The Barbary War: The Birth and Victory of the U.S Military

The story of the United States of America is dynamic. From discovery of the Americas to the first elected African American president, U.S History is thriving, alive, and well.  However, to become the rich, successful, and prosperous nation that we are today, America had to overcome obstacles and face many battles.  These battles include international warfare as well as war against other nations; such as the Revolutionary War, Spanish War, WW I and II, Vietnam War, Desert Storm, to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In order face these battles, our nation created a strong military that was able to face these conflicts.  Consequently, the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, Marines, and National Reserve were set in place.  Each force has its own obligations, missions, and capabilities and can work separately as a strong power force.  However, it was the war against Barbary pirates that ultimately brought our nation together, creating military power acting collectively as one entity for the name of the United States of America.  The Barbary War tested the endurance of a country newly formed and became a staple of freedom and success for the United States armed forces.

How the trouble began.

From England and Great Britain, thirteen colonies formed themselves along the eastern coast of the New World. Found by Christopher Columbus and funded by the English, the colonies continued to send shipments of goods, services, and materials to and from the New World, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe.  These voyages were accomplished with little molestation from Pirates that caravan the open seas of the Mediterranean.  However, when the thirteen colonies fought and won independence from the English, things changed dramatically.  Thereafter, the newly formed country of America was now separated from the royal nation and to left to fend for themselves.  Previously, U.S ships sailed the seas unbothered by convoying with the British Navy[i].  Now a sovereign nation, the U.S was soon troubled by pirates, specifically the Barbary Pirates.

Who were the Barbary Pirates?

The Barbary pirates were notorious.  They were known for their ruthlessness as they captured islands and ships, took materials, and enslaved its people.  Originating from the coast of North Africa, the Barbary Pirates gained pride, riches, and notoriety from thievery, bullying, and enslavement.  For centuries the Barbary pirates killed and stole, so much so that some islands were left abandoned and neglected[ii].  In some instances, entire nations were stolen from their land and taken to Africa for enslavement[iii].  In 1784, when Barbary pirates seized American ships, enslaving shipmates and taking goods and materials, the newly formed U.S government angered and frustrated took action.

America’s First Defense.

Before the colonies formed a union, tributes or taxes were paid to the Barbary pirates.  With payments and treaties in place, the Barbary pirates allowed ships to cross through the Mediterranean safe and unharmed.  Various countries including Spain, Portugal, Britain and France paid the pirates large sums of money[iv].  Abraham Lincoln, focused on the Civil War, willingly paid annual fees to reduce conflict.  Not only were American ships able to sail the seas without harassment, upon payment American captures were released from African enslavement.  It was estimated that Lincoln paid up to 20% of U.S gross income to these pirates[v].  By 1793 up to 12 American ships were captured[vi].  However, in 1801 Thomas Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States of America.  Jefferson held a different view regarding the Barbary pirates.

Thomas Jefferson Takes Charge

In 1786, Jefferson, then U.S ambassador of France, met and talked with Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman of the Tripoli nation, home of Barbary pirates.  Upset about the enslavement of Americans and frustrated by the treaty, Jefferson questioned him seeking to understand the brutality and harsh treatment.  Ambassador Abdrahamn answered, “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave”[vii].  Jefferson made up his mind.  Standing strong and unwilling to pay such high taxes, President Jefferson refused to commit to the former treaty.  In 1801, just two months into his presidency, Barbary pirates declared war against the United States of America.

The United States Armed Forces

This signified the beginning of the Barbary War.  Before this event, the only battles America faced were that of the Civil War and battles against the Native Americans for land rights.  The New World had little war experienced in comparison to other nations.  A country with no real military force was then put to the test.  “With the Continental Navy and Marines created and disbanded over a decade earlier”[viii], the armed forces were reunited.  The United States Navy was formed, officially created October 13, 1775[ix].  This was only the beginning of what would later become the most powerful band of armed forces in the world, the U.S military. That same year on November 10, the nation officially gave birth to the U.S Marine Corps[x].  Originally created to “maintain security on naval ships”[xi], the Marine’s job was to “act as a unit aboard ships and engage in combat”[xii] with enemies.  The Marine’s function allowed the Navy to continue their voyage and reach its objective.  From the beginning of its military history, the U.S Navy and Marines worked together in missions to obtain the common goal of freedom and victory.

