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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
Chapter III. The Corsairs of the Mediterranean
by Johnson, Allen


Shortly after Jefferson's inauguration a visitor presented himself at the Executive Mansion with disquieting news from the Mediterranean. Captain William Bainbridge of the frigate George Washington had just returned from a disagreeable mission. He had been commissioned to carry to the Dey of Algiers the annual tribute which the United States had contracted to pay. It appeared that while the frigate lay at anchor under the shore batteries off Algiers, the Dey attempted to requisition her to carry his ambassador and some Turkish passengers to Constantinople. Bainbridge, who felt justly humiliated by his mission, wrathfully refused. An American frigate do errands for this insignificant pirate? He thought not! The Dey pointed to his batteries, however, and remarked, "You pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves; I have, therefore, a right to order you as I may think proper." The logic of the situation was undeniably on the side of the master of the shore batteries. Rather than have his ship blown to bits, Bainbridge swallowed his wrath and submitted. On the eve of departure, he had to submit to another indignity. The colors of Algiers must fly at the masthead. Again Bainbridge remonstrated and again the Dey looked casually at his guns trained on the frigate. So off the frigate sailed with the Dey's flag fluttering from her masthead, and her captain cursing lustily.

The voyage of fifty-nine days to Constantinople, as Bainbridge recounted it to the President, was not without its amusing incidents. Bainbridge regaled the President with accounts of his Mohammedan passengers, who found much difficulty in keeping their faces to the east while the frigate went about on a new tack. One of the faithful was delegated finally to watch the compass so that the rest might continue their prayers undisturbed. And at Constantinople Bainbridge had curious experiences with the Moslems. He announced his arrival as from the United States of America he had hauled down the Dey's flag as soon as he was out of reach of the batteries. The port officials were greatly puzzled. What, pray, were the United States? Bainbridge explained that they were part of the New World which Columbus had discovered. The Grand Seigneur then showed great interest in the stars of the American flag, remarking that, as his own was decorated with one of the heavenly bodies, the coincidence must be a good omen of the future friendly intercourse of the two nations. Bainbridge did his best to turn his unpalatable mission to good account, but he returned home in bitter humiliation. He begged that he might never again be sent to Algiers with tribute unless he was authorized to deliver it from the cannon's mouth.

The President listened sympathetically to Bainbridge's story, for he was not unfamiliar with the ways of the Barbary Corsairs and he had long been of the opinion that tribute only made these pirates bolder and more insufferable. The Congress of the Confederation, however, had followed the policy of the European powers and had paid tribute to secure immunity from attack, and the new Government had simply continued the policy of the old. In spite of his abhorrence of war, Jefferson held that coercion in this instance was on the whole cheaper and more efficacious. Not long after this interview with Bainbridge, President Jefferson was warned that the Pasha of Tripoli was worrying the American Consul with importunate demands for more tribute. This African potentate had discovered that his brother, the Dey of Algiers, had made a better bargain with the United States. He announced, therefore, that he must have a new treaty with more tribute or he would declare war. Fearing trouble from this quarter, the President dispatched a squadron of four vessels under Commodore Richard Dale to cruise in the Mediterranean, with orders to protect American commerce. It was the schooner Enterprise of this squadron which overpowered the Tripolitan cruiser, as Jefferson recounted in his message to Congress.

The former Pasha of Tripoli had been blessed with three sons, Hasan, Hamet, and Yusuf. Between these royal brothers, however, there seems to have been some incompatibility of temperament, for when their father died (Blessed be Allah!) Yusuf, the youngest, had killed Hasan and had spared Hamet only because he could not lay hands upon him. Yusuf then proclaimed himself Pasha. It was Yusuf, the Pasha with this bloody record, who declared war on the United States, May 10,1801, by cutting down the flagstaff of the American consulate.

To apply the term war to the naval operations which followed is, however, to lend specious importance to very trivial events. Commodore Dale made the most of his little squadron, it is true, convoying merchantmen through the straits and along the Barbary coast, holding Tripolitan vessels laden with grain in hopeless inactivity off Gibraltar, and blockading the port of Tripoli, now with one frigate and now with another. When the terms of enlistment of Dale's crews expired, another squadron was gradually assembled in the Mediterranean, under the command of Captain Richard V. Morris, for Congress had now authorized the use of the navy for offensive operations, and the Secretary of the Treasury, with many misgivings, had begun to accumulate his Mediterranean Fund to meet contingent expenses.

