Jefferson's War

America's First War on Terror 1801-1805


By Joseph Wheelan

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Author Joseph Wheelan has marvelously captured the story of America’s war against the Barbary pirates, our first war against terror and the nations that support it. The Barbary pirates, a Muslim enemy from Tripoli, attacked European and American merchant shipping with impunity. Jefferson ordered the U.S. Navy to Tripoli in 1801 to repel “force with force.” The Barbary War was also a proving ground for such young officers as William Bainbridge, Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, and David Porter — key players in the impending War of 1812 against Great Britain.


For my wife, Pat, and our daughters, Sarah and Ann.



John Adams: Minister to England, Vice President, President
William Bainbridge: Captain of Philadelphia, United States
Joseph Bainbridge: Naval officer, William's younger brother
Samuel Barron: Fourth Mediterranean squadron commodore, 1804—5
James Barron: Naval officer, Samuel's brother
James Cathcart: Consul to Tripoli
Jonathan Cowdery: Philadelphia ship's surgeon, diarist
Richard Dale: First Mediterranean squadron commodore, 1801-2
George Davis: Chargé d'Affaires in Tunis, succeeding William Eaton; Consul to Tripoli after Cathcart
Stephen Decatur, Jr.: Naval officer
James Decatur: Naval officer, Stephen's younger brother
William Eaton: Consul to Tunis, naval agent
Albert Gallatin: Jefferson administration Treasury Secretary
John Jay: Confederation Foreign Secretary
Thomas Jefferson: Minister to France, Vice President, President
Henry Knox: Washington administration War Secretary
Tobias Lear: Consul General for Barbary, Consul to Algiers, succeeding Richard O'Brien
James Madison: Virginia congressman, Jefferson administration Secretary of State
Richard Valentine Morris: Second Mediterranean squadron commodore, 1802—3
Presley O'Bannon: Marine lieutenant
Richard O'Brien: Consul General for Barbary, Consul to Algiers
Edward Preble: Third Mediterranean squadron commodore, 1803-4
William Ray: Philadelphia Marine, diarist
John Rodgers: Naval officer and Fifth Mediterranean Squadron commodore, 1805—6
James Simpson: Consul to Morocco
Samuel Smith: Jefferson administration Navy Secretary
Robert Smith: Jefferson administration Navy Secretary, succeeding his brother Samuel


Hadji Ali: Algerian Dey
Hassan Bey: Tripolitan general
Mustifa Bey: Governor of Derna
Sidi Mahomet Dghies: Tripolitan Foreign Secretary
Reis Hammida: Algerian admiral
Hamet Karamanli: Exiled Bashaw of Tripoli
Yusuf Karamanli: Bashaw of Tripoli, Hamet's younger brother
Ahmed Pasha Khorshid: Ottoman viceroy of Egypt
Soliman Ben Mahomet: Moroccan Emperor after Maulay Sulaiman
Sidi Soliman Melli Melli: Tunisian ambassador to United States
Sidi Muhammad ibn Abd Allah: Moroccan Emperor
Bobba Mustapha: Algerian Dey
Hamouda Pacha: Tunisian Bey
Hassan Pasha: Algerian Dey
Murad Reis (Peter Lisle): Grand Admiral of Tripoli, named after a 17th-century Algerian pirate
Maulay Muhammed: Moroccan Emperor, succeeding Sidi Muhammed
Hadgi Unis Ben Unis: Tunisian Bey's Sapitapa, or commercial agent


Sir Alexander Ball: British governor of Malta
Citizen Beaussier: French Charge d'Affaires in Tripoli
Lord Horatio Nelson: British admiral, Mediterranean fleet
Nicholas Nissen: Danish Consul in Tripoli
Mathurins: Catholic friar order that redeemed Barbary captives


Squadron 1, 1801—2

President, 44-gun frigate, Commodore Richard Dale
Philadelphia, 36-gun frigate, Captain Samuel Barron
Essex, 32-gun frigate, Captain William Bainbridge
Boston, 28-gun frigate, Captain Daniel McNeill
Enterprise, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant Andrew Sterett

Squadron 2, 1802—3

Chesapeake, 36-gun frigate, Commodore Richard Valentine Morris
Constellation, 36-gun frigate, Captain Alexander Murray
New York, 36-gun frigate, Captain James Barron, Captain Isaac Chauncey
John Adams, 28-gun frigate, Captain John Rodgers
Boston, 28-gun frigate, Captain Daniel McNeill
Adams, 28-gun frigate, Captain Hugh Campbell
Enterprise, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant Andrew Sterett, Lieutenant Isaac Hull

