Barbary Wars –US Marines I


History America Print –United States Marine (36″ x 11-3/4″)
Designed by Mark Waterman

Date: 14 May 1801 to 30 June 1816.

Location: North Africa. Involved: Various North African nations, Algeria, Morocco, Tunis, and mainly Tripoli, versus the United States.

Situation: For many centuries, in order to sail the Mediterranean with as little harm as possible, most European nations paid tribute to various Barbary nations. Otherwise their ships would be attacked and captured, and their sailors made slaves; this sometimes happened even if they did pay. The U. S. was also forced to pay until 1816.

The U. S. Enterprise, with 12 guns and 90 men, was sailing the Mediterranean on 1 August when it fought its first action against the new enemy off North Africa. This was when it encountered the Tripolitan polacra1 Tripoli of 14 guns and 80 men. Captain Andrew Sterrett was flying a British flag when he approached the polacra and requested information about what that ship’s master intended to do. Admiral Rais Mahomet Rous told him, “I’m looking for Americans … but haven’t found a one.” “You have now,” responded Sterrett, raising the American colors and ordering a volley of musketry fire. Three times the Africans tried to board the Enterprise, but the Marine detachment’s firing, led by 2nd Lt. Enoch C. Lane, was especially deadly at close range. The Marines are credited with sweeping the decks clear of the occupants each time they attempted to board. After three hours of bombardment and musketry fire, the Americans boarded the Tripoli and found the ship completely shot to pieces. The dead numbered 30, as did the wounded. Only 20 men remained able to serve the ship and its guns. After the enemy surrendered Sterrett took stock of his own ship and found that not one American had a scratch. After many years of insult and abuse, the Tripolitan’s enemy was unwilling to take it any more.

Because orders did not allow taking prizes, as in the past wars, Sterrett set about abuse so grand that the admiral was publically disgraced upon returning to his home port. The enemy ship had all cannons rolled overboard, and all ammunition and weapons, including cutlasses, muskets, and pistols, were also thrown into the sea. The masts were chopped down, leaving but a single spar with a ragged sail, just enough to make it to the nearest port. News of the destruction spread and caused the Tripolitan sailors engaged in preparing new ships to hide, which effectively kept the Tripolitan fleet from sailing out to meet the enemy for an entire season. Only those already at sea were still dangerous to any American vessel.

Keeping an effective blockade on the port of Tripoli was difficult. Two Tripolitan gunboats attacked both the Philadelphia and Essex on 29 September in order to try to break up the “noose” closing in on Tripoli’s importation of food and ammunition. The ships fought back and while the gunboats were damaged they managed to return to port. Congress recognized that the four-ship fleet of Comm. Richard Dale was not sufficient to close all the ports of North Africa and soon new ships were being prepared for sea duty off North Africa.

War was declared by the Congress against Tripoli on 6 February 1802 and instructions were forwarded to Dale to begin operations against the Bashaw and his subjects. Over the course of the next several months several ships joined Dale’s little fleet, including the Boston on 16 May.

Morocco declared war upon the United States on 22 June, thereby adding a powerful foe to those the U. S. already had in the area. They controlled the entrance to the Mediterranean and would have a grave impact on the ongoing war with Tripoli. The U. S. ships, aided by the Swedish fleet, continued to have serious encounters with the Tripolitans all during this year. The Bashaw went so far as to parade his 6,000-man army on the beaches to frighten or at least to impress Dale, which failed its purpose. Commodore Richard Valentine Morris, newly commanding the Mediterranean U. S. fleet, decided on 9 May 1803 that it was long past time to be active against Tripoli.

Meanwhile, a Marine Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon wrote the commandant and let him know how disgusted he was with the whole affair of sitting in “that hell-hole, Gibralter” and how happy he was to be back close to the scene of possible action. Recently arrived Marines and shipmates aboard Capt. John Rodgers’ ship John Adams were in for very busy period. They caught seven Tripolitan gunboats attempting to break the blockade and severely punished them. Then Rodgers and his men chased, caught, and captured the Moroccan ship Meshouda, bringing her back to Malta as a prize. Captain Rodgers led a three-ship excursion toward three Tripolitan merchantmen making an effort to escape, but they reversed direction and ran ashore. Marines and sailors were sent ashore as a landing party to destroy the three merchantmen. Naval Lt. David Porter (later to become one of the most famous of all Navy men and grandfather of a Marine hero) led the party ashore, destroying the ships, and they made their way back to the ships with few casualties, one being a wounded porter.

