Reader provides extensive history of Barbary Wars
I greatly enjoyed R.W. Julian’s article on the medal presented by Congress to Commodore Edward Preble for his service in the 1803-1805 campaigns against the Barbary pirates of North Africa. However, I was bothered by several errors of fact and omission in the account of the war itself.
The sea robbers of North Africa are usually referred to as the “Barbary pirates” or more properly as the “Barbary corsairs” since their attacks on merchant ships were state sponsored, not the work of freebooters.
Technically, there were two wars, the Tripolitan (1801-1805) against Tripoli, today the capital of Libya, and the Algernine (1815) against Algiers, today the capital of Algeria.
Properly, they are called the Wars Against the Barbary Powers, but the later conflict was so insignificant that common practice has been to ignore it in favor of concentrating on the first, the Tripolitan or Barbary War. I have found no instance of the phrase “Algernine pirates” in any of the sources I checked.
The United States Navy, in 1801, consisted of six powerful frigates built in the 1790s: the 44-gun Constitution, United States and President, and the 38-gun Constellation, Congress and Chesapeake.
Private subscription, mostly from merchants and ship-owners, had raised funds to build two more frigates for the Navy: the 38-gun Philadelphia and the 32-gun Essex. In practice, all the frigates often carried five to fifteen more guns than their designed armament.
The rest of the fleet consisted of a pair of corvettes of 28 and 24 guns, and eight brigs, sloops, and schooners carrying from 10 to 18 guns.
On paper, it was a force more than adequate to suppress the corsairs of the four Barbary powers: Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli. But the era’s Republican party (not an ancestor of today’s Republican party, which emerged in the 1850s) had been highly critical of the expense of a navy and the risk that one of its ships could accidentally involve the country in an incident leading to war.
The pro-Navy Federalist party had lost the election of 1800, and the Republican congress was slow to vote funds to keep all the Navy’s ships in a high state of readiness. Ironically, it fell to the new Republican president, Thomas Jefferson, to order the Navy into conflict in the distant Mediterranean.
The war’s first attempt at blockading Tripoli was led by Commodore Richard Dale, who did reasonably well despite the weakness of his squadron and the restrictions of his orders. He returned to Norfolk in 1802 to discharge the majority of the crew of his flagship President on the expiration of their enlistments. He petitioned the Navy Department for promotion to admiral, was refused, and angrily resigned.
Dale was replaced by Commodore Richard Valentine Morris (not Preble, as the article states), who departed at the end of April in his flagship Chesapeake, arriving in Gibraltar a month later.
In no hurry to join the squadron off Tripoli, he spent the next eight months making port calls and showing his wife and young son the sights.
Stopping for a brief visit to the American consul in Tunis, he was imprisoned by the Bey for not making a courtesy call on his way back to the ship. The French consul bailed out the embarrassed commodore, and Morris at last headed for Tripoli.
Word of Morris’s shenanigans had reached the Navy Department. He was ordered home, where he would be stripped of his rank and dismissed from the Navy by President Jefferson.
Meanwhile, Commodore Edward Preble was dispatched to repair the damage to the squadron and to reassert the blockade. At Gibraltar, Preble heard reports that Morocco, usually the most peaceable of the Barbary States, had corsairs at sea preying on American merchantmen.
He sent the fine subscription frigate Philadelphia on ahead to Tripoli and set sail for the Moroccan capitol, where he expected the sight of the Constitution’s big guns and a few firm words would end Moroccan interference with American trade.
The biggest omission in Mr. Julian’s article involves the unhappy fate of the Philadelphia. His article states that the frigate “was lost to enemy fire.” That is not only inaccurate, but doesn’t hint at the dimensions of the story.
The Philadelphia was cruising off Tripoli on Oct. 31, 1803 when her lookouts spotted two blockade-runners trying to slip into the harbor. Captain William Bainbridge sent the big frigate barreling after them into the dangerous waters outside the harbor mouth. Within minutes, the Philadelphia struck a reef unmarked on Bainbridge’s antiquated charts, driving a third of her length onto the rocks and heeling over so that one broadside pointed at sky and the other at the water.
