The USS Nautilus
“My orders...to capture, sink, burn, destroy all Tripolitians.”
– Richard Somers, upon taking command of the U.S.S. Nautilus in 1803.
The NAUTILUS, a Chesapeake Bay schooner, was built in 1799 as a merchant vessel by Mr. Harry Spencer of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and owned by Mr. Thomas Tennant, when it was sold to the United States Navy.
Congress authorized the building of four schooners, but rather than wait for them to be built, Lt. Richard Somers, who was assigned to command one of them, decided to buy a used one instead.
Shortly after being launched, it was captured by French pirates, her captain murdered, the ship returned to the United States, and once inspected and found to be “well qualified for public service,” purchased by the Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith for $7,000.
Somers was quite familiar with schooners, workboats that were made on his own plantation. Before taking command of the Nautilus and leaving for the Mediterranean, Somers returned to Somers Point to put his business and personal affairs in order. One of the things he did was to launch a ship at Mays Landing, a schooner called the Gourd Blossom.
Having learned to sail on Great Egg harbor bay, Somers had taken to the sea early, and as a teenager, was the first mate on a merchant ship in the Caribbean when the captain died. Somers safely saw the ship home.
So Somers was quite familiar with the lines and the handling of his first command, the schooner Nautilus, the first of four U.S. navy vessels that would bear that name. It also could have been an inspiration for Jules Vernes’ fictional submarine of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
For Somers, taking over a used ship that was out of repair may have been faster and less expensive than building a new one, but it took a while to get the Nautilus in shape and outfitted for war.
While waiting for cannon and a detachment of marines to arrive, Somers received his orders. In the evening before heading out, he sat down at his desk in his quarters, and by the light of a lamp he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law and most frequent confident, William Jonas Keen.
“Dear Brother, I feel myself much fatigued sitting up until this time of the morning examining my accounts. Cannot omit telling you that I sail at daylight or sweep out of the harbor. I waited on the Secretary yesterday for my orders, which I received with general instructions – to capture, sink, burn, destroy all Tripolitans; and dispatches to Captain Rogers, which I cannot at present inform you of.”
When preparing to sail the Intrepid into Tripoli harbor as a fireship, the volunteers were selected from the crews of the frigate USS Constitution and the schooner Nautilus.
As they disembarked, "Mind boys," one said according to the diary of a shipmate, "give a good account of us when you get home!"
The Navy’s Barbary War Crucible
US Naval Institute August, 2005
Despite restrictive orders from Washington and setbacks at sea, the young U.S. Navy acquitted itself well during the four-year war against Tripoli.
By William M. Fowler, Jr.
The United States was born into a hostile world. The infant republic was fragile and vulnerable. Our former mistress, Great Britain, did not welcome American independence, and her government did all that it could to crimp the new nation’s trade. Across the English Channel, our old ally France, mired in a debt largely incurred supporting our revolution, turned against us as well. Other powers waited in expectation that America’s experiment in republicanism would collapse.
In the meantime, U.S. shipowners, having thrown off the restraints previously imposed by king and Parliament, dispatched their captains with orders to try all ports. Soon American ships were venturing into waters where profits loomed and danger lurked. The western Mediterranean was particularly volatile. There, Barbary Coast corsairs, persistent baiters of passing commerce, sortied to seize and hold for ransom our ships and sailors. Among the North African rogue states, Tripoli, ruled by corrupt Bashaw Yusuf Karmanli, was the most troublesome.
In May 1801, when Karamanli sent his henchmen to chop down the flagpole at the American consulate in Tripoli, he was at the same time insulting the United States and declaring war against it. Despite the drama, few people were surprised. For generations Tripoli had run a successful business intimidating nations into paying tribute for the “privilege” of sailing through waters over which it clamed sovereignty.
Great Britain, like most European nations, paid so that its vessels might pass freely. That protection extended to all vessels of the empire, and as long as the Union Jack flew over the stern of vessels hauling from American ports, the Tripoli corsairs permitted them to pass. Independence, however, ended the arrangement. Through the late 1780s and continuing into the 1790s, Tripolitans plundered American ships and imprisoned sailors. Matters worsened to the point that in 1794 Congress authorized the construction of a navy to defend American trade. Along a complicated course of negotiations, including the payment of tribute, the fledging United States attempted to navigate the shoal waters of the Mediterranean. America’s weakness at sea, however, was an invitation to rapaciousness. Karamanli cut down our flagpole not because we would not pay, but because we would not pay enough. The bashaw believed that the feckless Americans would soon find the cast to pay tribute.