Squadron 3, 1803—4

Constitution, 44-gun frigate, Commodore Edward Preble
Philadelphia, 36-gun frigate, Captain William Bainbridge
John Adams, 28-gun frigate, Captain Isaac Chauncey
Siren, 16-gun brig, Lieutenant Charles Stewart
Scvurge, 16-gun brig, Lieutenant John Dent, Midshipman Ralph Izard
Argus, 16-gun brig, Lieutenant Isaac Hull
Vixen, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant John Smith
Nautilus, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant Richard Somers
Enterprise, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr.
Intrepid, 4-gun ketch, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr., Lieutenant Richard Somers

Squadron 4, 1804—5

President, 44-gun frigate, Commodore Samuel Barron
Constitution, 44-gun frigate, Captain Stephen Decatur, Jr., Captain John Rodgers
Congress, 36-gun frigate, Captain John Rodgers, Captain Stephen Decatur, Jr.
Essex, 32-gun frigate, Captain James Barron
John Adams, 28-gun frigate, Captain Isaac Chauncey
Siren, 16-gun brig, Lieutenant Charles Stewart
Argus, 16-gun brig, Lieutenant Isaac Hull
Vixen, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant John Smith
Nautilus, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant John Dent
Enterprise, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant Thomas Robinson, Jr.
Hornet, 10-gun sloop, Lieutenant Samuel Evans

Squadron 5, 1805—6

Constitution, 44-gun frigate, Commodore John Rodgers
President, 44-gun frigate, Captain James Barron
Constellation, 36-gun frigate, Captain Hugh Campbell
Congress, 36-gun frigate, Captain Stephen Decatur, Jr.
Essex, 32-gun frigate, Lieutenant John Cox
John Adams, 28-gun frigate, Lieutenant John Shaw
Siren, 16-gun brig, Lieutenant Charles Stewart
Argus, 16-gun brig, Lieutenant Isaac Hull
Vixen, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant John Smith
Nautilus, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant John Dent
Enterprise, 12-gun schooner, Lieutenant Thomas Robinson, Jr., Lieutenant David Porter
Hornet, 10-gun sloop, Lieutenant Samuel Evans
Franklin, 8-gun sloop, Lieutenant Thomas Robinson, Jr.

The Super Frigates

United States, 44 guns, built in Philadelphia, launched July 1797
Constellation, 36 guns, built in Baltimore, launched September 1797
Constitution, 44 guns, built in Boston, launched July 1798
Congress, 36 guns, built in Portsmouth, N.H., launched August 1799
Chesapeake, 36 guns, built in Norfolk, launched December 1799
President, 44 guns, built in New York, launched April 1800

