Barbary Wars – a war of economics not religion

June 4, 2009

William Eaton in Barbary WarsObama’s reference to Jefferson’s relationship with the Muslim world was an odd note to sound. How about the Barbary Wars (1801 – 1805) against Tripoli? Kind of like saying that the kings of Europe had a close relationship with the Middle East because of the crusades.

But the Barbary War was not about religion. It was about money and free trade. Both the Americans and Tripolitans invoked their religions to fight the war – yes, Tripoli called it a jihad. And there was plenty of misunderstanding and hatred because of religion.

Here’s what happened. The Barbary states – Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco – were economies based on piracy, or really privateers since they were state-sponsored. These pirates, as they’d done for centuries since the early 16th century, scoured the Mediterranean capturing ships. The ships and goods were often sold, as were the the crews. Those crewmen who weren’t sold into slavery were ransomed.

Eventually, European powers decided a more stable approach would be to pay tribute to the various Barbary states in return for those states not attacking their ships. Any gangster can tell you what this is – a protection racket. It was a great deal and easy money for the Barbary states.

The U.S. benefited from Britian’s protection while it was a colony. But after winning its independence, the Americans were on their own. With no navy to speak off and an economy in shatters, the United States merchant ships were tempting targets. President Washington and Adams both thought it was simpler and ultimately cheaper to pay off the pirates rather than fight them. They signed treaties and paid tribute, a humiliating experience but at least it guaranteed peace.

But since America was such an economic basket case back then, their payments to the Barbary states were often late. In addition, the Quasi-War with the French (who seized about 300 American merchant ships, 15 times as many as all the Barbary States ever seized) hampered American shipping and cause even greater delays.

Yusuf Karamanli, the pasha of Tripoli, had great ambitions and he saw piracy was a way to boost his treasury and build his power. He aggressively set out to attack various states and ratchet up the tribute they all paid. America was particularly slow in making its payments. So Yusuf decided to make an example of the US and he declared war in 1801.

President Jefferson wanted the war. He believed that the Barbary states would continuously find pretexts to increase tribute payments and harass American shipping – war, in fact, would be cheaper in the end. And it was the honorable thing to do.

Religion had nothing to do with it.


Barbary Wars a good test for US Navy

May 22, 2009

The US Navy facing an unorthodox foe in the Somali pirates is actually a golden opportunity for the American forces to test out a way to fight a new kind of war.  The pirates are a nuisance rather than a threat, which makes them perfect as a test ground for the Navy to catch up to its Army brothers in new forms of combat that are likely to dominate the next generation.

The Barbary Wars had a similar role for America back in the early 1800s as well. A new nation with almost no navy to speak of, the U.S. saw the predations of Barbary pirates as an affront to its newfound independence and a threat to its commerce. But there were some – Secretary of Navy Robert Smith, for one – who saw this war with the Barbary pirates as a training ground for its infant navy.

Many Americans saw war with Great Britain as inevitable and knew that they needed to beef up their military skills on the seas. And that’s what happened. Showing the expected incompetence, inexperience,  and  plain ignorance of a young navy, the US performed poorly at the beginning of the war.

But Commodore Edward Preble whipped them into shape. A daring and aggressive commander, he molded a generation of sailors whose names would resound in future battles with the British during the War of 1812. Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, Charles Stewart, Thomas MacDonough, and David Porter were all blooded during the war with the Barbary pirates. The Constitution (Old Ironsides herself), the Constellation, the United States, the Enterprise all saw extensive duties in the Mediterranean during the war as well.

The Barbary War really marked the moment when the Navy as a service was born. Though it has performed well against the French during the Quasi-War, the Navy functioned as a cohesive force during the Barbary Wars. The Americans tested communications, tactics, coordinated assaults, logistics, discipline – all part of the naval legacy the British bequeathed to her former colonists.

When war with Britain eventually did come, the American army was inept. But the navy proved itself ready to fight – and win.

Eaton tortured by betrayal

May 15, 2009

There are some interesting parallels between Lawrence of Arabia and Eaton beyond the Arab garb and military exploits. Eaton was put in the position of letting Hamet know of two betrayals – the first is that he was sold out in favor of his brother during the treaty (June 10, 1805). The second is letting Hamet know he wouldn’t be getting his family back any time soon.

For someone as sensitive to honor as Eaton was, this must have been very difficult. His wounded pride leads to his steady character decline, similar to T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence had led the Arabs in fighting the Ottomans during WWI with promises that they would be independent after the war. The Sykes-Picot treaty essentially carved up the Middle East between France and Britain. Lawrence was put in the position of bilking his allies, and his character suffered too afterwards.

