to its foundations.

Decatur was able to hightail it out of the harbor without losing a man. It was a daring and spectacular feat of arms—but the bashaw still had his prisoners. Preble went on trying to shake them loose through the rest of the summer. Through much of August, he furiously bombarded Tripoli’s forts and city, and even managed to lure some of Murad Reis’s gunboats out to battle. There, in a series of running, often hand-to-hand battles, they were thrashed by the Americans, led again by Decatur.

But even this was to little avail. The Tripolitans simply fled back into their inner harbor, and the bashaw refused to trade his hostages even for the 52 men the U.S. fleet had captured. In a last bid to blow up the pirate fleet, he decided to send what he called an “inferno” floating into Tripoli harbor.

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

On the night of September 3, 1804, while the whole fleet watched, the Intrepid slipped silently toward the harbor, disappearing into the misty darkness. After a few minutes, the shore batteries began to open up, and then some watchers thought they saw a light, moving along the darkened deck of the fireship.

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, still far from its intended targets, and with all hands lost. Just what went wrong—whether the Intrepid was hit by a stray shot from the batteries, or its men blew it up on purpose when attacked by an enemy gunboat—remains unclear to this day.

What was clear was that Tripoli and its fleet were still intact. Worse yet, President Jefferson, having received word only of the Philadelphia’s capture and none of Preble’s victories, had already let him be replaced with a new commodore, Samuel Barron. Preble returned to the United States, while Barron was soon laid low by a series of long and debilitating illnesses—and the American sailors still moldered in Tripoli’s jails. The U.S. simply did not have the ground troops necessary to storm the city.

William Eaton, former U.S. consul to Tunis and a Revolutionary War veteran, decided to change all that. Eaton had persuaded Hamet Karamanli, pretender to the bashaw’s throne, to try to overthrow his brother. Hotheaded, persistent, egomaniacal, a tireless campaigner, and an accomplished linguist, Eaton was determined to be our man in Libya. After a hurried trip to Washington and back, he finally got a highly dubious naval command to back him—and to spare him all of one midshipman and eight U.S. Marines.

Eaton’s expedition was one of the great, mad, adventures of the military era. Gathering up a motley force of some 600 European and Arab mercenaries, and a single, two-pound gun, Eaton set off from Alexandria, where Hamet was in exile, to Derna, the nearest city in Tripoli—some five hundred miles away rough desert steppe.
The march would be studied by both sides in World War II, and with small wonder. It was a nearly miraculous accomplishment. Eaton and his men were tormented by hunger, thirst, and the terrible North African sirocco. The handlers of the camels and mules carrying their baggage constantly threatened to quit unless they were paid more money, and Eaton had to repeatedly buck up his pretender to keep him from returning to Egypt. On one occasion, quarrels within the camp nearly deteriorated into an out-and-out battle between all the Muslims in the force on one side and the Christians on the other.

Somehow, Eaton was able to face down or ameliorate every threat. The only glue holding his multinational force together was his eight Marines, led by a tough Irish-American from western Virginia, Lt. Presley Neville O’Bannon—who spent the evenings playing his violin. The war in the Mediterranean was a debut of sorts for the Marines, who had only been constituted as an official service in 1798, but O’Bannon was already proving the corps’ motto.

“Wherever General Eaton leads, we will follow,” O’Bannon proclaimed with his usual, unswerving loyalty. “If he wants us to march to hell, we’ll gladly go there.”
Somehow, after a month-and-a-half marching across the rim of the desert, Eaton was able to make contact with the Navy, resupply his weary men, and storm Derna—the Marines once again in the vanguard. Despite being heavily outnumbered, they quickly took the town, and an elated Eaton made plans to push onto the city of Tripoli itself. Before long, though, he found himself besieged by a larger army sent out by the reigning bashaw. Then came much worse new: the United States had decided to settle.

Alarmed by the escalating cost of the war, harried by Congress and his own cabinet, and worried that the U.S. was about to become engulfed in the growing conflict between Napoleon and Great Britain, Jefferson had finally given his chief diplomat in the region permission to reach a deal with the bashaw of Tripoli. After more than a year in captivity, the officers and sailors of the Philadelphia would be released. America’s Tripolitan captives would also be returned—along with $60,000, to compensate for the difference in numbers. The administration was careful to depict it all as a prisoner exchange. A furious Eaton was quick to call it tribute in disguise—and to point out that the U.S. had blithely betrayed its surrogate, the pretender to the throne.

Essentially, all that seemed to have been won by the heroics of Eaton and his Marines, of Preble and Decatur and their fighting sailors, was a better price. But there was a little more to it than that. The peace treaty reached with the bashaw included no provisions for any future tribute—and in the meantime, the United States had built itself a navy.

Just Preble’s boys would go on to distinguish themselves over and over again during the War of 1812, winning legendary encounters with the Royal Navy in command of the same ships built to suppress the pirates. 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 declaration of war from Congress. Decatur and Bainbridge were quickly dispatched to the Mediterranean with two squadrons, where they pursued the pirates ruthlessly. This time, they were not only able to force the release of all American prisoners, but also forced the rulers of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli to cough up large indemnities for the damage they had done. Soon after, Great Britain and the Dutch sent fleets to finish off the Barbary navies, and within another fifteen years France had begun to colonize Algeria.

It had taken the United States some 31 years to finally rid itself of the terrorists of the Mediterranean—but in the process we had become a stronger, wiser nation, with some invaluable new institutions. If there’s a lesson here it’s that courage, persistence, daring, the ability to improvise on the spot, and a simple refusal to accede to terrorism will all have their place in winning the war we face now. In the process, we might just engage in some nation-building of our own.

© 2002 Copyright Forbes Inc.