10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates

Larry Holzwarth - July 29, 2018

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
An all volunteer crew led by Stephen Decatur retook Philadelphia long enough to destroy it, denying its use to the Tripolitans. Library of Congress

Stephen Decatur and Intrepid

In December 1803, as Philadelphia lay sheltered under the guns of Tripoli being refitted by its captors, Lt. Stephen Decatur, in command of the American sloop-of-war Enterprise, captured the Tripolitan ketch Mastico. Mastico was condemned as a prize and taken into the US Navy as USS Intrepid. Decatur then developed a plan by which the Tripolitan built Intrepid would be used to enter the port under a ruse of war, allowing American sailors to board the Philadelphia and either retake the frigate or burn it to deny its use to the Tripolitans. The crew of Philadelphia were at that time being used as slave labor, housed in a fortress from which they had full view of their former ship.

With his plans approved by American Commodore Edward Preble, Decatur asked for volunteers, and in February 1804 sailed from Syracuse in Intrepid with 80 men, the majority being US Marines. Intrepid rendezvoused with USS Syren outside of Tripoli harbor and took aboard another eight men, adjusted its rigging to appear as a more slovenly Tripolitan vessel, and entered the harbor in the early evening of February 16, 1804. Its men carried combustibles made of pitch and shredded rope fibers and canvas. Intrepid crept across the harbor slowly, in a meandering course, to mask its intent of approaching Philadelphia, which by that time had been re-gunned by the Tripolitans.

Intrepid flew British colors, a legitimate ruse of war for the time (as long as they flew an American flag when combat began), and carried Sicilian volunteers fluent in Arabic. The men of the boarding party remained concealed below decks, armed with cutlasses and bayonets, under strict orders to avoid the use of firearms unless absolutely necessary. The men below waited in silence for more than three hours as Intrepid crept towards its target, impeded by contrary winds. When Decatur and his men finally did board the frigate, it was through complete surprise, and more than two dozen Tripolitans were killed in the attack without the loss of a man of Decatur’s party. They next inspected the ship to see if it could be taken out to sea.

It took just a cursory look for Decatur to realize that Philadelphia was inadequately rigged to get underway, and Intrepid was too lightly built to take the heavier vessel under tow. With the now aroused Tripolitans opening fire from the shore on both ships Decatur ordered his men to set the frigate ablaze. Meanwhile Syren moved inshore to provide covering fire for the raiding party. The fires on Philadelphia grew quickly, soon burned through the mooring lines, and Philadelphia began to drift toward the rocks near the harbor fortress. Convinced that the ship was beyond saving by the Tripolitans, Decatur ordered his men back aboard Intrepid, which left the harbor under heavy fire.

The destruction of Philadelphia made Decatur a national hero when word of the act reached the United States. Officers of European navies acknowledged the daring nature of the raid, although there is no evidence that Lord Nelson called in the most daring act of the age, as he is often quoted as having said. The Pope did praise Decatur’s raid, saying that, “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble and humiliate the anti-Christians barbarians on the African coast in one night than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” Decatur was promoted to Captain for his efforts, and upon return to Syracuse resumed command of Enterprise.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
Led by USS Constitution the American squadron bombards Tripoli in August, 1804. US Navy

Attacks on Tripoli in 1804

In the spring of 1804 Commodore Preble obtained bomb ketches and more gunboats from Naples. Displaying his strength outside of the range of the Tripolitan defenses, Preble attempted to negotiate with Tripoli, as he had successfully with the Moroccans and at Algiers and Tunis. The Pasha remained intransigent. In August Preble directed a series of bombardments using the smaller vessels, supported from a distance by the heavy frigates under his command. A series of bombardments of the city during August and September led to the destruction of several Tripolitan gunboats, the capture of three, and only light damage to the city’s defenses.

On September 4 Preble decided to use Intrepid in a deceptive attack for a second time, packing the small vessel with gunpowder and detonating it just beneath the walls of the Pasha’s castle. One hundred barrels of gunpowder and 150 explosive shells were packed into the vessel, and slow fuses cut to a length which would allow them to burn for fifteen minutes were rigged to the magazine, allowing the crew of the vessel ample time to escape before it exploded. Obviously for an operation so fraught with risk, the men carrying it out needed to be volunteers. Throughout the squadron officers vied for the opportunity to lead the mission.