Karamanli was wrong. Not even President Thomas Jefferson, who was wary of a strong navy and overseas ventures, could ignore the challenge. Jefferson’s response, however, as Commander Tyrone Martin has pointed out in his series of articles in Navy History about the war with Tripoli, was somewhat less than robust. 1.
The president dispatched Commodore Richard Dale with a small squadron dubbed the “Peace Establishment” whose orders limited their action to instructing officers and “Cruizing in view of the Barbary powers.” 2.
They could engage the enemy only if they found a Tripolitan actually attacking an American vessel. Upon arrival on station, Richard O’Brien, the American consul at Algiers, advised Dale that the Tripolitans must have either “money or Balls without delay.” Dale had none of the former, and his restrictive orders prevented him from delivering the latter.
After several months on station, Dale returned to the United States with little to show for his efforts. His replacement was Commodore Richard Valentine Morris. By the time Morris sailed, Congress had “recognized a state of war” with Tripoli but declined to declare war. Although ambivalent, this recognition did permit the secretary of the Navy to instruct Morris “to subdue, seize and make prize of all vessels, goods and effects, belonging to the Dey of Tripoli [Karamanli].”
Orders notwithstanding, Morris’ squadron behaved more like a touring company than a naval force. 3.
The commodore brought his wife, whom Henry Wadsworth – a young midshipman and uncle of the poet – described as the “commodores…not beautiful or even handsome, but she looks very well in a veil.” 44.
Exasperated at the Navy’s lack of energy, the American consul at Tunis, William Eaton, wrote of the squadron, “What have they done but dance and wench?” 5.
Dale and Morris deserve a good deal of the blame for the failure of their squadrons to subdue the Tripolitans, but the Jefferson administration must bear the weight of responsibility. Thomas Jefferson was committed to defending American trade, but not at the cost of great expenditures. Economy in government was his touchstone, and navies were expensive. He was also deeply concerned that a U.S. naval force operating in the Mediterranean, where European powers had been contending with one another for centuries, might involve the new nation in Old World strife. To preserve the budge and prevent foreign entanglements, he had limited the force given to Dale and Morris and then restricted their activities in ways that made it impossible for them to strike hard.
In organizing the third squadron, to be commanded by Commodore Edward Preble, the administration shifted strategy. Preble’s orders were nearly as restrictive as those given to Dale and Morris, but unlike his predecessors, he had a force more suited for the mission. Dale and Morris commanded large vessels whose size and draft made it difficult for them to pursue the corsairs near the shore, where they always ran for cover. Preble had a pair of powerful frigates, the Constitution and the Philadelphia, but in addition his force included smaller vessels: the brigs Siren and Argus along with the schooners Enterprise, Vixen, and Nautilus.
Hopefully, these smaller craft could bedevil the corsairs closer to their lairs while the deep-draft frigates held the offshore blockade. Preble himself pressed this close-in strategy and asked permission to charter additional small vessels. The secretary of Navy granted his request, but cautioned that he would have to man such vessels out of his own compliment, since there was no money for additional crew.
Preble’s fortunes took a sudden turn on 31 October 1803 when his senior captain, William Bainbridge, ran the frigate Philadelphia aground in Tripoli Harbor while pursuing a corsair. Ever since that dark day, historians have debated Bainbridge’s conduct both as a ship handler and a commander. In retrospect, his decision to pursue the enemy into confined waters had been more bold than prudent. He nonetheless had leadsmen sounding and lookouts posted. Hitting the bar at 8 ½ knots drove he frigate hard aground.
Commander Martin suggests that at this point Bainbridge panicked. That seems a bit unfair. He did all that could reasonable be done under the circumstances, but the simple fact was that his frigate was stuck on the bar. His decision to surrender has also been hotly debated. When Preble heard that Bainbridge had surrendered, he reported to the secretary, “Would to God, that the officers and crew of the Philadelphia, had one and all, determined to prefer death to slavery, it is possible that such determination might have saved them from either.” 6.
To Preble’s bombast I prefer Bainbridge’s explanation, “I never presumed to think I had the liberty of putting to death the lives of 306 souls because they were placed under my command.” 7.
The Philadelphia’s capture set the stage for one of the most famous exploits in U.S. naval history. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr.’s daring raid that resulted in the frigate’s destruction. What is often missed is that while Decatur’s raid set the Philadelphia in flames it did nothing to hasten the release of Bainbridge and his men. That would come nearly two years later via diplomatic negotiations and the payment of ransom. Not, aside from embarrassment, did the Philadelphia’s loss do much harm to the Tripolitans.
