The Navy's Barbary War Crucible
William M. Fowler Jr.
Navy History, August 2005
Despite restrictive orders from Washington and setbacks at sea, the young U.S. Navy acquitted itself well during the four-year war against Tripoli.
Edward Moran's Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, U.S. Naval Academy Museum
The United States was born into a hostile world. The infant republic was fragile and vulnerable. Our former mistress, Great Britain, did not welcome American independence, and her government did all that it could to crimp the new nation's trade. Across the English Channel, our old ally France, mired in a debt largely incurred supporting our revolution, turned against us as well. Other powers waited in expectation that America's experiment in republicanism would collapse.
In the meantime, U.S. shipowners, having thrown off the restraints previously imposed by king and Parliament, dispatched their captains with orders to try all ports. Soon American ships were venturing into waters where profits loomed and danger lurked. The western Mediterranean was particularly volatile. There, Barbary Coast corsairs, persistent baiters of passing commerce, sortied to seize and hold for ransom our ships and sailors. Among the North African rogue states, Tripoli, ruled by corrupt Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli, was the most troublesome.
In May 1801, when Karamanli sent his henchmen to chop down the flagpole at the American consulate in Tripoli, he was at the same time insulting the United States and declaring war against it. Despite the drama, few people were surprised. For generations Tripoli had run a successful business intimidating nations into paying tribute for the "privilege" of sailing through waters over which it claimed sovereignty.
Great Britain, like most European nations, paid so that its vessels might pass freely. That protection extended to all vessels of the empire, and as long as the Union Jack flew over the stern of vessels hailing from American ports, the Tripoli corsairs permitted them to pass. Independence, however, ended the arrangement. Through the late 1780s continuing into the 1790s, Tripolitans plundered American ships and imprisoned sailors. Matters worsened to the point that in 1794 Congress authorized the construction of a navy to defend American trade. Along a complicated course of negotiations, including the payment of tribute, the fledging United States attempted to navigate the shoal waters of the Mediterranean. America's weakness at sea, however, was an invitation to rapaciousness. Karamanli cut down our flagpole not because we would not pay, but because we would not pay enough. The bashaw believed that the feckless Americans would soon find the cash to pay tribute.
Karamanli was wrong. Not even President Thomas Jefferson, who was wary of a strong navy and overseas ventures, could ignore the challenge. Jefferson's response, however, as Commander Tyrone Martin has pointed out in his series of articles in Naval History about the war with Tripoli, was somewhat less than robust. 1 The president dispatched Commodore Richard Dale with a small squadron dubbed the "Peace Establishment" whose orders limited their actions to instructing officers and "Cruizing in view of the Barbary powers." 2
They could engage the enemy only if they found a Tripolitan actually attacking an American vessel. Upon arrival on station, Richard O'Brien, the American consul at Algiers, advised Dale that the Tripolitans must have either "money or Balls without delay." Dale had none of the former, and his restrictive orders prevented him from delivering the latter.
After several months on station, Dale returned to the United States with little to show for his efforts. His replacement was Commodore Richard Valentine Morris. By the time Morris sailed, Congress had "recognized a state of war" with Tripoli but declined to declare war. Although ambivalent, this recognition did permit the secretary of the Navy to instruct Morris "to subdue, seize and make prize of all vessels, goods and effects, belonging to the Dey of Tripoli [Karamanli]." Orders notwithstanding, Morris' squadron behaved more like a touring company than a naval force. 3 The commodore brought his wife, whom Henry Wadsworth—a young midshipman and uncle of the poet—described as the "commodoress . . . not beautiful or even handsome, but she looks very well in a veil." 4 Exasperated at the Navy's lack of energy, the American consul at Tunis, William Eaton, wrote of the squadron, "What have they done but dance and wench?" 5
Dale and Morris deserve a good deal of the blame for the failure of their squadrons to subdue the Tripolitans, but the Jefferson administration must bear the weight of responsibility. Thomas Jefferson was committed to defending American trade, but not at the cost of great expenditures. Economy in government was his touchstone, and navies were expensive. He was also deeply concerned that a U.S. naval force operating in the Mediterranean, where European powers had been contending with one another for centuries, might involve the new nation in Old World strife. To preserve the budget and prevent foreign entanglements, he had limited the force given to Dale and Morris and then restricted their activities in ways that made it impossible for them to strike hard.
In organizing the third squadron, to be commanded by Commodore Edward Preble, the administration shifted strategy. Preble's orders were nearly as restrictive as those given to Dale and Morris, but unlike his predecessors, he had a force more suited for the mission. Dale and Morris commanded large vessels whose size and draft made it difficult for them to pursue the corsairs near the shore, where they always ran for cover. Preble had a pair of powerful frigates, the Constitution and the Philadelphia , but in addition his force included smaller vessels: the brigs Siren and Argus along with the schooners Enterprise , Vixen , and Nautilus . Hopefully, these smaller craft could bedevil the corsairs closer to their lairs while the deep-draft frigates held the offshore blockade. Preble himself pressed this close-in strategy and asked permission to charter additional small vessels. The secretary of the Navy granted his request, but cautioned that he would have to man such vessels out of his own complement, since there was no money for additional crew.
Preble's fortunes took a sudden turn on 31 October 1803 when his senior captain, William Bainbridge, ran the frigate Philadelphia aground in Tripoli Harbor while pursuing a corsair. Ever since that dark day, historians have debated Bainbridge's conduct both as a ship handler and a commander. In retrospect, his decision to pursue the enemy into confined waters had been more bold than prudent. He nonetheless had leadsmen sounding and lookouts posted. Hitting the bar at 8-1/2 knots drove the frigate hard aground.
Commander Martin suggests that at this point Bainbridge panicked. That seems a bit unfair. He did all that could reasonably be done under the circumstances, but the simple fact was that his frigate was stuck on the bar. His decision to surrender has also been hotly debated. When Preble heard that Bainbridge had surrendered, he reported to the secretary, "Would to God, that the officers and crew of the Philadelphia , had one and all, determined to prefer death to slavery, it is possible that such a determination might have saved them from either." 6 To Preble's bombast I prefer Bainbridge's explanation: "I never presumed to think I had the liberty of putting to death the lives of 306 souls because they were placed under my command." 7
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