TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI: Winning the War in Libya

Scurvy Bastard drawing

Editor’s note: Some more true adventures of and by Lt. Scurvy Bastard, USN. The sequel and conclusion to the recently discovered 19th century Barbary War memoir the first part of which was published here on March 22.

WHEN we fetched back to Sicily the morning of 19 February 1804, three days after torching the frigate Philadelphia and so depriving the Pasha of Tripoli of his most potent weapon against us, we was immediately hailed as brave heroes by all of Commodore Preble’s squadron. They spied our canvas out of Syracuse harbor about 10 a.m. and owing to the light airs was immediately out in boats to help haul us in. Weren’t but half an hour before they had us in the harbor proper, whereupon the crews on all three ships come up on deck to give us three big cheers as we sidled by.

“Weren’t never nothing like this in the Indies,” I exclaimed to Mr. Skull. Me and me boys being all up on the taffrail gaping at it, excepting old Doc Plague, who were lashed to a belaying pin as he were delirious from celebrating.

Skull was beaming all over, and I could tell he ain’t never been plauded in such a manner before. Same with young Billy Breeze, whose eyes was all moist from the grand emotion of the moment.

Soon as we set our hook there were a boat straight over from Constitution to take me and Lt. Decatur for an interview with the commodore. There were an honor watch to pipe us aboard proper and two midshipmen to escort us right down to the great cabin.

“I can’t tell you how splendid it is to see you both alive and well,” exclaimed the commodore the moment we were within his presence. He were in a most splendid mood and shook on me paw most furious. He likewise shook on the hand of Lt. Decatur and bade us tell him all about our adventure in Tripoli harbor.

Seeing how Lt. Decatur were the official commanding officer on the mission, I let him do all the talking. He made much mention of the hard fighting me and me boys put in and were most humble about his own part. The commodore at once pronounced himself most pleased with the report and said he would recommend us both for promotion.

Cap’n Scurvy Bastard! The very thought it sent your narrator’s head to spinning. I were so excited I could not help myself from sneaking into the commodore’s cabin that very night to sneak a look at his letter to the Navy secretary. You might imagine my surprise when I saw he had not mentioned me once to the secretary. I were so furious I confronted him the very next morning.

“Lt. Bastard,” says the commodore after I had out with me piece. “Do you seriously expect me to fill my dispatches to Washington with stories of talking rats?”

“Yes sir, I do,” I replied.

Whereupon the commodore dismissed me from his presence with a wave of his hand. “If it wouldn’t look so damned ridiculous,” he declared, “I’d give ye 20 lashes for your insolence.”

I must confess this riled me up a good bit and for a while I seriously considered jumping ship. But I figured it weren’t the commodore’s fault there were such a human prejudice against rodents and saw it were me solemn duty to keep giving him the sage advice he so sorely required.


Lt. Decatur’s Revenge

Seeing how we had practically killed ourselves blowing up Philadelphia so the commodore could operate against the Tripoli pirates with impunity, it were of course incumbent upon him to waste several months fiddling some more with his supplies and logistics. We sailed all over the damn Mediterranean ferrying diplomats hither and thither and convoying supply ships over from Gibraltar. We captured two ships on the blockade off Tripoli and once was off Tunis to put fear on the pirates there, but for the most part things was real slow.

It weren’t until late July that the commodore managed to get most of the squadron provisioned to go into Tripoli on a proper raid. In addition to Constitution, our sole frigate, we had with us the brigs Siren and Argus, as well as the schooners Vixen, Nautilus, and Enterprise. Seeing how them ships were all too deep to be sailing through the reef off Tripoli in combat conditions, we also had with us two 30-ton mortar boats and six 25-ton gunboats for some up-close work. We had borrowed the entire bunch friendly-like off the King of the Two Sicilies, who were also officially at war with Tripoli, but until now had done little about it.

We fetched Tripoli on 28 July but was tossed off by an unfavorable breeze from the north and wasn’t set again until 3 August. This were a fine day with easterly airs just perfect for operations. That morning a small flock of pirate gunboats came out to taunt us, and the commodore hailed all his officers over to Constitution for a conference, at which he issued orders to have at them full out.

