A History Lesson: The First Barbary War


In May of 1801, less than two months after President Jefferson’s inauguration, Tripolitan troops marched to the U.S. consulate to cut down the American flag. The First Barbary War had begun. Over the next several years, three different Commodores — Richard Dale, Richard Morris, and Edward Preble — attempted to blockade Tripoli to varying success. This strategy resulted in a statement, as the Pashaw, Yusuf Karamanli, managed to evade the blockade. Jefferson’s goal of achieving the least expensive solution possible only came to fruition through the actions of William Eaton in 1805. By getting the United States to support a covert operation to depose Yusuf, Lieutenant William Eaton played a decisive role in securing a favorable peace treaty with Tripoli to end the First Barbary War. His actions gave the U.S. more leverage in peace negotiations than the naval blockades of the previous four years. Had Eaton been allowed to continue his plan to capture Tripoli, America may have fared even better in the First Barbary War.

The majority of the First Barbary War was defined by a largely ineffective rotation of naval squadrons to blockade Tripoli. The Bashaw of Tripoli’s growing impatience contributed to the commencement of hostilities. The conditions in the earlier 1797 treaty with Tripoli had dissatisfied Bashaw Karamanli, as they contained no annual tributes. By October of 1800, the Bashaw demanded $125,000 upfront and $25,000 every year after from the U.S. Consul Cathcart. A week later, Tripoli captured the American merchant ship the Catherine. Cathcart reported the demands to the Secretary of State, quoting Yusuf as saying, “If you don’t give me a present I will forge a pretext to capture your defenseless merchantmen; he likewise says that he expects an answer as soon as possible, and that any delay on our side will only serve to injure our own interests….” To protect against escalating tensions with Tripoli in early 1801, Thomas Jefferson preemptively sent a naval squadron, led by Commodore Richard Dale, to the Mediterranean. In Jefferson’s words, only a display of overwhelming naval power would “stop the eternal increase” in tributes to Tripoli. However, after arriving in July of 1801, Dale was informed that the Bashaw had declared war 6 weeks earlier. In the following 9 months, the three-ship squadron attempted to blockade Tripoli, though the smaller Tripolitan vessels often slipped away in shallower waters and at night. By March of 1802, Jefferson had secured Congressional support for more offensive measures and commissioned a larger force of 5 vessels led by Commodore Morris to replace Dale. An unsuccessful blockade ensued, even though his 126 gun force was well able to destroy Tripoli. Morris’ ineffective and unprofessional conduct eventually reached back to the U.S., where he was recalled and court-marshaled. The stalemate continued under Preble’s 6 vessel force until the Philadelphia ran aground in October of 1803, tilting the power towards the Bashaw again. Yusuf was able to take hostage the 307-man crew and refloat the Philadelphia, giving him immediate leverage in the war. His price for peace went from $50,000 to $3 million. Luckily, Steven Decatur, the daring captain of the USS Enterprise in Preble’s fleet, managed to sneak into the Tripoli harbor disguised as a merchant vessel to bomb the Philadelphia. This removed the powerful ship as leverage, pushing the Bashaw’s demands back down again. Throughout 1801 to 1804, this tug-of-war had no clear winner. Notably, even as Preble stepped up sea attacks on Tripoli, Yusuf’s spirit failed to subside. According to the French chargé d’affairs, the Bashaw reasoned that “since the Effusion of blood had already commenced, his country was bent upon continuing the war.” The Bashaw had increased and decreased his demands based on the current situation, but the U.S. naval blockade and show of force failed to accomplish favorability in any sort of peace treaty. The mounting costs of the numerous squadrons had failed to accomplish Jefferson’s central objective — scaring the Bashaw into a fair deal.

