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The Navy's Barbary War Crucible

The Navy's Barbary War Crucible

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The Philadelphia 's capture set the stage for one of the most famous exploits in U.S. naval history: Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr.'s daring raid that resulted in the frigate's destruction. What is often missed is that while Decatur's raid set the Philadelphia in flames it did nothing to hasten the release of Bainbridge and his men. That would come nearly two years later via diplomatic negotiations and the payment of ransom. Nor, aside from embarrassment, did the Philadelphia's loss do much harm to the Tripolitans.

On 3 August 1804, the Mediterranean Squadron attacked Tripoli, bombarding the city and capturing three enemy gunboats. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr., who had led the raid that destroyed the Philadelphia after her capture, seized two of the Tripolitan vessels.

Preble increased the pressure on Tripoli through the spring and into the summer of 1804. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (a virtual vassal to Great Britain) agreed to loan the U.S. commander a small flotilla of gunboats. With his enhanced firepower, Preble laid into the Tripolitans. In August he made four assaults on Tripoli, wreaking considerable damage on the forts and city. In a grand and desperate September attack, Preble sent in Master Commandant Richard Somers in command of the ketch Intrepid , which had been converted into an "infernal" by loading her to the gunwales with powder and combustibles. His mission was to sail close to the fortress, light the fuses, and then escape. The infernal, however, blew up prematurely, and Somers and his crew perished. The Intrepid 's fiery end depressed American spirits. A few days later Commodore James Barron arrived to take command of the American squadron, and by the end of the year Edward Preble was on his way home.

Barron's prospects were little better than those of his predecessors. Indeed, his situation was made even more dismal by the fact that he was too sick to stay on station. He turned tactical command over to Captain John Rodgers, his senior officer, and left for Syracuse. At the same time, Barron gave permission to William Eaton, naval agent to the Barbary States, to organize a land force to attack Tripoli from the east. Eaton struck a deal with Yusuf Karamanli's estranged brother Hamet, whom Yusuf had ousted as bashaw. Under the pretense of restoring the rightful ruler, Eaton recruited some locals to join him in an expedition against Tripoli. Also accompanying him were seven Marines led by First Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon. Setting out from near Alexandria, Egypt, they managed to march 500 miles and capture the town of Derne, but the operation was more comic opera than sound military strategy.

Dale, Morris, Preble, Barron-Rodgers—four U.S. squadrons all with the same mission: to chastise Tripoli and protect American shipping. While American shipping was made safer by the presence of these squadrons, whether Tripoli was chastised remained an open question. As Barron and Rodgers contemplated their options, a surprise message arrived from the bashaw: He wished to negotiate a peace.

For Yusuf Karamanli the war was all about money. From this perspective the enterprise had ceased to be profitable, and with the continuing presence of a powerful U.S. squadron it appeared as if expenses might even rise. Nonetheless, Karamanli held the high hand—300 American prisoners—but in some ways the POWs were more of a liability than an asset. They were expensive to keep, and as long as they were imprisoned the Americans would not leave. He would gladly exchange them for cash—$130,000, to be exact. The Americans countered with $60,000, and Karamanli said yes. As part of the deal the Americans also agreed to abandon their support for Hamet Karamanli, leaving the former bashaw to retreat from Derne and retire to Egypt, where he withered in obscurity.

Despite Jeffersonian misgivings about the creation of a navy, the U.S. squadron in the Mediterranean acquitted itself well. Even the loss of the Philadelphia turned into something of a victory because of Decatur's heroic action. In terms of human costs, all of this was accomplished at a relatively low price. Only six American officers died; a monument dedicated to their sacrifice stands today on the U.S. Naval Academy grounds. Those officers who returned home—the more notable among them sometimes referred to as "Preble's Boys"—later played key roles as commanders in the War of 1812.

The financial cost of the war is hard to estimate, but it certainly exceeded $1 million (not including the loss of the Philadelphia ). Clearly, paying tribute would have been much cheaper. Why then did the government, in the midst of Jeffersonian austerity and lacking enthusiasm for the Navy, not pay the Tripolitans?

One answer is honor. For generations, misinformed Americans have been quoting Charles Cotesworth Pinckney's "Millions for Defense but Not one cent for Tribute," as an example of the pain Americans felt at paying bribes to Tripoli. Pinckney, of course, was referring not to the Tripolitans but to France during the furor over the XYZ Affair, which was a clear case of extortion. The Tripolitan situation was far less clear. European nations had been paying tribute for generations, arguing only over the amount, not the principle. Honor became an issue for Americans only after the war broke out; it did not cause it.

Once begun, the war was popular, more popular than cutting the budget. That popularity grew from U.S. victories at sea; not even the capture of the Philadelphia could diminish the enthusiasm. On the contrary, the Philadelphia 's loss resulted in greater resolve and a personalizing of the conflict, which became not just a trade war but also a glorious struggle to free fellow Americans. Her destruction added to the patriotic fervor.

The war, furthermore, really cost very little. Aside from the financial burden, which—despite the treasury's penny-pinching grousing—the nation could afford, the war made no great demands upon Americans. During the conflict, commerce grew in the Mediterranean and the casualty lists were always small. Nations more often tire of wars because they take a painful toll in lives and property, not because they are expensive. In the latter regard, as Commander Martin's superb series of essays reminds us, the war with Tripoli was a bargain. By successfully "bashing the bashaw" our nascent navy established a tradition of competence and courage that made it the darling of the young republic.

  1. The series of essays in Naval History by Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U.S. Navy (Retired) provides valuable insight into the United States' struggle with Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli's corsairs and the role that conflict played in shaping our navy and nation. See "Trouble on Kaliusa Reef," October 2003, pp. 30-33; "A Most Bold and Daring Act," February 2004, pp. 20-23; "Bashing the Bashaw," August 2004, pp. 49-53; "The Intrepid Infernal," October 2004, pp. 46-49; "To the Shores of Tripolee," April 2005; "Salaam Aleikum (Peace Be With You)," June 2005. back to article
  2. Secretary of the Navy to Captain Thomas Truxtun, 10 April 1801, Dudley W. Knox, ed., Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers , 6 vols. (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1939-44), 1: pp. 428-429. Hereafter cited as DBW. back to article
  3. Morris defended his conduct in Richard Valentine Morris, Defense of the Conduct of Commodore Morris (New York, 1804). back to article
  4. Extract from journal of Midshipman Henry Wadsworth, DBW 2: pp. 273-74. back to article
  5. William Eaton to James Cathcart 4 August 1802, Area Files of the Naval Records Collection, 1775-1910. National Archives Microfilm M 625. back to article
  6. Captain Edward Preble to Secretary of the Navy, 10 December 1803, DBW 3: p. 256. back to article
  7. Captain William Bainbridge to Captain Edward Preble, DBW 3: p. 174. back to article

Dr. Fowler is the director of the Massachusetts Historical Society and an honorary professor of history at Northeastern University. His many books include: Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763 (Walker & Company, 2004) and Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War (W.W. Norton & Co., 1990; reprinted by the Naval Institute Press, 2001).

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