On the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy, housing the museum honoring the history of the service, sits Preble Hall, a monument to Commodore Edward Preble. At first glance, his iconic stature within the Navy might seem odd. A service that has produced such towering figures as Halsey, Mahan, Sims, Farragut, Truxtun, and Decatur stills holds a revered space for a man whose combat command covered only a portion of a single, often-forgotten war.
Preble was tasked with leading the conflict against Tripoli during Thomas Jefferson’s first term as President. Preble spent only a little more than a year in the Mediterranean, but that year dominated his naval career—his biographer devotes more than half his book to Preble’s service in the Tripolitan War.1 Much to Preble’s lasting chagrin, his time battling Tripoli failed to yield the peace terms he dreamed of, and bad luck with the chain of command meant that he was not even present to see the war ended.
Yet Preble emerged as a national hero for his performance in the Tripolitan War and cemented himself as one of the Jefferson administration’s most favored naval officers. Preble embodied the qualities that the U.S. Navy needed in its infancy, at a time when both it and the nation as a whole were viewed with scorn by the major powers of Europe. As a result, during his brief tenure in the Mediterranean, Preble played a vital role in shaping the identity of the U.S. Navy.
‘Respect Is a Safeguard to Interest’
Tripoli was one of three principalities on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa known (somewhat inaccurately) as the Barbary States. In fact, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis were part of the Ottoman Empire, but they enjoyed considerable autonomy as long as they kept up regular tribute payments to the imperial capital.
The source of those payments, and of the Barbary powers’ economies generally, came through seizing the merchant ships of non-Muslim nations and enslaving their crews. European governments paid heavily for immunity from such seizures, regularly sending what can only be characterized as protection money. This was no guarantee, however, as a new ruler (or new financial demands) routinely prompted one or more of the Barbary States to break off the agreement with a given nation and begin seizing shipping again. Ransoms for ships and crews, seized cargoes, and eventually new agreements with heftier annual payments followed.
While frustrating to European nations, geography made war with the Barbary powers a difficult undertaking, and when they went to war at all, it was with an eye toward getting the cheapest peace possible; no nation in Europe even considered attempting to break the corsairs’ hold on Mediterranean commerce.2
George Washington and John Adams followed Europe’s example. With little to nothing in the way of naval forces and with other threats to confront, the first two U.S. Presidents found it much more expedient to pay ransom for captured Americans and offer annual “tribute” in exchange for protecting U.S. shipping. When he took office in 1801, Thomas Jefferson had different ideas. A mix of motives drove his decision to break with European precedent, including zeal for free trade principles and a fear that Barbary perception of American weakness would lead to ever-ballooning costs for protection.3
Jefferson had more in mind than just U.S. commerce in the Mediterranean, however. The new President saw renewed negotiations and treaties without tribute, even at the cost of war, as a chance to demonstrate his nation’s mettle to Europe and improve America’s standing in the eyes of other nations.4 As early as 1785, he had argued in favor of war with the Barbary powers, asserting that such a conflict would bring honor to the new nation and, equally important, “it will procure us respect in Europe, and respect is a safeguard to interest.”5
With these factors in mind, Jefferson assumed the presidency determined to set a new policy regarding the Barbary corsairs. He planned to honor the existing treaties signed by his predecessors, but if war came, he was prepared to fight.
He did not have to wait long. Annoyed that Algiers had gotten a better deal and believing that the United States was holding out on agreed tribute, Yusuf Karamanli, the Bashaw of Tripoli, ordered the American flag at the U.S. consulate chopped down in a symbolic declaration of war in the spring of 1801.
Setting a New Tone
Preble did not take part in the earliest days of the conflict. Wracked by a persistent illness, he initially declined an offer to command a squadron in the Mediterranean and even attempted to resign his commission, believing he could not justly continue as a naval officer for such a long convalescence. Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith declined the resignation—certainly with the approval of Jefferson—and reassured Preble that the service was happy to wait out his illness and looked forward to his return to service. Preble was deeply moved.6 Clearly, the Secretary saw great potential in the young officer; Smith had a track record of promptly accepting resignations from even highly accomplished officers, and his willingness to hold on to Preble through an indefinite convalescence speaks to his high regard for him.7 It took well over a year, but finally Preble’s health was fully restored, and in July 1803 he received orders to take command of a squadron and sail for Tripoli.8
By the time Preble reached the Mediterranean, the war had gone badly for the United States. The first commodore, Richard Dale, had been limited both by his restrictive orders and by the small size of his squadron, and he had done nothing to convince Karamanli that the United States was a foe to be reckoned with. When the Jefferson administration tried to send a larger squadron, it had been delayed by the resignations of the President’s first two choices to command, and the role of commodore finally had devolved to Richard Valentine Morris.
