July 23, 1801
Commodore Richard Dale blockades Tripoli in America’s first foreign war.
In the December 1937 issue of Proceedings, Lieutenant Felix Howland wrote about the American blockade of Tripoli during 1801 to 1802, examining the popular conception that the blockade had been a success. Howland’s article highlighted the necessity of vigilantly maintaining the blockade, and emphasized the implications of failing to do so:
On May 14, 1801, Tripoli declared war against the United States. Shortly thereafter an American squadron under the command of Commodore Richard Dale appeared in the Mediterranean, and on July 23, 1801, Mr. William Eaton, the Consul at Tunis, taking advantage of the presence of the American ships, declared Tripoli under blockade and notified Commodore Dale of his action. As there has been generally current the idea that this blockade was successfully and vigorously prosecuted thereafter until the end of the war in 1805, it is the purpose of this paper to present some hitherto unpublished documents in the archives of the State Department which show how false is such an opinion and which help to explain why Commodore Richard V. Morris, who succeeded Dale, was subsequently disgraced for his part in the failure of the blockade.
The first action of the war occurred within ten days of the declaration of blockade, though before news of Eaton’s action had reached the fleet. On August 1, 1801, the brig Enterprise, Lieutenant Sterret commanding, subdued the polacre Tripoli after a 2-hour engagement. The success and energy of this engagement did much to lend credence to the statement that Tripoli was actually under blockade and served as a definite deterrent to those who wished to traffic with the enemy. From then on during the winter the blockade appears to have been a success, not so much because of the energy of its prosecution, but rather because the presence of the squadron in those waters seemed warranty enough of its seriousness.
By January, 1802, things had progressed so well that writing from Leghorn on February 21 Eaton was able to inform Mr. Madison:
Information from Tripoli up to 9th January states that no captures [of merchant ships] had been made. The Bashaw is sending away the corsairs to different parts of the Morea for fear of an assault from the Americans. Discontentment in his interior has arisen to insurrection. Famine distresses his capital and he is destitute of resources. He has actually made overtures of reconciliation to his brother in Tunis.
Conditions went from bad to worse and by May 21 it was possible to state in a letter to the “Officer Commanding, U. S. Squadron in the Mediterranean”:
The Bashaw is making great defensive preparations—But general discontentment pervades all classes of his subjects . . . even the Turkish soldiers, the only people who can be benefited by the war, are profitting of every opportunity to desert. . . .
Prospects are promising and if our squadron appears in season there can hardly be a doubt of an issue of the Tripoline war as favorable as we could wish. Captain McNeil is before Tripoli.
On May 24, 1802, the Bashaw of Tripoli, frightened by the success of the blockade and worried by the growing unrest at home, made overtures of peace through the Bey of Tunis. The Americans felt justified in scornfully rejecting these proposals and demanding what amounted to an unconditional surrender on the Bashaw’s part. Eaton wrote Madison exultingly the following day:
These overtures go to prove the embarrassed situation of our enemy; and promise, if suitable advantage be taken of it, a peace on our own terms. We hold the high grounds of him at all points.
Thus, at the close of the first year of operations everything was favorable to the United States: One Tripolitan fleet had been bottled up in Gibraltar; one corsair had been taken in action; no American ships had been taken; and ships were afraid to carry supplies to Tripoli, which was now faced with famine. In addition, sedition was spreading in Tripoli itself and the reigning Bashaw, who had gained the throne by the murder of his oldest brother and the deposition of the next, feared a restoration of the rightful ruler who appeared to have the support of the American squadron. America might well feel proud that she had accomplished so much in so short a time, especially when one considers that this was her first foreign war and that no European power had ever been able to deal so effectively with any of the Barbary States.
Unfortunately at this moment the command of the squadron was transferred to Commodore Morris, who, whatever merits he may have possessed as an organizer, seemed unable to grasp the strategic principles involved in the blockade. As a result, and in spite of an augmented naval force, the blockade became distant and careless. It was not long before disaster resulted from this policy and the good work of the first year, so ably performed by Commodore Richard Dale, was entirely undone.
On June 17, 1802, the American brig Franklin, belonging to a Philadelphia firm and commanded by Captain Andrew Morris, was captured by Tripolitan corsairs. With American captives at last in their possession the corsairs took heart and renewed their exhorbitant demands. As this and similar incidents have generally been ignored by the historian of this war it is well to read the following letter from Captain Morris to Mr. Eaton which not only describes the capture but contains an excellent picture of the actual state of the blockade at this time:
Tripoli, July 21, 1802.
