No Substitute For Victory

Reviewing Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, by Joshua E. London, John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2005.  276 pages, Photos, map, bibliography, index

Though America's first encounter with the Barbary States occurred in October 1784 when the Betsey was captured and her crew taken to Morocco, our wars with the Barbary pirates began officially in 1801.  The Tripolitan Wars, as they were formally known, were waged against maritime terrorists who operated from the modern day states of  Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algiers, arrayed along Africa's northern coast in the Mediterranean Sea. They would drag on for fourteen more years. 

During those decades the United States employed a two—track, diplomatic and military, carrot and stick policy with Barbary States that was fraught with misunderstandings, deceit, frustrations and, until 1815, maddeningly inconclusive naval actions.  The conflict finally ended during James Madison's presidency.  The War of 1812 finally over, he was able to concentrate on the matter. As the author puts it: 

'Unlike Thomas Jefferson, Madison was eager to pursue the war against the Barbary terror with real gusto.' 

He sent two squadrons under Commodores William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur to deal with the Barbary tyrants.  And it was only fitting that it was lionized naval hero Stephen Decatur who quickly defeated the enemy's forces at sea and forced a tough new treaties on American terms that spelled victory at last.

The Tripolitan Wars taught the young republic vital lessons, among them:  tyrants cannot be appeased, peace cannot be purchased and there is no substitute for victory.

In his book Victory In Tripoli author Joshua E. London relates the dramatic story of this mostly forgotten chapter of American history in compelling fashion, presenting sometimes difficult material in an easily digestible manner.  The well—paced, thoroughly researched narrative offers the reader a complete picture, set in proper historical context, one that reveals parallels with today's global war on terrorism. 

For the Barbary States it was a matter of religion. The Koran said it was their right to make war on infidels, to wage what they termed al—jihad fi'l—bahr, or holy war at sea.  Infidel prisoners of war were consigned to various fates: enslavement, ransom, exchange, taxation, release or death. 

For centuries, European nations desiring freedom of trade in the Mediterranean, willingly and successfully paid huge sums to appease the Muslim pirates, purchasing maritime freedom.  America was lucky with the crew of the Betsey when the Spanish ambassador interceded.  She and her crew were released by Morocco's emperor in exchange for a pledge that this country send a  negotiator to conclude a peace treaty. 

Two years later the first of many treaties with a Barbary state was concluded.  As America soon learned, those treaties were expensive.  In 1792, for instance, Congress opted for a peace treaty with Algiers that would cost upwards of $40,000 with up to $25,000 to be paid in annual tribute.  Ransoming enslaved Americans in Algeria would cost an extra $40,000.  Then, as would happen over the years, the situation in Barbary changed.  New rulers; new realities; new deals.  Washington warned Congress in December 1793: 

'If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace... it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.'

In March 1794 the House of Representatives passed and the Senate ratified a bill that gave birth to the United States Navy. 

'Whereas the depredations committed by Algerine corsairs,' it stated, 'on the commerce of the United States render it necessary that a naval force should be provided for its protection...' 

Six ships — USS Constitution, USS United States, USS President, USS Chesapeake, USS Constellation and USS Congress — were authorized.  In an early example of pork barrel politics, as the author notes, the ships were to be built in six different states.  Though this happened under President Washington's watch, it was his Vice—President, John Adams, who had been promoting national seapower. Considered to be the 'father of the U.S. Navy,' Adams established the Navy Department and championed the doctrine of freedom of the seas. 

'Neither nature nor art has partitioned the sea into empires, kingdoms, republics or states,' he wrote. 'Let Mohamet or the Pope or Great Britain say what they will, mankind will act the part of slaves and cowards if they suffer any nation to usurp dominion over the ocean or any portion of it...'

As is the case today, party politics played a role in devising a national defense policy.  The author uses historian Craig Symonds' terms 'navalists' and 'anti—navalists;' Federalist Alexander Hamilton guiding the former, Jefferson the putative leader of the latter.  Navalists wanted to punish the pirates, protect commerce and assert American strength abroad.  Their opponents preferred spending money not on ships and distant enemies, but for westward expansion. 

But Jefferson's political philosophy did not prevent him from his sworn duty as president.  In 1801 he sent a squadron under Commodore Richard Dale to deal with Tripoli's ruler, Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli.  Attempts to pacify him with money had failed and the tyrant had then declared war on the United States.  It took time for this news to travel so, as the author tells us:

'Unbeknownst to the administration... a couple of weeks earlier, Qaramanli... had beaten him (Jefferson) to the punch.  On Thursday, May 14, 1801... Qaramanli sent word to the American consulate that he was sending men over to chop down the American flagpole — the traditional method of declaring war in Tripoli.' 

Congress didn't respond to Qaramanli's actions until February 1802 when it empowered Jefferson to use the Navy in any way he deemed to protect 'the commerce and seamen of the United States against Tripolitan cruisers.'  Jefferson's instructions to naval officers were explicit: 

'subdue, seize and make prizes of all vessels, goods and effects belonging to the Dey of Tripoli' and to take any measures 'the state of war will justify.' 

Note here that war had not been declared officially.

In his chapter 'American Might Frustrated' London details the typically frustrating nature of Barbary naval warfare and of dealing with its perfidious  tyrants.  So frustrated was Commodore Dale that upon returning home, he resigned his commission 'glad to be rid of the burden of Barbary.'  But it was a ship from his squadron, LT Andrew Sterrett's 18—gun schooner USS Enterprise, that scored the first American naval victory.  She and her Marines foiled repeated attempts by the pirate ship Tripoli to board her.  Continuous broadsides and rapid fire from Marines resulted in Tripoli striking her colors, her captain begging for mercy.  That signal feat earned LT Sterrett a commemorative sword and citation for gallantry from Congress. His crew was awarded an additional month's pay.