Morris’s tenure in the Mediterranean was a disaster. He repeatedly dallied at other Mediterranean ports, enjoying the company of British naval officers and allowing his wife and child—whom he had brought with him for the expedition—to enjoy the local scenery. He provided some support in escorting American merchant ships, but in safeguarding these vessels he left the entire Tripolitan coastline unguarded, abandoning the blockade his order specifically called for. All the while, he left his superiors in Washington completely in the dark about his activities. Finding his conduct “astonishing,” Jefferson angrily ordered his recall, and a court of inquiry later shamed him into resigning his commission.9
Lest there be any doubt that Preble was chosen specifically to correct the deficiencies of his predecessors, his instructions included a stipulation:
. . . [the] conduct for some time past pursued by our squadron in the Mediterranean has, unhappily, not been calculated to accomplish the object of government nor to make an impression on the enemy of our national character. We have therefore transferred to you the command of our forces in that sea in full confidence that you will maintain the dignity of your station and the FLAG of your country will not be dishonored in your hands.10
These orders were perfectly to Preble’s liking, for the aggressive young officer set sail with a finely honed sense of his nation’s honor and the need to demonstrate to the Barbary principalities and all of Europe that his country was both capable and willing to defend its rights. He summed up his philosophy of the war in a letter to a U.S. diplomat, asserting, “I value the character of my country too highly to consent to a peace which the most powerful nation in Europe would blush to make.” “Give me the means,” Preble promised the Secretary of the Navy, “and I will [render] the purchase of peace or the payment of tribute totally unnecessary in this Eastern World.”11
He got a chance to demonstrate his mettle early on. Sighting a British ship through heavy fog, Preble hailed her and asked her identity. At first, the vessel refused, then finally the captain identified himself and his 84-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Donnegal—a vessel that significantly outclassed Preble’s frigate. That easily might have ended the conversation, as the two nations were at peace and had no need for further interaction. Instead, the British captain haughtily ordered Preble to send an emissary by rowboat to the Donnegal.
An enraged Preble responded that he was “an American commodore, who will be damned before he sends his boat on board any vessel!” He then threatened to open fire on the larger British ship, whose hasty apology averted bloodshed. It was exactly the kind of bravado the U.S. Navy demanded, and Preble had succeeded in setting the new tone for the fight against Tripoli.12
A Frigate’s Loss, a Bold Opportunity
Preble’s bravado impressed Jefferson and Smith, but it could not stave off one of the worst disasters of the war. In early October, the U.S. frigate Philadelphia became stranded in the shallow waters off the Tripoli coast and her captain, William Bainbridge, surrendered to a swarm of smaller vessels. Karamanli now found himself in possession of one of the United States’ finest ships and more than 300 hostages.
While Preble managed to exude calm and optimism in public, the loss was a crushing blow to his dreams of overwhelming the Bashaw’s forces. “The loss of Philadelphia deranges the plans I had formed,” Preble lamented to his wife, but he was not one to brood for long.13 Almost immediately, he began crafting a way to regain the advantage.
Believing Tripoli’s shore batteries made it impossible to seize the Philadelphia and sail her out of the harbor, Preble instead settled on destroying the ship and preventing her from being used against the United States. The mission fell to a young lieutenant destined to become an American household name: Stephen Decatur.
Decatur took a picked crew aboard a captured Tripolitan ketch disguised as a commercial trading ship. Preble named the vessel, fittingly, the Intrepid, and Decatur commanded her and a disguised crew into the harbor. Once they came alongside the captured frigate, Decatur gave the order to swarm aboard and attack the skeleton crew guarding the Philadelphia. After a brief but bloody skirmish, the Americans seized control and set to work preparing the ship for destruction. Decatur personally lit the match to the powder before leaping from the doomed frigate back to the Intrepid.14
The loss of the Philadelphia infuriated Karamanli and thrilled the American public once word crossed the Atlantic. Reportedly no less than Britain’s iconic Horatio Nelson called it the “most bold and daring act of the age.” (See “Searching for Nelson’s Iconic Quote,” August 2012, pp. 48–53.) Preble was equally pleased and immediately recommended Decatur for rapid promotion to captain.
Nonetheless, with the frigate destroyed instead of in enemy hands, Preble was still left with the problem of fighting a war with a greatly reduced force. As thrilling as Decatur’s mission had been, it still did nothing to force the Bashaw to the negotiating table. For that, Preble now turned to gunboat attacks on the harbor. On 3 August 1804, he dispatched six gunboats to engage Tripoli’s smaller vessels in the shallow coastal waters, while two bomb ketches moved in to blast the capital city.
