Tripolitan War

Although a comparatively minor military conflict, the Tripolitan War was the first foreign war in which the independent United States fought. Prosecution of the war was politically controversial in the United States, but the federal government used the war to strengthen its naval forces and to create the Marine Corps.

Summary of Event

From mid-1801 to 1805, the United States used its young navy to wage its first naval war against the Barbary states of North Africa, which included the Mediterranean coastal cities of Tripoli, Morocco, Morocco;Barbary states Tunis Tunis , and Algiers. For years, pirate forces from these states plagued European and American merchant ships in the Mediterranean, taking money and slaves as often as they could. Moreover, the rulers of the Barbary states exacted tributes of money and arms in exchange for granting safe passage through the Mediterranean. In 1801, the pasha of Tripoli, Yūsuf Karamānlī Yūsuf Karamānlī[Yusuf Karamanli] , increased his demands on U.S. vessels. When U.S. president Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Tripolitan War[Tripolitan War] refused to pay, Karamānlī declared war. Tripolitan War (1805)
Tripolitan War (1805)
Tripoli, Libya;Tripolitan War
Piracy;and Tripolitan War[Tripolitan War]
Navy, U.S.;Tripolitan War
[kw]Tripolitan War (Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805)
[kw]War, Tripolitan (Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805)
Tripolitan War (1805)
Tripolitan War (1805)
Tripoli, Libya;Tripolitan War
Piracy;and Tripolitan War[Tripolitan War]
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[g]North Africa;Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805: Tripolitan War[0090]
[g]Mediterranean;Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805: Tripolitan War[0090]
[g]Africa;Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805: Tripolitan War[0090]
[g]Morocco;Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805: Tripolitan War[0090]
[g]Algeria;Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805: Tripolitan War[0090]
[g]Tunisia;Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805: Tripolitan War[0090]
[g]United States;Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805: Tripolitan War[0090]
[g]Libya;Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805: Tripolitan War[0090]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Summer, 1801-Summer, 1805: Tripolitan War[0090]
Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Tripolitan War[Tripolitan War]
Dale, Richard
Morris, Richard Valentine
Bainbridge, William
Decatur, Stephen
Eaton, William

Yūsuf Karamānlī
Hamet Karamānlī

All four of the Barbary states were troublesome to the United States, but Tripoli’s Yūsuf Karamānlī had one thing that the rulers of the other three states did not—a blood relative who was his rival for power. Yūsuf had driven his older brother, Hamet, Hamet Karamānlī into hiding before claiming power. When the U.S. government learned of this development, William Eaton Eaton, William , the U.S. ambassador to the Barbary region, and several others came up with the idea of helping to restore Hamet to power.

The United States first sent a flotilla of four ships, under Commodore Richard Dale Dale, Richard , into Barbary waters to show off new American naval power. Dale was expressly ordered to defend his fleet if attacked but had no orders to take the offensive. Through the first two years of the so-called war, the only battle that took place occurred while Dale was busy setting up a blockade at Gibraltar, Gibraltar near the Atlantic entrance to the Mediterranean. One of Dale’s commanders, Captain Andrew Sterrett of the Enterprise, Enterprise, USS destroyed a Tripolitan schooner. This action made negotiations between the United States and Tripoli futile. After an otherwise eventless year passed, Dale took his flotilla back to the United States because his crews’ enlistments were up.

In February of 1802, the U.S. Congress Congress, U.S.;and Tripolitan War[Tripolitan War] passed an act that loosened some of the restrictions that Dale had faced. Richard Valentine Morris Morris, Richard Valentine was made commodore, and sailors were conscripted Conscription;U.S. for two years instead of one. For the most part, Morris seemed content to stay in Gibraltar with his family and avoid military action. Although he commanded a fleet of six intimidating ships, he did not make a single aggressive move toward Tripoli. Fed up with Morris’s apparent incompetence, President Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Tripolitan War[Tripolitan War] had him relieved of his duties on August 31, 1803, and replaced him with Edward Preble Preble, Edward . Around that same time, Jefferson also made Ambassador Eaton Eaton, William the Navy Agent of the United States for the Barbary Regencies, a lengthy title that served the purpose of keeping Eaton close to the conflict.