Two years later it was Commodore Edward Preble's turn to lead a squadron into the Mediterranean. Though he too would end up frustrated, the fighting officer from Maine believed naval force was the answer to Barbary maritime terrorism. His chief frustration was the loss of Captain William Bainbridge's USS Philadelphia, multiplied by the fact that Bainbridge failed to destroy his personal papers after abandoning his grounded ship in Tripoli harbor.  Yusuf Qaramanli soon knew everything about the squadron and Preble's intentions. 

While maintaining the blockade, Preble pondered two options for the Philadelphia:  recapture her or destroy her.  Lack of resources forced the latter.  The plan called for LT Stephen Decatur's USS Intrepid, a captured enemy ketch, to sail into the harbor and come alongside the Philadelphia, at which time men hidden belowdecks would swarm aboard and burn her.  LT Charles Stewart's USS Siren accompanied Intrepid to cover her retreat. 

On the night of February 16, 1803 the Intrepid came alongside Philadelphia.  As enemy guards, suddenly suspicious, raised the alarm, Decatur yelled 'Board!' and led his men onto Philadelphia's decks.  American sabers and tomahawks quickly dispatched the guards.  Combustibles were placed at key spots and ignited.  Enemy gunboats and shore batteries were beginning to respond. Waiting until all his men were safely back aboard Intrepid, Decatur leapt into her rigging as she pulled away.  The successful, 20 minute mission was over and America had a new naval hero.  'The most bold and daring act of the age,' said an admiring Admiral Horatio Nelson.

In his chapter 'To The Shores of Tripoli' the author relates the dramatic story of William Eaton finally carrying out his scheme to overthrow Yusuf Qaramamli.  Named Naval Agent for the Barbary Regencies in 1804, Eaton, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and Indian fighter, sailed with Commodore Barron's squadron.  The scheme called for Eaton finding Yusuf's exiled brother Ahmad, raising an army, marching to Derna and securing its harbor, then proceeding to Benghazi and Tripoli.  There, the overthrown Yusuf would be replaced by the US—friendly Ahmad. 

The expedition began in November 1804 when Eaton landed in Alexandria, Egypt.  Accompanying him was a small detachment of Marines led by LT Neville Presley O'Bannon. Next stop, Cairo. After that, a 500 mile march westward across the desert.  Self—appointed General Eaton was able to muster a

'roughly four—hundred—man army of Muslims and Christians, including some forty veteran Greek infantrymen, a sixty—man troop of Arab cavalry, and a large rabble of  Arab 'foot soldiers, a twenty—five man team of artillerymen, Ahmad's suite of ninety men, and assorted renegades, mercenaries, and soldiers of fortune from Europe and the Levant.' 

On April 25, 1805 Eaton's army took up positions outside Derna.  That it was able to reach its first objective was due solely to Eaton's leadership. Or, as LT O'Bannon put it:

'Wherever General Eaton leads, we will follow. If he wants us to march to hell, we'll gladly go there.  General Eaton overcomes every obstacle.  He is the greatest military genius of our era!' 

After the bey of Derna refused Eaton's generous ultimatum, the attack, supported by U.S. naval gunfire, commenced at 2 p.m. April 28.  Two hours later it was over. At one point during the battle Eaton led his outnumbered force in a desperate, and successful, bayonet charge.  In the fighting that followed Eaton was wounded in the left wrist.  London tells us what happened next:

'He simply wrapped his arm in a makeshift bandage and sling, grabbed a pistol with his right hand, and continued to charge ahead.  With the American Marines in the lead, Eaton's forces stormed the ramparts and advanced straight to the harbor.'  

LT O'Bannon then led his Marines and a section of Eaton's men to the fort where they 'passed through a shower of musketry...and took possession of the battery.'  After planting the American flag on its ramparts, O'Bannon turned the battery's guns around and onto the enemy. 

Now the expedition was stalled by diplomatic efforts.  Consul General Tobias Lear negotiated a peace treaty with Yusuf Qaramanli: $60,000 for all American prisoners; US forces withdraw from Derna; and a secret stipulation that he be allowed to keep Ahmad's family hostage.  As the author describes the situation:

'The Americans were freed, peace was declared, and Ahmad Qaramanli was betrayed without a moment's hesitation.' 

Upon learning of this treaty Eaton, in a letter to Commodore John Rodgers, wrote:

'Could I have apprehended this result of my exertions, certainly no consideration would have prevailed on me to have taken an agency in a tragedy so manifestly fraught with intrigue, so wounding to human feelings, and, as I must view it, so degrading to our national honor.' 

A tense evacuation of Marines, Ahmad Qaramanli and his retinue, and Eaton's non—Muslim troops followed and the USS Constellation sailed away. 

'Jefferson declared 'victory,' but the 'peace' proved rather political,' writes London. The  Senate ratified the Tripoli treaty in April 1806 by a vote of 21 to 8.  'The Federalists did not manage to derail the treaty, but they did embarrass and, at junctures, discredit President Thomas Jefferson and forever tarnish the career of Tobias Lear.'  Five years later, alcoholic forty—seven year old William Eaton died in anonymity.

After defeating the Barbary pirates at sea and forcing treaties on American terms, Commodore Decatur wrote Navy Secretary Crowninshield that peace had been 'dictated at the mouths of our cannon, has been conceded to the losses which Algiers has sustained and to the dread of still greater evils apprehended.' 

As this excellent book makes perfectly clear, there is no substitute for victory. 

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.