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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p61  IV
The War with Tripoli

[image ALT: A map of central and southern Europe and the northern part of Africa, centered on the Mediterranean and focusing on the five African states marked large: Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Egypt.]

An Insult by Algiers

The treaties of peace bought from Morocco in 1786, Algiers in 1795, Tripoli in 1796, and Tunis in 1797, by no means settled the difficulties between American ships and Barbary corsairs. Indeed, the following incident, for which the Dey of Algiers was responsible, was characteristic of the attitude of all the Barbary rulers at that time.

In 1800, when only twenty‑six years old, William Bainbridge was promoted to the rank of captain, having served but two years in the navy. In these two years, however, he had come into public notice, especially on account of his experience in the dungeons of Guadeloupe during the war with France. He was assigned the George Washington, of 24 guns, one of the ships purchased for the navy at the outbreak of hostilities with France, with orders to carry the annual tribute to Algiers. Captain Bainbridge thus had the distinction of commanding the first American man-of‑war to enter the Mediterranean, but the honor was over-shadowed by the humiliating nature of his mission. Bad as this was, the sequel was so much worse that it may fairly be described as the most mortifying incident in the record of the navy.

When the Washington arrived in September, 1800, the Dey of Algiers was having difficulties with the Sultan of Turkey — the over-lord of the Barbary rulers — because the Algerians had made peace with Napoleon at a time was Turkey was fighting him. In order to conciliate his master, the Dey of Algiers wished to send presents to Constantinople, and for this purpose requested the loan  p62 of the American man-of‑war. Naturally, the American consul and Captain Bainbridge protested; but the George Washington was anchored under the batteries of Algiers, in a position where she could not escape, and the Dey threatened to declare war instantly if the request was refused. As there were at this time in the Mediterranean a large number of American merchantmen which would probably have been captured if the Dey had made good his threat of war, Bainbridge felt himself forced to yield and play errand boy for the Dey of Algiers. The latter aggravated the humiliation by compelling the American captain to hoist the Algerian flag at the main, an act that virtually put the George Washington out of commission and transferred her to the Algerian Navy. As soon as Bainbridge cleared the harbor, however, he hauled down the Algerian colors and hoisted his own.

At Constantinople he had the satisfaction of being received with honor as the representative of a new nation, while the Algerian ambassador was given scant courtesy. During the visit, also, the Turkish admiral gave Captain Bainbridge a "firman," or passport, which insured him respect­ful treatment in all Turkish ports. On returning to Algiers, the American was careful to anchor out of range of the batteries and promptly refused the demand of the Dey that he make a second trip to Constantinople. During an audience with the Dey, Bainbridge countered a fierce threat of instant war by displaying the Turkish "firman." This frightened the pirate into such respect that thereafter Captain Bainbridge and his ship were inviolate. When the Dey declared war with France, under the Sultan's orders, Bainbridge, by using the authority of his "firman," compelled him to allow the French subjects in his city forty-eight hours to leave the country. As it appeared that the unfortunate exiles had no other way of leaving Algiers and escaping slavery, Bainbridge took  p64 them on board the George Washington, and convoyed them to Alicante, whence they made their way home. For this service he received the thanks of Napoleon.

The First Year of the War with Tripoli

Meanwhile, the Bey of Tripoli also was making trouble. Although he had concluded a treaty with the United States in 1796, realizing in two or three years that he had not made so good a bargain as his neighbors, Algiers and Tunis, he felt obliged to demand more than the treaty called for. Efforts to settle the matter on a reasonable basis failed, and the Bey became more and more insolent. At last, in February, 1801, he repudiated the former treaty, and, the following May, declared war. The negotiations had been dragging on for so long, however, that American merchantmen had had a fair warning, and the Tripolitan cruisers captured little or nothing.

As soon as it became evident that diplomacy would fail, a squadron of "observation" was assembled at Hampton Roads, toward the end of May, with orders to visit the Barbary ports and open hostilities with any or all of the states that had declared war; or, at least, to help diplomatic relations by a show of armed force. This squadron consisted of the frigates President, 44 guns, flagship, Captain James Barron; Philadelphia, 36 guns, Captain Samuel Barron (brother of James Barron); Essex, 32 guns, Captain William Bainbridge; and the schooner Enterprise, 12 guns, Lieutenant Andrew Sterett. These vessels were placed under the command of Commodore Richard Dale, famous as Paul Jones's first lieutenant in the battle between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis.