Our gunboats was divied into two divisions of three boats each, with Lt. Somers, as the more senior officer, commanding one division on the right side of the line and me good friend Lt. Decatur commanding the other on the left. I were put off again about not getting me own gunboat to command, but I did manage to get me and me boys aboard with Lt. Decatur on his boat so’s at least we could get in our licks. We cast off the larger ships at 2 p.m. precise and laid in for the harbor.

There were trouble right away with Lt. Somers’ division, which were on the leeward side of the line and couldn’t crawl far enough east to engage the main body of the pirate gunboats hanging off the reef. Lt. Somers had the worst sailing boat of all and soon resigned himself to chasing a few stray pirate gunboats on the western shore just outside the harbor. Lt. James Decatur, younger brother of our Lt. Stephen, did manage to get his boat up to the east where we was, but the last officer in Lt. Somers’ division, Lt. Joshua Blake, got so confused he ended wandering about lobbing the occasional ball into town without much purpose or effect.

Meanwhile, on the east side things was getting hot pretty quick with more than thrice our number of pirate gunboats coming at us for some hand-to-hand fighting. Our ships behind us were throwing all manner of ordnance over our heads at the batteries on shore. There was great plumes of water shooting up all round us as the batteries answered back, with some shots tearing out bits of rigging here and there. But Lt. Decatur kept his head and had us into the thick of it.

Barbary Wars

After setting off our 12-pounder a few times, the lieutenant put our boat up against a pirate gunboat and at once gave the order to board. As had proved so successful on our last raid, me and me rodents went over first and was distracting the pirates by jabbing at their naked feets with our cutlasses while the humans cleared the rail. Methinks us rodents could have carried her ourselves, so furious was we swinging our blades, but with the humans helping them pirates just surrendered that much quicker.

Soon we had our prize in tow and was setting off the 12-pounder again when Lt. James Decatur’s boat come running up our stern. Midshipman Brown, second-in-command, were shouting at us that James had just been treacherously slain. Seems one pirate gunboat captain had pretended to surrender his vessel, then shot Lt. James clear through the head when he stepped aboard to take possession.

I turned quick to catch to Lt. Decatur’s reaction to this foul news. He winced once real hard, squeezing shut his orbs for a moment, then ordered some of our crew over to man the prize while the rest of us cast off and headed downwind in search of the murderer. He weren’t hard to find, seeing he were still flying his treacherous white flag, and in but a few moments we was alongside, swooping on to his windward quarter like a great bird of vengeance.

Soon as we touched rails, Lt. Decatur were into the pirates like a banshee, orbs peeled red for blood, and thrashed quick through the crowd to find the pirate captain who killed his brother. This fellow were about as big and round as he were tall, and he just laughed hearty and thrust out with his boarding pike and broke off the lieutenant’s cutlass at the hilt like it weren’t no stronger than a cat-tail reed. The next thrust caught the lieutenant in the arm, drawing no small bit of blood, but the lieutenant got hold of the pike this time and wrenched it away. He then commenced to wrestle with the pirate hand to hand on the deck.

Scurvy Bastard drawing

Meanwhile, the crews of both boats was flailing away at each other most hideous. Me and Skull and Billy Breeze bit, chewed, and stabbed our way over to aid the lieutenant, who was by now underneath the pirate captain, who had drawn a knife so as to deliver a lethal blow. We rats scrambled in a panic up the pirate’s backside and started gnawing furious-like on his neck like we was bound to bore right through to his guts. This enabled Lt. Decatur to reach for a pistol in his coat pocket. He fired it right through the pocket and caught the pirate sharp through the chest, whereupon he tumbled off dead, causing his crew to surrender right prompt at the sight of it.

Barbary Wars

Lt. Decatur laughed out loud in relief. “I’ve never before been so pleased to see a pack of rats!” he exclaimed and scratched the three of us affectionate-like behind the ears. Me and Billy kind of liked it, but Mr. Skull and his dignity were sorely offended.

All in all we fought them pirates more than two hours straight, until the wind filled in northerly and the commodore issued orders to disengage. While Constitution tacked back and forth firing broadsides against the shore batteries, the brigs and schooners came forward to take our gunboats and mortar boats in tow. Constitution did a good amount of harm and chased all the pirates from the Pasha’s castle and brought down the mosque steeple besides. We counted it a victory, for not only did we capture us three pirate gunboats, we sent three more to the bottom, killed off dozens of pirates, wounded many more, and whomped the town hard with our big guns.