Preble increased the pressure on Tripoli through the spring and into the summer of 1804. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (a virtual vassal to Great Britain) agreed to loan the U.S. commander a small flotilla of gunboats. With his enhanced firepower, Preble laid into the Tripolitan. In August he made four assaults on Tripoli, wreaking considerable damage on the forts and city. In a grand and desperate September attack, Preble sent in Master Commandant Richard Somers in command of the ketch Intrepid, which had been converted into a “infernal” by loading her to the gunwales with power and combustibles. His mission was to sail close to the fortress, light the fuses, and then escape.
The infernal, however, blew up prematurely, and Somers and his crew perished. The Intrepid’s fiery end depressed American spirits. A few days later Commodore James Barron arrived to take command of the American squadron, and by the end of the year Edward Preble was on his way home.
Barron’s prospects were little better than those of his predecessors. Indeed, his situation was made even more dismal by the fact that he was too sick to say on station. He turned tactical command over to Captain John Rodgers, his senior officer, and left for Syracuse.
At the same time, Barron gave permission to William Eaton, naval agent to the Barbary States, to organize a land force to attack Tripoli from the east. Eaton struck a deal with Yusuf Karamanli’s estranged brother Hemet, whom Yusuf had ousted as bashaw. Under the pretense of restoring the rightful ruler, Eaton recruited some locals to join him in an expedition against Tripoli.
Also accompanying him were seven Marines led by First Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon. Setting out from near Alexandria, Egypt, they managed to march 500 miles and capture the town of Derne, but the operation was more comic opera than sound military strategy.
Dale, Morris, Preble, Barron-Rodgers – four U.S. squadrons all with the same mission: to chastise Tripoli and protect American shipping. While American shipping was made safer by the presence of these squadrons, whether Tripoli was chastised remained an open question. As Barron and Rodgers contemplated their options, a surprise message arrived from the bashaw: He wanted to negotiate a peace.
For Yusuf Karamanli the war was all about money. From this perspective the enterprise had ceased to be profitable, and with the continuing presence of a powerful U.S. squadron it appeared as if expenses might even rise. Nonetheless, Karamanli held the high hand – 300 American prisoners – but in some ways the POWs were more of a liability than an asset. They were expensive to keep, and as long as they were imprisoned the Americans would not leave. He would gladly exchange them for cash - $130,000, to be exact.
The Americans countered with $60,000, and Karamanli said yes. As part of the deal the Americans also agreed to abandon their support for Hamet Karamanli, leaving the former bashaw to retreat from Derne and retire to Egypt, where he withered into obscurity.
Despite Jefferson’s misgivings about the creation of a navy, the U.S. squadron in the Mediterranean acquitted itself well. Even the loss of the Philadelphia turned into something of a victory because of Decatur’s heroic action. In terms of human costs, all of this was accomplished at a relatively low price. Only six American officers died; a monument dedicated to their sacrifice stands today on the U.S. Naval Academy grounds. Those officers who returned home – the more notable among them sometimes referred to as “Preble’s Boys” – later played key roles as commanders in the War of 1812.
The financial cost of the war is hard to estimate, but it certainly exceeded $1 million (not including the loss of the Philadelphia). Clearly, paying tribute would have been much cheaper. Why then did the government, in the midst of Jeffersonian austerity and lacking enthusiasm for the Navy, not pay the Tripolitans?
One answer is honor. For generations, misinformed Americans have been quoting Charles Cotesworth Pinckney’s “Millions for Defense but Not one cent for Tribute,” as an example of the pain Americans felt paying bribes to Tripoli. Pinckney, of course, was referring not to the Tripolitans but to France during the furor over the XYZ Affair, which was a clear case of extortion. The Tripolitan situation was far less clear. European nations had been paying tribute for generations, arguing only over the amount, not the principle. Honor became an issue for Americans only after the war broke out; it did not cause it.
Once begun, the war was popular, more popular than cutting the budget. That popularity grew from U.S. victories at sea; not even the capture of the Philadelphia could diminish the enthusiasm. On the contrary, the Philadelphia’s loss resulted in greater resolve and a personalizing of the conflict, which became not just a trade war but also a glorious struggle to free fellow Americans. Her destruction added to the patriotic furvor.
The war, furthermore, really cost very little. Aside from the financial burden, which – despite the treasury’s penny-pinching grousing – the nation could afford, the war made no great demands upon Americans. During the conflict, commerce grew in the Mediterranean and the casualty lists were always small. Nations more often tire of wars because they are expensive. In the latter regard, as Commander Martin’s superb series of essays reminds us, the war with Tripoli was a bargain. By successfully “bashing the bashaw” our nascent navy established a tradition of competence and courage that made it the darling of the young republic.