On 2 June Marines and sailors from the squadron were sent ashore to burn 10 more boats. Twenty days later the John Adams answered a signal flag from the Enterprise, located in the harbor of Tripoli. She had engaged a larger Tripolitan ship, a polacra of 22 guns, and needed help. Enterprise had been pumping shells point-blank into the ship, however, and within an hour the enemy crew abandoned the ship. John Adams had sent Marines and some crew to take the supposedly vacated polacra when all of a sudden she was blown up. Her hull split in two and down she went, taking the Americans with her.

Peace with Morocco was reestablished on 12 October, which made transit past its shores much easier for the American Navy. But, at the end of the month, serious trouble would happen. On the 31st the second-largest American ship in the Mediterranean fleet, the Philadelphia, ran up on an unmarked reef in the Tripoli bay. The smaller Vixen, which had been accompanying Philadelphia, had been set astray by a heavy wind and was 300 miles away off Cape Bon. It was soon evident to the Tripolitans that the Philadelphia was in trouble and small boats from shore were sent out to test her combat ability. Because of the ship’s location and position upon the reef, the starboard side was not able to do anything, so the Tripolitan boats came in on that side. Captain William Bainbridge decided that there wasn’t much they could do and that surrender was his only alternative. He ordered the ship to be scuttled but failure by the ship’s carpenter to pierce the bottom sufficiently allowed the ship to be taken. The enemy also captured 235 seamen, 41Marines and 33 commissioned and noncommissioned officers. The Marine officer in command was 1st Lt. William S. Osborne. Private William Ray, a Marine, later wrote that the men begged Bainbridge not to surrender but to fight and try to get the ship refloated, but the captain persisted. As a result, they spent 19 months in captivity.

The rest of the U. S. fleet in the waters continued to fight most effectively. Covering all the ports of Tripoli constituted a huge problem for Comm. Edward Preble, aboard the Constitution, his lone 44-gun frigate now that the Philadelphia was gone. His much thinned-out Mediterranean fleet now consisted of but two brigs, Argus and Siren, 16 guns each, and three schooners, Enterprise, Vixen, and Nautilus, with 12 guns each. He had placed Tripoli under a blockade with his minuscule fleet, and was now in dire straits trying to cover all the exits.

However, there were some bright moments. On 16 February 1804 the Intrepid commanded by Lt. Stephen Decatur, with 60 volunteers, eight of whom were Marines led by Sgt. Solomon Wren, entered Tripoli’s harbor and there boarded and burned the Philadelphia, which was still hung up on a reef. At least there was no chance the enemy would have it to sail and fight against its comrades. Incidentally, the U. S. offered $100,000 for the safe release of its men, which was refused.

In the meantime, Preble had been assembling more boats and on 20 May had acquired gunboats with a 24 pounder and mortar boats, each with a 13-inch brass sea mortar, from the Neopolitan king’s navy, and some of that king’s subjects to help man them. Preble assigned sailors and Marines to each boat to carry the fight directly into Tripoli Harbor and divided his formation into two divisions. Lieutenant Richard Somers commanded the 1st Division and Lt. Stephen Decatur, the 2nd Division. Each of these boats was going up against better armed, with 18 to 26 pounders each, and more numerous enemy, but Preble was a fighter and this failed to deter him.

On 3 August Tripolitan boats began coming out toward Preble’s fleet and he decided to make them “pay for their insolence.” At 1400 Preble gave the command and each mortar boat pumped its shells down upon the oncoming enemy. The first boat to get into the action was that mastered by Decatur, which headed for nine Tripolitan boats. He had his Marines shower all with musket fire, causing the enemy heavy casualties. Commanding a boat in Somers’ division, Lt. James Decatur, younger brother of Stephen, pulled ahead and joined Stephen’s group. The four boats were soon up to their necks in Tripolitans. The first enemy boat taken was leaderless. The captain had been hit by numerous musket balls and left no one to command.

