The USS Philadelphia set ablaze on February 16, 1804.
By 1801, pirates known as corsairs acting on behalf of the Barbary states of Algiers, Tunis, Morocco and Tripoli along the Mediterranean Ocean had been demanding tribute from countries for “protection” of their merchant shipping for nearly 300 years. The state-sponsored pirates would use fast ships to board other vessels, overwhelm their crews, take them captive and finally demand ransom from their home countries for their release.
While under the protection of Great Britain who possessed the greatest navy in the world at the time, U.S. merchant ships had nothing to fear. However, once independence was achieved, the United States was on its own and had to make a decision about how to respond to the Barbary threat. The options included paying a tribute or declaring war.
By 1801, the United States had negotiated treaties with the various Barbary states that did pay a modest tribute to each of them in exchange for the safety of American shipping. However, the pasha of Tripoli believed the arrangement did not pay enough, so in March of 1801 he demanded more.
President Thomas Jefferson had just been inaugurated for his first term and believed that building a navy and putting into action was a better alternative than giving payments because those payments were always subject to the whims of the Barbary sultans. Jefferson sent three frigates and a sloop of war out to the region as a “squadron of observation” to protect American ships.
For the better part of three years, the United States Navy had a presence in the Mediterranean, rotating naval vessels to protect American shipping. There were direct engagements with the pirates as well as instances of American merchant ship crews being held for ransom but the American presence decreased pirate attacks.
The situation changed in October 1803. The USS Philadelphia ran aground near the entrance to Tripoli Harbor and the ship and crew surrendered to the Tripolitans. Commodore Edward Preble, in charge of American forces, decided the Philadelphia could not fall into enemy hands. About 70 volunteers led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur disguised themselves as a Tripolitan crew and sailed into Tripoli Harbor to destroy the Philadelphia. They were discovered, but after a short, violent hand-to-hand struggle were able to retake the ship and set it ablaze. Decatur was made the youngest captain in the navy at age 25 due to his heroics. The renown British admiral Horatio Nelson called the raid “the most bold and daring act of the age.”
By 1805, the United States continued to resist the acts of the Barbary pirates. There was a blockade of Tripoli Harbor put in place and the U.S. Navy continued to engage in encounters with the pirates. A plan was enacted to try to gain peace by overthrowing the pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, with his exiled older brother. A force of a few hundred men made up of Arab and Greek mercenaries and supported by U.S. Marines from the American ship Argus marched 500 miles through the Libyan Desert. On April 27, 1805, this force, supplied by the Argus and two additional warships, captured the town of Derne, east of Benghazi. This victory created a path to Tripoli and the potential overthrow of the pasha. Fearing his overthrow, the pasha of Tripoli negotiated peace. The terms included a U.S. payment of $60,000 for the release of all Americans including the crew of the Philadelphia but required no more future tribute payments. In 1815, after a second war with Algiers, the United States made no further payments to any Barbary state.
Many historians consider the First Barbary War as America’s first war on terror in the Middle East. However it is thought of, an important statement was made by President Jefferson that the United States would stand up for itself on the world stage.
The Marines’ Hymn:
From the Halls of Montezuma,
To the Shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
Most Americans are familiar with the opening lines of the Marines’ Hymn. The opening line references another nineteenth century conflict, the Mexican-American War, and the Battle of Chapultepec. The line “to the shores of Tripoli” is in reference to the the Battle of Derne as described above. In fact, Marine officers still wear Mameluke swords shaped like Arab scimitars.