The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805

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by Richard Zacks, Raymond Todd

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After Tripoli declared war on the United States in 1801, Barbary pirates captured three hundred U.S. sailors and marines. President Jefferson sent out navy squadrons, but he also authorized a secret mission to overthrow the government of Tripoli. He chose an unlikely diplomat, William Eaton, to lead the mission. But before Eaton departed, Jefferson grew wary of the


After Tripoli declared war on the United States in 1801, Barbary pirates captured three hundred U.S. sailors and marines. President Jefferson sent out navy squadrons, but he also authorized a secret mission to overthrow the government of Tripoli. He chose an unlikely diplomat, William Eaton, to lead the mission. But before Eaton departed, Jefferson grew wary of the affair and withdrew his support.

Astoundingly, Eaton persevered, gathering a ragtag army and leading them on a brutal march across five hundred miles of desert. After surviving sandstorms, treachery, and near death, Eaton achieved a remarkable victory on "the shores of Tripoli," gaining freedom for the American hostages and new respect for the young United States. But as Eaton dared to reveal that the president had deserted him, Jefferson set out to crush him.

Editorial Reviews

Richard Zacks, the author of The Pirate Hunter, has rescued another chunk of pirate gold from the treasure chest of history. In the first years of the 19th century, the Barbary pirates of North Africa pillaged freely, exacting tribute payments to protect American ships. President Thomas Jefferson had long opposed such payments but had been unable to secure European support for action against the high-seas thieves. In 1805, American counsel William Eaton sailed on a secret mission to overthrow the "pirate" government of Tripoli. At first, the operation was sanctioned by Jefferson, but the president quickly became reluctant to lend his country's name to such a meddling deed, and Eaton was forced to set off with little backing and only a few men. Somehow, though, he completed his mission. This seldom-told story is vividly rendered in this exciting book.
Sudip Bose
Jefferson's navy in those days consisted of fewer than 10 ships, but he sent the USS Philadelphia to blockade Tripoli harbor in the hope of making peace. The maneuver failed. The mighty Philadelphia and its crew of 307 were captured, and Karamanli set ransom at an astonishing $1,690,000. The failure was, as Richard Zacks puts it in The Pirate Coast, "a national disaster for the young United States." How those captives were eventually rescued is the subject of Zacks's lively popular history.
— The Washington Post
William Grimes
… Mr. Zacks relies heavily on a wealth of first-person accounts that, time and again, resuscitate the narrative. He also, quite wisely, makes plenty of room on the stage for the charismatic Eaton, a compelling figure who fully deserves the hero's treatment that Mr. Zack accords him.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The author of The Pirate Hunter, which made Captain Kidd come to life, focuses here more broadly on a piracy hot spot. Resolved to stop the enslavement of American merchant sailors by North African nations, Jefferson deployed most of the infant U.S. Navy to the Mediterranean and sent a column of troops overland from Egypt to place the pasha of Tripoli's brother Hamet on the throne in 1801. The leader of that motley array of mercenaries, Muslim tribesmen, Hamet's retainers and a handful of U.S. Marines was the colorful and combative William Eaton, who led them more than 500 miles across the desert to "the shores of Tripoli." By the time he arrived, peace negotiations were underway, in the hands of one Tobias Deane, who was neither honest nor competent. Eaton had to abandon Hamet and was in turn virtually abandoned by the Jefferson administration, leaving him with a mountain of debt and a drinking problem that eventually killed him at 47. There has been a dearth of good material on the Barbary War and particularly on Eaton's trek; Zacks has researched thoroughly, writes entertainingly and shows a knack for sea stories and characterization. This is the book that Captain Eaton has long deserved. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Freelance writer Zacks (The Pirate Hunter) has written an exceptional book about pirates, covert missions, and governmental denial, all during the initial U.S. involvement with North Africa's Muslim city-states. The focus is on the long-forgotten William Eaton, dispatched by Jefferson to lead a column of troops, including eight U.S. marines, overland from Egypt to Tripoli to overthrow the Bashaw, or Pasha. Eaton didn't quite make it to "the shores of Tripoli," which have since been immortalized by the Marine hymn, because Jefferson had also certified diplomatic peace negotiations that trumped the invasion. An exciting, informative book. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
William Eaton, brash and defiant diplomat, is dispatched to Tripoli in 1805 by Thomas Jefferson to free 300 American hostages in what became the first U.S. covert mission to overthrow a foreign nation. The animalistic Barbary pirates, far from the swashbuckling Errol Flynn variety, provide ample villainy for Zacks's (The Pirate Hunter, 2002, etc.) recap of an obscure historical event. Bashaw Yussef is the ruler of Tripoli, controls the high seas and demands tributes from nations desiring safe passage for their vessels. America, young and desperate to defy tyranny, refuses the Bashaw's extortion and ends up in an overseas hostage situation at a time when its fledgling navy boasts six ships in total. While enforcing a blockade, the Philadelphia runs aground off Tripoli's coast, and the entire crew of 300 is enslaved. The set-up to this true underdog narrative barrels forward like a cinematic tidal wave and continues when a flawed savior is called upon, the disgraced and ill-prepared Eaton being sent to place the Bashaw's exiled brother on the throne and rescue the hostages without paying tribute. The engaging "first act" is one hook after another, but as Eaton's mission falters, so does the forward motion of the story. Infantry headcounts and pages of diplomatic correspondence take center stage in lieu of shipwrecks and betrayal among men both captive and free. Zacks does an expert job of explaining the diplomacy and machinations of the U.S. government even when those fail to rise to the dramatic urgency of the story's central event. He also fills these gaps in the action with many exquisitely researched, character-enhancing tangential anecdotes, including a riveting account of theperpetration of deceit against George Washington by a lesser-known diplomat named Lear. Where Zacks excels is in his research, quipping asides and loving grasp of the subject; where he slides are in the places he can't alter. When this sometimes slow story picks up steam, the pages sail by.