In exchange we lost not one of our vessels, had but a handful of wounded, and suffered only one fatality, which were of course poor James Decatur. He were buried at sea with full honors the very next day, may the good Lord rest his soul.


I Visits the President

We stood offshore a few days fixing ourselves up and taking on supplies from convoy ships and was ready for another raid on 7 August. This weren’t nearly as fun as the last one, as them pirates would not fight us hand to hand no more. They kept their gunboats away from ours and the whole affair degenerated into a blazing gun duel, which were kind of dull for us rats. It were also a sight more costly, as the pirates managed to hit some of our boats and killed off 12 humans while wounding many others.

Round about the middle of this battle an unknown sail hove into sight to the north. This turned out to be the frigate USS John Adams, fresh from America to join our squadron. Commodore Preble were at first excited by this development, but not when he read the dispatches John Adams had onboard.

“I’m to be relieved!” he declared to me in the privacy of his cabin. “It’s from the Navy secretary himself! They received news of Philadelphia‘s capture and sent four frigates to join us as soon as possible. One of the captains, Sam Barron, is senior to me, thus must assume command of the squadron the moment he arrives.”

“That be most unfair,” I says to console the commodore. But really I were thinking it was his just desserts for failing to mention me in his dispatches to Washington.

Even with this great disappointment, the commodore weren’t about to let up on the pirates now that he had started in after them. He fiddled with his supplies just a bit, got put off by a spell of bad weather, but soon enough had us in for a night raid on 24 August. We fired off a fair amount of cannon, but got no reply, and turned out to have made little damage on the town. On 28 August we went in at night again, then again on 3 September during the day. Both these attacks were more successful and did much harm on the shore batteries, as well as sinking several gunboats and killing many pirates in the bargain.

Thinking now he had the Pasha on the verge of coming to terms, Commodore Preble next effected a plan he had cooked up all by himself, which were to send a fire-ship into the harbor on the sly and blow her up right in the midst of the pirate shipping. It really weren’t such a bad idea, considering the commodore made it without my supervision, but it turned out disaster-like anyway.

Intrepid, which were the ketch me and Lt. Decatur used for blowing up Philadelphia, were picked out to be the fire-ship. She were loaded stem to stern with combustibles and went in the night of 4 September with a crew of 13 volunteers, who was to set off fuses then get away in some fast longboats before everything went sky high. Something went wrong, however, and Intrepid blew to smithereens before she even cleared the reef, going down with all hands. It were a most tragic sight indeed.

Barbary Wars map

Finally on 10 September Sam Barron showed up with two of his four frigates and were immediately relieving Capt. Preble as commodore of the squadron. As seems customary with any new commodore, Capt. Barron were having to do much fiddling with his supplies and logistics and were compelled to complain a good deal about the weather. This were to be expected, however, as we had used up much ammunition prosecuting our five raids against the pirates, and with winter coming on the wind were blowing hard from the north day after day.

Come December, Capt. Preble were making ready to return to America on John Adams and he did me a great honor by asking if I would accompany him on his journey. He said he were having to prepare detailed operations reports for President Jefferson and would be glad of some assistance. I were quick to leap at the opportunity. Here at last were me chance to set the record straight and get me and me boys proper notice for all our efforts against the pirates. With no small amount of trepidation, I left Mr. Skull in charge of the crew, swearing him up and down to acquit himself like a true commander, and so embarked with Capt. Preble aboard John Adams on the morning of 23 December.

After much heavy weather, we arrived in New York 26 February and at once set out for Washington by coach, getting there 4 March 1805, which were the very day President Jefferson were augurated to his second term of office. The city of Washington were still being built in them days, looking mostly like a big mud hole with some half-finished buildings here and there, but still the auguration were a most noble spectacle. I got me a pretty good view with me spyglass from up on Capt. Preble’s hat and were mighty impressed with the President’s manner, though mighty bored by his speaking, which were all about liberty and agrarian republics and a bunch of other stuff I could not understand.

Thomas Jefferson

Very next morning a runner come by our hotel room with a special message from the President requesting an interview with Capt. Preble that same afternoon.

