The end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 meant that the United States was now a free and independent nation but with freedom came added problems. Prior to 1776 American vessels were well defended by the British Royal Navy and it was a brave pirate indeed who chose to attack merchant shipping flying the British flag.
Part of the British strategy was brute force against the pirates, most of whom operated along the North African shore, but there were also special payments (bribes) to key Moslem leaders along the coast. After independence was achieved, the United States, which had little in the way of a navy, had no choice except to pay bribes to the governments who operated the pirate fleets in the Mediterranean.
These payments were openly included in the annual federal budget but given creative names so as to partially conceal the fact that we were too weak to do anything else. We also paid ransom monies where sailors had been captured by the Moslem pirates and sold into a brutal slavery.
The matter of the Algernine pirates, as they were often called, came to a head in May 1800 when Commodore William Bainbridge, in command of the ship George Washington, went ashore to pay the annual tribute to the Dey of Algiers. Having gone through the humiliating bows and curtsies demanded of him, Bainbridge paid the money and prepared to leave.
The Dey abruptly decided that Bainbridge, in effect his slave because of the tribute just paid, would carry the Dey’s ambassador to Constantinople and the Sultan, the latter being the nominal – but not the actual – ruler of Algiers. Bainbridge refused but was told his ship would otherwise be blown out of the water by the Dey’s cannons and thus had to reluctantly obey.
By an odd quirk Bainbridge was received warmly at Constantinople as there was little love lost between the Sultan and the Dey. The Sultan gave Bainbridge his personal “firman,” a form of religious protection from fellow Moslems. The American commodore returned as ordered to Algiers and was again ordered to perform a task for the Dey. Bainbridge produced the firman and a humbled Dey allowed him to leave but not until Bainbridge demanded, and obtained, the release of the French consul and several dozen enslaved Frenchmen.
When Bainbridge returned to the United States he stated that he never again wished to visit the Dey except at the point of a cannon aimed at the latter’s chest. His wish was to bear fruit under another naval officer in less than two years.
In the meantime the Dey, or Bashaw, of Tripoli learned that the Dey of Algiers had gotten a larger tribute from the United States than he had received. He seized the American consulate, hauled down the flag and imprisoned all who were there.
There had been some anticipation of these events because of rumors reaching America and in response a flotilla under Commodore Richard Dale was sent to chastise the North African pirates where necessary. Dale bombarded several of the chief towns but in the end accomplished little and was relieved of his command upon his return to the United States.
As a result of the partial failure of the Dale expedition, in May 1803 a more powerful fleet under Commodore Edward Preble was dispatched to the North African shores.
Preble was born at Portland, Maine, in August 1761 and died at his home the same month 46 years later. During the Revolutionary War he served in a privateer vessel and then joined the regular navy. Captured by the British, he spent several months on the Jersey prison ship, a foul and vile place.
During the 1780s and 1790s he served as the master of a private vessel, trading all over the world, but in 1798 he joined the revitalized American Navy as one of the five lieutenants appointed by President John Adams. He was commissioned a captain in 1799 and made a voyage to the East Indies to protect American commerce.
Ill-health then kept him ashore until 1803 when he was once again given command, this time to Tripoli. His flag-ship was the Constitution, but there were six other ships, including the Philadelphia, and his force was a powerful one. He proceeded to Tripoli, where an early attack was a failure, the Philadelphia being lost to enemy fire. Preble pulled back to regroup.
In the spring of 1804, with better weather and his command once more in readiness, Preble returned to Tripoli. At first he merely blockaded the port, but during July attacked in force and continued the attack for the next several weeks. The siege lasted until early September, when Preble withdrew because of the oncoming bad weather; a small contingent was left to continue the blockade but not to attack.
Because of ill health once more, Preble was relieved by Commodore Samuel Barron in the latter part of 1804. Barron kept up the pressure on Tripoli and also landed troops to the east, under Captain William Eaton. The latter made a heroic march on Tripoli. Between Barron and Eaton the war was soon won, but, oddly enough, the ruler of Tripoli had already signed a treaty of peace with the American consul still in Tripoli, Tobias Lear, as a result of Preble’s actions.
