Shores of Tripoli: The Attempted Cover-up of a National Disgrace

It’s true what they say, hiding something in plain sight is an extremely effective method of concealment. We rarely question things that seem to be on display for all to see. Throughout history, this has worked wonders for inconvenient truths and national embarrassments. During Marine Corps basic training I was taught stories about heroic marines from the past such as Smedley Butler, Dan Daly, and Chesty Puller. Butler and Daly being two of only nineteen men to have received the Medal of Honor twice. Butler however, went on to be an outspoken critic of the American military being used by politicians to secure corporate interests. I have often quoted Butler on this site, but for a better understanding of his views you can read his now famous anti-war pamphlet, War is a Racket.

By acknowledging Butler as a hero very few people learn the real story of his life. A similar situation is true with another famous element of Marine Corps history. The war with the Barbary Pirates has been immortalized in the Marine Corps hymn by the line, “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.” To be fair Marines did fight bravely in the battle for Tripoli, but even I was not aware, until recently, of the national embarrassment surrounding that war which led to George Washington’s personal secretary taking his own life, and which set a precedent for US military involvement in foreign affairs to secure corporate interests. A precedent which Smedley Butler spent the second half of his life fighting against.

A recent disagreement on Facebook over this topic led a dear friend of mine to loan me his copy of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. I already knew some basics of the story. Pirates from North Africa were raiding American merchant ships, and instead of paying tribute, the United States went to war. I also knew some minor details such as the embarrassing loss of the newly commissioned naval frigate USS Philadelphia to the Bashaw (ruler) of Tripoli. What I didn’t know was that part of the war involved a US led regime change, an American foreign policy tactic that would be used frequently by the US in Latin America during the late 19th century. The Bashaw of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, had murdered his older brother, and the Marine Corps’ involvement in the ground war against Tripoli was primarily an effort to install his younger brother, Hamet, who had promised cooperation with the US once in power.

Army Lieutenant and diplomatic consul to Tripoli William Eaton led a group of only seven Marines and 300-400 Greek and Arab mercenaries, loyal to Hamet, in an invasion of Tripoli. After a tenuous forced march, the group obtained a near miraculous victory at the Battle of Derne. Some reports suggest that Eaton and his forces were out numbered four to one, and they were unable to secure several artillery pieces that they thought were necessary for victory. Far from being an American war “against Muslims” Eaton fought hard to maintain peace between the Greek Orthodox, Turkish Muslim, and American Protestant soldiers. He viewed their victory as proof of what could be accomplished when men of different faiths worked together for the greater good.

Tragically, the celebration of the victory was short lived. After the battle, Tobias Lear, the personal secretary to George Washington and rival of William Eaton, took his own initiative and brokered a treaty between the United States and the current Bashaw of Tripoli, leaving Eaton and Hamet out to dry in Derne. News of Lear’s betrayal eventually reached Eaton , and he was forced to abandon Hamet in Derne. The treachery of Lear would eventually result in his shame and ridicule back home, and this shame is thought to be a primary motive in Lear’s decision to take his own life. It also led to a growing resentment between Eaton and the US government, that would later cause Aaron Burr to seek him out as a possible military commander in an alleged scheme to overthrow the still newly formed nation.

This post is already much longer than I had planned, and although I am clearly not a historian, I hope I have sufficiently communicated the details of the story necessary to spark further interest in the topic. But most of all, I would like to encourage readers to re-examine parts of history that you might have taken for granted. Don’t be afraid to question the lives of men and women who are presented as national heroes. Don’t be mislead by the patriotic fervor of our founding myths. And most of all don’t let anyone twist these stories to promote fear and hatred of other religions or nationalities. As a nation and as individuals we have to be honest with ourselves about the best and worst parts of our nation’s history. We have to truly repent of the pain and suffering we have caused others, before we can reconcile the deep divisions within our own nation, and become a force for peace and harmony around the globe.

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