Aground—Resting on the bottom.
Aloft—Anywhere above deck, such as in the upper yards, rigging or masts.
Becalmed—Motionless because of lack of wind.
Blockade—Incoming and outgoing traffic barred from a port by a patrolling enemy squadron.
Board—Taking possession of an enemy ship by climbing onto her deck.
Bomb Vessel—Two-masted vessel armed with one or two mortars for bombardment.
Bow—The front of the ship.
Brig—Shorthand for "brigantine," a two-masted vessel. U.S. Navy brigs often were armed with 16 guns.
Broadside—Simultaneous firing of all guns on one side of a ship.
Cannon—Guns of medium and long range. They were denoted by the weight of shot fired: 9-pound, 12-pound, etc.
Careen—Turning a ship onto its side to make repairs to the other side, or to remove barnacles.
Carronade—A large-bore carriage gun, usually on the top deck, used at short range, sometimes to fire a shrapnel charge to kill enemy sailors.
Cat-O'-Nine-Tails—A device for flogging sailors, comprised of nine knotted lengths of rope.
Corsair—A Barbary Coast ship licensed by the government to conduct raids on enemy shipping.
Corvette—A fast, three-masted ship with one gun deck.
Cutlass—A saber with a curved blade used in naval hand-to-hand combat.
Dry-Dock—A basin whose water level can be raised and lowered at will so that vessels can be guided onto blocks, the water then drained, and the ships examined and repaired.
Felucca—A small Mediterranean coastal trading vessel, narrow-decked with one or two masts.
Fireship—Any vessel filled with combustibles and explosives and sailed among enemy shipping, where crewmen would light a long fuse giving them time to evacuate before the vessel exploded.
Frigate—A three-masted ship with 24 to 44 guns mounted on one or two gun decks. Swifter than the larger "ships of the line," yet with enough firepower to hold their own against ships up to 64 guns, frigates were the mainstay of the U.S. Navy during its early years.
Galley—Oar—powered warship of the pre-sail era, often crewed by slave rowers.
Grog—Water-diluted rum.
Gunboat—Small, lightly armed naval vessel suited for shallow-water operations.
Halyard—Rope for raising and lowering sails.
Handspike—Wooden tool for maneuvering ship guns.
Hold—Large, below-decks storage chamber for provisions and cargo.
Impressment—Forcible draft into naval service during wartime. British impressment of U.S. merchant seamen led to the War of 1812.
Ketch—Two-masted sailing vessel used for coastal trading or fishing.
Lateen—A four-sided sail of Arabic origin seen almost exclusively on Mediterranean vessels.
Merchantman—A merchant ship.
Midshipman—The bottom officer rating, followed in ascending rank by lieutenant, captain and commodore in the early U.S. Navy.
Mole—Breakwater that protects a harbor from the sea.
Muster Book—Shipboard book listing the names of everyone aboard.
Passport—A pass issued by the Barbary States to merchantmen from friendly nations, protecting them against capture by corsairs. During the U.S.-Tripolitan war, U.S. consuls issued passes to Barbary traders as a guaranty against capture by U.S. naval vessels.
Polacre—A two- or three-masted, lateen-sail Barbary vessel comparable in size to a Navy brig or small frigate, often employed as a corsair.
Port—Left side of a vessel, viewed from the rear.
Privateer—Privately owned ship authorized by a government to capture enemy shipping in time of war. Privateers were granted government "letters of marque" permitting them to take possession of enemy prizes. If the captured vessel were condemned in a "prize court," the captor crew was entitled to share in the value of the spoils.
Prize Court—Place where captured ships, or "prizes," were adjudicated and shares of condemned prizes awarded to captor crews.
Quarantine—A restriction placed on ships arriving from ports notorious for disease. A quarantined crew could not land until local health officials cleared them. Quarantines normally lasted no more than 40 days.
Quay—A manmade strip of land in a harbor where ships can load or unload cargo or passengers.
Schooner—A two-masted vessel typically carrying eight to 12 guns and slightly smaller than a brig.
Shoal—Shallows in an area of deeper water.
Ship Log—Offrcial ship record book, updated daily with observations on navigation, weather, and occurrences.
Ships of the Line—Ships of 64 to 130 guns that carried sufficient firepower to take positions in the "line of battle," a formation from which an admiral could bring the utmost firepower to bear at one time.
Sloop—A small sailing vessel, often one-masted, usually with fewer than eight guns. The term sometimes is used generically to refer to small warships.
Spar Deck—The upper deck behind the main mast from which the captain commanded his ship.
Speaking Trumpet—A crude megaphone used by officers to shout orders and communicate with other ships.
Sprung Mast—Mast that has broken free of its fastenings and must either be repaired or replaced.
Squadron—A small number of warships under one commander.
Starboard—Right side of a vessel, viewed from the rear.
Stern—The rear of a ship.
Struck his Flag—Lowered the flag in surrender.
Tack—An oblique ship's maneuver enabling it to sail into the wind.
Watch—On shipboard, the 24 hours of the day were divided into five four-hour and two two-hour watches, with the crewmen assigned to a watch responsible for the ship's operation during that period.
Xebec—A three-masted Mediterranean vessel, similar to a polacre. Xebecs were often used as corsairs.
(Source: The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, Peter Kemp, editor, Oxford University Press, 1976.)

The spelling and syntactical irregularities that recur in the correspondence, diaries, and ships' logs cited in this book reflect the era preceding uniform U.S. educational standards. Eighteenthcentury men with scant formal schooling often became naval officers, diplomats, and government officials, whose public and private utterances subsequently became part of history.