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The Pirate Coast

Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805
By Richard Zacks


Copyright © 2005 Richard Zacks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-4013-0003-0

Chapter One


Would to God that the officers and crew, of the Philadelphia had one and all determined to prefer death to slavery; it is possible such a determination might save them from either. -COMMODORE EDWARD PREBLE TO SECRETARY OF THE NAVY ROBERT SMITH

THE CARPENTERS WHO BUILT the USS Philadelphia, in addition to their craft skills, demonstrated an extraordinary capacity, for alcohol. The project overseer, a Thomas FitzSimons, noted in his expense accounts that he had purchased 110 gallons of rum a month for thirty carpenters. Sober math reveals that each man working six days a week consumed about a pint of ruin a day.

The stout frigate showed no ungainly lines. The carpenters, sharpening their adzes hourly, had hewed the live oak floated north from Georgia into a 147-foot keel; they had pocked each side of the ship with fourteen gunports and sheathed the bottom with copper to defeat sea worms and barnacles. As befitting a ship built in the nation's capital, famed sculptor William Rush had carved an enormous figurehead: a Hercules. No ship of the United States would sport a Virgin Mary (religion) or a King Louis (monarchy), but a muscular classical hero had proven acceptable.

The Philadelphia, launched in 1799, added key firepower to the U.S. Navy, since the entire American fleet in 1803 consisted of six ships. By contrast, England-then tending off Napoleon's attacks-floated close to six hundred vessels in its Royal Navy. While Admiral Nelson stymied the French with thunderous broadsides, the Americans with a bit of pop-pop from their Lilliputian fleet hoped to overawe the least of the Barbary powers, Tripoli.

Now, in October of 1803, the USS Philadelphia, a 36-gun frigate, was prowling the waters off the coast of Tripoli, trying all by itself to enforce a blockade. Very few nations would have even bothered with something as forlorn as a one-ship blockade, but the United States-only a couple of decades old-wasn't exactly brimming with military options.

