The First Barbary War (1801–1805, also known as the Barbary Coast War or the Tripolitan War) was one of two wars fought between the United States of America and the North African empire of Morocco and city-states of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, known collectively as the Barbary States.
Since the 17th century, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, although nominally governed by the Ottoman Empire, had been largely independent kleptocracies, run by piratical military strongmen and financed by plunder, tribute, and ransom. The monarchy of Morocco, which, by the time of the Barbary Wars, dated back more than one thousand years, was equally well-known for supporting piracy. The nations of Britain and France had come to uneasy ententes with the pirates; a combination of military might, diplomacy, and under-the-counter payments had kept ships flying the Union Jack or fleur-de-lys more or less safe from attack. As British colonists before 1776, American merchant vessels had enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy. During the American Revolution, American ships came under the aegis of France due to a 1778 Treaty of Alliance between the two countries.
By 1783, however, with the end of the Revolution, America became solely responsible for the safety of its own commerce and citizens. Without the means or the authority to field a naval force necessary to protect their ships in the Mediterranean, the nascent U.S. government took a pragmatic, but ultimately self-destructive route. In 1784, the United States Congress allocated money for payment of tribute to the pirates. Use for the money came in 1785, when the dey of Algiers took two American ships hostage and demanded $60,000 in ransom for their crews. The U.S. paid Algiers the ransom, and continued to pay up to $1 million per year over the next 15 years for the safe passage of American ships or the return of American hostages. Payments in ransom and tribute to the privateering states amounted to 20 percent of United States government annual revenues in 1800.
On Jefferson’s inauguration as president in 1801, Yussif Karamanli, the pasha of Tripoli demanded $225,000 from the new administration. Putting his long-held beliefs into practice, Jefferson refused the demand. Consequently, in May of 1801, the pasha declared war on the United States, not through any formal written documents, but by cutting down the flagstaff in front of the U.S. Consulate. Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis soon followed their ally.
In response, Jefferson sent a group of frigates to defend American interests in the Mediterranean, and informed Congress. Although Congress never voted on a formal declaration of war, they did authorize the President to instruct the commanders of armed vessels of the United States to seize all vessels and goods of the Bay of Tripoli “and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify.”
Algiers and Tunis backed down almost immediately on the show of force by the Americans, but Tripoli and Morocco remained committed. The American navy went unchallenged in the sea, and as the question remained undecided. Jefferson pressed the issue the following year, with an increase in military force and deployment of many of the navy’s best ships to the region throughout 1802.
In October of 1803, the fleet of Tripoli was able to capture the USS Philadelphia intact after the frigate ran aground while patrolling Tripoli harbor. Efforts by the Americans to float the ship while under fire from shore batteries and Tripolitanian naval units were unsuccessful. The ship, its captain, William Bainbridge, and all officers and crew were taken ashore and held as hostages. On February 16, 1804, a small contingent of sailors in a disguised Intrepid and led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr., were able to invade the harbor of Tripoli and burn the Philadelphia, denying her use to the enemy. Decatur’s bravery in action made him a hero to Americans back home.
“Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804” by Edward Moran (1829-1901)
Preble attacked Tripoli outright on July 14, 1804 in a series of inconclusive battles, including a courageous but unsuccessful attack by the fire ship USS Intrepid under Captain Richard Somers. Intrepid, packed with explosives, was to enter Tripoli harbor and destroy itself and the enemy fleet; it was destroyed, perhaps by enemy guns, perhaps accidentally, before achieving that goal.
The turning point in the war came with the Battle of Derne, after a remarkably daring overland attack on the Tripolitan city of Derna by a combined force of American marines and Arab, Greek and Berber mercenaries under the command of ex-consul William Eaton and Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon. This action, memorialized in the Marine Hymn—”to the shores of Tripoli”—gave the American forces a significant advantage.
Wearied of the blockade and raids, and now under threat of a continued advance on Tripoli proper and a scheme to set up his brother Hamet Karamanli as ruler, Karamanli signed a treaty ending hostilities on June 10, 1805. Although the Senate did not approve the treaty until the following year, this effectively ended the First Barbary War.
Although it seems that the United States paid a further tribute to the Bashaw of Tripoli in return for captured sailors, the First Barbary War is generally considered to have been beneficial to the United States.
America’s military command and war mechanism had been up to that time relatively untested. The First Barbary War proved that America could execute a war far from home, and that American forces had the cohesion to fight together as Americans rather than Georgians or New Yorkers. The United States Navy and Marines became a permanent part of the American government and the American mythos, and Decatur returned to the U.S. as its first post-Revolutionary war hero. The gains of the war furthered the confidence of Thomas Jefferson to regard any threat to the liberty of the American people an act of war and furthered his conclusion that war is the only way to sustain liberty.
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