August 2, 1802
Lieutenant Andrew Sterett surveyed the horizon from the Enterprise quarterdeck. Curly-haired and fair, with a powerful, curved nose, his sideburns nearly reaching his chin, the fire-eating young U.S. Navy skipper was especially watching for the square sails and long prow of a Barbary corsair. But for the moment, he had to curb his eagerness for combat because the sparkling Mediterranean lay empty. Canvas rustled above him, where the Enterprise's crew worked the topsails to catch the faint breeze. From the bow and aloft, Sterett's lookouts continued to scan for signs of sail.
The Barbary War was only two months old, and the U.S. squadron—Commodore Richard Dale's 44-gun President, two smaller frigates, and Sterett's lightly armed, fast schooner—had been in the Mediterranean scarcely a month. The U.S. warships had not yet seen action against the Tripolitan navy. But that would change on this day.
The Enterprise was sailing to Malta to fill its water casks and the President's, depleted during Commodore Dale's initial diplomatic visits to all four Barbary States and a week of cruising off Tripoli. Above the Enterprise's stern fluttered the British ensign; Sterett was following Navy Secretary Samuel Smith's orders to fly false colors, knowing the Tripolitan policy of avoiding enemy warships. With England and Tripoli at peace, the corsair captains wouldn't shy away from British ships; they might even draw near for a piece of news, and thus be lured into a fight the Americans would welcome.
The Enterprise was the third American ship by that name, and she would not be the last. Her two predecessors had served without distinction during the Revolutionary War. Not until World War II would there be another Enterprise whose colorful history would rival that of Sterett's 12-gun schooner. During the Quasi-War that had ended in 1800, she had captured nine French ships in the West Indies in just half a year, including Le Flambeau, which had nine 14-pounders and a crew of more than 100. Later, after she was reconfigured as a brig in 1811, the Enterprise would claim more glory during the War of 1812, followed by action against the pirate Jean Lafitte in the Gulf of Mexico. By then, she would have picked up the nickname "Lucky."
Cries from Sterett's lookouts announced they had sighted a ship. Poking over the horizon was a square-sail brig with a long, pointed bow—unmistakably a Barbary corsair. The Enterprise's gun crews and Marines raced to battle quarters.
Before the Enterprise had departed for Malta, Dale instructed Sterett to engage the enemy only if he thought he could win—a broad mandate for an aggressive young naval officer thirsty for glory. If he encountered and defeated a Tripolitan corsair while en route to Malta, "you will heave all his guns overboard, cut away his masts, and leave him in a situation that he can just make out to get into some port." If he met a corsair on the return trip, the prize was to be brought to the squadron. In other words, fresh water took priority.
When they drew within hailing distance of the new ship, Sterett and his officers saw that she was indeed a Tripolitan corsair, aptly named the Tripoli. The American officers counted fourteen open gun ports—two more guns than the Enterprise. The Tripoli's captain, Rais Mahomet Rous, exchanged greetings with Sterett. Thinking he was speaking to a British officer because of the ensign swinging above the stern in the light breeze, Mahomet Rous revealed he was hunting American merchantmen.
The instant he uttered those words, events moved at a gallop. Sterett lowered the British ensign and raised the Stars and Stripes. Enterprise Marines opened fire from the deck and firing platforms aloft, their musket balls clattering like hail on the Tripoli's deck. The startled corsair crew replied with a partial broadside.
It was 9:00 A.M., August 1, 1801. The first naval battle of the Barbary War had begun.
The Enterprise was outgunned by the Tripoli, but Sterett was confident of his men's abilities. A demanding skipper, Sterett had drilled the Enterprise's gunners during the Atlantic crossing until they were fast and accurate. He also knew the Barbary corsairs had notoriously poor gunners; they preferred pistols and steel at close quarters to exchanging broadsides. Sterett was determined that gunnery would determine this battle's outcome.
The Tripoli edged closer for boarding, and the pirates crowded onto the long bow. The Enterprise's Marines, commanded by Lieutenant Enoch S. Lane, shot them down. Then, like a boxer, the Enterprise sidestepped and pummeled the Tripoli with its 6-pounders from 30 yards away.
Twice more the Tripoli tried to close with the Enterprise for boarding, with the same bloody result.
As the combatants' fire-belching guns flickered in the dense smoke like summer lightning, the Enterprise's superior gunnery began to tell. The Tripoli's decks soon were littered with dead and maimed soldiers and sailors lying beneath smashed, crazily tilted masts. The hull was torn with jagged holes above the waterline.
The Tripoli lowered her flag in surrender. The Enterprise gun crews rushed onto the top deck cheering, only to come under renewed fire from the Tripoli, which had only feigned capitulation.
