The Barbary Wars

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The Barbary Wars, 1801-1805
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The Barbary Wars, 1801-1805


Since the sixteenth century, corsairs from the Muslim states of North Africa had controlled the Mediterranean sea lanes by force. At the time the United States won its independence, the states of the Barbary Coast--Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis--had been preying on the world's merchant ships for three hundred years. The Barbary pirates' methods were fairly simple: cruising the Mediterranean in small, fast ships, they boarded merchant ships, overwhelmed the crew, and took them captive. The crews were held in captivity until their home countries agreed to pay ransoms for their release. If no ransom was forthcoming, the crews were sold into slavery. Over time, most countries found it expedient simply to pay a yearly tribute to the sultans, thereby buying their ships free passage through the Mediterranean.

As a part of the British Empire, the ships of the American colonies were protected by the Royal Navy and by treaties between the Barbary States and England. However, once the United States became an independent nation, this protection was gone, and the new U.S. government was quickly forced to make treaties with the sultans of North Africa.
The Barbary Wars. Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy. Naval Institute Press.
In 1796, the tributes to the sultans were modest; Tripoli's, for example, was $56,000. But the pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, believed he could demand higher tribute and sent a message to the United States demanding a new treaty. The demands arrived in March 1801, just after President Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated. Jefferson had long disagreed with the policy of paying tribute and argued that it would be cheaper to build a navy than give in to the sultans' ever-increasing demands.

Jefferson sent a naval "squadron of observation" consisting of three frigates--the President, the Philadelphia, and the Essex--and the sloop of war Enterprise. The American fleet arrived in Gibraltar on July 1, 1801, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale. Upon his arrival, Dale was informed that Tripoli had declared war on the United States on May 10, 1801.

With his mission now shifting from a cruise of observation to a state of war, Dale ordered the bulk of his squadron to Tripoli. Dale found the harbor at Tripoli well protected by a rocky reef that made for a difficult approach.
View of Tripoli. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
The city was also protected by a large citadel with smaller forts overlooking the harbor. Dale had not been given clear instructions to conduct an offensive attack on the city, and he was unwilling to take the matter into his own hands. Instead of taking offensive action, he ordered his fleet to escort American ships near the port and maintained a weak blockade of Tripoli.

While Dale chose a passive policy in the Mediterranean, some of his subordinate officers showed their zeal to engage the corsairs.
The USS Enterprise attacks and captures the corsair Tripoli.
Lieutenant Andrew Sterrett, in command of the Enterprise, defeated the corsair Tripoli in an engagement on August 1, 1801. In the engagement, the Tripoli lost sixty out of eighty crew members, while the Enterprise
sustained no casualties. This action demonstrated a major weakness of the Barbary pirates. Their light ships, manned by crewmen who were not well drilled in gunnery, were no match for naval vessels. However, though Sterrett's victory was clear, the United States had not yet officially declared war on Tripoli, and therefore could not claim the ship as a prize. The Tripoli was sent home after her guns were thrown overboard. The pasha greeted the defeated captain of the Tripoli with outrage. Upon returning to port he was publicly beaten, then forced to ride through the city backward on a donkey.

In April 1802, Commodore Dale returned to the United States and resigned from the navy. He was replaced by Commodore Richard Morris. Morris arrived in Gibraltar in June with an additional fleet of seven frigates and a sloop. Morris's arrival in the Mediterranean with his wife and child aboard his flagship indicated that he did not intend to actively pursue the war against Tripoli. Though his orders were to "proceed with the whole squadron under your command and lie off Tripoli," he chose to continue Dale's policy of acting as escort to American merchant ships sailing to various destinations around the Mediterranean. Morris's only move toward Tripoli was to send Captain Alexander Murray with the Constellation to Tripoli with orders to observe the port. In September 1803, Morris was recalled to the United States. Furious at his lack of initiative, Jefferson dismissed him from the navy when a court of inquiry censured him for lack of diligence.

The United States had now been at war with Tripoli for two years, without accomplishing much toward resolving the conflict. But the new commander of the Mediterranean Squadron would change the manner in which the U.S. Navy did business in Tripoli.
Commodore Edward Preble became the mentor for future naval heroes such as Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, and William Bainbridge.
Commodore Edward Preble was given command in June 1803. A veteran of the Continental Navy, Preble had been a prisoner of the British aboard the notorious prison hulk Jersey. Preble had a reputation as a short-tempered and stern disciplinarian. However, he was admired for his great courage, his fairness in dealing with his men, and his expertise as a mariner.

Upon arriving in the Mediterranean, Preble set about reorganizing his squadron and its commanders according to his own rules. Aboard the Constitution, Preble had drafted a series of rules of order. They numbered some 106 points and covered every detail of shipboard conduct and discipline. The young commanders serving under Preble would be molded by his hand, going on to become heroes of the U.S. Navy. Among them were Stephen Decatur, James Lawrence, Isaac Hull, David Porter, Charles Stewart, and William Bainbridge.