The news of the declaration of war on the part of Tripoli did not reach the United States until after the  p65 squadron had sailed, but the ships fortunately arrived at Gibraltar just in time to intercept the passage of two Tripolitan corsairs that were in port, clearly bound for a raid in the Atlantic. Leaving the Philadelphia to blockade them in Gibraltar, Commodore Dale dispatched the Essex to collect the American ships in neutral ports and convoy them to the Atlantic, while with the remainder of his squadron he cruised along the Barbary coast. The Bey​1 of Tripoli was somewhat disturbed by the appearance of the American ships and offered to treat for peace, but, though Dale remained eighteen days off the harbor, nothing was accomplished. At the end of that time, he was forced to put in for fresh water at Malta, where he arrived in the middle of August.

Meanwhile, on the first of that month, a spirited action had taken place between the schooner Enterprise and the Tripoli. As the former carried twelve guns and ninety-four men, and the latter, fourteen guns and eighty men, the two vessels were very evenly matched. That the result was so one‑sided, is chiefly due to the skill with which Lieutenant Sterett handled his vessel, never allowing himself to be boarded, and time and again raking his antagonist at close range. The following is his report to Commodore Dale:

"I have the honor to inform you that on the first of August, I fell in with a Tripolitan ship-of‑the‑war, called the Tripoli, mounting fourteen guns, commanded by Reis Mahomet Sous. An action commanded immediately at pistol shot, which continued three hours with incessant firing. She then struck her colors. The carnage on board was dreadfuls, she having twenty men killed and thirty wounded; among the latter was the captain and the first lieutenant. Her mizzenmast went over the side. Agreeable  p66 to your orders I dismantled her of everything but an old sail and spar. With heartfelt pleasure I add, that the officers and men throughout the vessel behaved in the most spirited and determined manner, obeying every command with promptitude and alertness. We had not a man wounded, and sustained no material damage in our hull or rigging."

For this brilliant exploit, Sterett received the thanks of Congress and a sword, while an extra month's pay was awarded to his officers and men. The reason that the Tripoli was sent back to Tripoli dismantled instead of being destroyed, was that the commodore's orders from the President did not allow him to take prizes. Jefferson held that, under the Constitution, war had to be declared by Congress, that all he could direct the squadron to do, therefore, was to act on the defensive. This strict interpretation of the Constitution undoubtedly tied Dale's hands somewhat up to the time (February, 1802) when Congress passed an act that gave the President full war powers. Still one would expect from Paul Jones's favorite lieutenant more than the barren results of the first year of the Tripolitan War. The blockade, which at first had been very annoying to the Bey of Tripoli, was gradually relaxed, and, after the departure of Commodore Dale for the United States in March, 1802, apparently amounted to nothing. This blockade duty fell chiefly on the Philadelphia, Captain Samuel Barron, which, though in winter quarters at Syracuse, was under orders from Dale to make occasional excursions to Tripoli and Tunis during the spring. According to the report of William Eaton, our consul at Tunis, she appeared but once off Tripoli during the winter and spring, and that only for six hours. Captain Barron made the excuse that the northerly winds were "very common and excessively heavy," and prevented his looking into Tripoli.

 p67  Consul Eaton, who criticised Barron's inefficiency, is an interesting figure in the story of our war with Tripoli. A veteran of the Revolution and a captain in the army at the time he was appointed our representative in Tunis (1797), he threw himself into the war with characteristic energy, and spoke his opinions without tact or reserve. His bitter criticism of Bainbridge for submitting the flag to the insult it received from the Dey of Algiers, and his equally scathing remarks about Captain Samuel Barron, awoke against him the hostility, not only of Bainbridge and the Barrons, but of all the naval officers on the station, for they felt that his strictures had involved the honor of the service. Perhaps it was on account of this hostility that, when he suggested attacking Tripoli in the rear by raising a force to the support of Hamet, the deposed brother of the reigning Bey, Yusuf, his plan was disapproved by all the officers in the squadron. His idea was to collect an army of adventurers under the banner of the rightful ruler, Hamet, with which to attack Tripoli in the rear; and, by a joint assault on land and sea, drive Yusuf out of the city or, at least, bring him to terms.

