Military History: The Barbary Wars and the USMC

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By John Farnam

George Washington, even before he was president, lobbied heavily for a full-time, standing, Federal Army. In 1792, a distrustful Congress gave him and his successors, instead, the Uniform Militia Act, which involuntarily inducts every able-bodied male, in all states, between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, into his State’s “Militia,” which can be subsequently “Federalized” under certain emergency circumstances. There is provision for neither arming nor equipping this Militia, and each of its inductees is therefore expected to present himself for duty, when called, armed with personally-owned, military weapons. It is indeed this “Militia” that was referenced in the Second Amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1789) and was herein finally and officially defined by Congress, and that has been endlessly contended ever since, right up to the present.

The “Barbary Pirates” of the late 1700s were actually the “Navy” of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and several other North African city/states, descendants of Islamic Moors who had invaded, and subsequently been thrown out of the nominally Christian Iberian Peninsula. They freely and brutally victimized commercial shipping, of all nationalities, as it entered and exited the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar. Their favorite tactic was to sweep alongside a vessel and drop a sail over its rail, locking the two ships together. Then, heavily-armed pirates would swarm onto the victim ship, quickly neutralizing resistance. Captives were either murdered on the spot or spent the short remainder of their lives as slaves in African gravel pits. Lucky ones were held, in some semblance of comfort, for ransom. The young American commercial fleet, eager to become involved in world trade, found itself victimized on a regular basis, so much so, that piracy began to cripple the fledgling American economy.

In fact, this African pirates’ seizure tactic so impressed Samuel Nicholas, a prominent and well-connected Philadelphian, that he persuaded the Continental Congress to direct him to raise two battalions of infantry trained to fight aboard ship. These “Soldiers of the Sea” were to man the new fleet of warships being hastily constructed. A popular and notorious local watering hole, Tun Tavern, was selected as an extemporaneous base of operations, and Sam started actively recruiting there on 10 Nov 1775. So long as they were at sea, Congress didn’t consider them a threat. It was the inception of the United Sates Marine Corps, and that date is still celebrated today by all Marines, no matter where we are! Nicholas became the first “Commandant.”

The period in question spanned three administrations: Washington’s, Adams’, and Jefferson’s. All three presidents had their hands full! There was the pressing issue of attacks by British-incited and armed Indians of frontier settlements in the Northwest Territories. In fact, the Revolutionary War with England never really ended until 1818, when Andrew Jackson executed two British nationals in Florida who were inciting local Seminoles. There was also the short-lived “Whisky Rebellion,” and the equally short-lived “Shays’ Rebellion.”  The smart money was not on the USA surviving for long as an independent nation, particularly with its fractured, dyspeptic, chaotic form of government, and a “president” whose powers were poorly defined and endlessly disputed.

In an effort to secure the release of American hostages, held in Algiers since 1785, the Washington Administration, over the objection of Jefferson and many others, unwisely took the expedient route and agreed to pay ransom, in the form of cash and arms, to the current head Algerian warlord/thug (called the “Dey”). As is always the case, the moment you agree to pay extortion (what was called “Dane-Geld” by the British) extortionists everywhere will smell blood, and that is exactly what happened. In fact, as news of this easy score spread, even the French had the audacity to hit us up for a bribe or two!

Accordingly, the “Bashaw” (chief thug) of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, was not about to be excluded from America’s foolish largess! Karamanli, in his lust for power, murdered one brother and blackballed another. The cheated brother, Hamet, in an effort to reclaim the throne he contended was rightfully his, would become an ally of the United States, albeit briefly. He would be subsequently shamefully betrayed by the young nation he had naively trusted.

 When Jefferson took office in 1801, he had no particular reputation as a fighter, and Karamanli took him for a pushover. It was a poor call on Karamanli’s part! Jefferson decided to blockade Tripoli with every ship he could send. When one, the Philadelphia, ran aground and was captured by Karamanli’s men, a heroic American naval officer, Stephen Decatur, recaptured and burned it. Tripoli was then unmercifully shelled into submission.

 Simultaneously, William Eaton, an American living in Tunis, put together a diverse group of fighters, including eight US Marines under the command of an audacious Virginian, Lt Presley O’Bannon, landed in Egypt, marched undetected over four-hundred miles of desert, and attacked the City of Derna, a suburb of Tripoli (present-day Libya). It was an impossible, unwinnable battle that was won anyway, mostly through shear determination. With Eaton and O’Bannon was Karamanli’s estranged brother, Hamet.

 Upon hearing the news from Derna, the Bashaw was further traumatized and meekly sued for peace. Naive American negotiators, anxious to end the whole affair quickly, made a hash of subsequent discussions and produced a fatally flawed agreement which demanded nearly nothing from the vanquished Bashaw, save the release of the captured Philadelphia’s crew. Hamet never got his throne back, although he had been promised it by Eaton, and, by extension, the United States.

By the time he found out about the bungled agreement, it was too late for Jefferson to change it, and the unsavory stain remained with Jefferson and his administration, tormenting him until his death.

 Hamet was, however, unabashedly grateful to an heroic and unswerving Lt O’Bannon. Upon their parting, he presented O’Bannon with his “Mameluke” sword (the “Mamelukes” were Asian mercenaries, recruited to fight with the Egyptians in their conquest of Palestine in the 1200s). The unique Mameluke hilt is found on the ceremonial sword issued to every US Marine second lieutenant ever since. Mine is among my most prized possessions, as it carries me back to these heroic times!

Lessons: “All this by mighty deeds is done. All this by patient hearts is born. And, they by whom the laurel’s won are seldom they by whom it’s worn”

 Great victories are won by mighty warriors through superiority of will and superiority of purpose, only to be undervalued and frittered away by self-serving politicians who contribute nothing but gas!

Even now, freedom-loving multitudes everywhere, straining under the bonds of local tyranny, hesitate to throw in with the United States, because we have abandoned so many brave allies, starting with a trusting Hamet Karamanli, shamefully selling them down the river, all for political expediency, the most contemptible of all unworthy motives.

Be Sure and Read More of John Farnam’s Quips and Stories at Defense Training International

 

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