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DC at Night

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Barbary Pirates and the Shores of Tripoli

For Chipp Reid, his new book was really an outgrowth of the resurgence of interest in pirates prompted by the success of the movies The Pirates of the Caribbean,  the series of Johnny Depp films based on the popular Disney ride. A few years ago, Reid, now a technical writer and editor with the National Archives and Records Administration, was crewing on a tall ship in Connecticut. One of his duties was entertaining young students who visited the ship.

 "They were really interested in pirates, but I didn't know much about the Caribbean pirates like Blackbeard and Henry Morgan. But I knew about America's involvement with the Barbary pirates in Tripoli. So those were the stories I told the kids. I wanted to entertain them with something factual and these were some great sea stories," Reid says. A father of one of the students was so impressed with the impact of Reid's stories on his son that he suggested Reid should write a book about Stephen Decatur, Richard Somers, and the other heroes of that campaign which really established America as a naval power.

Yesterday, Reid appeared at the National Archives to discuss his book entitled Intrepid Sailors: The Legacy of Preble's Boys and the Tripoli Campaign.

Reid said he used primary sources such as letters and notes from those involved to tell his story. "This is not a textbook. To me, history should live. It should have oomph. I used the words of the men who were there. If they wrote it, I found it and used it," he explained.

While the problems with the Barbary pirates commenced in 1801, the background for the story actually goes back to the foresight of President George Washington, who realized that if America was to maintain its hard-fought independence, it would need a navy. So in 1794, Washington convinced Congress to authorize the building of 6 frigates.

However, when the Boshaw of Tripoli cut down an American flag pole in May of 1801, signaling an all-out piracy attack on American ships and shipping, the fledgling Navy hadn't been tested. "The pirates of the 1800s were not the Somali pirates of 2012. Piracy was the economy of Tripoli. The Mafia would get jealous of the protection racket the Tripoli pirates set up," Reid said. Basically, the pirates would stop any ship sailing in their area and demand tribute. If their demands for "chests of money" weren't met, they would capture and confiscate the ship. At the time, American shipping was a huge part of the country's economy, taking in $25 million, which is today's figures would equal about $2.6 billion.

Obviously, Americans were upset with the pirates' actions, and President Thomas Jefferson ordered the Navy to stop the piracy. The first 2 attempts proved futile, but that changed when 43-year-old Edward Preble was put in charge of a 3rd attempt. "Actually he and his officers like Stephen Decatur, Richard Somers, and Charles Stewart formed a bond on what the Navy and Marines still base their officers' traditions today," he said.

Initially, Preble didn't think much of his young, untested officers, whose average age was 21. "They don't want to listen. They don't want to work. They won't do anything I tell them," an exasperated Preble wrote to his wife. For their part, the men hated Preble, who forced them to drill repeatedly. Once, Preble ordered them to spend 72 straight hours drilling without sleep. However, when, in their 1st encounter, Preble forced a British ship captain to capitulate, the men began to change their opinion of their leader and saw the benefits of the training he had put them through. "That episode changed every officers idea of their commander," Reid said.

While the Navy under Preble had many successes, the pirates were able to capture the U.S.S. Philadelphia and its crew of 312 men. One of the best stories in the book, Reid says, are the escape attempts of captives. "It makes Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough (2 of the stars of the award-winning World II movie The Great Escape) look like amateurs," Reid joked.

Another riveting story in the book concerns the ship Intrepid, which the Americans renamed after capturing it from the pirates. Despite the American success, the Boshaw refused to capitulate. Finally, Somers agreed to load the Intrepid with 15 tons of explosives, sail the ship into the harbor, and deliver a crippling blow to the Boshow.

Somers realized that if the Intrepid was captured, the munitions on board could restock the pirates. Rather than let that happen, Somers said he would blow the boat up. "Nobody comes on this boat unless you're willing to die by your own hand," Somers told his men. All 12 agreed to the plan. The boat sailed into the harbor, was discovered by 2 pirate ships, and exploded, destroying the Intrepid and both pirate ships.

But the heroism of Somers, Decatur, and the others became part of legend and history. And the legacy of the professionalism they forged still  resonates in the Navy today.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Even though the Tripoli campaign occurred more than 200 years ago, there is still one order of business to complete, Reid maintains. The remains of Somers and the others on the Intrepid have never been returned. And apparently a major stumbling block is the U.S. Navy and Congress. To learn more about the issue, check out the websites Bringing Richard Somers Home and The Intrepid Project.

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