A new strategy expedited the end of the Tripolitan War. William Eaton, the consul to Tunis from 1801 to 1803, had returned home to Jefferson with an idea to end the inaction. In the midst of the naval blockade, Eaton had been exchanging correspondence with Hamet Karamanli, the brother of the Bashaw. Hamet, the rightful heir to the Tripolitan crown but forced out by Yusuf, formulated a plan with Eaton to overthrow the Bashaw. In return for the U.S.’s support, Hamet would grant America free trade and the immediate release of hostages. Finally, in 1804, Jefferson approved the secretive plan, sending Eaton with an even larger relief force commanded by Samuel Barron to replace Preble. After preparing for a ground assault with Barron, Eaton arrived in Alexandria, ready to find Hamet to organize a force. Eaton proceeded to pledge to the ex-Bashaw that U.S. forces would use “utmost exertions, so far as comports with their own honor and interest,” to reestablish Hamet as ruler. After organizing a force of 300 mercenaries and 9 U.S. marines in early 1805, the two led a march from Alexandria to Derne, a 400 mile trek through the desert. Outside of the walls of Derne, the second-most important city under Tripolitan rule, Hamet received word that his naval reinforcements were ready to bombard the city. After a short fight, Eaton and the eight marines stormed the city, “hauled down the Enemys flag, and planted the American Ensign on the Walls of the Battery.” Eaton’s mercenaries and marines managed to take the second-largest city in Yusuf’s possession after only a short battle. The U.S. finally had secured enough leverage to force Tripoli into submission. Bainbridge, the still enslaved captain of the Philadelphia, wrote to Barron, saying “the Bashaw was so much agitated at the news of the approach of his brother, that he this day declared that if it were in his power to give up the American prisoners, he would gladly do so without the consideration of money.” Going into seclusion for an entire day, the Bashaw had finally weakened. The prospect of his brother invading Tripoli to claim the throne allowed the negotiator Tobias Lear to commence talks with Tripoli, forcing Yusuf to throw out a price for peace, which had stood at $200,000 before the Battle of Derne. On Monday, June 3, the Bashaw agreed to a treaty without tribute, releasing captive U.S. sailors for $60,000 and promising a full restoration of peace. Included in these provisions was the requirement that Derne be vacated, abandoning Eaton and Hamet’s plans to invade Tripoli. Nevertheless, even with their plan aborted halfway through, the capture of Derne finally accomplished for the United States what 4 separate naval blockades failed to do. According to historian Gardner Allen, “There can be little doubt that the capture of Derne and the defeat of the Tripolitan army… stimulated a desire for early peace.” The original ransom demands were decreased by 90%, American prisoners were released, and liberty had been achieved on the high seas.

The use of the Bashaw’s own brother to gain leverage in securing peace was far more effective in a month than four years of blockades. Throughout the relatively uneventful naval standoff, Yusuf Karamanli adjusted his demands both upwards and downwards depending on the time-dependent situation. Nothing had changed until a land invasion, the first Americans had ever pursued, convinced Yusuf that disaster was imminent. In fact, partisan debate back at home countered that Lear was premature in even securing the treaty. According to Eaton himself, embittered about the U.S. decision to abandon Hamet and the plan to recapture the throne, “Tripoli was in our power and with no very extraordinary effort it might have been also in our hands. The enemy felt a conviction of this and did not hesitate to acknowledge it in the presence of our commissioner [Bainbridge].” Eaton, and more broadly the Federalists, accused Jefferson of not taking advantage of the capture of Derne effectively, even though it already had been successful in securing a relatively beneficial treaty. In fact, it was argued that the 15,000 citizens Eaton effectively held hostage in the city were more than enough to secure the release of a few hundred sailors. Despite the arguably premature exodus from Derne, what Eaton managed to accomplish still tipped the war in America’s favor. This post-war debate further strengthens the argument that Eaton’s march across the desert and subsequent capture of Derne played the most important role in ending the war.

William Eaton’s plan, simultaneously plotted during the 4 years of naval blockading, set the tone for an American victory in peace negotiations. At the same time, the extent to which the Bashaw reversed his earlier confidence is telling of what the U.S. could have achieved if it pressed for more territorial gains through Eaton and Hamet’s mission. The partisan post-war rhetoric about the abandonment of both Eaton and the promises made to Hamet about recapturing the throne are valid, yet they show how instrumental the ground operations were in reversing the stalemate progressively larger naval squadrons had failed to achieve.

Did you know that the United States fought a war in the Middle East almost immediately after drafting the constitution? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.