The staple, symbol, and showmanship of the United States military, Jefferson quickly put the new force into action.  In May of 1801, the same year he was inaugurated into presidency, Jefferson sent a ship named the “Enterprise” into the Mediterranean.  The mission of this deployment was to take over Tripolian ships, “establish blockades, and calm the situation”[xiii].  This objective was obtained quickly and swiftly with little combat.  However, in 1803 the American offense soon turned to defense when the Barbary pirates arrested the American ship “Philadelphia”.  Rumored that the pirates would use the “Philadelphia” against them, one courageous sailor stepped forward and took action.

In 1804, Lt. Stephen Decatur of the U.S Navy, who was 25 at the time, apprehended an enemy ship.  Under the guise of Tripoli, Lt. Decatur gained access to the coast and entered the Tripoli port on February 15.  He bravely battled with Tripoli combat.  During the fight, Lt. Decatur was able to take back “Philadelphia” and burn the ship and all its contents[xiv].  This way, the ship would not be put to use by the Barbary.  He then continued to lead his platoon, killing many Tripoli sailors and escaping back into the seas without harm.  The act of Lt. Decatur became a legend of Naval history.  For his bravery and quick thinking, Lt. Decatur was promoted to Captain.  To this day, he is the youngest person in American military history to be named captain[xv].  His successful concur engrained him in times past as a national hero.

By April of 1805, the Barbary war was still raging.  Once again, the U.S Marines and Navy banded together, again gaining victory and making history.  Lead by Marine Lt. Presley O’Bannon, troops landed on the Tripolian coast, now known as Liberia. With a “mission to reinstate a new ruler”[xvi], over 500 troops marched 600 miles through the dessert and into the city of Derma.  There, they quickly overcame the enemy, rescuing the enslaved crew of “Philadelphia” and allowing Prince Hamet Bey to reclaim his rightful throne as ruler of Tripoli.  This event marked the first victory made on foreign soil[xvii].  Furthermore, it was the first time the American Flag was raised over alien territory.  This historical moment was memorialized by two separate events.  Grateful of the defeat of the Barbary, Prince Bey presented a “Mameluke” sword to Lt. O’Bannon.  “Mameluke”, meaning North African Warrior[xviii], symbolized success and conquest.   Today, the sword is used as a ceremonial weapon and is an official part of the Marine Corps uniform.  The conquest is also commemorated in the U.S Marine’s official hymn.  It further documents the importance of the event by giving tribute.  The first line of this hymn reads: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.”[xix]

A New War and A Broken Treaty

The first Barbary war officially ended June 4, 1805 with the signing of a peace treaty[xx].  The Tripoli, the combined nation of North Africa’s Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli known as the Barbary States, agreed to allow American sea merchants to caravan the sea in peace.  However, by 1807, the Barbary pirates had continued the over take sea vessels.  They maintained their antics by stealing goods and enslaving American people.  By this time, the U.S military was distracted by the war of 1812 and made little passage through the Mediterranean.  America was in battle with the British again, however this time over U.S commerce.  This distraction allowed piracy to continue as the treaty between the nations remained broken.  However, by 1815 the war of 1812 was over, and the United States Military refocused its attention upon the Barbary nation and war continued.

The United States Military Endures and Conquers

The Barbary made a wrong assumption.  The Tripoli thought of America as weak from battle and indebt from the war of 1812.   Once the conflict between Great Britain and America ended in 1815, the Dey of Algiers declared war on the United States.  The military quickly responded.  By July of 1815, 10 ships set sail for the coast of North Africa[xxi].  Commanded by Capt. Decatur and Capt. Brainbridge from the first Barbary war, these leaders displayed confidence and fearlessness.  Within a couple of weeks, the captains had captured several Algerian ships, awakening fear and apprehension within the Barbary.  Soon after this battle, the Dey relented his armed forces.  After witnessing and experiencing the strength and mite of the American military, the Dey adhered to the regulations of the signed treaty.