U.S. bombardment of Tripoli.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

Not long after Preble replaced Morris as commodore, one of the most notorious events of the war occurred. On October 31, 1803, the USS Philadelphia
Philadelphia, USS , the pride of the U.S. fleet under Captain William Bainbridge, Bainbridge, William grounded itself on a reef near the Tripolitan coast and resisted all efforts to free it. Tripolitan vessels surrounded the Philadelphia, forcing its crew to abandon the ship in such haste that the sailors failed to render the ship and its weapons useless to the enemy. Yūsuf’s ships quickly captured the crew and salvaged the American ship and most of its weapons.

The American naval officers in the Mediterranean determined that Yūsuf could not be left the master of the Philadelphia, so a sixty-two-man force under the command of Captain Stephen Decatur Decatur, Stephen was sent into Tripoli to burn the ship. On the night of February 16, 1804, the Americans sailed into the Tripolitan port aboard the Intrepid, a ship captured from the Tripolitan fleet, on a surprise attack. However, they encountered little resistance, as the Philadelphia was not heavily guarded. After setting the ship afire, the Americans claimed a victory.

Later during that same summer, Preble Preble, Edward tested the might of his forces in several full-scale attacks on the city of Tripoli. Meanwhile, Eaton Eaton, William located Hamet Karamānlī. Hamet Karamānlī After finding Hamet, however, Eaton was given only eight of the one hundred Marines whom he had requested for the purpose of gathering an army of Hamet supporters. Conflicts in the Mediterranean made sea travel impossible for this troop, so they walked to the city of Derna, where they hoped to recruit some of Hamet’s rich friends to his cause.

Anticipating this move, Yūsuf Yūsuf Karamānlī[Yusuf Karamanli] neutralized all of Hamet’s possible allies and sent a force of his own to Derna. However, Eaton’s little pro-Hamet army arrived there first. On April 24, 1805, his small force took the city by surprise and astonishingly captured Derna swiftly. Two further battles in May clinched Hamet and Eaton’s victory. They were now poised to move on Tripoli, but news arrived that Yūsuf had struck a deal with the United States. Yūsuf was to release all American slaves, in return for which he was to receive a tribute of sixty thousand dollars. Eaton was forced to withdraw, and Hamet and the rest of the troops were smuggled to safety, officially ending America’s first war.


The Tripolitan War is perhaps most famous for the birth of the U.S. Marine Corps, but other milestones were also passed in this war. The people of the United States feared having a permanent domestic military force. The instability of the new national government made Americans wary of any military force that might be used against them. The formation of the Navy was controversial, and its actual deployment was even more controversial—which was one of the reasons that Congress never officially declared war.

The Tripolitan War was the first military conflict with a foreign power in which the independent United States engaged. It was also a precursor to the War of 1812 with Great Britain. In 1801, most of the world had not even heard of the United States of America. The fact that U.S. Navy ships could take on the turbulent Barbary states proved the determination of the United States as a nation. If the conflict had not been settled diplomatically, the United States would almost certainly have won the war—a fact that played a significant role in the strengthening of U.S. maritime forces. The war gave the United States the confidence it needed to survive and helped to prepare the U.S. Navy for many later conflicts.

Further Reading

  • Chidsey, Donald Barr. The Wars in Barbary: Arab Piracy and the Birth of the United States Navy. New York: Crown, 1971. A full look at many of the important people and events that precipitated the Tripolitan War. Follows some of the significant subsequent political events.
  • Crumley, B. L. The Marine Corps: Three Centuries of Glory. San Diego, Calif.: Thunder Bay Press, 2002. Brief but informative discussion of the U.S. Marines’ involvement in the Tripolitan War and how the struggles in North Africa affected the U.S. military forces.
  • Macleod, Julia H., and Louis B. Wright. The First Americans in North Africa: William Eaton’s Struggle for a Vigorous Policy Against the Barbary Pirates, 1799-1805. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1945. A look at the political circumstances surrounding the conflict in the Barbary states, focusing on Tunis.
  • Rodd, Francis Rennell. General William Eaton. New York: Van Rees Press, 1932. Biography of Eaton that includes a penetrating look at the U.S. naval forces. Also examines the politics that affected Eaton’s career and his involvement in the conflict.
  • Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801-1805. New York: Avalon, 2003. A good look at how the events in Barbary affected the American people.

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