The blockade of Tripoli seems to have been carelessly conducted by Morris and was finally abandoned. There were undeniably great difficulties in the way of an effective blockade. The coast afforded few good harbors; the heavy northerly winds made navigation both difficult and hazardous; the Tripolitan galleys and gunboats with their shallow draft could stand close in shore and elude the American frigates; and the ordnance on the American craft was not heavy enough to inflict any serious damage on the fortifications guarding the harbor. Probably these difficulties were not appreciated by the authorities at Washington; at all events, in the spring of 1803 Morris was suspended from his command and subsequently lost his commission.

In the squadron of which Commodore Preble now took command was the Philadelphia, a frigate of thirty-six guns, to which Captain Bainbridge, eager to square accounts with the Corsairs, had been assigned. Late in October Bainbridge sighted a Tripolitan vessel standing in shore. He gave chase at once with perhaps more zeal than discretion, following his quarry well in shore in the hope of disabling her before she could make the harbor. Failing to intercept the corsair, he went about and was heading out to sea when the frigate ran on an uncharted reef and stuck fast. A worse predicament could scarcely be imagined. Every device known to Yankee seamen was employed to free the unlucky vessel. "The sails were promptly laid a-back," Bainbridge reported, "and the forward guns run aft, in hopes of backing her off, which not producing the desired effect, orders were given to stave the water in her hold and pump it out, throw overboard the lumber and heavy articles of every kind, cut away the anchors . . . and throw over all the guns, except a few for our defence . . . . As a last resource the foremast and main-topgallant mast were cut away, but without any beneficial effect, and the ship remained a perfect wreck, exposed to the constant fire of the gunboats, which could not be returned."

The officers advised Bainbridge that the situation was becoming intolerable and justified desperate measures. They had been raked by a galling fire for more than four hours; they had tried every means of floating the ship; humiliating as the alternative was, they saw no other course than to strike the colors. All agreed, therefore, that they should flood the magazine, scuttle the ship, and surrender to the Tripolitan small craft which hovered around the doomed frigate like so many vultures.

For the second time off this accursed coast Bainbridge hauled down his colors. The crews of the Tripolitan gunboats swarmed aboard and set about plundering right and left. Swords, epaulets, watches, money, and clothing were stripped from the officers; and if the crew in the forecastle suffered less it was because they had less to lose. Officers and men were then tumbled into boats and taken ashore, half-naked and humiliated beyond words. Escorted by the exultant rabble, these three hundred luckless Americans were marched to the castle, where the Pasha sat in state. His Highness was in excellent humor. Three hundred Americans! He counted them, each worth hundreds of dollars. Allah was good!

A long, weary bondage awaited the captives. The common seamen were treated like galley slaves, but the officers were given some consideration through the intercession of the Danish consul. Bainbridge was even allowed to correspond with Commodore Preble, and by means of invisible ink he transmitted many important messages which escaped the watchful eyes of his captors. Depressed by his misfortune--for no one then or afterwards held him responsible for the disaster--Bainbridge had only one thought, and that was revenge. Day and night he brooded over plans of escape and retribution.

As though to make the captive Americans drink the dregs of humiliation, the Philadelphia was floated off the reef in a heavy sea and towed safely into the harbor. The scuttling of the vessel had been hastily contrived, and the jubilant Tripolitans succeeded in stopping her seams before she could fill. A frigate like the Philadelphia was a prize the like of which had never been seen in the Pasha's reign. He rubbed his hands in glee and taunted her crew.

The sight of the frigate riding peacefully at anchor in the harbor was torture to poor Bainbridge. In feverish letters he implored Preble to bombard the town, to sink the gunboats in the harbor, to recapture the frigate or to burn her at her moorings--anything to take away the bitterness of humiliation. The latter alternative, indeed, Preble had been revolving in his own mind.

Toward midnight of February 16, 1804, Bainbridge and his companions were aroused by the guns of the fort. They sprang to the window and witnessed the spectacle for which the unhappy captain had prayed long and devoutly. The Philadelphia was in flames--red, devouring flames, pouring out of her hold, climbing the rigging, licking her topmasts, forming fantastic columns-- devastating, unconquerable flames--the frigate was doomed, doomed! And every now and then one of her guns would explode as though booming out her requiem. Bainbridge was avenged.