“I suppose you must be wanting me to join you, to help brief the President and all,” I remarked diplomatic-like after reading over the note.

“You really don’t expect me to present myself to the President of the United States in the company of a rodent, do you?” exclaimed Capt. Preble in return.

“I expect you to do right by a fellow officer who has served you faithful,” I said right sharp.

“Now, now, Scurvy,” soothed the captain. “I will be sure to mention you to the President. But you must wait here patiently until I return.” Then he started prettying himself up for his interview, putting on a wig and powder and all.

I moped about for a piece, for I knew the captain could not be trusted to keep his word. Then, when I saw he were ready to step out, I slipped quiet-like into his coat pocket without his noticing. It were not comfortable in there, but we wasn’t long getting to the Executive Mansion, which were where Presidents lived in them days before the White House were built. Soon as we was in the President’s office I took a peek from my hiding place so’s to see the great Jefferson up close. Truth to tell, he looked most disheveled and appeared to have done some serious post-auguration celebrating the night before.

Right after Capt. Preble and President Jefferson was done exchanging their courtesies, I jumped clear of the captain’s pocket to make me own presence known.

“Lt. Scurvy Bastard reporting!” I cried out in me best voice as I hit the floor and snapped to attention.

Scurvy Bastard drawing

Capt. Preble let out a gasp of surprise when he sees me, but the President’s reaction were even worse. He shrieked like a woman and jumped on his desk with hands clapped over his orbs at the sight of me.

“A rat!” he cries. “Call out the guard! There is a rat in my sanctuary!”

In a flash a swarm of soldiers burst in through the door and were chasing me about so’s to club me down with their muskets. I were in a royal panic, running every which way to save me skin, but finally got cornered up by one soldier against the big French windows behind the President’s desk.

“Kill it! Kill it!” cries the President in a fury.

Scurvy Bastard drawing

But most fortunately the soldier had mercy on me. Instead of squashing me dead, he threw open the windows and booted me outdoors with his foot. I landed hard in a greasy pool of mud and were lucky to have sustained no serious injury. Needless to say, I were most humiliated to be treated in such a manner by the nation’s highest elected official, and I swore to myself then and there if us rats ever got franchised I wouldn’t ever be wasting me vote on the likes of Thomas Jefferson.


We Become Desert Rats and Win the War

Without waiting to hear nothing from Capt. Preble, I at once made back to New York so’s to jump a ship outbound for the Mediterranean. I found a supply ship name of Rochester headed for Syracuse without much trouble and arrived there on 9 April.

Much had happened with the squadron during me absence, but not much in the way of proper fighting. Most notable were the fact that Commodore Barron, who relieved Capt. Preble, had taken very ill and were relieved in his turn by Capt. John Rodgers, the next most senior officer. I were now beginning to appreciate Capt. Preble’s talents as a commodore, because even though they now had the biggest fleet of warships ever assembled under the U.S. flag at their disposal, neither commodores Barron nor Rodgers was able to launch a major raid against the pirates for want of supplies and ammunition.

I had to regret having berated old Capt. Preble for fiddling so over such matters and were now recognizing that this business of supplies and logistics were most important to the art of warfare. It were especially difficult on the Mediterranean in them days, as the Frenchies and Blimeys were hogging everything for their war and leaving us practically nothing for ours.

The other big surprise were that Mr. Skull and all me boys was nowhere to be found on any of the ships in the squadron. I asked Lt. Decatur about it, who were a captain himself now, in command of Constitution, and he told me Skull had took the boys with some strange diplomat name of Mr. William Eaton to try and fight the pirates on land.

Turned out they went to Egypt to find the former Pasha of Tripoli, one Hamet Karamanli, who had got kicked out by his brother, the current Pasha. Apparently Mr. Eaton had succeeded in convincing Hamet to raise an army against his traitorous brother and now the whole lot of them, me rats included, was marching across the desert to attack the town of Derne, which were a small harbor just east of Tripoli.

This agitated me a good bit, being so far from me boys when they was so near a fight, so’s I set out quick to find a way to join them. Fortunately, the brig Argus and sloop Hornet was setting off that very day to carry supplies to Mr. Eaton’s army, and I had little trouble getting aboard Argus as a passenger.