William Eaton, Esq.,
I expect ere this Mr. O’Brien has informed you of my capture, but as I had not an opportunity during the Corsair’s tarry at Algiers to inform him of particulars, I take this early opportunity to mention that I sailed with the Brig Franklin, belonging to Messrs. Summert & Brown of Philadelphia, from Marseilles with an assorted Cargoe for the West India market, on the 8th ultimo, and on the night of the 17th then off Cape Gallos was boarded by one of the Tripoline Galliottes, mounting four guns that sailed from this place about the 20th of May. I shall pass over the ocurrances of that night as you are well acquainted with the conduct of the Barbarians towards the unfortunate that falls into their hands . . . They proceeded with the prize to Algiers where we arrived on the 20th and as I conjectured by the representations of consul O’Brien they were obliged to make a hasty departure on the 27th following, without accomplishing their intentions which was to sell the Brig &ca. . . . what with contrary winds and calms we did not reach the port of Bizerte in your neighborhood, until the 7th instant w[h]ere after a tarry of five days we departed leaving the Brig there and arrived at this place the 19th instant . . .
The most provoking circumstance was off this port, when we arrived within about twelve miles the Corsair with our flag reversed began to salute the town, and so continued at intervals until we anchor’d, which was more than five hours, and all this in view of a Swedish and American Frigate, who never made the smallest effort to obstruct our progress, at all events they had it in their power to run the pirate on shore before he could get within shot of the forts. I do not wish to attach any blame to any man but this transaction was too public to remain a secret and as an American excites my indignation. . . .
It was the too sanguine assurances that I had from several quarters of the impossibility of their cruizers to get out that led me to sea without Convoy or Arms, fatal experience has convinced me to the contrary but I hope it will prevent any more falling into their hands and excite our Vessels of war to more vigilance. . . .
With respect etc.
Were the above incident the only evidence we have of the ineffectiveness of the blockade we could well dismiss it as an unfortunate accident but we have also the letter of Mr. Nissen, the Danish Consul at Tripoli, who was intrusted with American interests. On July 27 he wrote Eaton as follows:
In the last five days I have not seen any Frigates off the port. . . . In a few days will depart from here 3 or 4 . . . Gallies, & certainly the blockade of this port, will neither prevent them from going out, or returning with prizes. I am certain that the Frigate Constellation must have observed the American colours on board the Cruiser when coming in the 19th instant.
It was rapidly becoming evident not only to the Tripolitans but to the world at large that the blockade which a few months before had brought the Bashaw suing for peace was now a blockade in name only and supplies could be sent with impunity to the beleagured city. A Danish gentleman named DeWitt who returned from Tripoli at this time is quoted by Eaton in his letter to Mr. Madison under date of August 23 as saying:
During the time he was at Tripoli, the Swedish and American frigates cruised about nine or ten French leagues from the coast . . . That they were no real impedimenta to the entry and departure of vessels . . . that, a few days before the danish frigate left the port a large imperial merchant man entered there from Leghorn, cleared out of Alexandria, laden with munitions of war and provisions . . . and that the vessels were daily entering and departing without apparent molestation.
Matters continued in this wise until Commodore Morris was recalled in the following year when he was faced with a court-martial which adjudged him incompetent and dismissed him from the service. Inasmuch as the evidence presented to the court has not been preserved in the Navy Department archives there has been a tendency to accept Morris’ published defense and to conclude that the court was actuated by motives of personal spite or an improper grasp of the actual situation. Without entering into the argument of what should have been the disposition of the naval forces in order to secure a close and effective blockade, we must concede that from the evidence given above it seems conclusively proved that whatever dispositions were taken were completely ineffectual. It is a dictum of the laws of administration that the commanding officer must be responsible for the acts of his subordinates and the success of his mission. That Morris failed cannot be denied and the integrity of the court seems sustained.
It is unfortunate that Mr. William Eaton resigned his post as Consul in Tunis and was recalled to the United States, embarking March 10, 1803. After his departure none of the other consuls or agents seem to have interested themselves greatly in the military and naval operations and we are therefore denied the testimony of an outside observer in the subsequent conduct of the war. It is clear, however, that the blockade was tightened and was later supplemented by direct land and sea attacks on both Tripoli and Derna which resulted in a cessation of hostilities in 1805. By this time the war had lasted more than four years and cost great sums of money, many lives, and much hardship, all of which might have been spared had the blockade been vigorously maintained during the first two years of the war instead of being allowed to slacken.