Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Heroes of America's First Foreign War In Libyan Cemetery

Sec. Defense Panetta visits the Old Protestant Cemetery in Tripoli (Dec. 2011, where the remains of Intrepid heroes rest.

Heroes Of America’s First Foreign War In Libyan Cemetery

Posted on 23 January 2012
By Richard Sisk

The War Report

They were arguably the first SEALs.

More than two centuries ago, they rode a “floating volcano” fire ship in a valiant try at blowing up the pirate fleet to save the honor of the new nation, free POWs and stop the payoffs that the Founding Fathers were making to slavers and hostage takers.

The 13 sailors, including the uncle of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, were on a special ops night mission for the fledgling Navy of the young United States of America. All were killed when their sail-powered bomb named the Intrepid, crammed to the gunnels with powder kegs, exploded before reaching its targets in the harbor of Tripoli on Sept. 4, 1804.

Through countless changes of regime in Libya ever since, the remains of the sailors have rested in what has become known as the Old Protestant Cemetery of Tripoli. Now there’s a dustup between descendants of the sailors, who want the remains repatriated, and the Navy, which argues against disturbing the graves.

Last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on the first visit to Libya by a Pentagon chief, backed up the Navy after a brief tour of the cemetery on a bluff overlooking the sea to “pay my respects to the heroes from the United States’ first overseas war.”

““These brave sailors from the Intrepid, who died in the service of their country, have our nation’s enduring respect and gratitude. Having sailed into harm’s way to secure our nation’s interests, they volunteered for a dangerous mission and paid the ultimate price.”

Panetta made the case for leaving the remains in Libya:.” It is a sign of the great friendship between the American and Libyan people that, in spite of the differences that have marked our governments’ relations over the years, the Libyan people have maintained this cemetery with the respect and honor that it deserves, designating it a protected historic property.“

The descendants had been pressing for a Congressional resolution calling for repatriation but their efforts were sidetracked last month by an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act directing the Navy and the Pentagon to study the issue and report back within 270 days.

The study commission move was seen as a traditional Washington way of sweeping the issue under the rug in Somers Point, N.J., which is named for a relative of the leader of the Intrepid raid, Richard Somers.

“It’s hard to think of any unbiased study coming from this,” said Sally Hastings, head of the Intrepid Project and chairwoman of the Somers Point Historical Society. “Yes, we were disappointed.”

Master Commandant Richard Somers, Lt. Henry Wadsworth, the uncle of Longfellow, and the 11 other sailors fell in the First Barbary War that was fought in the administration of President Thomas Jefferson to win freedom of the seas and respect for the U.S. as a nation. It was also very much about the money.

Since the 1780s, the corsairs sent out by the assorted pashas, deys, beys and bashaws of the Barbary States of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli had been preying on the merchant ships of the U.S. They captured the ships, enslaved the crews, held them for ransom and exacted tribute for future safe passage.

Jefferson, as ambassador to France and later secretary of State, had argued for ignoring the problem. His position was that the future of the U.S. lay to the West in continental America, and not in getting mired in the intrigues of the Old World, but he was overruled by Presidents George Washington and John Adams.

They made annual payoffs to the pirate states. One payment to Algiers was estimated at $1 million, a colossal sum at the time. Washington and Adams saw no other choice. There was no Navy. The Continental navy of the Revolution was disbanded after the war.

Congress increasingly bridled at the payments and took up the cry “Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute. In 1798, the Department of the Navy was formed and Congress authorized the building of six frigates to take on the Barbary States. In what was to become typical of Congress in such matters, the pork for the building of the six ships was parceled out to six states.

In 1804, Jefferson, now a hawk, sent the frigates under the command of Commodore Edward Preble to blockade and bombard the port of Tripoli.

It didn’t begin well. The USS Philadelphia ran aground in the harbor while in pursuit of an enemy ship and the crew was captured. The pirates set up the Philadelphia as a stationary gun battery.
Preble came up with a made-for-Hollywood plan that relied on the daring of the swashbuckling Lt. Stephen Decatur, and would ultimately give the infant Navy the esteem it craved. With 80 volunteers, Decatur took a captured Turkish ketch, re-named the Intrepid, and sailed into the harbor flying British colors with his crew dressed as Arab seamen. Their goal was to destroy the Philadelphia.

The surprise attack worked. The Interpid pulled alongside the Philadelphia, Decatur shouted “Board” and his crew went hand-over-hand to the main deck where they killed the defenders.
In one last bit of daring, Decatur sent his crew back aboard the Intrepid while he set fire to the Philadelphia. The guns of the frigate overheated and began discharging in the fires as Decatur waited for the Intrepid to sail slowly past again. He leapt into the rigging of the Intrepid to escape.

Word of Decatur’s exploits quickly spread and British Lord Horatio Nelson called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” But the pirate fleet was still in the harbor and Preble came up with another plan of attack that again relied on the Intrepid.

Somers, Wadsworth and their crew packed the ketch with explosives and again sailed into the harbor intending to light fuses next to the enemy ships but the Interpid blew up before reaching the targets, either from fire from the enemy or a premature explosion.

The bodies of the Intrepid sailors were dragged through the streets of Tripoli and captured Americans were later forced to recover and bury them.

The conflict with the Barbary States would not be settled until 1805, when Marine Lt. Presley O’Bannon and William Eaton, the U.S. consul to Tunis, led about 500 Greek and Arab mercenaries on a 500-mile march across the desert to capture the Tripolitan city of Derna, leading to a treaty to end the war. Their feats have been immortalized in the Marine hymn “…to the shores of Tripoli.”

The oldest military monument in the U.S., the Tripoli Monument, was commissioned to honor the heroes of from the age of sail. The monument was at the Washington Navy Yard until 1831 when it was moved to the west lawn of the Capitol. In 1860, the monument was moved again to its current site at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Its site is near Preble Hall, named for the commander of the men who gave their lives in America’s first foreign conflict.

(Photo: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Tripoli cemetery where Intrepid heroes rest. Defense Department photo.)

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Thank you,

Stephanie Gaskell is the founder and editor of The War Report. Gaskell is a New York City-based journalist who has spent the past 15 years working as a reporter for several major news outlets, including the Associated Press, the New York Postand the New York Daily News, where she also wrote and edited the War Zone blog. She has reported from the World Trade Center attacks in lower Manhattan, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. She’s also written extensively about veterans and military families. You can reach her at stephanie@thewarreportonline.com.

Richard Sisk is the Washington, D.C.-based reporter for The War Report. He comes to The War Report after 40 years of local, national, and international reporting and editing at the New York Daily News and United Press International. His foreign assignments have ranged from Vietnam and the Mideast to Bosnia and Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Central America and the Caribbean. He has covered five presidential campaigns. Sisk served in Vietnam as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 2nd Battalion, Fourth Marines, in 1967-68. You can reach him at rich@thewarreportonline.com.

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