At the time the United States won its independence, the states of the Barbary Coast—Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis—had been preying on the world's merchant ships for three hundred years. The Barbary cruised the Mediterranean, boarded merchant ships, overwhelmed the crew, and took them captive. The crews were held until their home countries agreed to pay ransoms for their release; if none was paid the crews were sold into slavery. Over time, most countries simply paid a yearly tribute to the sultans, thereby buying their ships free passage through the Mediterranean.
The British Empire protected the ships of the American colonies by treaties between the Barbary States and England. Once the United States became an independent nation, this protection was gone, and the U.S. was forced to make treaties with the sultans. In 1796, the tributes to the sultans were modest. Wanting a higher tribute, they sent a message to the United States demanding a new treaty. The demands arrived in March 1801, after President Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated. Jefferson disagreed with the policy of paying tribute and argued it would be cheaper to build a navy than give in to the sultans' increasing demands.
Jefferson sent a naval "squadron of observation" consisting of three frigates, arriving in Gibraltar on July 1, 1801, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale. Upon arrival, Dale was informed that Tripoli had declared war on the United States on May 10, 1801. Dale ordered his fleet to escort American ships near the port and maintained a weak blockade of Tripoli. While Dale chose a passive policy in the Mediterranean, some of his subordinate officers showed their zeal to engage the pirates. Lieutenant Sterrett, in command of the U.S. Enterprise, defeated the pirate Tripoli in an engagement on August 1, 1801. This action demonstrated a major weakness of the Barbary pirates.
In April 1802, Commodore Dale was replaced by Commodore Richard Morris. Morris arrived in Gibraltar in June with a fleet of seven frigates and a sloop. He continued Dale's policy of acting as escort to American merchant ships. In September 1803, Jefferson dismissed Morris from the navy when a court of inquiry censured him for lack of diligence.
The United States had now been at war with Tripoli for two years, without accomplishing much toward resolving the conflict. The new commander of the Mediterranean Squadron, Commodore Edward Preble was given command in June 1803. Preble was admired for his great courage, his fairness in dealing with his men, and his expertise as a mariner.
In October 1803, Preble's men faced their first major action with the enemy at Tripoli. On October 31, Captain William Bainbridge had run the Philadelphia aground on a reef near the entrance to Tripoli Harbor. Bainbridge surrendered the ship and its crew to the Tripolitans. Preble realized there was no chance of recapturing the Philadelphia and that the ship had to be destroyed. A raiding party would be sent to board and burn the Philadelphia. In a violent fight, the Americans retook the ship, set her afire, and escaped.
Following the burning of the Philadelphia, Preble moved ahead with plans to attack the city of Tripoli. He hoped to force Tripoli to accept peace with the U.S. and win the freedom of Bainbridge and his crew. He planned a series of assaults through the month of August 1804.
The first attack took place on August 3. As the American gunboats engaged the Tripolitan gunboat fleet, the Constitution attacked the shore. For two and a half hours the battle raged as the Americans approached, fired on, and then boarded six of the enemy vessels. There were four more attacks in August. After each assault Preble sent a message suggesting negotiations and offering payments of $40,000 and then $50,000 in exchange for the American prisoners from the Philadelphia.
In September, Preble conceived a plan to run a raiding party into Tripoli Harbor. This time the Intrepid, loaded with a hundred barrels of gunpowder, would sail into the harbor with a volunteer crew. After situating herself amid the Tripolitan fleet, she was to be abandoned and exploded, possibly destroying a good number of pirate ships. The Intrepid entered the harbor on September 4, 1804. As she approached the enemy ships, the pirates spotted the Americans, and cannon fire broke out. Seconds later, the Intrepid exploded. A direct hit had ignited the Intrepid’s gunpowder, obliterating the ship and her crew.
That same month, Commodore Samuel Barron arrived off Tripoli with reinforcements. Because he was senior in rank to Preble, Barron would assume command of the squadron. Stung by what he saw as a demotion, Preble chose to return to the U.S.
Commodore Barron continued the blockade of Tripoli, but stopped the attacks and developed a new approach to peace by undermining the authority of the pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli. The American consul in Tunis, suggested that they replace Yusuf Karamanli with his older brother Hamet, who was in exile in Egypt. Fearing that his overthrow was near Yusuf Karamanli agreed to negotiate a peace. On June 4, 1805, he accepted the last American offer of $60,000 for release of the American prisoners and approved a new treaty that did not require tribute payments. Once the American objective was accomplished, Hamet was left without support to continue the attempt to overthrow Yusuf Karamanli.
Source: The Barbary Wars, 1801-1805
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