How had it all happened? The inception of this daring feat must be credited to Commodore Preble; the execution fell to young Stephen Decatur, lieutenant in command of the sloop Enterprise. The plan was this: to use the Intrepid, a captured Tripolitan ketch, as the instrument of destruction, equipping her with combustibles and ammunition, and if possible to burn the Philadelphia and other ships in the harbor while raking the Pasha's castle with the frigate's eighteen-pounders. When Decatur mustered his crew on the deck of the Enterprise and called for volunteers for this exploit, every man jack stepped forward. Not a man but was spoiling for excitement after months of tedious inactivity; not an American who did not covet a chance to avenge the loss of the Philadelphia. But all could not be used, and Decatur finally selected five officers and sixty-two men. On the night of the 3rd of February, the Intrepid set sail from Syracuse, accompanied by the brig Siren, which was to support the boarding party with her boats and cover their retreat.

Two weeks later, the Intrepid, barely distinguishable in the light of a new moon, drifted into the harbor of Tripoli. In the distance lay the unfortunate Philadelphia. The little ketch was now within range of the batteries, but she drifted on unmolested until within a hundred yards of the frigate. Then a hail came across the quiet bay. The pilot replied that he had lost his anchors and asked permission to make fast to the frigate for the night. The Tripolitan lookout grumbled assent. Ropes were then thrown out and the vessels were drawing together, when the cry "Americanas!" went up from the deck of the frigate. In a trice Decatur and his men had scrambled aboard and overpowered the crew.

It was a crucial moment. If Decatur's instructions had not been imperative, he would have thrown prudence to the winds and have tried to cut out the frigate and make off in her. There were those, indeed, who believed that he might have succeeded. But the Commodore's orders were to destroy the frigate. There was no alternative. Combustibles were brought on board, the match applied, and in a few moments the frigate was ablaze. Decatur and his men had barely time to regain the Intrepid and to cut her fasts. The whole affair had not taken more than twenty minutes, and no one was killed or even seriously wounded.

Pulling lustily at their sweeps, the crew of the Intrepid moved her slowly out of the harbor, in the light of the burning vessel. The guns of the fort were manned at last and were raining shot and shell wildly over the harbor. The jack-tars on the Intrepid seemed oblivious to danger, "commenting upon the beauty of the spray thrown up by the shot between us and the brilliant light of the ship, rather than calculating any danger," wrote Midshipman Morris. Then the starboard guns of the Philadelphia, as though instinct with purpose, began to send hot shot into the town. The crew yelled with delight and gave three cheers for the redoubtable old frigate. It was her last action, God bless her! Her cables soon burned, however, and she drifted ashore, there to blow up in one last supreme effort to avenge herself. At the entrance of the harbor the Intrepid found the boats of the Siren, and three days later both rejoined the squadron.

Thrilling as Decatur's feat was, it brought peace no nearer. The Pasha, infuriated by the loss of the Philadelphia, was more exorbitant than ever in his demands. There was nothing for it but to scour the Mediterranean for Tripolitan ships, maintain the blockade so far as weather permitted, and await the opportunity to reduce the city of Tripoli by bombardment. But Tripoli was a hard nut to crack. On the ocean side it was protected by forts and batteries and the harbor was guarded by a long line of reefs. Through the openings in this natural breakwater, the light-draft native craft could pass in and out to harass the blockading fleet.

It was Commodore Preble's plan to make a carefully concerted attack upon this stronghold as soon as summer weather conditions permitted. For this purpose he had strengthened his squadron at Syracuse by purchasing a number of flat-bottomed gunboats with which he hoped to engage the enemy in the shallow waters about Tripoli while his larger vessels shelled the town and batteries. He arrived off the African coast about the middle of July but encountered adverse weather, so that for several weeks he could accomplish nothing of consequence. Finally, on the 3rd of August, a memorable date in the annals of the American navy, he gave the signal for action.

The new gunboats were deployed in two divisions, one commanded by Decatur, and fully met expectations by capturing two enemy ships in most sanguinary, hand-to-hand fighting. Meantime the main squadron drew close in shore, so close, it is said, that the gunners of shore batteries could not depress their pieces sufficiently to score hits. All these preliminaries were watched with bated breath by the officers of the old Philadelphia from behind their prison bars.

The Pasha had viewed the approach of the American fleet with utter disdain. He promised the spectators who lined the terraces that they would witness some rare sport; they should see his gunboats put the enemy to flight. But as the American gunners began to get the range and pour shot into the town, and the Constitution with her heavy ordnance passed and repassed, delivering broadsides within three cables' length of the batteries, the Pasha's nerves were shattered and he fled precipitately to his bomb-proof shelter. No doubt the damage inflicted by this bombardment was very considerable, but Tripoli still defied the enemy. Four times within the next four weeks Preble repeated these assaults, pausing after each bombardment to ascertain what terms the Pasha had to offer; but the wily Yusuf was obdurate, knowing well enough that, if he waited, the gods of wind and storm would come to his aid and disperse the enemy's fleet.