We arrived at a place called Bomba some 60 miles east of Derne on the morning of 16 April. I come ashore on the first boat and were finding hundreds of Bedouin tribesmen and a handful of American marines hunkered down in the dust together looking most starved and thirsted. I also found me boys, all of them riding a camel together and shouting and hollering when they sees me. The whole bunch crawled quick off the camel and was in a moment pouring out the story of their arduous journey across the desert.

“They be crazy!” exclaims Mr. Skull. “We be marching through this damn furnace for days, man, and all these Muslims be fighting and complaining the whole damn time. Every damn minute some bunch be having some mutiny and stomping off, then coming right back when they remembers they got no food or water. They worse than rats, man! It be a miracle we get this far without them all killing each other.”

“The camels are nice,” pipes up young Billy Breeze. “We made good friends with all the camels. This one here is Mohammed.”

“Pleased to meet you,” says the camel me boys was riding on. They then took me round to meet all the other camels, who was also all named Mohammed, which were most confusing when it come to addressing any one of them personal.

Dromedary camel

Turned out Argus and Hornet was arriving in the nick of time, for the army were indeed nearly out of food and water and things was most tense around camp. After recovering from their hard march through the desert, the army set out again on 23 April, with me back in command of me rodents, but the very next day there were more trouble when we got word the Pasha had a big army from Tripoli waiting to take us on at Derne. As Mr. Skull had said, this at once set all the Muslims to getting mutinous, with whole tribes getting set to make back for Egypt. Mr. Eaton, however, were a most expert diplomat and with much persuading and many promises of gold he managed to get us all going forward again until we reached the outskirts of Derne on the afternoon of 25 April.

First thing next morning Mr. Eaton were sending out patrols to reconnoiter and also a messenger into town to ask polite if the pirate army might like to surrender. “My head or yours,” were the pirate general’s answer, which were a great relief to me boys, who was worried sick at the prospect of having come all this way for nothing. That afternoon sloop Nautilus appeared offshore, all ready to help out, and were joined early next morning by Argus and Hornet.

Weren’t no excuses now for us not to be having a fierce battle, except when Mr. Eaton called the army together to start it off, them Muslims was once again getting mutinous and demanding more gold for their services. Mr. Eaton argued it for the better part of an hour, but it weren’t seeming to do much good.

“Hell, we ain’t needing no humans for this,” I tells me boys. “We can take this damn town all by ourselves, if only them camels will lend a hoof.”

“Ey, you be right about that, man,” agreed Skull.

“Mohammed!” I calls out, and on a sudden all 500 or more camels come trotting over to where we was standing.

“Yes?” they all answers.

“How about you camels and us rats leave these humans to their squabbling and settle this ourselves?” I suggested.

The camels all belched and burped on it for a bit, then shook their mighty snouts up and down in agreement.

“Sounds good to me,” says one Mohammed.

“Likewise,” adds several others.

“Then let’s get to it!” I declares, whereupon me and me boys clambered atop the biggest camel and drew out our cutlasses.

“CHARGE!” we all shouts together, waving our blades real merry, and in a flash us and all 500 camels was bumping and galloping our way into town.

Soon as they sees the dust we kicked up, the three ships offshore figured the battle were underway and so started in throwing a ton of ball and grape at the enemy. This fierce bombardment, combined with the ungodly sight of several hundred stampeding camels coming down on them hard with no riders, were at once setting a great fear on the hearts of the pirate army. Confused as they was, they all turned on their heels and beat a quick retreat for the hills, leaving us camels and rodents complete masters of the town.

Our capturing Derne were of course what finally brought the Pasha to terms, as any true student of history will tell you. He launched a few counterattacks during the month of May, but were soon seeing it quite hopeless, and by 10 June signed a proper peace with no tribute on it whatsoever. It were a glorious victory for the United States, especially for the Navy, which had never before conducted such large operations. All these things is part of the record, well and good.

I, of course, is most proud to been part of it all. But it pains me to this day to that us rats (not to mention them brave camels) ain’t never got proper credit for all we done. I can only pray this humble narration, which be the only absolute true account of the war against Tripoli I know of, will one day be discovered and so set the record straight.


Related Posts

Leave a Reply



Please enable the javascript to submit this form

Facebook Pagelike Widget


Google Ads