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To the Shores of Tripoli: The Barbary Coast Wars

  • Amy Puetz Contributor
  • Updated Apr 19, 2006
To the Shores of Tripoli: The Barbary Coast Wars

Along the northern coast of Africa there were four countries—Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli (Libya)—that made up what was known as the Barbary Coast. These Moslem nations harbored and sent out notorious pirates who raided coastal towns and attacked merchant ships. Terror was their most dangerous weapon. Preying on weak enemies, they made slaves of those they captured.

For centuries the nations of Europe purchased a weak, never-lasting peace, by paying tribute to the Barbary Coast. Regrettably the pirates never honored their treaties and continued their appalling acts. This was the established custom of handling the affairs in the Mediterranean when the United States gained her independence. Since America was no longer protected by England, the Barbary countries began to attack ships from the United States. In 1796, America negotiated a treaty with Algeria that promised the initial amount of $642,500 and an annual tribute of naval stores equaling $21,600. This treaty released American sailors being held as slaves. Similar treaties were signed with Tunis, Morocco, and Tripoli. Scarcely was the treaty signed, however, when the four Barbary countries began complaining that their neighbors received better gifts than they did. Relations became so strained that on May 14, 1801, the Bashaw of Tripoli declared war against the United States.

Grimly America entered another war knowing they must protect their citizens and commerce. In 1798, the United States created the Navy Department. After Thomas Jefferson was elected President he named Richard Dale as Commodore. News of Tripoli’s declaration of war had not reached America when Dale’s squadron departed for the Mediterranean. They were merely a "squadron of observation." Once the fleet reached the Mediterranean, however, Dale learned that America was at war. Passing through Gibraltar, Dale sailed for Tripoli, the capital city of Tripoli, to set up a blockage of the harbor. During Dale’s command, the American ship Enterprise defeated the Tripoli. This victory gave the U.S. sailors the confidence they needed to face the Tripoli pirates whom everyone thought invincible. In 1802, Dale resigned when another man was promoted to the rank above him.

The navy’s second Commodore was Captain Richard Valentine Morris. Lacking leadership, Morris unfortunately accomplished very little during his command. Bringing along his wife and young son, Morris gave the impression of going on a pleasure cruise instead of visiting a war zone. Lazily Morris and his fleet sailed in the Mediterranean. In February 1803, Morris visited the America consul at Tunis where he showed his incompetence by allowing himself to be captured and held for ransom. When the Bey of Tunis received $22,000 he released the Commodore. Although his fleet had been in the Mediterranean for over a year, Morris did not reach the harbor of Tripoli until May 1803. Displeased with Morris’ actions, the United States recalled and court-martialed him.

Edward Preble, the navy’s next Commodore, was a brave, fearless man who embodied the American spirit of patriotism and ingenuity. When he took command he began executing plans with decision and firmness. Immediately upon reaching the Mediterranean, he began negotiating with Morocco who was threatening to proclaim war against America. His tactics were intimidation instead of tribute. Morocco agreed to peace. Next Preble tightened the blockade at Tripoli.

An unfortunate event happened on October 31, 1803, when the Philadelphia struck a reef near Tripoli. The Tripolitans sailed out to her where they happily accepted the surrender of the Philadelphia’s captain, William Bainbridge. The loss of the Philadelphia was heightened when the Tripolitans freed the ship from the reef and began preparations to use it against America. If the Tripolitans repaired the Philadelphia it could be a formidable enemy used against the United States. The ship had to be destroyed. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur volunteered to lead the expedition. The plan was to sail the Intrepid, a Tripolitan-style ship that had just been captured, into the harbor, moor her alongside the Philadelphia, clear the decks of the enemy, fill the ship with combustibles, and blow her to pieces. On a dark February night in 1804, the Intrepid sailed unnoticed into the Tripoli harbor. Stealing close to the Philadelphia, the Intrepid sailed directly under the castle guns. At ten o’clock the Tripolitan officer on the Philadelphia haled the Intrepid. He was kept talking as the two ships drifted closer together. Quickly the Americans boarded the Philadelphia and won the deck. The combustibles were set in place and the fuse lit before the city of Tripoli knew what was happening. The Philadelphia drifted close to the castle when she exploded. In less than half an hour the Americans had accomplished their mission. Only one sailor was wounded. The Philadelphia’s destruction prevented her from being used against her own people.

