The Navy's Barbary War Crucible

By William M. Fowler Jr.

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

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.

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.

Preble's Return to America

When Commodore Edward Preble reached New York on board the USS John Adams on 25 February 1805, he was less than satisfied with the fact that he had been superseded in command of the Mediterranean Squadron. During the three days he spent in the city prior to departing for Washington, however, he found that he was a hero, and as he traveled south, he learned that the sentiment was national.

Despite the fact that he arrived in the capital on the very day of Thomas Jefferson's second inauguration, 3 March, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith took him immediately to call on the president. That same day, Preble also learned that Congress had passed a resolution requesting that the president have a gold medal struck in his honor. During the next two weeks, the commodore was the center of attention in Washington, spending his days in conferences relating to the prosecution of the war and the future of the Navy, and his evenings dining with Jefferson, James Madison, and other notables.

On 18 March, he began a journey north to assume new duties in New England, and his first stop was Baltimore. In that city resided a young attorney, one of whose recreations was the writing of song lyrics. The commodore's arrival there inspired him to write yet another ditty. Its opening verse is an adequate sample of his effort:

    When the warrior returns from the battle afar
    To the home and country he has nobly defended,
    Oh! Warm be the welcome to gladden his ear,
    And loud be the Joys that his perils are ended!
    In the full tide of song, let his fame roll along,
    To the feast-flowing board let us gratefully throng.
    Where mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave
    And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.

And so on, for four more verses.

Nine years later, the lawyer-songwriter—Francis Scott Key—fitted new lyrics to this same tune, modifying the final phrase to "…and the home of the brave." Many more people remember this song, the origins of which nevertheless link it to Edward Preble.

Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U.S. Navy (Retired)

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.

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 (W.W. Norton & Co., 1990; reprinted by the Naval Institute Press, 2001).

   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 "," 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.
   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.
   3. Morris defended his conduct in Richard Valentine Morris, Defense of the Conduct of Commodore Morris (New York, 1804).
   4. Extract from journal of Midshipman Henry Wadsworth, DBW 2: pp. 273-74.
   5. William Eaton to James Cathcart 4 August 1802, Area Files of the Naval Records Collection, 1775-1910. National Archives Microfilm M 625.
   6. Captain Edward Preble to Secretary of the Navy, 10 December 1803, DBW 3: p. 256.
   7. Captain William Bainbridge to Captain Edward Preble, DBW 3: p. 174.


William M. Fowler Jr. is the director of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston and teaches maritime history at Munson Institute of American Maritime Studies in Mystic Seaport. He is the author of numerous books, including biographies of Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

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