Preble selected Lieutenant Richard Somers to lead the mission, with a crew of twelve to sail the ketch into the harbor and light the fuses. Accompanying the ketch were two ship’s boats to carry the volunteers aboard Intrepid away from the floating bomb. The Americans intended to moor Intrepid among the gunboats huddled beneath the Pasha’s castle, hoping to sink as many of them as possible as well as demonstrate to Karamanli that he wasn’t safe from a direct American attack on his person. The American attack began on September 4 at eight in the evening. Shortly after, the ketch was spotted by the Tripolitan shore batteries which opened fire.

Intrepid continued to approach its planned destination under the fire of the shore batteries, with the range steadily decreasing as the ship drew nearer the castle and the gunboat moorings. Shortly after nine the gunboats joined in the bombardment, and it was evident from observers on the American ships in the harbor that Intrepid would not be able to reach its goal without capturing some of the gunboats. It was not carrying enough men to do so. Just before ten o’clock the harbor was rocked by a tremendous explosion as Intrepid blew up. There were no American survivors from either Intrepid or the boats which accompanied the ketch.

The morning revealed that several of the gunboats had been severely damaged and at least one was missing entirely. In his report Preble noted that Somers had announced that he would not be taken by the Tripolitans when he solicited volunteers for his crew, intending instead to cause as much damage as possible to the enemy at the cost of his own life. Following the loss Preble suspended offensive operations against the harbor fortifications. Less than a week later Commodore Barron arrived at Tripoli with more American frigates to assume command, and Preble returned to the United States, receiving a hero’s welcome when he reached home.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
With American ships bombarding the defenses, US Marines lead the attack on Derna “on the shores of Tripoli”. US Marine Corps

The attack on Derna

In the spring of 1805 former US Consul to Tunis William Eaton was sent to Egypt where the brother of the Pasha of Tripoli, Hamet Karamanli, was living in exile. A plan was formed for an expedition led by Eaton, and manned by mercenary troops, to attack Tripoli in an overland expedition from Alexandria, in order to install Hamet as Pasha, deposing his brother. A force of ten Americans, including Eaton, two navy midshipmen, and seven US Marines contacted Hamet, who raised a force of about 300 Arabs and less than one hundred Christian mercenaries, many from Greece. Accompanied by camels and pack mules, this force marched 500 miles across the desert toward Derna.

The expedition departed Alexandria in early March. Inadequately supplied, by the time the expedition neared the Gulf of Bomba their rations were consumed and the Arab faction, by far the bulk of the little army, was threatening to abandon the operation. Relief was obtained when the brig of war USS Argus met the expedition at the Gulf of Bomba and transferred rations ashore. Argus also arranged to support the proposed attack on Derna with shore bombardment, and its captain, Isaac Hull, promised Eaton that he would attempt to arrange further naval gunfire support from other ships from the Tripoli squadron.

On April 27 three American ships, Argus, Nautilus, and Hornet, bombarded the defenses manned by Yusuf Karamanli’s forces and they were attacked by land by Eaton’s expedition. The city of Derna was captured in the assault, and for the first time the flag of the United States was raised over a captured foreign city. Hamet Karamanli declared himself the true Pasha but his brother disagreed and twice attempted to retake the city, failing in both attempts. At the end of May USS Essex arrived at Tripoli carrying Tobias Lear, who entered into negotiations with Yusuf to end the war. The reinforced American squadron carried with it the threat of further actions.

Eaton had signed an agreement with Hamet in which Hamet would become Pasha, which Lear renounced, and Yusuf was allowed to remain the ruler of Tripoli. The Americans provided Hamet with a small sum for his troubles and leaned on Yusuf to install his brother as the head of state of Derna, to which Yusuf acquiesced. He was also persuaded to release the prisoners he held, including the former crew of Philadelphia, in return for $60,000 dollars. Finally he agreed to renounce tribute from the United States and cease the practice of capturing merchant ships from the United States and European nations. He was still free to raid on the other Barbary States.