In 1801, just after the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, Tripoli (modern-day Libya) had become the first country ever to declare war on the United States. The ruler, Yussef Karamanli, had ordered his Janissaries to chop down the flagpole at the U.S. consulate to signal his grave displeasure with the slow trickle of gifts from America. Jefferson, when he learned the news, had responded by sending a small fleet to confront Tripoli and try to overawe it into a peace treaty.

For more than two centuries, the Barbary countries of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli had been harassing Christian ships, seizing cargo and capturing citizens. Algiers once boasted more than 30,000 Christian slaves, including one Miguel Cervantes, before he wrote Don Quixote. European powers in the 1500s and 1600s fought ferocious battles against Moslem pirates like Barbarosa. However, over time, a cynical system of appeasement had developed. The nations of Europe paid tribute-in money, jewels, and naval supplies-to remain at peace. England and France-in endless wars-found it cheaper to bribe the Barbary pirates than to devote a squadron to perpetually trawling the sea off Africa. At its core, expediency outweighed national honor.

When the thirteen American colonies split off from mother England, they lost British protection. The United States found itself lumped in the pile of potential Barbary victims, alongside the likes of Sardinia and Sicily. (From 1785 to 1815, more than six hundred American citizens would be captured and enslaved. This nuisance would prove to be no mere foreign trade issue but rather a near-constant hostage crisis.)

Jefferson wanted to send a message that the United States, with its fresh ideas, refused to pay tribute, but the war with Tripoli was dragging on. Jefferson's first two U.S. fleets had failed to inflict more than scratches on the enemy, and the president expected results from this latest armed squadron.

The USS Philadelphia cruised off the coast of North Africa on the lookout for enemy vessels. The youngest captain in the U.S. Navy, William Bainbridge, had drawn the plum assignment. While the U.S. Navy was still evolving its style of command, twenty-nine-year-old Bainbridge, from a wealthy New Jersey family, clearly valued discipline. "I believe there never was so depraved a set of mortals as Sailors," he once wrote. "Under discipline, they are peaceable and serviceable-divest them of that and they constitute a perfect rabble." During one nine-month stretch on an earlier voyage, he had placed 50 men of a 100-man crew in irons and flogged 40 of them at the gangway. Charming to fellow officers, he didn't allow common seamen ever to address him, no matter how politely. One sailor, back home later, standing on what he described as the "maindeck of America," said he expected he would have an easier time speaking to President Jefferson than Captain Bainbridge. This same disgruntled tar said that the captain often addressed crewmen as "You damn'd rascal" and that Bainbridge also cheered on the boatswain's mates, administering cat-o'-nine-tails to a sailor's back, with words such as "Give it to him! Clear that cat! Damn your eves or I'll give it to him."

In spring of 1803 when the Philadelphia had needed a crew, most potential recruits knew nothing about Bainbridge's reputation as a rough commander. They also didn't know Bainbridge's service record included two of the blackest incidents in the history of the young navy.

William Ray, native of Salisbury, Connecticut, certainly didn't. It's unusual in this era for an articulate "grunt," a private, to record his impressions in a memoir, but Ray did just that. (His Horrors of Slavery, an extremely rare book, provides a counterpoint to the usual self-aggrandizing officers' letters and memoirs.)

William Ray, 5'4 1/2", thirty-four years old, had failed at many professions. His general store ... long shuttered; his schoolroom ... now vacant, and in the latest mishap, he had fallen sick en route from New England and had lost a newspaper editing job in Philadelphia. So Ray, penniless, exasperated, discouraged, and inebriated, headed down to the Delaware River to call it a day and a life and to drown himself.

