Americans in the Middle East are being captured by terrorists. They are tortured, abused, enslaved, held for ransom, used as pawns in international politics, and even killed. The United States sends in its military, only to suffer an embarrassing defeat. So the Federal Government decides to topple a hostile regime and put our puppet in charge. You’re thinking maybe ISIS today, or Iraq in 2003, or maybe the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, or even the CIA’s overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953? Think again: 1801-1805, when the United States went to war against the Barbary pirates.
Muslims and Christians had been at war for centuries in the Mediterranean. Sometimes this led to a clash of navies, notably in the 16th century. But always there was commerce raiding, seizing ships that belonged to the other side and raiding their coasts. Captives were enslaved. The richer ones might be ransomed. The poorer ones would end their days as slaves. Ironically, they might end up serving as galley slaves, forced to row on the very ships that had taken them prisoner. These raiders weren’t just run-of-the-mill pirates. They were corsairs, really more privateers, sponsored and organized by governments. On the Christian side, the Knights of St. John of Malta were the most notable corsairs. And on the Muslim side were the Barbary “pirates.” They sailed from four realms on the North African coast: Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli (the last in modern Libya). In theory, these realms were monarchies that recognized the Ottoman sultan as their suzerain; in practice, they generally ran their own affairs.
American commerce had been protected against the Barbary pirates by the British so long as they were loyal colonies. But with independence, the Americans lost that protection and fell prey to the corsairs. The American government had three choices: let American commerce be strangled in the Mediterranean, pay tribute, or send a naval squadron to intimidate the Barbary states into leaving Americans alone. Of course, it helps to have money in the Treasury or warships mighty enough to take on the pirates, and in the early years of the Republic, the Americans had neither. American merchantmen suffered, and the cries of families of men enslaved by the “barbarians” put pressure on the new Federal Government to come to terms. After years of negotiation, the United States concluded treaties with all four Barbary states in the 1790s, agreeing to pay tribute to keep American ships safe.
But once you start paying tribute, you set yourself up to demands for more tribute. The Pasha of Tripoli decided the $56,484 he had received wasn’t enough. He wanted $225,000, and an annual tribute of $20,000. When President Jefferson refused, the pasha declared war by cutting down the flagpole in front of the American consulate in Tripoli.
Despite Jefferson’s belief that the United States should only deploy small gunboats as a defensive measure, the Navy had built some frigates, medium-sized warships with two gun decks and between 28 guns and 55 guns. These the Navy deployed in 1802 to blockade Tripoli’s harbor as a way of shutting down the corsairs and strangling Tripoli’s commerce. It looked like it might be a simple war, if a prolonged one.
And then disaster struck. On October 31, 1803, the 36-gun frigate Philadelphia ran aground on a reef outside of Tripoli harbor. The corsairs captured the ship, took the crew hostage, and brought it into the harbor to be repaired and join the Tripolitan fleet. It mortified the U.S. Navy to see one of their few ships about to become a powerful addition to their enemy’s fleet. But they could see no way to recapture the Philadelphia, stationed as it was under the shore batteries in the harbor. But there was a way, maybe. Lt. Stephen Decatur volunteered to try to sneak in under the cover of night and destroy the Philadelphia. At least that way the enemy wouldn’t have the ship. It was a desperate ploy, for the American sailors would have to approach in an unarmed ketch. If they were detected, they would be dead men.
In fact, they were detected when they attacked on the night of February 16, 1804, but it was too late to help the pirates. Decatur’s men fought their way on board the Philadelphia, and managed to fire her before retreating to the ketch and rowing their way back out of the harbor. Stephen Decatur became the Navy’s first hero, and went on to serve valiantly until his death in a duel in 1820.
Blockading Tripoli harbor, even apart from the Philadelphia fiasco, was not working fast enough. So in a plot that combines elements of a Cold War spy novel and farce, “General” William Eaton, an American diplomat, was sent to Egypt in March, 1804 to organize an army of mercenaries to topple the Pasha of Tripoli and place his elder brother on the throne instead. (The older brother had been deposed in 1793 by the Ottomans in favor of his younger brother.) Supported by eight U.S. Marines and two Navy midshipmen, Eaton led his ragged army across hundreds of miles of desert coast to seize Tripoli’s second city, Derna, on April 27, 1805.
That was enough for the Pasha of Tripoli. He signed a peace treaty with the Americans on June 10, 1805, forswearing tribute in exchange for the Americans withdrawing support for his brother. Eaton was displeased, but most Americans were satisfied. It didn’t end Barbary pirates preying on American ships, but it was the beginning of the end. Another short war with Algiers in 1815, with Stephen Decatur once again on the scene, ended the threat to American merchantmen for good.
Although forgotten by Americans now, the war left some enduring marks on the Marines and Navy. The Marines celebrate “the shores of Tripoli” in their hymn, and their dress uniform still includes a Mameluke-style sword to commemorate Lt. Presley O’Bannon’s role in the march on Derna. In 1806, the Navy erected an elaborate marble monument in Washington, D.C. to commemorate their officers who died in the war. I read about this monument when I was a teenager, and with my love of history went looking for it repeatedly in Washington, unaware that it had been moved to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1860!