The Second Year of the War

The custom of enlisting men for one year embarrassed the navy in the first year of the war with Tripoli as it had done in the war with France, for all of Dale's ships had to be sent home on account of the expiration of the terms of enlistment. The next enlistments, therefore, were made for two years instead of one. The command of the second squadron was given to Commodore Truxtun, the hero of the French War. Unfortunately, as there seems to have been a scarcity of captains at the time, no one was appointed to command his flagship, the Constellation. To act as captain for his own flagship, Truxtun felt to be  p68 a descent in grade, and, therefore, declined the post. Since this amounted to a resignation, it cost the nation an officer of the type most needed to prosecute the war against Tripoli. The idea that departmental obstinacy was behind the action in Truxtun's case is suggested by the fact that Richard V. Morris, his successor, was given an acting captain for the flagship, without anything more being said about it.

In the spring of 1802, the ships under Morris set sail for the Mediterranean, one after another, as soon as they were ready for sea. The squadron in the order of their sailing, consisted of the following: the Chesapeake, 36; the Adams, 28; the New York, 36; the John Adams, 28; the Constellation, 36; and the Enterprise, 12. There were still on the station, the Philadelphia, Boston, Essex, and George Washington; but the first and last of these soon left for the United States.

The story of the operations that followed is a mass of confusing detail. Great things were looked for from this naval force, and the Bey of Tripoli was expected to submit at once. As a matter of fact, during this second year of the war the United States lost ground. The blockade was ineffectual except to irritate Tunis and Morocco. In May, 1803, the Americans made feeble overtures to buy peace; but, meanwhile, an American vessel, the Franklin, had been seized, and her crew put in irons. These had to be ransomed through Algiers for $35,000. Consul Eaton, also, who was unable to get further in his plan on account of a quarrel with Commodore Morris, left for the United States. During the summer of 1803, however, two Tripolitan cruisers were destroyed by the squadron, and there were also some vigorous skirmishes against the enemy's gunboats, in which the younger officers won distinction. But the results were nothing.

In September, Commodore Morris received a letter  p69 from the Secretary of the Navy, announcing that he was suspended from duty and ordered home. The following spring, a court of inquiry, composed unfortunately of officers junior to Morris, found him "censurable for his inactive and dilatory conduct of the squadron under his command."​2 Though for some reason no court-martial followed, Morris was summarily dismissed from the service by President Jefferson.

Commodore Preble

While the court of inquiry was sitting on the case of Captain Morris, a new squadron was being prepared, under the command of Captain Edward Preble. The task of fitting out the ships, especially the flagship Constitution, consumed so much of the summer of 1803, that it was August before the new commodore could set sail for the Mediterranean. He had the following vessels in his squadron, named in the order of sailing: Nautilus, 12, Lieutenant Richard Somers; Philadelphia, 36, Captain William Bainbridge; Vixen, 12, Lieutenant John Smith; Constitution, flagship, 44, Lieutenant Robinson, acting captain; Siren, 16, Lieutenant Charles Stewart; Argus, 16, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. The Enterprise, 12, Lieutenant Isaac Hull, already on the station, was to be included; but Hull, being senior to Decatur, was to exchange commands with him, because the Argus was rated above the Enterprise. The small schooners and brigs of this squadron were built and fitted to cruise in the shoal waters about Tripoli, where the heavier frigates could not follow.

The new commodore, like his predecessors, was a  p70 veteran of the Revolutionary War. He came from New England, and was personally little known to the service, especially as all the other officers, with the exception of Hull, came from the Southern or Middle States. His naturally violent temper was not improved by ill health, and he had iron ideas about discipline. He reciprocated the distrust which the younger officers felt toward their hot‑tempered, "taut" commander, for he complained that they were only "school-boys." In fact, all the commanders of his flotilla were under thirty and their lieutenants even younger. A year later, however, the mutual regard between Preble and his young officers amounted to warm affection.

[image ALT: A finely executed ink drawing of a thin man in early middle age, rather dapper, with an air of alertness to him; he wears a naval uniform of the early 19c, with epaulets and a high starched shirt collar. He is Edward Preble, an American naval commander in the war against the Barbary pirates.]

