Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Star-Spangled Shores of Tripoli
After a heavy shelling of Tripoli by three US warships, a landing party with the Marines in command hoisted the American flag for the first time over a fort in the Old World, April 27, 1805. One of the proudest moments in the storied history of the US Marine Corps. Image courtesy of the National Archives.
William Eaton and Sgt. Presley O'Bannon USMC and eight Marines lead the assault on Darnah.
Their march on Tripoli was thwarted by a peace treaty that allowed Yousef Karamanli to remain in power.
Wall Steet Journal OPINION • AUGUST 18, 2011
The Star-Spangled Shores of Tripoli
The Star-Spangled Shores of Tripolihttps://mail.google.com/mail/?hl=en&tab=wm - inbox/131f9e2f79d62d18
Libyan rebels are advancing on their capital, where 200 years ago the young U.S. won a major victory—and inspired a lasting phrase from Francis Scott Key.
By STEPHEN J. MARMON
Rebel forces in Libya raised their nation's old red, black and green banner over two more towns this week, from which they're now preparing to attack Tripoli. As they move to reclaim Libya from 40 years of tyrannical rule, we should recall that our flag was raised there two centuries ago, marking America's emergence as an international military power.
After our Revolutionary War, the Barbary Coast pirates—based in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco—were a major foreign-policy crisis for the new United States. Since the 13th century those marauders had attacked European ships in the Mediterranean, freeing crews and cargoes only after receiving ransom payments. Without the protection of the British or the French navy, American shipping began to fall prey to the pirates in 1784.
More than one-fifth of U.S. trade then was with Mediterranean countries. As Michael Oren (now Israel's ambassador to the U.S.) noted in his 2007 history of American involvement in the Mideast, "Power, Faith and Fantasy," enterprising early Americans could sell lumber, tobacco and tools around the Mediterranean in exchange for delicacies like capers, figs and raisins. A brisk business surrounded the exchange of New England rum for Turkish opium.
With the Barbary pirates threatening both profitable trade and national pride, the new country was in a quandary. The need to protect American shipping helped drive the argument for a new and stronger Constitution. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers that only a more powerful central government could ward off "the rapacious demands of pirates and barbarians," while John Jay believed that the "pirates of Tunis and Tripoli" would compel the feeble American states to unite.
It took 15 years, as well as payouts of tribute to African pirates that sometimes cost 20% of the federal budget, before the U.S. had a sizable Navy. But our fleet ran into trouble after President Jefferson ordered the ships into action. The flagship of the armada, the Philadelphia, foundered on a reef off Tripoli in October 1803. Yusuf Karamanli, ruler of what is now Libya, imprisoned the entire 307-man crew of the 36-gun frigate and aimed its cannon at the rest of the U.S. fleet.
A daring raid by Navy Capt. Stephen Decatur set the ship afire in February 1804, but the American expedition otherwise was frustrated. In 1805, William Eaton, who had served previously as U.S. consul general in Tunis, organized a land attack on Libya. Determined to place a friend on the Libyan throne, Eaton led a former Libyan pasha—Hamet, who had been deposed and exiled by his younger brother Karamanli—plus nine Marines and 400 mercenaries on a sun-baked, two-month march of 500 miles from Egypt to Darnah, then Libya's second-largest city.
On April 27, 1805, after U.S. Navy ships bombarded the town, more than 800 people were killed and 1,200 were injured in a pitched battle. Marines then raised the 15-star U.S. flag over Darnah's harbor fortress. Karamanli's forces tried to retake the city, but the Americans and their allies held them off and prepared to march west on Tripoli.
A month later, Karamanli signed a new treaty and released the captain and crew of the Philadelphia (in exchange for $60,000). He also kept his throne, forced his brother Hamet back into exile, and a decade later was back to the same old pirate attacks, until the U.S. and other countries stopped the marauding for good.
But the American victory in 1805 established our new military prowess. Decatur was feted as a hero and the African battle would be enshrined in the Marine Corps Hymn:
From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea.
At a banquet honoring Decatur that fall, Francis Scott Key read his new poem, "When the Warrior Returns," about the battle in Darnah. In it was a phrase that would define his country's banner for all time, a phrase he would use nine years later while watching the
British attack Fort McHenry:
And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscured
By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation.
Where each radiant star gleamed a meteor of war,
And the turbaned heads bowed to its terrible glare.
That 1805 battle gave the U.S. both pride in its ability to use force for just ends, and a phrase that has endured as a lasting symbol of the nation. It would be fitting if Libya's rebels, supported by America and her allies, soon have a new moment of splendor as they raise their flag, with its crescent and star, by the shores of Tripoli.
Mr. Marmon reported on Congress for the New York Times. His new book, "The Cheaters: America's Political Sex Scandals," will be published next year.