Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Unfinished March to Tripoli


By William E. Kelly, Jr. (billkelly3@gmail.com )

The tyrant of Tripoli demanded millions of dollars in tribute to stop pirating ships, Americans were being held for ransom in the dungeons of the old castle fort, the US Navy bombarded the city while a ragtime army of rebels captured an important eastern port town, repelled a counterattack by loyalists forces and began to march on Tripoli against all odds.

Sound familiar? Well that was the situation in 1805 when Yusuf Karamanli, the tyrant of Tripoli had demanded millions of dollars in tribute and ransom for the 300 man crew of the captured frigate USS Philadelphia.

Rather than pay tribute or ransom, the American people responded with the battle cry of “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute,” and Congress approved the financing of the construction of a fleet for a Navy to go and fight the pirates.

One of the first American ships on the scene, the schooner USS Enterprise, under Lt. Andrew Sterett, encountered the pirate ship Tripoli. After a fierce fight, during which the pirate captain twice faked surrender, he finally capitulated, but because we were not officially at war, Sterett couldn’t take the ship as a prize. It was however, a good example of how the Americans intended to deal with the pirates.

Another American warship, the frigate USS Philadelphia, was less fortunate, and under command of Captain Bainbridge, ran aground while chasing a pirate corsair into Tripoli harbor. The 300 man crew were taken prisoners and held for ransom in the dungeons of the old castle fort.

Lt. Stephen Decatur, aboard the captured pirate ship rechristened USS Intrepid, entered Tripoli harbor at night, sunk the Philadelphia and escaped without any casualties in what was one of the first covert actions of the US Navy.

Decatur and Lt. Richard Somers then led successful attacks against the pirate fleet in Tripoli harbor.

Somers and twelve other men would die in the September 4, 1804 explosion of the Intrepid, which had been outfitted as a fire ship that prematurely detonated, killing everyone. The next morning their bodies washed ashore and prisoners from the Philadelphia buried them in the park east of the fort, which is now known as Green Square.

While the navy bottled up Tripoli harbor, US counsel to Egypt William Eaton opened up another front, convincing Hamet Karamanli, the deposed brother of Yusuf, that he could reclaim power with the help of the Americans. With eight US Marines under Sgt. Presley O’Bannon, a contingent of Greek Christian mercenaries and a calvary of Bedouin tribesmen, they marched across the desert and attacked the eastern port city of Derna. In an overland surprise attack they captured the city in a little more than an hour, and then repulsed a counterattack from Tripoli loyalists.

As the ragtag army, flush with two quick victories, began to march on Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli met with the American diplomat Tobias Lear and accepted a peace treaty that paid $60,000 in ransom for the prisoners of the Philadelphia and allowed Yusuf Karamanli to remain in power.

The treaty also betrayed and abandoned Hamet Karamanli, who thanked Presley and the Marines for fighting with him by presenting Presley with his Mameluke sword, now used as the official dress sword of the US Marines.

The treaty also left behind the remains of Lt. Somers and the twelve officers and men of the USS Intrepid buried in Green Square, which once Gadhafi is gone, will be renamed Martyr’s Square, in honor of all those who died fighting the tyrants.

And now, as we witness the unfinished march to Tripoli as it plays out today, will Eaton, O'Bannon, Hamet Karamanli and Tobias Lear be redeemed and avenged by current events? Or will a treaty for peace allow the tyrants to stay in power?

[William Kelly is the author of “300 Years at the Point – A History of Somers Point, N.J.” Lt. Richard Somers’ hometown. He can be reached at billkelly3@gmail.com ]


Rob From Amersfoort said...

Thank you for your interesting website. A lot can be learned from the Barbary Wars. I hope Lieutenant Richard Somers and his men will finally return home in the near future.

Bill Kelly said...

Thank you Rob, It's good to know there's actually people out there reading this. Bill Kelly