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First Barbary War

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Burning of the frigate Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli, , , by , painted , depicts a naval action of the First Barbary War.
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Burning of the frigate Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804, by Edward Moran, painted 1897, depicts a naval action of the First Barbary War.

The First Barbary War (18011805, also known as the Barbary Coast War or the Tripolitan War) was one of two wars fought between the United States of America and the semiautonomous North African city-states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, known collectively as the Barbary States.

Contents

Origins and causes

Since the 17th century, the Barbary States of North Africa, although nominally governed by the Ottoman Empire, had been largely independent kleptocracies, run by piratical military strongmen and financed by plunder, tribute, and ransom.

The nations of Britain and France had come to uneasy ententes with the pirates; a combination of military might, diplomacy, and under-the-counter payments had kept ships flying the Union Jack or fleur-de-lys more or less safe from attack. As British colonists before 1776, American merchant vessels had enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy. During the American Revolution, American ships came under the aegis of France due to a 1778 treaty of alliance between the two countries.

By 1783, however, with the end of the Revolution, America became solely responsible for the safety of its own commerce and citizens. Without the means or the authority to field a naval force necessary to protect their ships in the Mediterranean, the nascent US government took a more pragmatic but ultimately self-destructive route. In 1784 the United States Congress allocated money for payment of tribute to the pirates.

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BainbridgeTribute.jpg
Captain William Bainbridge paying tribute to the Dey.

Use for the money came in 1785, when the dey of Algiers took two American ships hostage and demanded $60,000 in ransom for its crew. Then-ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson argued that conceding the ransom would only encourage more attacks. His objections fell on the deaf ears of a green US government too riven with domestic discord to make a strong show of force overseas. The US paid Algiers the ransom, and continued to pay up to $1 million per year over the next 15 years for the safe passage of American ships or the return of American hostages. Payments in ransom and tribute to the privateering states amounted to 20 percent of United States government annual revenues in 1800.

Jefferson continued to argue for cessation of the tribute, with rising support from George Washington and others. With the recommissioning of the American navy in 1794 and increased firepower on the seas, it became more and more possible for America to say no, although by now the long-standing habit of tribute was hard to overturn. A largely successful undeclared war with French privateers in the late 1790s showed that American naval power was sufficient to protect the nation's interests.

Outbreak of war

On Jefferson's inauguration as president in 1801 the pasha of Tripoli demanded $225,000 from the new administration. Putting his long-held beliefs into practice, Jefferson refused the demand. Consequently, in May of 1801, the pasha declared war on the United States, not through any formal written documents, but by cutting down the flagstaff in front of the US Consulate. Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis soon followed their ally.

In response, Jefferson sent a group of frigates to defend American interests in the Mediterranean, and informed Congress. Although Congress never voted on a formal declaration of war, that authorized the President to instruct the commanders of armed vessels of the United States to seize all vessels and goods of the Bey of Tripoli "and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify."

Algiers and Tunis backed down almost immediately on show of force by the Americans, but Tripoli and Morocco remained committed. The American navy went unchallenged in the sea, and as the question remained undecided Jefferson pressed the issue the following year, with an increase in military force and deployment of many of the navy's best ships to the region throughout 1802. USS Constitution, USS Constellation, USS Philadelphia, USS Chesapeake, USS Argus, USS Syren and USS Intrepid all saw service during the war under the overall command of Commodore Edward Preble. Throughout 1803 Preble set up and maintained blockade of the Barbary ports and executed a campaign of raids and attacks against the cities' fleets.

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PhiladelphiaAground.jpg
Philadelphia aground off Tripoli, in 1803.

In October of 1803, the fleet of Tripoli was able to capture the Philadelphia intact, holding its captain, William Bainbridge, and all officers and crew as hostages. On February 16, 1804, a small contingent of sailors in a disguised Intrepid and led by the redoubtable Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr., were able to invade the harbor of Tripoli and burn the Philadelphia, denying her use to the enemy. Decatur's bravery in action made him a hero to Americans back home.

Preble attacked Tripoli outright on July 14, 1804 in a series of inconclusive battles, including a courageous but unsuccessful attack by the fire ship USS Intrepid under Captain Richard Somers. Intrepid, packed with explosives, was to enter Tripoli harbor and destroy itself and the enemy fleet; it was destroyed, perhaps by enemy guns, perhaps accidentally, before achieving that goal.

The turning point in the war came with the Battle of Derna, after a remarkably daring overland attack on the Tripolitan city of Derna by a combined force of American marines and Arab, Greek and Berber mercenaries, under the command of ex-consul William Eaton and Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon. This action, memorialized in the Marine Hymn—"to the shores of Tripoli"—gave the American forces a significant advantage.

Wearied of the blockade and raids, and now under threat of a continued advance on to Tripoli proper and a scheme to set up his brother as ruler, the pasha of Tripoli signed a treaty ending hostilities on June 10, 1805. Although the Senate did not approve the treaty until the following year, this effectively ended the First Barbary War.

Legacy of war

In many ways, the First Barbary War did not meet its implicit goals. It did not, in fact, end America's position of tributary to the Barbary pirates. In fact, part of the treaty of 1805 was an agreement to pay ransom for sailors taken hostage by Algiers—part of the reason it took so long for the Senate to ratify. The Barbary states emerged relatively unscathed. For them, the First Barbary War was one in a series of punitive wars that signalled their weakened status and foreshadowed eventual colonialization by France, starting in the 1830s.

For the United States, however, it was an important campaign. America's military command and war mechanism had been up to that time relatively untested. The First Barbary War proved that America could execute a war far from home, and that American forces had the cohesion to fight together as Americans rather than Georgians or New Yorkers. The United States Navy and Marines became a permanent part of the American government and the American mythos, and Decatur returned to the US as its first post-Revolutionary war hero. The war also forced the pacifist President Jefferson to reevaluate the importance of military might in making the United States a world power. In some ways, America's success during the First Barbary War made the nation overly confident in its own ability—a confidence made manifest in the War of 1812.

The more immediate problem of Barbary piracy, however, was not fully settled. By 1807, Algiers had gone back to taking American ships and seamen hostage. Distracted by the preludes to the War of 1812, the Americans were unable to respond to the provocation until 1815, with the Second Barbary War.

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