Barron orders Eaton to quit post before peace

May 15, 2009

Lear gets a lot of the blame for the peace he signed with Pasha Yusuf that abandons Hamet and angers Eaton so much. The pusillanimity of Lear has some basis but the really shocking development had been the orders Commodore Barron has sent to Eaton ordering him to abandon Derne BEFORE the treaty had been signed (before the negotiations had even begun).

It’s a staggering order coming from an officer in wartime. Commodore was severely ill for much of his time on duty in the Mediterranean, but Barron’s conduct during this time has been largely overlooked in the history books because everyone seems so eager to “get Lear.”

Derna readied for defense

April 28, 2009

Eaton has no time to rest on his laurels. With the first elements of Pasha Yusuf’s relief troops arriving, Eaton busies his men repairing the damage his army had inflicted the day before. He fully expects the relief column – dispirited at arriving late and finding a hostile Derna – to evaporate as his own men had almost done so man times during his own march from Egypt. But Eaton doesn’t take any chances.

The harbor fort is repaired and it guns are turned to face the town. New breastworks are erected. Lt. Hull from the Argus sends sailors ashore to help. One of the first things Eaton does is fortify the fort on the heights to south of Derna that Hamet overran early in the battle the day before. The man call it “Fort Eaton” (it was later known as the American Fort though today is just a large cistern).

Eaton attacks, U.S. victorious

April 27, 2009

The harbor fort fires the first shot – the Battle of Derna has begun.

Eaton attacks Derna from three directions: a largely Christian contingent led by O’Bannon of about 100 men attacks Derna’s main defenses aligned on the east of town, three American warships – Argus, Nautilus, Hornet – pound the city from the harbor, and Hamet’s Arabs sweep around the southern flank to box in the enemy.

The battle goes well for Eaton and his ragtag army. The ships soon harbor fort. Hamet takes a ruined outpost that is a prime position over the town. But then things start to go wrong. After some good progress, Hamet is slowed down by mountainous terrain. When the defenders of the fort flee the American naval bombardment, they rush to main the lines facing O’Bannon and his men. The fire intensifies. O’Bannon and his men begin to fall back.

Eaton commits his reserves, leading them personally to support O’Bannon.  He faces a bleak choice – retreat and hope to fight another day, though he knows enemy reinforcements will arrive any day and he can expect his Arab allies to desert in large numbers. Or, he can attack. For Eaton, there really is no choice. All his life has led him to this moment, and he will not walk away unless as the victor.

Rallying his men, he vaults to the front in a desperate charge. His men are outnumbered 10 to 1 but the enemy is flabbergasted by the attack. They shoot wildly, but still Eaton and his men come on. A few of the defenders begin to abandon their positions, then it becomes a panicked retreat.

Eaton is wounded – a shot through his left wrist – but after wrapping his wound, he continues the fight. His troops break through the barricades. As they storm the city, Hamet’s troops  finally break through and attack the enemy from behind.

At 2:45 pm O’Bannon leads Marines and mercenaries against the main fortress. They find the guns loaded and primed, so O’Bannon orders them turned on the town and fired. The defenders crumple. At 4 pm, O’Bannon orders the U.S. flag raised – it’s the first time the American flag has been raised in victory on foreign shores.

Eaton has won a stunning victory. But the fight isn’t yet over.

Eaton moves in for the attack

April 25, 2009

Apr. 23

Finally rested and reprovisioned, Eaton’s army moves out to get his men into position around Derna. Army marches over mountainous land in the rain. Wind whipping off the sea drives temperatures down. The Nautilus and Argus shadow the army and move along the coast in support.

Apr. 24

The army marches 15 miles over mountainous terrain populated with red cedars. They camp in a valley through which a rivulet flows. Information arrives that the governor of Derna has fortified city and is ready to defend it. The news confirms earlier rumors and is a bitter disappointment to both Eaton and Hamet. Derna is supposed to be a base of support for Hamet, the former pasha of Tripoli. The expectation was that Derna would welcome Hamet with open arms rather than military arms. There is one piece of good news though.

Apr. 25

Eaton’s order to march refused by Arabs, some of whom begin a retrograde march. After much back and forth, Eaton promises them $2000 and they agree to march. The army finally arrives at Derna and camps on bluffs overlooking the city. Eaton finds out that Yusuf’s relief column led by General Hassan is still a day or two away.