The First Barbary War (1801 - 1805)

U.S. Navy Schooner Enterprise capturing the Tripolitan Corsair Polacca Tripoli August 1, 1801

US Navy Schooner Enterprise capturing the Tripolitan Corsair Polacca Tripoli August 1, 1801

Map of the Barbary Coast

Detailed English North African Map from 1800

An Act to provide a naval armament

Transcript of the act to provide a naval armament for the United States. It called upon Congress to provide funds to build a naval fleet to protect United States merchant vessels that were being raided by pirates.

18 March 1794

Sterret's Sea Fight

Poem wrttien by Andrew Sterret who was the Captain of the USS Enterprise which defeated and captured the frigate Tripoli in 1801. 

After the successful capitulation of British troops in the Thirteen Colonies, the preliminary American government operating under the Articles of Confederation quickly faced their first of many troubles: economic destruction on the high seas. The only for way for the largely-unrecognized US government to pay off their war debts and keep the country afloat was through foreign trade.6 Unfortunately, the British continued to impress American sailors into the Royal Navy and the British merchant fleet; pirates controlled the only access to the rich trading grounds of the Mediterranean. American sailors were stripped of their cargo and enslaved for decades at the hands of Muslim sailors hailing from the Barbary States whom answered to the Ottoman Empire.

Richard O’Brien, captain of the captured merchant ship Dauphin in July of 1785, was enslaved by Algerian pirates for 14 years.11 During O'Brien's captivity, Thomas Jefferson served as consul from the United States to Paris and Secretary of State under George Washington. During this time he recognized the dwindling trade was crippling the United States. The newly-founded country could never flourish under a stagnant economy and trade would never grow with American merchants consistently being taken hostage in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic.6 Under President Washington, Secretary Jefferson refused to buy peace with the Barbary States. He understood America could neither afford to buy peace nor could they maintain a respectable status as a sovereign nation if this continued. Upon assuming the Presidency in 1801, Thomas Jefferson’s first act as President of the United States was to eliminate the Barbary threat to American commerce.11

Decatur Boarding the Philadelphia - 1803
Decatur boarding the grounded USS Philadelphia and razing it so pirates cannot capture the frigate - October 31st, 1803
Burning of the U.S.S. Philadelphia

Stephen Decatur's escape after his daring raid to board the USS Philadelphia

Congress quickly appropriated for the creation of an Atlantic flotilla which would travel into the Mediterranean and garner respect and safety for American merchant vessels through shock and awe. Without a clear diplomatic foreign policy, Commodore Bainbridge was sent into the Mediterranean and suffered embarrassments at the hands of Barbary Bey’s.6 The first era of American gunboat diplomacy set in as an unprecedented American fleet sailed to pirate infested waters as the Tripolitan Bashaw ousted the American embassy in Tripoli by disrespectfully chopping down its flagpole.11 Jefferson hoped for an end to appeasement and understood that the pirate states no longer understood the language of diplomacy but understood the sound of a cannon. During President Jefferson’s first term it became an economic necessity to defeat the pirates. Without the free flow of trade and capital through Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, the United States would be on the brink of collapse. Finally, in 1803, after several years of harsh learning curves, the United States Navy successfully used a show of force to push the Sultan of Morocco into a peace treaty.6

Mameluke Sword

Marines still proudly bear the Mameluke sword, given to Lt. O'Bannon in honor of his 1805 victory at Tripoli.

It took two years and a coordinated overland and seaborne invasion to convince the Tripolitan government to sign a peace treaty with the United States in 1805.11 At the conclusion of the First Barbary War, Thomas Jefferson finally achieved the diplomatic measures he wanted four years prior. American merchants could freely sail the Mediterranean and trade became unhindered. Pride was restored to the now permanent United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps secured its crucial place in American foreign policy.6 The precedent of gunboat diplomacy was forever implemented into American foreign policy doctrine. During the Barbary War, the United States learned to never negotiate from a position of weakness and to always be prepared to use force if diplomatic relations soured and American interests were threatened.

Resolutions Expressive of the Sense of Congress of the Gallant Conduct of Commodore Edward Preble, the Officers, Seamen and Marines of His Squadron

Congress gave praise to Commodore Preble's squadron as heroes after its victory in the First Barbary War.

Corsair Scimitar Silver Sugar Bowl Presented to Commodore William Bainbridge by the Citizens of Philadelphia. American Naval Dress Sword
The First Barbary War (1801 - 1805)