The Tripolitan war 1800-1815: Barbary wars: The newly born US was weak then!

US Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr. becomes the first American military hero since the Revolutionary War when he leads a force of US Marines in the capture of Tripoli and the destruction of a portion of the Tripolitan fleet. Note: This action will be memorialized in the Marines' Hymn: 'On the shores of Tripoli.'

The Barbary States that hassled the newly formed United States

Tripolitan War 1800-1815, conflict between the United States and the Barbary States. Piracy had become a normal source of income in the N African Barbary States long before the United States came into existence. The new republic adopted the common European practice of paying tribute to buy immunity from raids. Difficulties began in 1800 when William Bainbridge, the officer who took tribute to the dey of Algiers, was compelled to go under the Ottoman flag to Constantinople. When the pasha of Tripoli demanded (1800) more tribute than previously agreed upon, the United States refused payment.

Angered by delayed and undersized payments the Barbary State regents demanded more. The escalating situation was finally brought to a head by the Pasha of Tripolitania, Yusuf Karamanli. On May 14, 1801, he ordered the flag staff (flying the 'Stars and Stripes') standing in front of the US consulate to be cut down. This symbolic act was taken as a declaration of war against America.

Desperate conflict of the American seamen under Decatur, on boarding a Tripolitan corsair.

Hostilities broke out in 1801, but Commodore Richard Dale's blockade of Tripoli failed to daunt the pirates. President Thomas Jefferson then decided to settle the affair by negotiation, but his envoy Richard Valentine Morris could not reach an agreement with the pasha. The war continued. Tunis was more or less drawn into the struggle because of ill feeling between the bey's court and William Eaton, the U.S. consul there.

The burning of the American frigate the Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli.

After Eaton and Morris quarreled over the campaign, the blockade of Tripoli was lifted, and the U.S. government considered resuming tribute payments. Edward Preble then succeeded Morris as the U.S. commander in the Mediterranean. Preble dispatched the frigate Philadelphia under Bainbridge to resume the blockade. A storm drove the ship aground. It was captured, and Bainbridge and his crew were imprisoned. Stephen Decatur and a small group of men were sent (Feb., 1804) into the harbor. They set fire to the Philadelphia and destroyed her.

On the 16th of February, 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a raid on the harbour in a previously captured ketch, renamed Intrepid. Although the main aim of the raid was to retake the Philadelphia, Decatur had to settle with burning the frigate to the water line. The raiding party escaped before an alarm was sounded. The British Admiral, Lord Nelson, described the raid as "the most daring act of the age."

Barbary Coast Muslims capture US Navy Vessel

Despite this exploit Preble was still unable to take Tripoli, and, in Sept., 1804, he was succeeded by Samuel Barron. Meanwhile William Eaton had convinced the U.S. government of his plan for supporting a rival claimant for the rule of Tripoli by a land expedition. Eaton landed in Egypt and after an arduous march took the port of Derna. Before he could advance farther, the war was ended. John Rodgers, sent out with a strong force in May, 1805, negotiated a settlement in June. The U.S. prisoners were ransomed, and Tripoli renounced all rights to halt or to levy tribute on American ships.


Eaton and Hull, based in Alexandria, recruited around 400 mercenaries, including Europeans (mainly Greeks), Arab cavalry, Turks, and a caravan of camels. They were promised supplies and money on arrival at their first target, the Tripolitan port of Derna. Eaton, now styling himself 'General', led the "motley" army on a fifty day trek across 500 miles of desert. He was not, however, confident about the relationship between his men (specifically Midshipman Peck and the seven naval marines led by Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon) and the 200 odd Muslim mercenaries he had recruited:
"We find it almost impossible to inspire these wild bigots with confidence in us or to persuade them that, being Christians, we can be otherwise than enemies to Musselmen [Muslims]. We have a difficult undertaking." (Eaton's personal journal, April 8, 1805)
The attack on Derna

On the 25th of April they received limited supplies (they were particularly short of munitions) and funds (not enough to pay the mercenaries) at a rendezvous with the ships just down the coast from Derna. Two days later, April 27, they attacked.
Recorded as the first land engagement of American troops outside the American continent, the battle at Derna has a particular place in the memory of the United States Marine Corps. The trek across the desert is commemorated in the first verse of the Marines' Hymn: "to the shores of Tripoli".
While Hamet and the Muslim mercenaries were supposedly attacking the castle at Derna, Lt. O'Bannon and his marines led the attack on the harbour fortress. At 2:45 pm, backed up by a large number of European mercenaries, and following an offshore bombardment, O'Bannon bravely rushed the harbour defences. The defenders turned and ran - leaving cannon loaded and ready to fire. After raising the 'Stars and Stripes', O'Bannon turned the guns towards the town. By 4 pm the entire town had fallen.
Tradition has it that Hamet was so impressed by O'Bannon's bravery that he presented him with his own sword - an honour commemorated by the presentation of a 'Mameluke' sword, engraved with the legend "The Shores of Tripoli", to every US Marine Officer on graduation or direct commission.

Though the most favorable agreement yet made with a Barbary power, the treaty was not a brilliant triumph and did not end the threat of piracy to U.S. shipping. During the later Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, the pirates increased their raids on American commerce. Algiers actually declared war on the United States. In 1815 a squadron under Decatur forced the dey of Algiers to sign a treaty renouncing U.S. tribute, and the so-called Algerine War was ended. After 1815 the United States no longer paid tribute to any Barbary State.

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