It was after the fifth ineffectual assault that Preble determined on a desperate stroke. He resolved to fit out a fireship and to send her into the very jaws of death, hoping to destroy the Tripolitan gunboats and at the same time to damage the castle and the town. He chose for this perilous enterprise the old Intrepid which had served her captors so well, and out of many volunteers he gave the command to Captain Richard Somers and Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth. The little ketch was loaded with a hundred barrels of gunpowder and a large quantity of combustibles and made ready for a quick run by the batteries into the harbor. Certain death it seemed to sail this engine of destruction past the outlying reefs into the midst of the Tripolitan gunboats; but every precaution was taken to provide for the escape of the crew. Two rowboats were taken along and in these frail craft, they believed, they could embark, when once the torch had been applied, and in the ensuing confusion return to the squadron.

Somers selected his crew of ten men with care, and at the last moment consented to let Lieutenant Joseph Israel join the perilous expedition. On the night of the 4th of September, the Intrepid sailed off in the darkness toward the mouth of the harbor. Anxious eyes followed the little vessel, trying to pierce the blackness that soon enveloped her. As she neared the harbor the shore batteries opened fire; and suddenly a blinding flash and a terrific explosion told the fate which overtook her. Fragments of wreckage rose high in the air, the fearful concussion was felt by every boat in the squadron, and then darkness and awful silence enfolded the dead and the dying. Two days later the bodies of the heroic thirteen, mangled beyond recognition, were cast up by the sea. Even Captain Bainbridge, gazing sorrowfully upon his dead comrades could not recognize their features. Just what caused the explosion will never be known. Preble always believed that Tripolitans had attempted to board the Intrepid and that Somers had deliberately fired the powder magazine rather than surrender. Be that as it may, no one doubts that the crew were prepared to follow their commander to self-destruction if necessary. In deep gloom, the squadron returned to Syracuse, leaving a few vessels to maintain a fitful blockade off the hated and menacing coast.

Far away from the sound of Commodore Preble's guns a strange, almost farcical, intervention in the Tripolitan War was preparing. The scene shifts to the desert on the east, where William Eaton, consul at Tunis, becomes the center of interest. Since the very beginning of the war, this energetic and enterprising Connecticut Yankee had taken a lively interest in the fortunes of Hamet Karamanli, the legitimate heir to the throne, who had been driven into exile by Yusuf the pretender. Eaton loved intrigue as Preble gloried in war. Why not assist Hamet to recover his throne? Why not, in frontier parlance, start a back-fire that would make Tripoli too hot for Yusuf? He laid his plans before his superiors at Washington, who, while not altogether convinced of his competence to play the king-maker, were persuaded to make him navy agent, subject to the orders of the commander of the American squadron in the Mediterranean. Commodore Samuel Barron, who succeeded Preble, was instructed to avail himself of the cooperation of the ex-Pasha of Tripoli if he deemed it prudent. In the fall of 1804 Barron dispatched Eaton in the Argus, Captain Isaac Hull commander, to Alexandria to find Hamet and to assure him of the cooperation of the American squadron in the reconquest of his kingdom. Eaton entered thus upon the coveted role: twenty centuries looked down upon him as they had upon Napoleon.

A mere outline of what followed reads like the scenario of an opera bouffe. Eaton ransacked Alexandria in search, of Hamet the unfortunate but failed to find the truant. Then acting on a rumor that Hamet had departed up the Nile to join the Mamelukes, who were enjoying one of their seasonal rebellions against constituted authority, Eaton plunged into the desert and finally brought back the astonished and somewhat reluctant heir to the throne. With prodigious energy Eaton then organized an expedition which was to march overland toward Derne, meet the squadron at the Bay of Bomba, and descend vi et armis upon the unsuspecting pretender at Tripoli. He even made a covenant with Hamet promising with altogether unwarranted explicitness that the United States would use "their utmost exertions" to reestablish him in his sovereignty. Eaton was to be "general and commander-in-chief of the land forces." This aggressive Yankee alarmed Hamet, who clearly did not want his sovereignty badly enough to fight for it.