Preble began attacking Tripoli in earnest, but sadly Congress replaced Preble with Captain Samuel Barron. While waiting for the new Commodore, Preble made every attempt to finish the war. Preble decided to send a fire ship into the harbor to destroy the galleys and castle. Lieutenant Richard Somers volunteered to command the enterprise. After the Intrepid was chosen to be the fire ship, she was loaded with 100 barrels of gunpowder, 150 charged shells and a handful of volunteers. On the night of September 4, 1804, the Intrepid sailed into the harbor. Originally the plan was to set the fuse and then abandon the ship with the timing set so that it would blow up when at the most advantageous spot. But something went terribly wrong when suddenly the Intrepid exploded before reaching its destination. It was thought that Tripolitan ships intercepted the Intrepid. Preble explained, "The gallant Somers and heroes of his party, observing the other three boats surrounding them, and no prospect of escape, determined, at once, to prefer death and the destruction of the enemy to captivity and torturing slavery, put a match to the train leading directly to the magazine, which at once blew the whole into the air, and terminated their existence." Unfortunately the fire ship did not accomplish its mission. All the men on board perished. However, before Barron arrived, Preble made five successful attacks against Tripoli.

Captain Samuel Barron lacked initiative and also suffered greatly from a liver problem. American Consul William Eaton accomplished the only thing of note that took place during Barron’s command. Eaton tried to regain the throne for the rightful heir.

Bashaw Yusuf of Tripoli was a greedy, arrogant man. Although Yusuf (Joseph) was the youngest of three sons he became Bashaw by brutally murdering his eldest brother, Hassan. When Hamet, the middle brother, discovered he was to share his older brother’s fate, he escaped to Tunis where he met Eaton and later fled to Egypt. After Tripoli opened hostilities against the United Stated, the idea of helping Hamet reclaim the throne as a means of regaining peace seemed like a probable strategy. In 1804, Eaton was sent to Egypt to find Hamet and offer to help him overthrow his brother. After Eaton found the banished brother, a small force was gathered, consisting of Hamet’s followers, a small number of Greeks, seven marines, and one lieutenant. On March 6, 1805, they began a strenuous march across the Libyan Desert. Traveling throughout the vast wasteland, they suffered from lack of food and water and mutiny among Hamet’s followers. Finally, on April 24th, they reached the outskirts of the Tripoli town of Derna. Several days later, they, along with three American ships, captured the city. Hamet could taste victory. Eaton knew a lasting peace would be established between the two countries after Hamet was on the throne.

Sadly for both men the United States and Tripoli had already begun peace talks before the battle at Derna. Bashaw Yusuf feared his brother would obtain the throne and thought it wise to begin peace negotiations. Since Barron would not fight, and the Consul General for Barbary, Tobias Lear, disliked the Hamet expedition, the peace treaty was completed on June 10, 1805. The agreement released the Philadelphia crew and gave America freedom to trade in the Mediterranean unmolested. The Barbary Coast was peaceful for a time, but soon they began their age-old trade of piracy. Finally, however, after the War of 1812, President Madison sent a fleet to Algeria to settle the matter. Stephen Decatur subdued the tyrants and never again were the American’s threatened by terrorizing pirates in the Mediterranean.

Study Questions and Follow-up Research:

· What four countries made up the Barbary States? Find them on a globe or map of the world.

· Between what countries was the Barbary War fought?

· Make a list of important characters in the Barbary War and their accomplishments.

· In many ways the Barbary War was considered America’s first war against terror. "Jefferson’s War" by Joseph Wheelan does an excellent job of covering the war.

· After reading the book mentioned above make a timeline of events that happened during the Barbary War, or make a timeline from the events mentioned in this article.

· What impact did the Barbary War have on the development of the United States as a nation?

Amy Puetz, a homeschool graduate, loves history, sewing, and working as a computer graphic artist for her company A to Z Designs. She is also the author of the exciting book Costumes with Character. Amy makes her home in Wright, Wyoming. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr ’06 issue of "Home School Enrichment Magazine." For more information, and to request a free sample copy, visit