Wednesday, February 23, 2011

USS Enterprise v. Tripoli - Fighting Pirates

USS Enterprise Defeats Tripoli - Off Malta in 1803

Fighting Pirates - Yesterday - 1803 and Today - 2011

The murders of four Americans yachtsmen by pirates off Africa this week reflects the threat against American ships by the Barbary Pirates that lead to the creation of the United States Navy and contines today, two centuries later.

When the Barbary Pirates of North Africa began to attack American ships and hold crews as hostage for ransome and tribute, the Americans responded with the battle cry of "Millions for Defense but not once cent for tribute," and sent a fleet of ships to the Mediterranian to fight them.

As President John Adams said, "We ought not to fight them at all, unless we determine to fight them forever," and indeed, here we are, still fighting them.

The USS Sterret, the American warship that arrived too late to save the lives of those murdered by the pirates, is named after Lt. Andrew Sterret, whose schooner USS Enterprise was the first American vessel to engage the Barbary pirates in 1803.

Among the warships outfitted for the US Navy to fight the pirates was the frigate Philadelphia, and a number of smaller schooners, including the USS Enterprise.

Lt. Richard Somers, of Somers Point, New Jersey, who was later named skipper of the schooner USS Nautilus, reported on Sterret's first early action against the pirates in a letter he wrote to Lt. Stephen Decatur, who would later command the Enterprise himself.

"I was about to close my letter," Somers wrote, "when one of our officers got a letter from a friend on the ENTERPRISE, and as it shows how the Barbary corsairs fight, I will tell you part of it. While running for Malta, on the 1st of August, the ENTERPRISE, came across a polacca-rigged ship such as the Barbary Corsairs usually have, with an american brig in tow. It had evidently been captured and her people set adrift. Sterrett, who commands the ENTERPRSIE, as soon as he found the position of affairs, cleared for action, ran out his guns, and opened with a brisk fire on the Tripolitan. He got into a raking position, and his broadside had a terrific effect upon the pirate. But - mark the next- three times were the Tripolitan colors hauled down, and then hoisted again as soon as the fire of the ENTERPRISE ceased. After the third time, Sterrett played his broadside on the pirate with the determination to sink him for such treachery; but the Tripolitan rais, or captain, appeared in the waste of the ship, bending his body in token of submission, and actually threw his ensign overboard. Sterrett could not take the ship as a prize, because no formal declaration of war had reached him from the United States; but he sent Midshipmen Porter... - aboard the pirate to dismantle her. He had all her guns thrown overboard, stripped her of everything except one old sale and a single spar, and let her go, with a message to the Bashaw of Tripoli that such was the way Americans treated pirates."

"I understand that when rais got to Tripoli with his one old sail, he was ridden through town on a jackass, by order of the Bashaw, and received the bastinado; and that since then the Tripolitans are having great trouble in finding crews to man their corsair ships because of the dread of the 'Americanos'."

"...Now I must tell you a piece of news almost too good to be true. I hear the Government is building four beautiful small schooners, to carry sixteen guns, for use in the Tripolitan war, which is to be pushed actively; and that you, my dear Decatur, will command one of those vessels, and I another! I can write nothing more exhilerating after this; so, I am, as always, your faithful friend, Richard Somers."

While the USS Sterrett is now patroling for pirates off Africa, it is not known what effect the killing of three pirates by American snipers from the USS Bainbridge last year had on these pirates today.

As with the USS Sterrett, the Bainbrige is an American warship named after a hero of the War against the Barbary Pirates. Bainbridge was the Captain of the frigate USS Philadelphia when it ran aground outside Tripoli habor while chasing a pirate coarsair. Bainbridge and his 300 man crew were taken prisoner and held in the dungeons of the Old Castle Fort, which is now a museaum.

Lt. Decatur, aboard a captured pirate ship renamed the USS Intrepid, slipped into Tripoli Harbor on an early special ops mission and scuttled the Philadelphia and escaped without any casualities.

During one of the two American attacks on the pirate fleet at Tripoli, Decatur abandonded a captured Tripolian ship in order to avenge the death of his younger brother, who was killed by a pirate captain who feinigned surrender, just as the pirate captain while fighting Sterrett and the Enterprise.

Lt. Somers then sailed the Intrepid, filled with explosives, back into Tripoli habor on September 4, 1804 in what turned out to be a suicide mission. When the Intrepid exploded prematurely in the harbor, Somers, two officers and ten men were killed, their bodies washed ashore the next morning.

Captain Bainbridge convinced the Bey of Tripoli to allow the captured chief surgeon from the Philadelphia and a detail of prisoners to bury them, which they did just east of the Old Castle Fort in what is now Green Square, ground zero in the new Battle of Tripoli.

While Decatur and the Navy kept the pirates bottled up at Tripoli Harbor, Marine Lt. Presley O'Bannon and a detatchment of eight marines, American diplomat Eaton, 200 Greek Christian mercinaries and 2,000 Arab tribesmen marched across the desert and attacked and captured the port city of Derna, not far from Bengazi.

They were about to march on Tripoli and fight to free the prisoners from the Philadelphia when a treaty was hatched and Bainbridge and his men were freed.

The Bey at the time was Karamandi, the same name of the Bey of Tripoli in 1949 when a ceremony was held at the graves of five men of Somers' men from the USS Intrpeid. In over a hundred and fifty years, the same family was still ruling Tripoli.

Now there begins another March on Tripoli, but this one cannot be co-opted by a treaty, and Green Square, the site of the graves of Lt. Somers and his men from the Intrepid, is now the symbolic site that must be retaken before Libya can be considered liberated.


ROBERT said...

I just posted this on my FB page. How appropriate that the newest "Big E" is headed for Tripoli. As a kid I was fascinated by the history of that whole era, about which so few Americans know anything.
BTW, I visited your hometown a few years ago to tour the New Jersey.
Robert Von Bargen,
Santa Monica, CA

Bill Kelly said...

Hello Robert, Many thanks for your comments. It's good to know somebody is reading this stuff. I hope you got out of Camden okay. BK