The international army which the American generalissimo mustered was a motley array: twenty-five cannoneers of uncertain nationality, thirty-eight Greeks, Hamet and his ninety followers, and a party of Arabian horsemen and camel-drivers--all told about four hundred men. The story of their march across the desert is a modern Anabasis. When the Arabs were not quarreling among themselves and plundering the rest of the caravan, they were demanding more pay. Rebuffed they would disappear with their camels into the fastnesses of the desert, only to reappear unexpectedly with new importunities. Between Hamet, who was in constant terror of his life and quite ready to abandon the expedition, and these mutinous Arabs, Eaton was in a position to appreciate the vicissitudes of Xenophon and his Ten Thousand. No ordinary person, indeed, could have surmounted all obstacles and brought his balky forces within sight of Derne.

Supported by the American fleet which had rendezvoused as agreed in the Bay of Bomba, the four hundred advanced upon the city. Again the Arab contingent would have made off into the desert but for the promise of more money. Hamet was torn by conflicting emotions, in which a desire to retreat was uppermost. Eaton was, as ever, indefatigable and indomitable. When his forces were faltering at the crucial moment, he boldly ordered an assault and carried the defenses of the city. The guns of the ships in the harbor completed the discomfiture of the enemy, and the international army took possession of the citadel. Derne won, however, had to be resolutely defended. Twice within the next four weeks, Tripolitan forces were beaten back only with the greatest difficulty. The day after the second assault (June l0th) the frigate Constellation arrived off Derne with orders which rang down the curtain on this interlude in the Tripolitan War. Derne was to be evacuated! Peace had been concluded!

Just what considerations moved the Administration to conclude peace at a moment when the largest and most powerful American fleet ever placed under a single command was assembling in the Mediterranean and when the land expedition was approaching its objective, has never been adequately explained. Had the President's belligerent spirit oozed away as the punitive expeditions against Tripoli lost their merely defensive character and took on the proportions of offensive naval operations? Had the Administration become alarmed at the drain upon the treasury? Or did the President wish to have his hands free to deal with those depredations upon American commerce committed by British and French cruisers which were becoming far more frequent and serious than ever the attacks of the Corsairs of the Mediterranean had been? Certain it is that overtures of peace from the Pasha were welcomed by the very naval commanders who had been most eager to wrest a victory from the Corsairs. Perhaps they, too, were wearied by prolonged war with an elusive foe off a treacherous coast.

How little prepared the Administration was to sustain a prolonged expedition by land against Tripoli to put Hamet on his throne, appears in the instructions which Commodore Barron carried to the Mediterranean. If he could use Eaton and Hamet to make a diversion, well and good; but he was at the same time to assist Colonel Tobias Lear, American Consul-General at Algiers, in negotiating terms of peace, if the Pasha showed a conciliatory spirit. The Secretary of State calculated that the moment had arrived when peace could probably be secured "without any price and pecuniary compensation whatever."

Such expectations proved quite unwarranted. The Pasha was ready for peace, but he still had his price. Poor Bainbridge, writing from captivity, assured Barron that the Pasha would never let his prisoners go without a ransom. Nevertheless, Commodore Barron determined to meet the overtures which the Pasha had made through the Danish consul at Tripoli. On the 24th of May he put the frigate Essex at the disposal of Lear, who crossed to Tripoli and opened direct negotiations.

The treaty which Lear concluded on June 4, 1805, was an inglorious document. It purchased peace, it is true, and the release of some three hundred sad and woe-begone American sailors. But because the Pasha held three hundred prisoners, and the United States only a paltry hundred, the Pasha was to receive sixty thousand dollars. Derne was to be evacuated and no further aid was to be given to rebellious subjects. The United States was to endeavor to persuade Hamet to withdraw from the soil of Tripoli--no very difficult matter--while the Pasha on his part was to restore Hamet's family to him--at some future time. Nothing was said about tribute; but it was understood that according to ancient custom each newly appointed consul should carry to the Pasha a present not exceeding six thousand dollars.

The Tripolitan War did not end in a blaze of glory for the United States. It had been waged in the spirit of "not a cent for tribute"; it was concluded with a thinly veiled payment for peace; and, worst of all, it did not prevent further trouble with the Barbary States. The war had been prosecuted with vigor under Preble; it had languished under Barron; and it ended just when the naval forces were adequate to the task. Yet, from another point of view, Preble, Decatur, Somers, and their comrades had not fought in vain. They had created imperishable traditions for the American navy; they had established a morale in the service; and they had trained a group of young officers who were to give a good account of themselves when their foes should be not shifty Tripolitans but sturdy Britons.

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