The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1807

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786181100
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/28/2005
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 14 hrs. 30 min.
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.50 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Pirate Coast

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

Blackstone Audiobooks

Copyright © 2005 Richard Zacks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780786181100


Chapter One

Tripoli

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.



Continues...


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.

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