America’s Long Journey: The shores of Tripoli

The Marine Corps hymn says “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” The halls of Montezuma, all right, that’s the Mexican War. But, the shores of Tripoli? What was that all about?

What it was about was the only war fought during Jefferson’s presidency, a war fought on foreign soil and in foreign seas, against an enemy who declared war against the new nation for the oldest of reasons – attempted extortion.

Many people have the idea that the West has always dominated the world. It is useful to remember that it wasn’t always so. As recently as the beginning of the 19th century, roughly until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the North African countries called the Barbary States made their living preying on Western shipping in the Mediterranean and collecting tribute from such Western countries as would pay them to leave their shipping alone, as they had done for more than a thousand years. These Muslim countries organized piracy, and they extorted tribute. They captured merchant ships, stole the cargoes and enslaved the crew, holding them against huge ransoms.

Probably England, France, or Spain could have cleaned out these rats’ nests, but each found it more convenient to buy immunity and hope that the Corsairs would plunder their neighbors. While America was still part of the British Empire, its merchant ships were protected from the Barbary pirates by the tribute Britain paid. During the revolution, the Americans were protected by an alliance with France. But once independence was won, we were on our own in more ways than one.

Although Jefferson was on the record (as far back as 1785) as opposing paying tribute to the Barbary states, we paid it, $83,000, same as Britain and France, from 1796 on. But in Jefferson’s first days as president, Tripoli raised the ante, demanding $225,000. When the U.S. refused to pay, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States on May 10, 1801.

On May 15, not knowing of the declaration of war, Jefferson’s cabinet voted to send the frigates USS Philadelphia, USS President, and USS Essex and the schooner USS Enterprise to the Mediterranean as a show of force, with contingent orders if war should break out. When this first American naval squadron to cross the Atlantic arrived at Gibraltar, they learned that Tripoli had declared war. Squadron commander Commodore Richard Dale promptly blockaded Tripoli, but couldn’t bring the war to an end, and Tunis was drawn into the struggle as well.

After a while Edward Preble took command of forces in the Mediterranean, relieving Dale. When the frigate Philadelphia ran aground in a storm and was captured with all its crew, young Stephen Decatur led a small group into the harbor and destroyed the frigate by fire, a skillful and heroic feat much heralded at the time.

In September, 1804, Preble was succeeded by Samuel Barron. Meanwhile William Eaton, U.S. Consul to Tunis, led an expedition determined to replace the pasha with an elder brother living in exile, who had promised to accede to do what the Americans wanted. Eaton and First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon led eight Marines and 500 Greek, Arab and Turkish Mercenaries west from Alexandria, Egypt, in an effort to capture Tripoli.

They didn’t get that far, but after a hard march, they reached and took the port of Derna. Either because of this or because the pasha could tell which way the wind was blowing, he ended his demands and signed a peace treaty. The Philadelphia prisoners were released upon the pasha receiving $60,000 in ransom money, but he renounced all rights to halt or to levy tribute on American ships.

This wasn’t the end, of course. Promises were only promises. Pirate raids resumed and increased during the War of 1812. Algiers declared war on the United States. But finally, in 1815, a squadron under Decatur forced the dey of Algiers to renounce tribute from the United States, and that was the last time we paid tribute to any of these pirate states until the oil shocks of the 1970s. However, 1815 was several years after the end of Jefferson’s presidency.

So that was the action on the shores of Tripoli. It was only eight marines and a lieutenant, but they formed the backbone of a forlorn effort that may have ended the war. The Marines remember it, and honor it, to this day.

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