Though his name appears nowhere in the title, Richard Zacks’ The Pirate Coast, is, essentially, a biography of William Eaton, the unlikely hero of an unlikely (and largely forgotten) military adventure during America’s first foreign war — the war with the Barbary pirate state of Tripoli.
In the early 19th century, the Barbary states of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers made the bulk of their revenues through extortion. Countries not wishing to have their merchant ships attacked by Barbary pirates had to pay tribute. Unhappy with the lack of tribute coming in from the United States, however, Tripoli, in 1801, became the first country to declare war on the young American republic. After a couple years of a modestly successful naval blockade of Tripoli by the United States Navy, events would take a bizarre twist in 1803.
On October 31, 1803, the USS Philadelphia, a 36-gun frigate, ran aground on an uncharted reef in Tripoli harbor. The Philadelphia’s captain, William Bainbridge, at age 29, was the youngest captain in the U.S. Navy. Previous to his command of the Philadelphia, his only distinction was that, as a young lieutenant commanding the USS Retaliation, he became the first American (post Revolution) to surrender his ship, which he did in 1798 during the quasi-war with France (without a shot having been fired, as he brought his ship up to what he mistakenly took to be two allied British frigates). The unfortunate Captain Bainbridge, unable to free the Philadelphia (records show that within hours, the tide freed the ship), surrendered. But in addition to failing to free the ship, Bainbridge’s crew was unsuccessful in scuttling the vessel, so not only did the Bashaw of Tripoli capture the Philadelphia’s 300-man crew (which was to endure almost two years of harsh captivity as slave laborers), he also captured the Philadelphia.
The capture of the Philadelphia set into motion events that propelled the career of young Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, who would command a daring nighttime raid into Tripoli harbor to burn the captured Philadelphia. The impetuous Decatur, shortly thereafter, was involved in another fierce battle in Tripoli harbor that would become part of Navy lore when, it is said, a sailor named Reuben James thrust his own neck out in order to intercept the sword of a Tripolitan fighter that was coming down on a prostrate Decatur.
ANOTHER AMERICAN HERO, HOWEVER, was born from the events springing from the capture of the Philadelphia. That hero was William Eaton, who would first find Hamet Karamanli, the ousted older brother of the Bashaw of Tripoli, (then in exile in Egypt) and then lead a ragged band of Hamet’s supporters, 75 European mercenaries recruited in Egypt, and eight U.S. Marines on a 500-mile march along the inhospitable North African coast to capture the city of Derne, the second largest city in the Regency of Tripoli and the seat of one of Tripoli’s most prosperous provinces, where for the first time the American flag would be raised over a captured foreign city.
In 1803, William Eaton was an unemployed, former U.S. consul to Tripoli and court-martialed Army captain. He was an intensely proud and patriotic man with a forceful personality and strong temper. Back in 1803, failed diplomats and court-martialed Army captains could walk into the White House and get an audience with the President. And in the wake of the Philadelphia catastrophe Eaton eventually convinced President Jefferson of his plan for regime change in Tripoli. Eaton was dispatched to the Mediterranean, and despite receiving little of the military and monetary support he had been promised, and finding Hamet Karamanli and his entourage often difficult and unenthusiastic, managed his improbable triumph, capturing Derne from a numerically superior force, and holding it (with the aid of naval artillery).
Unbeknownst to Eaton, however, was that while he was marching his army to Derne, Tobias Lear, U.S. consul general for the Barbary Regencies, was negotiating the rug out from under Eaton and Hamet (and the population of Derne, which largely supported Hamet). Lear was a rather shady character who had been a secretary to George Washington, and after Washington’s death seems to have absconded with and destroyed some of Washington’s personal correspondence that had put Jefferson in bad light. Zacks strongly suggests that Jefferson’s continued support of Lear had a lot to do with this destroyed correspondence.
In any event, Lear was the man on the scene empowered to negotiate with the Bashaw of Tripoli, and it seems that, despite a strengthened U.S. naval contingent ready for battle, the capture of Derne, and (unbeknownst to Lear), the desperation felt by the Bashaw of Tripoli, Lear pushed for and got a treaty — the most favorable ever negotiated with a Barbary state, but one far less favorable than which could have been achieved.
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