For the subject of various paintings, artists would later utilize the hand-to-hand fighting that ensued that afternoon. Casualties for the Tripolitans numbered in the hundreds while, at the end of the fight, Decatur’s loss was but one dead, his brother James, and three sailors wounded. The boat that killed James soon fled but Decatur followed him. After Decatur caught the enemy boat they fought for about 20 minutes before he managed to kill the Tripolitan captain that he blamed for his brother’s death. During the fight a Turk had been wrestling with Decatur and had him on the deck. He raised his scimitar but a sailor, Daniel Fraser, leaped between them and received the blow on his head. Meanwhile, a Marine raised his musket and killed the Turk before he could finish off Decatur or Fraser. Both men survived, the former to go on to greater glory in the years ahead. He was a real fighting sailor and pride of the U. S. Navy. From that date, 3 September, Marines participated in the constant shelling of Tripoli. Meanwhile, the next serious blow against Tripoli was going to be on land.


Barbary Wars –US Marines II


Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon at Derna, 1805

After several years of demanding and receiving tribute, then attacking American ships, on 10 May 1804 the Bashaw of Tripoli declared war upon the U. S. On the 14th he had the flagstaff cut down before the American consulate. This was the formal beginning of the so-called Barbary Wars. William Eaton, the local American consul and adventurer, promised to rectify the situation and persuaded President Thomas Jefferson that it would be easy for him to stir up a revolt against the Bashaw of Tripoli. The president was anxious to believe that and gave Eaton permission to make the attempt.

A Marine officer, 2nd Lt. Presley O’Bannon, had been assigned to him along with six enlisted Marines (names below). This part of the war would be the only land combat in the entire period.

In October 1804, O’Bannon, with the U. S. fleet at Malta, was transferred to the Constitution and three days later to the brig Argus, commanded by Isaac Hull. This ship had received special orders to pick up William Eaton and convey him and his “command” to Alexandria, Egypt.

At Alexandria, Eaton had brought along a willing O’Bannon, Navy officer Joshua Blake, two midshipmen, Eli E. Danielson and George Washington Mann, and a few assorted adventurers. He made arrangements to gather the deposed Tripolitan Bashaw Hamet, while O’Bannon recruited more adventurers in the sea-port town: 67 “Christian” (meaning Greek) mercenaries and 90 Arabs. Midshipman Pascal Paoli Peck and seven Marines from aboard the Argus constituted the entire “army.”

For ten days the army moved westward along the northern coast of Africa toward Derna without encountering serious trouble. On the 18th Eaton had trouble with the camel drivers. Several days later 230 Arabs on horse and foot joined them. As they moved westward, disputes with the Arabs were continuous, but each was eventually settled. At one point only the Americans and a few Christians stood between total revolt and continuing to advance. A few days later the Christians revolted because their food was gone and water was severely limited. By chance three American ships were off Bomba; provisions were landed and once again, all was well. So far the little expedition had traveled over 500 miles across deserts, frequently without water, and with little food.

Eaton requested another hundred Marines but Comm. Samuel Barron refused, although he did return the volunteers, Midshipmen Danielson and Mann. On 23 April their trek resumed. Meanwhile, the Bashaw became alarmed at Eaton’s threat to the fortress of Derna and sent reinforcements from Tripoli. That discouraged Hamet and his Arabs, who had anticipated a bloodless victory. Eaton was forced to bribe them to go on. Two days later, on 25 April, Eaton and his motley force arrived upon the hills overlooking the walled city of Derna.

Eaton at once sent the Bey of Derna a note demanding surrender. The Bey, obviously sure of his 800 defenders, replied simply, “My head or yours.” One field piece was landed via the offshore Nautilus and that was followed by gunfire from the three U. S. ships just a hundred or so yards offshore. Eaton placed the Christian forces under O’Bannon’s command, and Hamet and his Arab horsemen in reserve.

