US Navy: The Barbary Wars, Tripoli 1801-1805
v.1.0 May 19, 2002
The pirate kings of the Barbary Coast (modern-day North Africa) ruled by leave of the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople or as his lieges. For three centuries, their custom was to raid Mediterranean commerce for loot and ransom. This, or the tribute trader nations had to pay to be left alone, was shared with Constantinople. When the merchantmen of the young American republic, now forfeit of the Royal Navy’s formidable protection, came to sail Mediterranean waters, they too had to pay tribute to Yusuf Karmali, the Bey of Tripoli, and to ransom, at great cost and with great difficulty, their merchant seamen citizens taken as hostages and slaves by the pirate kings. In some cases, it took 12 years to raise enough money to free the men, and sometimes they died in captivity.
Objectively, the Americans lost few ships to the pirates. But the indignity rankled. Moreover, whereas Yusuf Bey had been content with an annual tribute of $56,000, realizing the fledgling republic had no means of protecting their trade, he squeezed the Americans ever harder. By the time Thomas Jefferson came to be president of the United States, the US was paying $2-million a year, or a fifth of its income, as tribute to the Bey. By some accounts, it may even have been 30% of the Government’s income. Even that did not satisfy the Bey and his compatriots, who reveled in humiliating the Americans. President Jefferson decided this extortion had to stop.
Accordingly, starting in 1801, four successive squadrons of US Navy warships set out annually for Tripoli, to fight the pirates and the Bey. Officially, this first phase of the Barbary Wars, or as some style the campaign, the Tripolitan War, lasted from June 10, 1801 to June 4, 1805. American seamen were enlisted for one-year terms, thus the annual rotation. The fighting commanders who made the reputation of the young Navy in the first third of the 19th Century cut their teeth in the Tripolitan War. These included Lawrence, Hull, Decatur, Porter, Stewart, and Bainbridge. Coincidentally, they were all part of the third squadron and all served under Commodore Preble. Yet, we suspect most readers will be surprised – as were we – to learn that the famous expedition “to the shores of Tripoli” enshrined in the Marine Corps hymn, included just one officer and seven other ranks. They were among the 600 odd Greek and local mercenaries that came over land to attack Tripoli, and at one time they had to turn out their pockets to help the expedition’s American commander pay part of the mercenaries dues.
With the new Republic, it was hard to say where frugality ended and parsimony began. The entire American Navy, such as it was, would probably not have fully occupied the quays of a minor British naval base. Congress was not prepared to spend a penny more than it had to. According to one source [ http://www3.texleplex.net ] the US Navy’s budget during the Tripolitan War was:
1801 $2.1 million
1802 $0.9 million
1803 $1.1 million
1804 $1.2 million
1805 $1.6 million
Compare that to the tribute of $2 million, and it can be seen Congress was bent on ensuring a profit on its investment in the US Navy!
Be that as it may, the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the US Navy are a story for another time. Here it suffices to say that we welcome anyone with better knowledge than us to educate us on this fascinating, but quite obscure, period that was America’s first foreign war. This is a most sketchy list; nonetheless, it’s a start. Readers should keep in mind the American squadron had to blockade the North African coast to combat four kingdoms: Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco.Yusuf Karmali, The Bey of Tripoli
24 shipsFirst squadron: 1801- March 1802
USS President (frigate)
USS Essex (frigate)
USS Philadelphia (frigate)
USS Enterprise (sloop, Lt. Sterett)Second squadron: 1802-1803
Commodore Richard V. Morris
New York (frigate)
J. Adams (frigate)
[Missing names of two additional frigates]Third squadron: September 1803-1804
Captain Edward Preble
USS Constitution (frigate, 44 guns, flagship)
USS Philadelphia (frigate, Captain Bainbridge, lost)
USS John Adams (frigate)
USS Enterprise (sloop, April 1803 command passed to Isaac Hull)Fourth squadron: 1804-1805
Captain Samuel Baron
USS Argus (16 guns)
In 1800, the US Navy had a strength of 5,400 men excluding the USMC. US Navy casualties were 31 KIA, and 54 wounded; the Marines lost 4 killed and 10 wounded. Many of the casualties occurred when the fire ship USS Intrepid (Captain Somers) was hit by Tripolitan shore batteries and exploded during a sneak attempt to set fire to the Bey’s ships in port. There were no survivors from this brave, but failed action. One reason for the relatively low casualty rate was that the pirate ships were lightly built for speed, and had neither the firepower, the training, nor the discipline for the bloody, give-no-quarter, close-in fighting that marked naval combat in the age of sail. Further, a pirate runs a commercial enterprise, and must constantly look to his profit and loss account. Conversely, the US Navy fought for the new nation’s honor. An example of the relative disproportion in losses is one in which Stephan Decatur, in his early twenties, fought the Bey’s ship the Tripoli, killing 50 of the North Africans for no loss of his own.
Interestingly, US naval logistical support would have been impossible but for the British decision to let the US Navy use its port facilities at Gibraltar. The welcome support the American squadron gave to European efforts to suppress piracy presumably outweighed the residual ill will from the colonial rebellion. Additionally, the Kingdom of Sicily and other Italian states helped the Americans by renting flat-bottom boats more suited to inshore operations than the American blue-water ships.
Ships were classified as:
- Ships of the Line: 65-100 guns (the US Navy had none), the battleships of the day
- Frigates: 28-44 guns, the cruisers of the day
- Sloops: 10-20 guns, the destroyers of the day
The peace treaty was signed on board the USS Constitution, which went on to become the longest serving commissioned warship in the US Navy. She was commissioned on September 7, 1797, and served for 133 years. This first campaign failed to serve American purposes: no sooner had the US Navy disappeared over the horizon, the Bey repudiated the peace treaty he had signed. More squadrons and more years were required before the Beys finally gave up attacking US ships. Of course, the final solution was effected by the French: in the 1830s, they simply took over Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
[Additional information on the Constitution may be found at www.mariner.org/usnavy/o6/06a.htm ]