Despite the odd ending to the war, it was clear that the American will to overcome piracy had prevailed. The Dey of Tripoli did cause some additional troubles a few months later, but the appearance of a fresh squadron of American naval vessels put a quick end to this.
Not only was the Dey of Tripoli humbled by the Americans, but other pirates along the Barbary Coast saw the handwriting on the wall and suddenly became less hostile. European nations were very grateful for the American action and the prestige of this country everywhere was enhanced.
After Preble’s return to the United States, Congress voted a gold medal to the naval hero in March 1805. It was of course clear to all concerned that, while Preble was the key figure in the victory, others – such as Commodore Barron and Tobias Lear – were involved and he was representing all the officers and men involved in the Tripoli affair. (Tobias Lear was for some years the private secretary to George Washington while the latter was president.)
Normally there is a long delay in the preparation of a medal but the Administration of President Thomas Jefferson was anxious to show the world, through this medal, our determination to do battle with piracy and other impediments to our commerce. Navy Secretary Robert Smith urged the utmost haste among his subordinates in carrying out the wishes of Congress.
As early as the middle of June 1805 the necessary drawings had been completed and submitted to the President, who acted with the Navy Secretary in making the final decision. The only dispute arose over the size of the medal: Preble asked to have a four-inch medal but was politely told that this particular size was reserved for heads of state.
In July 1805 Mint Director Robert Patterson at Philadelphia was informed by the Navy Department that the local Naval Agent, George Harrison, was to have full use of the Mint machinery and manpower in executing the Preble medal.
Harrison engaged John Reich, a freed bondsman, to engrave the dies as he was then the most skilled in this art in America. Reich was slow, but very good, and his finished work is justly considered a masterpiece. The obverse has the bust of Preble to the left, with the Latin inscription translating as “The American Congress to Edward Preble, the Valiant Commander.”
On the reverse there is a scene of naval fighting, again with Latin inscriptions meaning “To the Avenger of American Commerce” above and “Off Tripoli 1804” below. There is no precise date given on the medal because it was awarded for a series of naval actions, not one engagement.
Reich was extremely careful and deliberate in his engraving work but the dies were finished in due course and on Jan. 29, 1806, the government ordered one gold and 200 copper medals. These were completed by early in May and Preble was sent his gold specimen by mail. (His health was still deteriorating, accounting for the way in which the medal was hurriedly delivered.) The copper medals were awarded to a select group of officers and men who had served at Tripoli; there were other special awards to participants, including swords and pistols.
The Preble dies were returned to the Navy Department in Washington and were damaged during the evacuation of 1814, when the British burned the capital and other public buildings. In 1820 the dies were brought back to the Mint to strike another 50 medals in “composition” metal (tin?) and then returned to the Navy Department. In the 1840s a search was made for the dies, but they were then thought to be lost.
J.F. Loubat, while doing research in the early 1870s for his monumental study of the early congressional medals, discovered the Preble dies being used as paperweights in a Navy Department office. Sent to the Mint, they were used to strike copper-bronzed medals for collectors. In the 1880s new obverse and reverse dies were made by Charles Barber and George Morgan, the old ones having deteriorated too much over the years.
Medals struck from the original or replacement dies during most of the 19th century were made of pure copper but later given a special finish. Such medals are now called “copper-bronzed” by collectors and have a fine proof-like finish. Those with a light mahogany color are among the most favored. (The original copper medals struck for distribution in 1806 were not given a special finish, however.)
Beginning in 1901 the Mint began striking medals of this kind in bronze. The struck medal was then given a fine sand-blasted surface. These are sometimes called Late Bronze medals and the lesser quality of the finish means that they are worth less to collectors.
The Preble medal is no longer sold by the Mint. In the mid-1980s many of the older medals stopped being struck because of low interest by the public and the Preble medal was not exempt from this action. At the present time the medal is available only on the secondary market.