Another Forgotten War
by Richard Williams
We are in the middle of a bicentennial event: the two hundredth anniversary of an almost unheard of, and little remembered declared war. This war is barely mentioned in the history books but the events and the personalities in this forgotten war did have an impact on the War of 1812 and subsequent American history.
Many historians have forgotten this war and the circumstances that caused it. Few people know that we as a country once paid tribute to a foreign power and that we fought an early war on foreign soil and waters. The Barbary Pirates were the inhabitants of the nations of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. They were considered pirates because they captured merchant ships from many nations and held their crews and ships as hostages. The newly created United States was one of their victims.
After the Revolutionary War the United States allowed its navy to cease to exist. Many ships were sold; others rotted at the docks. We could not protect our merchant ships on the high seas. This was especially true in the Mediterranean Sea. One of the first incidents that involved us with the Barbary Pirates happened as early as 1785 when the pirates captured our merchantman the Maria and her crew was imprisoned. We had no navy to stop these types of activities.
We finally started to construct a new navy in 1794 with the building of four frigates of 44 guns and two with 36 guns. Included in this group were the United States, the Constellation and the Constitution. We would also build brigs, schooners, sloops and gunboats to compliment the larger frigates. This navy would fight a very successful undeclared war with France in the late 1790's. It would capture ninety French privateers and defeat a number of larger French ships.
For fifteen years after the Maria incident, the Barbary Pirates seized our merchant ships and actually exhorted tribute from the United States. Against George Washington's wishes we paid $56,000 to Tripoli in 1796 and more money to Algiers to cease capturing our merchantmen. This would continue until 1801 when the United States would not negotiate to a new arrangement and the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States on May 10th. Four warships were sent to the Mediterranean but little happened and they were replaced by a larger squadron in 1802. By 1803, this fleet would include the Constitution 44 guns, the Constellation, the Chesapeake and the Philadelphia all of 36 guns. Numerous smaller ships supported the larger frigates. Commodore Edward Preble commanded the fleet. The navy conducted many raids especially as it concentrated on its chief opponent: Tripoli.
In October of 1803, the United States lost the Philadelphia when she went aground doing blockade duty. Her crew of 22 officers and 315 men along with the ship were captured. William Bainbridge captained the ship. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. and 84 volunteer sailors destroyed the ship on February 16, 1804 as they floated into the Tripoli port in a disguised ketch, the Intrepid. They were able to tie up to the Philadelphia, board her, kill numerous pirates in hand-to-hand combat, and set the ship on fire. They successfully made their escape to the fury of the pirates.
On July 14, 1804, Preble decided to directly attack Tripoli, ignoring the other Barbary States. He used the Constitution, the Nautilus, the Enterprise, two mortar boats and six gunboats. He directed five attacks against the harbor, its fort and its protecting fleet. One of these attacks cost the navy the Intrepid, her captain Richard Somers and her crew. She was loaded with gunpowder and was supposed to sail into the Tripolitan fleet anchored in harbor and then blow them up. Unfortunately for the Intrepid, Tripolitan gunners sighted her and herself was destroyed.
The end of this war came when the navy, marines and allied Arabs captured the Tripolitan port of Derna. The Pasha of Tripoli signed a peace treaty ending the war on June 10, 1805 to get his port back.
This would not be the end of the United States' troubles with the Barbary Pirates. Algiers in 1807 again began capturing American merchantmen but because of the United States' involvement in the activities leading up to the War of 1812, little could be done with the pirates. After the 1812 War ended the United States on March 2, 1815 declared war on Algiers. Two squadrons of navy ships were sent to the Mediterranean under Commodores Bainbridge and Decatur and after numerous defeats of the pirates, Algiers was forced to sign a peace treaty in 1816. This would be the end of the troubles with the Barbary Pirates.
Other United States ships that were involved in the Barbary War included: the Argus, the Hornet, the Essex, the President, the Adams, the New York, the John Adams and the Vixen. Most of the ships involved in the Barbary War would go on and serve with honor in the War of 1812. Many of the officers of the 1812 War received their first combat experience fighting the pirates. The Barbary War also strengthened the reality that the United States needed a strong navy in order to protect its economic interests. The Barbary War also demonstrated the United States ability to reach overseas and strike an opponent, a feat that would not be duplicated until the end of the nineteenth century.