The Tripolitan corsairs in harbor saw their chance almost immediately, casting off and sailing for the harbor mouth to surround the stranded ship. Bainbridge tried desperately to free his ship: cutting away the foremast and rigging, dumping the fresh water, cutting free the anchors, and finally ordering all but a few of the cannon pushed overboard. It was all to no avail. Nine Tripolitan gunboats surrounded the frigate, blazing away with their 18- and 24-lb brass cannon.
Bainbridge called his officers together. They all agreed that the Philadelphia was doomed. All that remained was the choice between surrender or touching a torch to the magazine, blowing everyone aboard to Kingdom Come and perhaps a few of the pirates as well.
Bainbridge opted to save the lives of his crew. He lowered his flag and the pirates came swarming over the side to take Bainbridge and his crew of three hundred prisoner. At the next high tide, the pirates floated the Philadelphia free and towed her into harbor.
Preble was understandably enraged when he heard the news en route from a passing British frigate. The American squadron needed discipline. It had lost one of only two major warships and a third of its strength in a foolish act of bravado and poor seamanship unbefitting a professional navy.
He drafted a lengthy set of regulations and a rigorous training schedule. Arriving at Tripoli, Preble quickly brought the fire-eating young lieutenants who captained his smaller ships under strict control. As the squadron rounded into shape, they saw the wisdom in Preble’s program. Soon they began calling themselves “Preble’s Boys.”
With the newly confident and efficient squadron maintaining a tighter blockade of the port, Preble watched with growing apprehension as the corsairs stepped and rigged a new foremast on the Philadelphia.
At low tide they fished the ship’s cannon out of the shallow water over the fateful reef. Soon every one of the blockade’s smaller ships would be at risk of being picked off by the powerful frigate. Even the Constitution might be hard pressed to hold its own against the faster and more agile Philadelphia. Something had to be done before she was again ready for sea. Preble selected Lt. Stephen Decatur to lead a daring raid to destroy the Philadelphia.
On the moonless night of February 16, 1804, Decatur maneuvered the captured ketch Intrepid alongside the Philadelphia. An Arabic-speaking Maltese trader hired for the raid called on the frigate’s watch to throw a line since the ketch had lost its anchor in a storm. Obligingly, the watch threw the line, and a moment later, Decatur and his seventy-five volunteers poured over the frigate’s side brandishing swords, cutlasses, axes, and pikes.
In minutes, they dispatched the skeleton crew, killing some and driving the rest over the side. Decatur would later be criticized for not attempting to tow the Philadelphia out of the harbor, but it is doubtful he could have accomplished the feat under the guns of the looming fort and the surrounding shore batteries.
Besides, Preble had been specific in his orders to burn the frigate. The Americans quickly set fires in every corner of the frigate and escaped. Decatur, the last man aboard, made a flying leap into the Intrepid’s rigging as she pulled away.
Towed by boats from the covering brig Siren, Intrepid made painfully slow progress toward the harbor mouth. Unsure of their target, the fort and the shore batteries blazed into the night. Fire burned through the Philadelphia’s mooring line, and the big frigate drifted, firing randomly at fort, town, and the escaping American ships as the fires reached her loaded guns. Beneath the fort she exploded, hurling flaming masts and debris into a night turned as bright as day.
The burning of the Philadelphia made heroes of Decatur and Preble. No less a figure than Admiral Horatio Nelson of the Royal Navy called it: “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Buoyed by the success of Decatur’s raid, the squadron tightened the blockade still further.
Four times between early August and early September, the squadron, augmented with half a dozen gunboats and two mortar ketches, closed on the harbor to battle Tripolitan gunboats and to bombard the fort and town.