The situation that confronted Commodore Preble was not reassuring. During the two years and a half since war had been declared, the American Navy had gained no decided advantage; on the contrary, the other Barbary powers, especially Morocco, were growing more and more restless and insolent, as is shown by the following incident: Shortly after Bainbridge arrived at Gibraltar in the Philadelphia, he learned that two Tripolitan cruisers were off Cape de Gat. While in search of them he fell in with a vessel belonging to the Emperor of Morocco, which upon investigation, proved to be the American brig Celia with the captain and seven of the crew confined below decks. When Bainbridge threatened to hang the Moorish commander for piracy, the latter produced an order from the Governor of Tangier,​a authorizing him to capture American vessels. Bainbridge then returned to Gibraltar with his prize, and, upon the arrival of the Constitution, reported to Preble the case of the Celia.

The commodore, realizing that Morocco must be dealt with promptly, dispatched the Vixen and the Philadelphia to blockade Tripoli while he, with the remainder of the squadron, joined with Commodore Rodgers and the home-bound  p71 frigates, New York, Boston, and John Adams, to make a demonstration at Tangier. The display of this naval force had instant effect. The Emperor hastily shifted the responsibility for the capture of the Celia on the Governor of Tangier — whom he publicly disgraced — and tried to placate the American officers by gifts. The negotiations concluded with a ratification of the old treaty of 1786, without any payment whatever on the part of the United States.

Meanwhile the Vixen and the Philadelphia had taken up their station, blockading the port of Tripoli on October 17. About a fortnight later Bainbridge received information of two Tripolitan war vessels cruising in the Mediterranean. Judging that they were probably going westward toward the Straits, he dispatched the Vixen to look for them off Cape Bon, a station also which he thought much safer for the little schooner than the coast of Tripoli, at a time when the autumn gales had begun.

Towards the end of October (1803) the Philadelphia was driven away by one of these storms. As she was returning to her station on the morning of the 31st, she sighted a Tripolitan vessel making for the harbor. The following account, adapted from Captain Bainbridge's report to the Secretary of the Navy, describes the disaster that resulted:

"Misfortune necessitates my making the most distressing communication of my life, and it is with deep regret that I inform you of the loss of the United States frigate Philadelphia, under my command, by being wrecked on rocks between four and five leagues to the eastward of the town of Tripoli. The circumstances relating to this unfortunate event are as follows:

"At nine A.M., being about five leagues to the eastward of Tripoli, I saw a ship inshore of us, standing before the wind to the westward. I immediately gave chase,  p72 whereupon she hoisted Tripolitan colors and continued her course very near the shore. About eleven o'clock I had approached the shore to seven fathoms of water, and commenced firing at her, continuing our fire and running before the wind until half-past eleven. Being then in seven fathoms of water and finding our fire ineffectual to prevent her getting into Tripoli, I gave up the pursuit, and was bearing off the land, when we ran on the rocks, in twelve feet of water forward, and seventeen feet abaft. Immediately we lowered a boat from the stern, sounded, and found the greatest depth of water astern. Accordingly, I laid all sails aback; loosed topgallant sails, and set a heavy press of sail canvas on the ship, with the wind blowing fresh, to back her off. I also cast three anchors away from the bows, started the water in the hold, hove overboard the guns, excepting some abaft to defend the ship against the gunboats which were then firing on us. But I found all this ineffectual. Then I made the last resort of lightening her forward by cutting away the foremast, which carried the main topgallant mast with it."

In testifying before the court of inquiry held in June, 1805, Lieutenant David Porter added a few more details to Captain Bainbridge's account at this point. After the resort of cutting away the foremast had failed to release the Philadelphia's bows, "orders were then given to the ship's carpenter to go forward and bore holes through the ship's bottom, and the gunner to drown the magazine by turning the cock and securing the key. Orders were then given to destroy everything that could be rendered other use to the enemy."

"Striking on the rocks," continues Captain Bainbridge, "was an accident not possible for me to guard against by any intimation of charts as no such shoals were laid down on any on board. Every careful precaution (by keeping three leads heaving) was made use of, on  p73 approach the shore to effect the capture of the Tripolitan cruiser; and, after the ship struck the rocks, all possible measures were taken to get her off. I determined not to give her up as long as a hope remained, although all the while we were annoyed by gunboats, which took their position in such a manner that we could not bring our guns to bear on them, not even after cutting away a part of the stern to effect it.

"We stood the fire of the gunboats for four hours. By the end of that time, as my officers and I had no hope of getting the frigate off the rocks, and we could see a reinforcement coming out from Tripoli — which there was not the smallest chance of our injuring by resistance — we decided, in order to save the lives of brave men, that there was no alternative but the distressing one of hauling our colors down and submitting to the enemy, whom chance had befriended. . . .

