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.