The Foundation of History of the U.S Navy and Marine Corps

The Barbary War had within it, the first of many accomplishments.  In this war was the first victory won on foreign soil, the first official battle of the U.S Navy and Marines, and the first raising of the flag on alien land.  Furthermore, the battle became a significant part of militaries uniform, ceremonial rituals, and monuments.   The “Tripoli Monument”[xxii] is known as the oldest military sculpture.  The tribute honors the many heroes that participated in the Barbary War and helped to win the battle over the pirates.  The historical monument that once sat amidst the Capitol, now stands confidently at the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland. The U.S was able to gain so much privilege and accomplishment through wining great battles and obtaining victory.  The United States came together as a people, as well as joined military forces for the name of liberty.

The Success of America

The Barbary war remains a battle of great precedence in relation to the history of the United States armed forces.  The war created the beginning of a nation.  The Barbary helped America to institute its independence, as they fought for freedom and established the strong reputation that America continues to hold to this day.  As a militia, America is a force to be reckoned with.  After fighting internal battles within the nation, the government was able to unite thirteen colonies and form this great nation. The U.S remains the riches, successful, and prosperous country in the world.  People from different parts of the world come to America for equal opportunity, freedom, and liberty.  However, these things did not come easily.  If the Barbary War was a test of what our nation was to become, America passed with flying colors; the war continues to symbolize triumph and sovereignty not only for our nation as a whole but also the commanding presence of the United States military.


[i]   Chidsey, Donald. The Wars in Barbary. New York: Crown Publishers, 1971. Pg 52

[ii]  Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Coast. New York: Hyperion Publishers, 2005. Pg 103

[iii]  Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Coast. New York: Hyperion Publishers, 2005. Pg 101

[iv] Chidsey, Donald. The Wars in Barbary. New York: Crown Publishers, 1971. Pg 111

[v] Lambert, Frank The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill and Wang, 2005 pg 89

[vi] Lambert, Frank The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill and Wang, 2005. Pg 61

[vii]   “American Peace Commissioners to John Jay”, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress; Series 1,1786

[viii] Lambert, Frank The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill and Wang, 2005 pg 43

[xiii] Lambert, Frank The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill and Wang, 2005 pg 133

[xiv] Lambert, Frank The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill and Wang, 2005 pg 147

[xv] Lambert, Frank The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill and Wang, 2005 pg 219

[xvi] Lambert, Frank The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill and Wang, 2005 pg 135

[xviii] Tucker,Glenn. Dawn Like Thunder. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1963.pg 221

[xx] Tucker,Glenn. Dawn Like Thunder. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1963.pg 188

[xxi] Lambert, Frank The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill and Wang, 2005 pg 273

[xxii] Lambert, Frank The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill and Wang, 2005 pg 287

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About Russia Robinson

I am an independent freelance writer and free thinker. I strive to use my writing talents to benefit the greater good of society, one word, one sentence, one page at a time. Originally from Richmond, California I attended San Francisco State University receiving a BA in English Creative Writing and American Literature in 2004. After this I attended post graduate studies in 2008 at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in Technical Writing. With an academic background in English, I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. This can be seen in my career background in education and mental health. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher for the state of Georgia. I also worked in social services including juvenile mental health treatment services and counseling. As a result, I understand the diversity of problems people face in their everyday lives. With words put together like so, I promote equality and a healthy society for all people regardless of individual differences. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I push to educate others about various issues that affect people. I also do this creatively through short stories, poems, pictures, and a novel in progress. My hobbies and interest are reading and learning. I enjoy all things art and all things nature. From camping and astronomy to photography and cooking, I enjoy sighting seeing and socializing just as much as I enjoy curling in bed with a good book or binge watching TV.
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