At a dinner celebrating his squadron’s recent victories, the American commander raised his glass and offered a toast: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but [I drink to] our country, right or wrong!” When considering the triumphs of naval officer Stephen Decatur, including the one in Algiers in 1815 that precipitated the dinner, few could argue that his country was not in the right.
The Barbary states of North Africa—Algiers, Tunis, Morocco, and Tripoli (now known as Libya)—so-called because of the people’s Berber origin, had been seizing European ships for at least 300 years, capturing and enslaving by some estimates more than 1 million crew members and passengers. The frequency of these attacks declined in the late 18th century, when the European and American governments began paying tributes to the Barbary sultans in exchange for the safe passage of their vessels.
In 1800, William Eaton, an impetuous, argumentative, Dartmouth-educated former army captain who was serving as the American consul in Tunis, witnessed the payment of tributes and the trading of slaves firsthand. The former enraged him, and the latter, though slavery would remain legal in his own country for another half century, repulsed him. Indeed, while serving his post in Tunis, Eaton went into debt by guaranteeing a loan of $5,000—at that time, enough money to purchase a Manhattan mansion—to a father seeking to buy back his daughter from the Tunisian pirates who had seized her during a raid near Sardinia.
In 1812, while the United States was waging war with England, Algerian pirates seized the American brigantine Edwin and held her crew as slaves. Decatur arrived with a squadron of 10 ships in 1815, 10 weeks after the end of the War of 1812. From the sultan, he demanded and received the crew’s release—as well as $10,000 in retribution for them—leading to the end of the Second Barbary War.
Decatur already was revered for his exploits during the First Barbary War (1801–1805), which began when newly seated President Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, refused the pasha of Tripoli’s order for a $225,000 tribute. Tripoli responded by declaring war on the United States, and in turn, Jefferson called for a blockade of Tripoli’s harbor.
A reminder of Decatur’s heroism during that war remains in Tripoli, as senior editor Laurie Kahle notes in “Shifting Sands”, this month’s feature describing her recent visit to Libya. From the roof of Tripoli’s Jamahiriya Museum rises the mast of the Philadelphia, one of the ships that participated in the blockade. In the fall of 1803, the Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli’s harbor. The ship’s commander surrendered, her 307 crew members were imprisoned, and the pasha added a new warship to his fleet.
In February 1804, Decatur, then a 25-year-old lieutenant, sailed undetected into the harbor to destroy the Philadelphia. Armed with sabers and cutlasses, Decatur and his charges boarded the frigate and killed two dozen guards. They captured the ship and set it aflame, then escaped without losing a single man. When he learned of the foray, British Adm. Horatio Nelson called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” As daring as Decatur’s sortie was, it did little for the welfare of the Philadelphia’s crew: They would remain prisoners for another 17 months.
Even bolder was the mission that Eaton carried out. Shortly after the Philadelphia’s destruction, Eaton secured permission from Jefferson to lead a brigade comprising eight members of the newly formed Marine Corps and 600 Arab and European mercenaries from Egypt into Tripoli, across 500 miles of desert. In May 1805, Eaton and his vastly outnumbered troops arrived in Tripoli and took the port of Derna.
Meanwhile, Jefferson, concerned with the cost of the war, was reaching a settlement in which the Philadelphia sailors would be released in exchange for 52 prisoners whom Decatur had captured in battle—and a payment of $60,000. Jefferson, having severed contact with Eaton, described the arrangement as a prisoner exchange. Eaton, who was forced to flee Derna when the treaty was signed, called it a tribute.
Decatur may have drunk to Jefferson’s means of settling the intercourse with Tripoli, whether the president was right or wrong. But Eaton, bitter about not being compensated for his pecuniary losses during his mission and festering over his abandonment by Jefferson, drank to just about anything once he returned to his Massachusetts home from Derna.
Decatur’s life ended gallantly in 1820, when he was killed in a duel in Maryland. Eaton, his body ravaged by alcoholism, died at the age of 47 in 1811, 80 years before the Marines would honor his troops’ victory, the Corps’ first, in the opening lines of their hymn.