There, through the haze, he saw flying from a ship in the river the massive flag of the United States, fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. A drummer was beating the skin trying to encourage enlistment. Ray weighed his options: death or the marines. He weighed them again. At the birth of the Republic, the marines ranked as the lowliest military service, paying $6 a month, one-third of the wages of an experienced sailor. The entire marine corps totaled fewer than 500 men, and though it's true marines wore fancy uniforms and carried arms, they basically came on-board ship to police the sailors and prevent mutiny or desertion. The major glory the U.S. Marines could then claim was its Washington City marching band, which the local citizens of that swampy outpost loved and President Thomas Jefferson despised.

Ray enlisted. Rarely was a man less suited for the marines than diminutive William Ray. As a former colonist who had lived through the War of Independence, he detested Tranny, whether it be that of King George III or his new captain, William Bainbridge. Onshore he saw "liberty, equality, peace and plenty" and on board ship, he said he found "oppression, arrogance, clamour and indigence."

Ray, still smarting that he couldn't find a job onshore in "prosperous" America, was appalled to discover his new maritime career required addressing thirteen-year-olds as "Sir" and treating them like "gentlemen." The Philadelphia's officer list included eleven midshipmen, all in their teens. "How preposterous does it appear, to have brats of boys, twelve or fifteen years old, who six months before, had not even seen salt water, strutting in livery, about a ship's decks, damning and flashing old experienced sailors," complained one veteran sailor, who called the job of mid-shipmen a "happy asylum" for the offspring of the wealthy too vicious, lazy, or ignorant to support themselves.

Ray once saw a midshipman toss a bucket of water on a sleeping sailor who, as he woke, spluttered some curses. When the sailor recognized it was a midshipman, he tried to apologize, saying he didn't expect "one of the gentlemen" to be tossing water. Captain Bainbridge had the sailor thrown in irons and flogged. "You tell an officer he is no gentleman?" shouted Bainbridge at the man's punishment. "I'll cut you in ounce pieces, you scoundrel."

In that era of sail, navy ships were so crowded that sailors slept in shifts: Half the crew rocked in the foul-smelling dark while the other half performed the watch. Some captains allowed the men six consecutive hours of sleep; Bainbridge allowed four.

A marine comrade of Ray's, David Burling, fell asleep on watch ... twice. The second time, he was chained in the coal hold until three captains could be gathered for a court-martial. "It will give me infinite pleasure to see him hanging at the yardarm," Bainbridge was overheard saying.

Despite Ray's shock at seaboard life under Bainbridge, the Philadelphia for its few months at sea had performed well enough. Then Commodore Edward Preble in mid-September had sent the vessel, along with the schooner Vixen, on the important mission to blockade Tripoli. Preble represented the third commodore (i.e., ranking squadron captain) in three years to command the small U.S. fleet in the region; the last two men-Commodore Richard Dale and Commodore Richard Morris-were both accused of spending more time showing their epaulets at dances and bails at various European ports than in the choppy waters off Tripoli. Preble, a no-nonsense New Englander, was eager to blockade and to capture hostile ships even in the stormy fall weather. He hoped to choke the enemy's economy.

Now, on October 31, 1803, in the half light of dawn around 6 A.M., the lookout on the Philadelphia, hovering high above the deck, spotted a sail far off on the port bow. Standing orders required alerting the captain. A distant ship, a mere swatch of white at first, usually remains a complete unknown for quite a while. Thanks to elaborate rules of warfare in the early nineteenth century, deception was viewed as an acceptable strategy in the early stages of encountering another ship. (For instance, the Philadelphia carried half a dozen foreign flags, including the Union Jack, a Portuguese pennant, a Danish ensign; Bainbridge a month earlier had used the British colors to trick a Moroccan ship into furling canvas and laying by.)

Though a captain might trick another vessel to sidle close, the etiquette of battle demanded that he fly his true colors before opening fire.

