The Shores of Tripoli


Frank, the same Navy vet who sent me the story about the Artic Sea, also sent me this. I enjoyed it so much, I am posting it here without modification:

Have you ever wondered about what that verse in the Marine Corps Hymn was all about … you know, the one that includes the phrase “to the shores of Tripoli”.

I never really did. I mean, I knew it was about the USMC and Barbary Pirates in the early 1800’s, but I really never knew the whole story.

Until now. I just finished a book that literally left me reeling in disbelief as I read about that campaign … “The Pirate Coast” by Richard Zacks.

Here’s the short synopsis.

In 1803, while involved in the initial blockade efforts of the US against the Tripolian pirates, Captain William Bainbridge ran his frigate, the USS Philadelphia, aground in Tripoli Harbor. As a result, he was ‘forced’ to surrendered his command to the small gunboat he was chasing … even though (1) he had not taken any hits from the gunboat, (2) nor had he fired even one shot in defense, and (3) he only had to wait 12 hours for the tide to rise in order to be free of the reef he hung himself up on.

(OBTW, did you know Bainbridge was the first officer in the history of the US Navy to surrender his command. A feat he did not once, but THREE times from 1798 to 1803 … and each time without once firing a shot in defense??? First was the USS Retaliation to the French man of war, Voluntaire, in 1798 when he inadvertently sailed up alongside her. Second was in 1800 when he struck the ensign to the Dey of Algiers while commanding the USS George Washington .. here again faulty seamanship and navigation was the culprit as he errantly allowed the pilot in Algiers harbor to guide him to a berth beneath the guns of the harbor fortress there. And the third and final time was the USS Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor in 1803.)

Anyway, as was customary for the state-sponsored pirates of Tunis, they took the 307 officers and men of the USS Philadelphia as slaves, demanding ransom and tribute from the US for their release. Faced with a year long hostage crisis and a pending war, President Jefferson grudgingly authorized a secret mission to overthrow the government of Tripoli. The operation leader, William Eaton, was designated to lead a mercenary army on a death-defying march across the Sahara Desert to launch a surprise attack against the enemy. Backed by the cannons of the US Navy, Eaton and his troops achieved a remarkable victory by capturing Derne, the Moslem nation’s third largest city. Eaton was poised to move on when he discovered that Jefferson had no appetite for foreign conquest.

Eaton’s biography is remarkable. He enlisted at the age of 15 and fought with George Washington’s Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. Later, as a Captain, he fought alongside General “Mad Anthony” Wayne in the Ohio Valley wilderness campaign to subdue the Indian tribes. It was here that he learned and adapted Wayne’s leadership style in war; e.g., to lead and fight from the front. Anyway, in 1798 and following a tour as special investigator for Secretary of the War Thomas Pickering, he was appointed as the new consul to Tunis … where he learned much about the Barbary States. It was a position he was eventually removed from in disgrace for overstepping his authority. No surprise really considering his temperament. Eaton has been described as “defiant and daring, impetuous and hardheaded, blunt spoken and exceedingly direct.” Probably not a good skill set for a diplomat. Anyway, Eaton was a fervent patriot, and despite the misgivings of Jefferson and a whole host of others, he proved to be a good choice to lead the covert operation.

At first glance, the mission that Jefferson sent him on appeared to be impossible. Eaton would have to find a notoriously weak-willed prince named Hamet wandering somewhere in war-torn Egypt and convince him to seek his rightful throne as the leader of Tripoli. He would then have to mount a civil war in Tripoli to overthrow the current ruler (Hamet’s brother) and free the US Sailors and Marines held hostage. He would have to do so virtually without supplies, troops, money, or weapons because at the last minute Jefferson grew wary of intermeddling in a foreign government and all but rescinded Eaton’s authority … and more importantly, pulled the strings tight on the operation’s purse strings. Regardless, ever the patriot, Eaton refused to abandon his mission. He found Hamet and rounded up 75 European mercenaries plus hundreds of Bedouin fighters, and he borrowed Lieutenant Presley N O’Bannon and eight Marines … just eight … from the USS Argus, and led them on a horrendous march of 500 miles across the Libyan desert to surprise attack the eastern region of Tripoli. Once there, the makeshift army defeated the local troops and successfully captured Derne, laying the groundwork for the demise of the Barbary pirates. And for the first time ever, the triumphant Marines hoisted the American flag over a fortress in a foreign land.

Amazing story. And absolutely true. Eight Marines … and a couple hundred mercenaries of dubious loyalty and skills.

Immortalized in one of the most memorable stanzas of a most memorable song.

Now that’s something to blog about.

You got that right, Frank!


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