The Marine lieutenant with his command of six Marines and 26 Greeks, plus a few Arabs on foot, were to be the assaulting force. Enemy artillery fire was soon canceled out by the ships’ firing, and the small force charged the defenders. The latter believed in the old adage “There is safety in flight.” O’Bannon and his Marines went over the walls and soon planted the national colors upon a fortress high above the city. There were, however, several counterattacks, all of which failed, and the remaining Marines forestalled any serious attempt by the defenders to stand their ground. The situation was far from bright. In his original attack, though O’Bannon had suffered a modest 14 casualties, three of those were Marines. With only six to begin with, the Marine casualty rate was 50 percent. As Eaton was to report, “The detail I have given of Mr. O’Bannon’s conduct needs no encomium.” He added, “it is believed the disposition our government has always discovered to encourage merit, will be extended to this intrepid, judicious, and enterprising Officer.”

The month of May saw continued efforts to throw the Americans out of Derna, all of which failed. At the end of May, O’Bannon drove off a 50-man attack with his three remaining Marines supported by 35 Christians. A few days later O’Bannon led a feint which forced the Tripolitans to withdraw from the city entirely. Once more, on 11 June, the Bashaw sent another large force to retake Derna, which also failed miserably. On that evening the U. S. ship Constitution arrived with orders to Eaton: Peace had been signed and he and his men were to withdraw from Derna.

William Eaton was terribly disappointed, being sure that with one hundred Marines he could have easily taken all of Tripoli. Tobias Lear, American counsel at Alexandria, had negotiated the, as it later turned out, disadvantageous treaty. But at the time he made complimentary remarks about Eaton, O’Bannon and “our brave countrymen,” meaning the six other Marines. O’Bannon and his three remaining Marines (names below) returned to the Argus. In the summer of 1806 the ship set sail for the United States.

The previous March the Congress had passed a resolution praising the courage, valor, and zeal of the Americans involved. Kind words throughout but little else. On 26 December 1805, O’Bannon’s home state, Virginia, passed a resolution authorizing a sword be created and presented to him. It was designed after a bejeweled Mameluke sword which Hamet had presented to O’Bannon, but which subsequently had disappeared. That sword design is the origin of today’s Marine officer sword. The original Virginia gift now resides in the Marine Museum.

The names of the Marines who accompanied O’Bannon on his hazardous tour are as follows: Acting Sgt. Arthur Campbell; Pvt. Bernard O’ Brien; Pvt. David Thomas, wounded in action on 27 April 1805; Pvt. James Owens; Pvt. John Whitten, killed in action on 27 April 1805; and finally, Pvt. Edward Steward, who died of wounds on 30 May 1805. Not all was victory; the U. S. was forced to pay a ransom of $60,000 to free the American prisoners from the capture of the Philadelphia. The terms did specify there would not be further harassment of American ships in the area.

President Madison approved an act of Congress on 3 March 1815 authorizing force against the Dey of Algiers because of depredations against American ships and the enslavement of their crews. It wouldn’t be until the month of June that any serious counter-action would be taken against the Algerians. On the 17th Comdr. Stephen Decatur’s squadron caught the Algerian frigate Mashuda off Cape de Gat and the Marines were especially cited by Decatur as providing excellent musketry fire from the tops. Two days later they took another Algerian ship, the brig Estedio off Cape Palos, where he again cited the effective fire of Marines as helping greatly in forcing the surrender of the Algerian ship.

At the end of the month, the Dey of Algiers realized that the game was up and signed a no question treaty with the United States. Then, on 31 July, a peace treaty was signed with the Bey of Tunis. This was followed on 9 August with a treaty of peace signed by the Bashaw of Tripoli. These would effectively end all payment of tribute to the nations of North Africa. Decatur obtained a treaty on 30 June, another with Tunis on 26 July and another with Tripoli effective 5 August, all in 1816.

Results: Warfare between the U. S. and various North African states lasted for more than 15 years and the final outcome was a barely visible victory. During the earlier years the USN, with a variety of commanding officers, did rather poorly trying to control access to and from the various nations being blockaded. A major success was the taking and holding of the city of Derna by O’Bannon until at least 11 June 1805. After numerous failed attempts to retake the city, the Pasha signed a peace treaty with the U. S. ending payment of tribute to Tripoli. The treaty subsequently faltered and was rehabilitated on 5 August 1816. However, it wasn’t until that year, more than ten years after Derna, that the USN finally stopped payment of tribute.