The American squadron, then under Commodore Rodgers due to Barron becoming ill, immediately sailed to Tunis and forced a similar agreement from the Bey. With the accession of Tunis, the First Barbary War was over. The naval operations of the war had been noted by the European naval powers and the professionalism of American officers had impressed those of Great Britain, France, and Spain. During the ensuing Napoleonic Wars and British blockade of the French fleets in their home ports, the Barbary pirates returned to their raiding, though not against American ships until the War of 1812 began, and the US Navy remained largely preoccupied with war with Great Britain.

10 Facts About the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates
The bombardment of Algiers in 1816 by an Anglo-Dutch force destroyed the city’s defenses and brought an end to the Barbary Wars. Wikimedia

The Second Barbary War

During the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 the Barbary States returned to their raiding on ships of any Christian nation, and the Americans and Europeans had few assets at hand with which to stop them. After the end of the War of 1812 the United States sent another squadron to the region. On May 20, 1815, after the action was sanctioned by Congress earlier that spring, a squadron including three heavy frigates (one of which was the former HMS Macedonian, captured by Stephen Decatur during the War of 1812) and supporting sloops and brigs sailed for the Mediterranean under Commodore Decatur. After entering the Mediterranean the squadron captured two Algerian ships.

Stopping first at Algiers, Decatur demanded the Bey enter into a new treaty with the United States, backed by the guns of the squadron. The Bey acquiesced to the Americans and was forced to pay damages of $10,000 for which he received his two ships and their crews which had been taken by the Americans. Decatur extracted similar agreements from the remaining Barbary States, and informed them that American naval presence would remain in the Mediterranean to enforce the agreements. Once Decatur’s force was out of sight, the Bey of Algiers once again ignored the treaty, which had been forwarded to the Congress of Vienna and ratified.

In response to the continuing piracy of Algiers a British squadron of ships of the line under Lord Exmouth (Edward Pellew) was dispatched to Tunis and Tripoli, both of which quickly endorsed the treaty and renounced the practice of seizing ships of Christian nations. The squadron then went to Algiers where the Bey was reluctant to accept it. After he did sign it the Algerians under his command massacred fishermen from Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily, killing more than 200. The islands from which the victims came were under the protection of the British, and Exmouth returned to Algiers with his squadron.

When Exmouth returned he brought with him a much larger squadron of British ships, supported by ships of the Dutch Navy. On August 27, 1816 the combined fleet unleashed a bombardment of the city of Algiers, its defenses, the harbor defenses, and the ships lying in the harbor. The bombardment was accurate and the heavy guns of the ships of the line wrought much destruction. For just under nine hours the fleet pounded the Algerians, who fought back, inflicting heavy casualties in some ships. The bombardment ceased only because the ships of the British fleet had expended all of their gunpowder, but Exmouth decided to bluff.

The following day the Bey was informed that he must accept the terms of the preceding agreement or the bombardment would resume, and continue until he did. Unaware that the British were out of ammunition the Bey agreed to the terms. He also freed the three thousand Christian slaves he was holding, and agreed to end the practice of enslaving Europeans. The bombardment of Algiers brought an end to the Barbary wars, and the Barbary States themselves were soon to become targets during the colonization of Africa. The depredations of the Barbary pirates were over.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Barbary Wars, 1801-1805 and 1815-1816”, by the Office of the Historian, US Department of State, online

“The Wars of the Barbary Pirates”, by Gregory Fremont-Barnes, 2006

“The First Barbary War”, entry by the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, online

“Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy”, by Ian Tolle, 2006

“Cathcart’s Travels’, by Liva Baker, American Heritage Magazine, June 1975

“Ready to Hazard: A Biography of Commodore William Bainbridge”, by David F. Long

“Bloodshed at Dawn”, by C. S. Forester, American Heritage Magazine, October 1964

“If By Sea”, by George C. Daugham, 2008

“General Eaton and his Improbable Legion”, by William Harlan Hale, American Heritage Magazine, February 1960

“Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth”, by C. Northcote Parkinson, 1934