In the early 19th Century pirates from the Barbary States, Morocco, Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis, started raiding the merchant shipping of the newborn United States. They would take the ships and crews and hold them for ransom, ultimately wishing to extract tribute from the United States.
When the Brigantine Betsey was captured by Moroccan pirates, diplomatic channels were first tried. Spain’s recommendation was to pay tribute to the Barbary states to get them to leave us alone. Then US Minister to France Thomas Jefferson decided to send envoys to Morocco to try to purchase treaties. The attempt was apparently successful in that Morocco agreed that if any ships were captured and brought into Moroccan ports they would come under the protection of Morocco and be set free.
This did not help when Algeria seized the schooner Maria and then Dauphin. Diplomatic talks failed. Envoys were authorized to pay up to $40,000. The four Barabary Coast states wanted $660,000 each to free the crews and ships (Morocco apparently forgetting its existing treaty, or perhaps simply not considering it to apply when it was another of the Barbary states that did the actual pirating). It took a decade, during which time other ships were taken and their crews enslaved, before the US won their release at the cost of $1 million (out of a total Federal budget, for all purposes, of about $6 million).
This continuing demand for tribute led to the first rumblings that America had had enough with these people. The US formed the Department of the Navy in direct response in 1798.
Thomas Jefferson, then Vice President of the United States along with President John Adams once more tried to negotiate with them going to London to negotiate with them, a much more serious move than a similar trip would be today. The response they received was disheartening in the extreme:
It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.
It was clear at this point that paying tribute was a losing game. However, then President John Adams believed we needed a stronger navy before we could stop. The US agreed to pay $1 million a year (still a substantial portion of the US Federal budget) for the next 15 years for safe passage of US shipping through the Mediterranean.
However, when Jefferson took office as President in 1801, Tripoli demanded an additional $225,000.
This was enough. Jefferson refused.
Frigates were sent to protect American shipping. Congress never voted a declaration of war but they did authorize the President to instruct American vessels to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli “and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify.” The US ships, joined by a Swedish flotilla, blockaded Tripoli.
This undeclared war continued for several years before the battle that is the reason for today’s post.
On March 6 of 1805 Lieutenant William Eaton of the United States Marines starting at Alexandria Egypt with a force of 600 marines and 400 locally recruited Arab and Greek mercenaries and began a 600 mile trek across the Libyan desert. In the course of this trek friction arose between the Muslim Arabs and Christian Greeks. There were several mutinies among the Muslim forces. Eaton quelled the mutinies and finally reached the port city of Bomba in late April where the ships Argus, Nautilus, and Hornet waited under the command of Hull.
On April 26 Eaton sent a letter to the Governor of Derne asking for safe passage through the city. This request was, of course, denied with the Governor reportedly writing back “My head or yours.”
So on April 27, Eaton attacked. A cannon from the Argus had been shipped ashore and the Hull began a naval bombardment. Eaton divided his forces in two, sending one group under Hamet to cut the road to Tripoli and attack the city’s weakly defended left flank. He led the attack against the harbor fortress himself.
When his mercenary forces wavered under musket fire, Eaton led the charge himself being seriously wounded in the wrist. Hull, seeing the charging forces, ceased fire.
So successful was the charge that the defenders in the fortress fled, leaving their cannon loaded and ready to fire. Eaton turned the guns on the city. This attack, in combination with Hamet’s flanking maneuver, led to the city being completely taken by mid-afternoon.
And this battle provided the young United States with the leverage to win back the captured Americans and end the First Barbary War.
At it added an important line to the Marine Corps Hymn.