Sterett ordered another broadside. The roaring cannon fire crashed through the Tripoli's hull, spraying the gun crews with deadly splinters. The Marines in the Enterprise's rigging and on deck shot at everything that moved on the Tripoli's spar deck. The screams of the wounded pierced the thick gunsmoke in the lulls between cannonades.
Mahomet Rous struck his flag again, and again Sterett stopped firing. As the Enterprise drifted closer, up went the Tripolitan flag and the corsair's cannons commenced firing once more.
The livid Sterett ordered the Enterprise to stand off and batter the Tripoli with its cannons. When the flag came down a third time, he told his gunners to lower their cannons and smash the Tripoli's hull at the waterline. Sink her, he commanded them.
Mahomet Rous threw his flag into the sea. He was finished.
Still suspicious, Sterett demanded that the captain or another officer come over in a boat.
But the Tripolitans were out of tricks. Their boats were wrecked, all their officers killed or wounded.
Lieutenant David Porter and a small crew rowed to the enemy ship and found the torn deck a charnel house of mangled bodies, body parts, human viscera, and blood.
"The carnage on board was dreadful," Sterett reported to Dale, "she having 30 men killed and 30 wounded, among the latter was the Captain and first Lieutenant. Her sails, masts and rigging were cut to pieces with 18 shot between wind and water."
Among the dead was the Tripoli's surgeon. While the Enterprise's doctor attended to the enemy wounded, Sterett's crew cut down the Tripoli's shattered masts and flung them overboard, along with the corsair's cannons, cannonballs, powder, muskets, swords, pistols, dirks, and pikes. The Americans raised a stubby makeshift mast and rigged it with a small sail. The wreck limped off toward Tripoli.
Sterett did a damage assessment of his own ship: At the end of a three-hour gunnery duel at pistol-shot range, or about 30 yards, "we have not had a man wounded, and we have sustained no material damage in our hull or rigging."
Not every battle of the Barbary War would end so well for U.S. forces, yet when it is remembered at all, the 1801—5 war with Tripoli is often recalled as a swashbuckling adventure bookended by America's two struggles with England. It is easily forgotten because it did not fit any template formed by later U.S. conflicts, waged for union, democracy, territory, or corporate avarice. Yet, in none of those latter-day struggles did principled American outrage and improvised, unorthodox tactics coalesce as they did in the Barbary War.
Then, in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, the United States found itself in a new war much like the one two centuries earlier. As will be seen, the war that President Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. Navy, and the Marine Corps waged against Moslem Tripoli—led by Edward Preble, William Eaton, Stephen Decatur, Jr., Andrew Sterett, and Presley O'Bannon—was not so different from today's war on terror. In truth, the Barbary War was America's first war on terror.
Separated by 200 years, the conflicts might at first seem to have little in common other than Moslem adversaries who targeted American civilians. The Barbary States wielded terror in the name of Islam for mercenary purposes, not to advance a political agenda, the goal of Al-Qaeda and its allies. Their depredations did not occur in New York or Washington, but in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic, against "infidel" civilian contractors transporting goods on sailing ships. Yet, it was terror nonetheless, prosecuted cynically in the name of Islamic "jihad," Al-Qaeda's pretext for hijacking jetliners and crashing them into highly visible symbols of U.S. power. America's response in 1801 was the same as today: "to repel force by force," as Jefferson put it succinctly.
Tripoli and its three Northwest Africa neighbors—Tunis, Algiers, and Morocco—had preyed on Christian Europe since the early 1600s. Their corsair fleets had relentlessly attacked, killed, maimed, and enslaved civilians on the high seas, robbing them of their ships and merchandise. The Barbary States coerced ransom and protection money from Europe and, in exchange, permitted the European powers to trade without interference in the western Mediterranean—until the next time the Barbary States unleashed their pirate fleets.
The European nations meekly signed the debasing treaties and scrupulously bribed the bashaws, beys, deys, and emperors with cash, weapons, and ships, while the Barbary States unscrupulously broke every agreement. Only upon the greatest provocation did Europe attempt to assert its right to an unmolested trade without payment. These sporadic naval expeditions sometimes met limited success, but never caused lasting change. In 1801 the Barbary terror, although creaky with age, still commanded payments from Europe equaling $5 million in today's currency.


On Sale
Sep 21, 2004
Page Count
464 pages

Joseph Wheelan

About the Author

Joseph Wheelan is the author of nine previous books, including the highly-acclaimed books Terrible Swift Sword and Midnight in the Pacific. Before turning to writing books full time, Wheelan was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press for twenty-four years. He lives in Cary, North Carolina.

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