The USS Philadelphia, at that moment about thirty miles east of Tripoli, was already flying the American flag to announce the blockade. As Captain Bainbridge peered through the spyglass, he watched the other ship suddenly raise the yellow-and-red-striped flag of Tripoli. This amounted to a dare, a taunt. Any other colors, especially British or French, would have made the U.S. ship less eager to pursue.

Bainbridge ordered all possible sail to speed the chase of this 12-gun enemy corsair. Pigtailed men scurried to set the sails. A strong breeze coming from the east and southeast allowed both ships to ignore the danger of drifting too close to the shore to the south. The Tripoli vessel sprinted due west while the Philadelphia, farther off the coast, had to zigzag landward to try to catch up.

Officers barked, and the men smartly obeyed. Beyond patriotic zeal, another incentive spurred the crew: prize money. In the early navy officers and men received shares of legally captured vessels. The roping of a gold-laden ship could change an officer's life and dole out more than rum money to a common sailor.

The chase was on. The men eagerly scampered up the ratlines to unfurl yet more sail, the topgallants. Standing 190 feet above the deck on a rope strung along a topgallant yardarm, as the frigate rolled in the waves, the men were tilted over the sea from starboard, then over the sea to port, over and over again.

The Philadelphia proved slightly faster than its quarry, and within three hours of traveling at about eight knots (nine-plus miles per hour), it reached within cannon shot for its bow chasers. The Tripoli ship, much smaller, smartly hugged the shore to tempt the Philadelphia to follow landward and accidentally beach itself. Bainbridge kept the Philadelphia at least one mile offshore. The port of Tripoli began to loom in the distance ... at first a minaret then a castle.

"Every sail was set, and every exertion made to overhaul the ship and cut her off from the town," Ray wrote. "The wind was not very favourable to our purpose, and we had frequently to wear ship. A constant fire was kept up from our ship, but to no effect. We were now within about three miles of the town, and Captain Bainbridge not being acquainted with the harbour, having no pilot nor any correct chart, trusted implicitly to the directions of Lieutenant Porter, who had been here several times and who professed himself well acquainted with the situation of the harbour. We however went so close in that the captain began to be fearful of venturing any farther, and was heard by a number of our men, to express to Lt. Porter the danger he apprehended in pursuing any farther in that direction and advising him to put about ship."

David Porter, then a twenty-three-year-old lieutenant, and a six-foot bull of a man, would go on to achieve a remarkable and controversial career. He would almost singlehandedly wipe out the British whaling fleet in the Pacific during the War of 1812. He would help root out the pirate Jean Lafitte from New Orleans, but his reluctance to follow orders would ultimately lead to court-martial. He was, indeed, a bit of a wild man.

A year earlier, he had killed a fellow in a Baltimore saloon during a brawl while trying to land new recruits. Six months after that, his aggressiveness had surfaced again, this time against the enemy. The U.S. squadron-under Commodore Morris-had trapped in a cove eleven small Tripoli merchant ships carrying wheat; Porter took four men in an open boat at night to sneak in and scout the enemy ships. He discovered that the Moslem merchants had tucked all the vessels by the shore, unloaded their bales of wheat into breastworks, and were now backed on land by a thousand militiamen. Porter begged permission, and received it, for the foolhardy mission to attack in open boats to try to set fire to the wheat. Within a stone's throw of the shore, he was shot through his left thigh, and another ball grazed his right thigh. His men managed to set fire to the wheat, but the Moslems eventually succeeded in extinguishing the blaze. Porter-though bleeding profusely-begged permission to attack again, but Morris refused.

Now as the Philadelphia skirted the shore, Porter encouraged Bainbridge to go deeper into the harbor; he also gave orders that three leadlines be cast and recast to look for any perilous change in the depth of the water. Two lieutenants and one midshipman oversaw sailors who slung forward a lead weight, itself weighing as much as twenty-eight pounds. If the toss was timed right, the lead weight would strike bottom as the ship passed, giving a true vertical depth by a reading of colored markings tied to the rope. The men sang out lead-line readings of at least eight fathoms (or forty-eight feet of water), plenty for a ship that needed a little over twenty feet in depth.