On the night of September 4, the gallant little Intrepid was packed with explosives and taken into the harbor by a volunteer crew in an attempt to destroy the corsair fleet at anchor. But either an accident or a lucky shot from a shore gun detonated the deadly cargo too far from shore, killing all the thirteen aboard and providing a spectacular but ineffective cascade of exploding shells.
Preble’s requests for more frigates and smaller ships reached Washington that summer, and the Navy Department ordered the most powerful squadron yet to the Mediterranean.
Commodore Samuel Barron arrived at Tripoli with the frigates President, Congress, Constellation, and Essex in the second week of September. Senior to Preble, Barron assumed command. A disappointed Preble sailed for home. The article states that he was relieved for poor health.
With the American squadron almost quadrupled in power, the harbor sealed, and his people restive, the Bey of Tripoli agreed to a treaty the following summer.
Peace held between the United States and the Barbary States for the next decade. Few American merchant ships plied the Mediterranean during the War of 1812 (1812-1814). With the end of the conflict between the United States and Britain, Algiers threatened to start preying on American shipping again unless paid a large tribute.
Having learned the failure of half measures during the war with Tripoli, the American government ordered two powerful squadrons to sea. Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron reached the Mediterranean first, capturing the Algerian flagship off Gibraltar in a chance meeting and bringing the so-called Algernine War to a quick conclusion by sailing into the harbor of Algiers with every flag flying and every gun cleared for action. Never again would the Barbary States dare to interfere with American merchant ships.
Students of American naval history would credit Preble with establishing a tradition of aggressive leadership that has continued down to the present day. “Preble’s Boys” became the brilliant frigate captains of the War of 1812.
Decatur would die in a meaningless duel in 1820, nevertheless remaining the beau ideal of personal courage for generations of young officers.
As R.W. Julian so ably described, a prescient Congress recognized the accomplishments and character of Preble, who had made men of his “boys,” an efficient squadron of a poorly trained collection of ships, and demonstrated to a nation the value of a navy.
Alden R. Carter
Editor’s note: Mr. Carter is a former Navy officer and teacher. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers in 2011. Among his nearly 50 books are over a dozen titles for young people on America’s wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. He is currently working on a book for young people about the Barbary Wars.
Disappointing that Patton isn’t honored with coin
I was a Navy man, but I’m glad to see five five-star Generals of the Army so honored. Only one question: where is the one five-star general that won the war in Europe? Yes, I’m alluding to Patton. Yes, a real American fighting general. Oh. Maybe not politically correct, but nonetheless, a fighting five-star general.
Well, maybe he knew too much. That’s why he was assassinated. Yes, assassinated. Oh well, that’s what happens when you go against the politically correct hypocrites.
I will wait for the George Patton coins.
North Baldwin, N.Y.
Editor’s Note: General Patton earned four stars.
Search turns up good-looking 1909 cent
Today I found a beautiful 1909 cent in VG+ condition. It was evenly worn with a very nice, deep tone of brown.
I have found two other 1909s, but they had corrosion and were slightly pitted.
I am very happy about this find.
Cents no longer showing up in grocery change
The first week of June I received three cents in change at a Fry’s grocery store. Two were like new. The first one I looked at was a 2012-D, my first.
I was expecting the second cent to be the same. I was wrong. It was a 1972-D. Not a great find as to value, but I’m wondering how it survived in such nice condition in the 40 years since it was minted.
I have stopped there for years, and it was rare that I did not receive at least one cent in change. The four or five times since the three cents, I have not received any cents in change. I asked the clerk the last time if Fry’s had eliminated cents. She said it seemed so. As Fry’s is part of the Kroger chain, I wonder if any of your readers noticed this. It may just be a fluke, but it is happens too often?
Is palladium Mercury dime on Mint’s 2012 docket?
I thought the U.S. Mint was going to make a palladium Mercury dime in 2012.
Did I read this correctly, or did I just dream it? Please advise.
I have been a loyal NN subscriber for years and would really like to know the answer to my question.