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A Picture from History: The Shores of Tripoli

In this Picture from History, we take a look into the First Barbary War in the early 1800s, which saw U.S. Marines landing in Tripoli.

    In the early 1800s, state-sponsored pirates terrorized American ships at sea…and it was about to lead to war.

    Thomas Jefferson won the presidency, and with his office, he inherited a wide range of problems.

    Enterprise capturing Tripolitan Corsair. 1801
    Enterprise capturing Tripolitan Corsair. 1801 (U.S. National Archives and Record Administration)

    Perhaps one of the most concerning was the Barbary states — Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco — continually attacking American merchant ships traveling to Europe. 

    Pirates & Bribes

    When these pirates attacked, they customarily kidnapped all aboard, only to torture, murder, or sell them into some form of slavery later.

    To add further insult to injury, the Barbary states singled out American ships with little intention of attacking British, French, or Spanish ships in the region. 

    Barbary pirates taking prisoners (G.M. Brighty)
    Barbary pirates taking prisoners (G.M. Brighty)

    Jefferson discovered the reason no other nation faced this problem was that they regularly paid bribes — “protection money” — to the Barbary states to keep them at bay.

    While Jefferson was opposed to the idea, America agreed to pay protection money for 15 years but found out rates kept rising and people were still being kidnapped.

    But war was on the horizon and things were about to change…

    Barbary pirates and Americans fighting
    Stephen Decatur and his men fighting with hand-to-hand onboard a Tripolitan gunboat, August 3, 1804. (F.O.C. Darley)

    War Breaks Out

    On May 14, 1801, the ruler of Tripoli declared war on America, believing that he was treated unfairly and that the protection money rate from America was too low.

    Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli by Edward Moran
    Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli by Edward Moran

    For two years, small skirmishes took place amongst the nations, but in 1805 the U.S. Marines landed on Tripoli shores.

    Led by William Eaton and Presley O’Bannon, six Marines arrived to wage battle. But eight men weren’t enough, so the team enlisted the help of 400 mercenaries.

    William Eaton
    William Eaton as painted by Rembrandt Peale

    The men set out on March 8. 

    Journey to Derna

    Six hundred miles of Libyan desert stretched before them. If they could somehow make it across that expanse of sand, they would be able to reach their target destination — the coastal city of Derna. 

    It took the men 50 days to finally reach the end of the sand, coming to the town of Bomba. They were still 38 miles away from Derna, but if they could take Bomba, they’d have taken a strategic hold in the area that would allow the American Navy to enter the fray.

    This wasn’t some haphazard, last-minute plan, though. This was the intent all along.

    Presley O'Bannon
    Presley O’Bannon

    As Eaton and O’Bannon’s men approached, American ships began to bombard the town. Then, the Marines attacked, despite facing 10-to-1 odds.

    The nation had been expecting this, however, and significantly strengthened defenses. The first wave of Americans was repelled by intense firepower.

    But within two hours, the city was taken, and O’Bannon waved the American flag over the ramparts. 

    Hearing of the attack, Tripoli soldiers move to retake Bomba, encircling the city. While the fighting pushed the Marines back to the inner parts of the city, they still managed to hold their ground, repulsing the attackers.

    Peace at Last

    A treaty was signed on June 10, 1805, and the First Barbary War came to a sudden end. Three hundred American POWs were released as a condition of the treaty, saved by the Marines.

    Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat during the bombardment of Tripoli, 3 August 1804. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur (lower right center) in mortal combat with the Tripolitan Captain. (Dennis Malone Carter)
    Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat during the bombardment of Tripoli, 3 August 1804. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur (lower right center) in mortal combat with the Tripolitan Captain. (Dennis Malone Carter)

    And O’Bannon? He was awarded an elegant, curved sword by Hamet. The same style of sword would be incorporated into the U.S. Marine uniform years later.  

    This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical, if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. To catch up on previous Pictures from History, click on over to our History Category.

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    7 Leave a Reply

    • Commenter Avatar
      John Drexel

      From an article published in Shore Local Newsmagazine, Egg Harbor Township, NJ on 03.24.20.

      Somers Point is the oldest European settlement in Atlantic County, NJ. In 1693, Thomas Budd sold a 1,500 acre tract of land to John Somers. He and his family emigrated from England. Between 1720 and 1726, Somers Mansion was built by John Somers’ oldest son, Richard Somers. It is the oldest existing house in Atlantic County, NJ.

      Somers Point was the birthplace of John’s great grandson, Richard Somers who was born on September 15, 1778. Richard Somers was an officer in the U.S. Navy and first served in the West Indies during the Quasi-War with France. It is reported that in 1800, Somers fought in a series of duels after being accused of getting cold feet over battling future naval commodore Stephen Decatur. In May of 1803, he commanded the USS Nautilus out of Baltimore, MD and led successful missions in Spain and Gibraltar.

      On September 4, 1804, Somers was assumed commander of the USS Intrepid, which was fitted out as a “floating volcano,” set to be blown up in Tripoli Harbor during the First Barbary War. Over 150 shells and 100 barrels of powder were loaded onto the vessel, with three rescue ships serving as escorts for those aboard. The Intrepid was spotted by the enemy fleet shortly before the mission could be carried out. All men on board, including Somers, died in the incident. A monument commemorating Richard Somers and heroes of the First Barbary War can be found at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

      My family lives one mile from Commander Richard Somers home.

      November 7, 2022 8:28 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Martin Price

      Truly enjoy these historical articles. Keep up the good work!

      November 7, 2022 7:24 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Nice article. I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

      November 7, 2022 8:21 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      Mark Shaner

      Wonderful story of one of the origins of the USMC… Semper Fi

      November 6, 2022 3:48 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Bemused Berserker

      This history is why Obama's claim the Islam was woven into the fabric of our Nation was somewhat true, but it wasn't woven in in a positive way. Several of the Founders stated in their writings that the Musselman (sic)*religion was incompatible with Constitutional values and precepts. It's why Sharia Law remains incompatible with US Law, and the two should never be mixed.
      The Barbary Wars, are also where the US Marines picked up the nickname "Leathernecks," due to the thick leather collar they wore as protection against the Barbary Pirates swords.
      Good article Aden.

      November 6, 2022 3:38 pm
      • Commenter Avatar

        Marine officers today carry the Mameluke sword which was given to P O’Bannon by Prince Hamet.

        December 6, 2022 2:37 pm
        • Commenter Avatar
          Chuck Cochran

          Yes Sir 0352, you are spot on correct.

          December 7, 2022 10:37 pm
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