In October 1803, Preble's men faced their first major action with the enemy at Tripoli. On October 31, Captain William Bainbridge had run the Philadelphia aground on an uncharted reef near the entrance to Tripoli Harbor.
Captain William Bainbridge. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Bainbridge had been trying to intercept two Tripolitan ships at the time of his mishap; now, with his ship stranded and listing heavily to one side, he was defenseless against the pirates. He tried to lighten the ship by throwing the cannons overboard and having the foremast cut away, but the Philadelphia remained wedged on the reef.
The Philadelphia under attack at Tripoli. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Having little choice, Bainbridge surrendered the ship and its crew to the Tripolitans. Ironically, the ship freed itself in heavy swells two days later. The Tripolitans took possession of the ship and moved her under the protection of the citadel to be refitted for sea duty. This situation was not only embarrassing to the Americans, but with the addition of the Philadelphia
to the corsair squadron, Tripoli's power was greatly increased.

Preble realized there was no chance of recapturing the Philadelphia from Tripoli and that the ship had to be destroyed. He decided that a raiding party would be sent into the harbor, where they would board and burn the American frigate.
Decatur fights a Tripolitan crew in his effort to burn the Philadelphia.
Leading the raiding party of some seventy volunteers was Lieutenant Stephen Decatur. The plan called for Decatur to sail into the harbor on a night raid using a captured Tripolitan ship, now renamed the Intrepid. The Intrepid's lines would help disguise the American raiders and allow Decatur's men to approach the Philadelphia. Using a pilot who spoke Arabic, they would identify themselves as a disabled ship and ask permission to tie up alongside Philadelphia. They would then board her, destroy her, and escape on the Intrepid. On February 4, 1804, Intrepid entered Tripoli Harbor. At 10:00 P.M., Intrepid coasted up to Philadelphia and asked permission to tie up alongside. The Tripolitans quickly discovered the charade, but by then Decatur's men had boarded the Philadelphia.
The burning of the Philadelphia. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
In a short, violent, hand-to-hand fight, the Americans retook the ship, set her afire, and made good their escape. Decatur's heroic action became a national sensation. Congress recognized his bravery by voting him a sword and promoting him to the rank of full captain. At the age of twenty-five Decatur became the youngest captain in the navy.

At twenty-five Stephen Decatur became the youngest captain in the navy.
Following the burning of the Philadelphia, Preble moved ahead with plans to attack the city of Tripoli directly. By placing pressure on Pasha Karamanli, Preble hoped to force Tripoli to accept peace with the United States and win the freedom of Bainbridge and his crew. The loss of the Philadelphia in the shallow waters off Tripoli had demonstrated to Preble that he needed shallow-draft ships for his attack. Preble borrowed six small gunboats and two bomb ketches from King Ferdinand IV of the Two Sicilies. He then planned a series of assaults through the month of August 1804.

The first attack took place on August 3. As the American gunboats engaged the Tripolitan gunboat fleet, the bomb ketches were to shell the city while the Constitution attacked the shore batteries. The Tripolitans had eleven gunboats available to meet the American attack. Already outnumbered, the American force was cut in half as shifting winds allowed only three of the attacking gunboats to enter the harbor. For two and a half hours the battle raged as the Americans approached, fired on, and then boarded six of the enemy vessels. Three enemy gunboats were captured, and three more were sunk. The Constitution's guns silenced the shore batteries and then turned their force on the pasha's castle. In the entire day's action there were only fourteen American casualties. During the month of August, four more attacks were executed and the city was shelled for two nights, terrifying the inhabitants. After each assault Preble sent a message to Karamanli suggesting negotiations and offering payments of $40,000 and then $50,000 in exchange for the American prisoners from the Philadelphia. Karamanli remained adamant, and Preble continued his attacks.

In September, Preble conceived of another plan to run a raiding party into Tripoli Harbor. This time the Intrepid, loaded with a hundred barrels of gunpowder, would sail into the harbor with a volunteer crew.
Primitive view of Stephen Decatur and his crew engaged in battle at Tripoli Harbor.
After situating herself amid the Tripolitan fleet, she was to be abandoned and exploded, possibly destroying a good number of corsair ships. Commanded by Master Commandant Richard Somers and manned by twelve volunteers, the Intrepid entered the harbor on September 4, 1804. Only moments after she approached the enemy ships, the pirates spotted the Americans, and cannon fire broke out from the Tripolitan citadel. Seconds later, the Intrepid exploded. Apparently, a direct hit had ignited the Intrepid's gunpowder, obliterating the ship and her crew.

That same month, Commodore Samuel Barron arrived off Tripoli with reinforcements. Because he was senior in rank to Preble, Barron would assume command of the squadron, though Secretary of the Navy Smith had hoped that Preble would continue to serve under Barron. Stung by what he saw as a demotion, Preble chose to return to the United States. A hero and national celebrity, Preble received thanks from Congress for his conduct of the Tripolitan campaign.

Commodore Barron continued the blockade of Tripoli, but stopped the attacks and developed a new approach to peace by undermining the authority of the pasha. The American consul in Tunis, William Eaton, suggested that they replace Yusuf Karamanli with his older brother Hamet, who was in exile in Egypt. Eaton assembled an army of mercenaries in Egypt, supported by a detachment of marines from the American ship Argus. After traveling five hundred miles, Eaton and Hamet reached the city of Derna in April. With the help of the Argus, the Hornet, and the Nautilus, Derna was captured and the back door to Tripoli was opened. Fearing that his overthrow was near at hand, Yusuf Karamanli agreed to negotiate a peace. On June 4, 1805, he accepted the last American offer of $60,000 for the release of the American prisoners and approved a new treaty that did not require tribute payments. Once the American objective had been accomplished, Hamet was left without support to continue the attempt to overthrow Yusuf Karamanli.

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Preble's Order to Decatur to Destroy the Philadelphia

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