"The gunboats, in attacking, fired principally at our masts. Had they directed their shot at the hull, they undoubtedly would have killed many. . . . The ship was taken possession of a little after sunset, and in the course of the evening I, and all the officers, with part of the crew were brought ashore and carried before the Pasha. . . . We had lost everything but what was on our backs, and even part of that was taken off."

The attempts to scuttle the ship proved to be failures; for, two days later, she was floated off the reef at high tide, her guns were raised and remounted by her captors, and she was towed into Tripoli practically as good as ever.

The Kaliusa reef, on which the Philadelphia struck, was, as Bainbridge says, not located on the charts; and yet it is so extensive as to make the omission noteworthy, for it stretches several miles parallel to the coast, here and there broken by channels. It only intensifies the misfortune of Bainbridge to know that if he had kept on a  p74 little farther before bearing up, he would have passed through one of these channels safely. If, also, he had held his course toward Tripoli, in the wake of the ketch, he would have escaped grounding.

The imprisonment of the Philadelphia's people turned out to be a long one; but, for the officers, at least, not especially severe. They were allowed free intercourse, and, through the kind efforts of the Danish consul, Nissen, were able to buy back their books. By means of these books, Captain Bainbridge with his first lieutenant, David Porter, conducted for the midshipmen the first naval school in the history of the American service. Through Mr. Nissen, also, Captain Bainbridge was enabled to carry on a secret correspondence with Commodore Preble. Throughout their long captivity the officers wore away the heavy hours in laying futile plans for escape. The men, however, received none of the consideration shown to the officers. They were ill‑fed, worse lodged, and worked and beaten like slaves; but they seem to have stood their captivity surprisingly well. There were but six deaths and very little sickness during the whole nineteen months of captivity.

Captain Bainbridge's officers, realizing his distress of mind, were hardly in their prison quarters before they drew up a memorial to assure him of their sympathy and respect. "Wishing to express our full approbation of your conduct, concerning the unfortunate affair of yesterday," it ran, "we do conceive . . . that every exertion was made and every expedient tried to get her off and to defend her, which either courage or abilities could have dictated." Commodore Preble, also, as soon as he heard the unwelcome news, wrote Bainbridge a comforting letter, without even a hint of criticism.

But the latter had every reason to feel depressed. His career in the navy, though brief, had been singularly unfortunate.  p75 During the French War he had been captured and imprisoned; he was still smarting under the criticism of Eaton and others for the mortifying incident of the George Washington; and this final disaster strengthened the hands of the Bey of Tripoli to an extent hitherto not conceivable.

If Commodore Preble had realized the seriousness of his task on taking command of the third squadron, he now felt the difficulties of his situation increased tenfold by the loss of the Philadelphia. The Tripolitans now possessed in the Philadelphia a larger fighting ship than they had ever owned before, and at the same time the loss to the American squadron amounted to a large proportion of its force, for it left but a single frigate, the Constitution, besides the small brigs and schooners. In this way, Preble's operations were crippled at the very outset; and the mere holding for ransom of 300 American prisoners gave the Bey of Tripoli a further tremendous advantage, for he knew that the officers, especially, had influential friends who would bring pressure upon the Government to accept almost any terms of peace that he might dictate.

The Authors' Notes:

1 The title of this ruler is variously given as "Bey," "Bashaw," or "Pasha."

[decorative delimiter]

2 Captain Samuel Barron, who had himself been criticised by Eaton for "inactive and dilatory conduct" in his blockade of Tripoli, was president of this court.

Thayer's Note:

a The printed text has Tangiers thruout, including in the map (and once in chapter 13). Since this book was extraordinarily well proofread — only one typographical error in the 1911 edition — this must be intentional; yet it's a mistake: one so frequently made by others today that the careful writer to whom this particular pitfall is news will enjoy the quick details that follow.

The name of the city in Arabic is Tandja; in Spanish and French, both locally spoken, Tanger; and in English, Tangier. Notwithstanding, the addition of that intrusive s is common, and can be traced to a combination of two factors: the traditional English addition of a final s to a number of placenames that have none in their own languages, as in Marseilles and Lyons, but mostly of course the final s in Algiers, the next port down the Barbary Coast in this map: that city coming by it somewhat honestly since its Arabic name Al‑Jazair includes that z‑sound and the word is of plural meaning ("the two islands") — although even there again, other Western languages have no final s.

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