Excerpted from The Pirate Coast by Richard Zacks Copyright © 2005 by Richard Zacks.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Richard Zacks specializes in offbeat history. He is the author of the best-selling History Laid Bare and of The Pirate Hunter, chosen by Time as one of the five best nonfiction books of 2002.

Raymond Todd is an actor-director in the theater, a poet, a jazz trombonist, and a documentary filmmaker who lives in New York.

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The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book interesting, as I always enjoy reading about largely unheard of historical events. It's great learning about Eaton, an unknown American hero, with his driven nature and short temper. It's also interesting to get a different view of Thomas Jefferson, instead of the usual idealized portrait of a near perfect American hero. This book is great for holding your attention and nearly reads like a novel. I couldn't wait to read the next chapter to find out what would happen to Eaton next.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best maritme history books I have read in a long time. It took me two days to read it. If your a history lover this is one to add to your collection. The author quotes 'Eaton achieved a remarkable victory on the shores of Tripoli-commemorated to this day in the U.S. Marine Corps Hymn'
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a great read, and all the better since it is true! William Eaton is a single minded hero worthy of admiration! I found the story exciting, the merging of cultures telling and the parallels to today's events direct. I recommend this to any fan of adventure and any fan of flawed heros that trimuph in inprobable circumstances to bloody the nose of the bully!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fascinating, exciting, and great history! I couldn't put it down. Great book!
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AJ_Pintabians More than 1 year ago
I got this book form my daughter and was so very inspired by it that I sat my other books down after I read the Introduction and was pulled to read the whole book.
very enjoyable and informative great book
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an exciting, well written adventure book. Zacks has picked a timely subject ¿ America trying to interfere and run foreign governments and in this case a Muslim government. It is well written and smartly paced. The true life character William Eaton is well portrayed. My only complaint is that even though the title includes the word Pirates the book is not a sea story so much as the story of a military campaign. Look for the most exiting part the march across the Sahara lead by Eaton. As crazy as Shackleton's adventures.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In the early nineteenth century, Tripoli ruler Bashaw Yussef uses a force of pirates to terrorize the seas (nation sponsored terrorism even in early 1800s). Countries have choices to either pay him for safe passage or risk the seizing of their ships. Most nations choose to remit the fee. America is the exception refusing to bow to any form of tyranny. Instead, the tiny US Navy sets up a blockade off North Africa, but the Philadelphia runs aground off Tripoli; the 300 man crew is enslaved. Outraged President Jefferson sends diplomat William Eaton to allegedly negotiate with the abusive Barbary pirates though he also has a secret agenda to cause regime change. --- This is an interesting look at a rarely detailed chapter of early American ¿diplomacy¿. The first part of the book reads almost like a historical action thriller as the audience is gripped by what really happened. When the negotiations occur, the account slows down, but remains insightful and intriguing (no wonder the media pushes for hostilities ¿ those are more exciting than back room diplomacy). Known for his bio on Captain Kidd (see THE PIRATE HUNTER) Richard Zacks provides an excellent insightful look at the Jefferson presidency with this powerful, deeply researched historical description of the Barbary Pirates encounter. --- Harriet Klausner
ellisonWM More than 1 year ago
A representative of the United States tells Thomas Jefferson he knows a prince who will look fondly upon the US in the Med. Sea. Jefferson allows the man to locate the prince in Egypt and then raise an army. They travel 500 miles through the desert and almost run out of supplies. they capture a city and then are told to stop what they are doing. The man returns home and continues to fight for what he thinks is right. Insightful.
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I found this book very interesting. I have always knew a little about Barbary Wars but I never knew the whole story. In this book you learn the whole story. I think every diplomat and soldier that is going to the middle east should read this book as a lessons learned book.
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