Again, it was Stephen Decatur who emerged as the hero of the assault. After seizing one Tripolitan gunboat, he learned that his brother, James, had been killed when the ship he was engaged with feigned surrender, and then the enemy shot him in the head when he tried to board. Furious, Decatur chased down the duplicitous enemy ship and engaged his brother’s killer. Although his crew was depleted by injuries and those detached to man the first captured ship, he led ten men in a boarding party to battle more than twice that number in the enemy vessel. After a fierce action (in which Decatur himself was almost killed), he claimed his second prize of the day.15
Decatur’s success did not appreciably alter the negotiating position, however, since the Bashaw could find more ships, and the bomb ketches had done insufficient damage to the city to convince Karamanli to ease his demands. A second assault ended in frustration when a U.S. gunboat exploded, most likely from a flaming ember touching the magazine.16
Blockading the Bashaw
Realizing gunboat assaults were not breaking his opponent’s will, Preble turned to a daring plan. The Intrepid was laden with gunpowder and sent as a floating bomb to (hopefully) devastate the city. The waters were unusually choppy the night of the attack, and the gunpowder-laden vessel bounced roughly as she traversed the harbor. Well before she got in range of Tripoli’s walls, a deafening roar ripped through the night, and the Intrepid vanished in a gigantic fireball. The 13 men on board were all lost, killed instantly in the blast. Their fellow officers tried to spin the tragedy as a deliberate immolation, suggesting that the Intrepid’s crew had foreseen the possibility of capture, “put a match . . . directly to the magazine,” and thereby “terminated their existence” rather than suffer slavery. Preble was as guilty as anyone of spreading this story, and may have convinced himself it was true, but the overwhelming likelihood is that the Intrepid accidentally exploded as the enormous quantity of gunpowder on board was jostled by the turbulent waters.17
Unable to penetrate the city itself, Preble still kept up a vigorous blockade, which had a meaningful impact on the Tripolitan economy. Severe grain shortages caused rumblings against the Bashaw’s rule, and military supplies grew ominously low.18 However, thanks to unfortunate luck with the chain of command, Preble would not be allowed to see the war through to completion.
Once the Jefferson administration got word of the loss of the Philadelphia, the President and his cabinet agreed to send a much larger squadron to the Mediterranean. There was no officer junior to Preble who also had enough seniority to command the new squadron, and thus when the relief force arrived, it brought with it Preble’s senior, Commodore Samuel Barron, to act as the new commander of the Mediterranean squadron. A disappointed Preble departed in September 1804 with his work left incomplete.19
A New International Legitimacy
Although Preble’s tenure in the Mediterranean ended in frustration, he was cheered by the welcome he received when he reached home. As far as the American public was concerned, Preble had brought honor to his country and demonstrated a relentless fighting spirit of which the nation could be proud. “The people are disposed to believe I have rendered some service to my country,” Preble wrote happily to his wife.20 He returned to find he had been awarded a medal by Congress and his exploits had been praised by Jefferson for “the energy and judgment displayed by this excellent officer through the whole course of the service lately confided to him.”21
As for the war that Preble led, it ended in a way that fully satisfied no one. Preble’s successor agreed to terms that freed the men of the Philadelphia and secured U.S. Mediterranean commerce, but he also agreed to pay $60,000 in ransom for the Philadelphia crew. For many Americans, this was an unacceptable humiliation, since the nation had gone to war in hopes of inaugurating a new mode of relations with Barbary, one based on free trade. Worse, it seemed to besmirch American honor; the country had been out to prove it was made of different material than European nations. Preble himself was less than satisfied, calling the treaty “a sacrifice of National honor which has been made by ignominious negotiation.”22
Subsequent historians have been much kinder. The war “had signaled to the world that the United States was capable of projecting military force in defense of its interests,” writes Ian Toll.23 By the standard Preble laid down when he refused to make any treaty a prince of Europe would “blush to make,” the war with Tripoli was a success. The new Tripolitan treaty was superior to anything Europe had negotiated in the Barbary world in a generation; although the United States was forced to pay a ransom for the Philadelphia crew, it refused to pay even a cent of “tribute” to secure the treaty. The war also helped establish the United States’ international legitimacy, and at the time of Preble’s departure, even Sir Alexander Ball, the British governor of Malta, praised the American commodore’s performance as an example of “bravery and enterprise [that] cannot fail to mark the character of a great and rising nation.”24
Sadly, Preble did not get to enjoy his status as an American war hero for long. The afflictions that had almost undone his naval career returned. He suffered repeated bouts of ill health in the spring and summer of 1807, and he passed peacefully on the evening of 25 August. He was joyful that he lived to see the birth of his son and had the opportunity to put his affairs in order, but still a part of him regretted ending his life at home in bed. In his final days, he spoke wistfully to his brother that dying “on a bed of glory would be something, but to die of stinking consumption is too bad.”25 Nevertheless, his memory endures as one of the first heroes at sea for the American republic.
1. Christopher McKee, Edward Preble: A Naval Biography, 1761–1807 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1972), 123–309.
2. William M. Fowler Jr., Jack Tars and Commodores: The American Navy, 1783–1815 (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 4.
3. Jefferson to Adams, 11 July 1786; Adams to Jefferson, 31 July 1786, Naval Documents Relating to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers (hereafter NDBW), 6 vols. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939), I: 10–13. For a discussion of the Jefferson-Adams debate on the Barbary powers, see Frank Lambert, The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 16, 61–64.
4. Gardner W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1905), 90–91; Lambert, The Barbary Wars, 125–26; and Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York: Random House, 2012), 401–2.
5. Jefferson to Adams, 11 July 1786, NDBW, I: 10.
6. McKee, Preble, 96–101.
7. Thomas Sheppard, “There Will Still Remain Heroes and Patriots: The Politics of Resignation in the Early American Navy, 1775–1815,” Journal of Military History 84, no. 2 (April 2020): 369–94.
8. McKee, Preble, 128.
9. Thomas Sheppard, Commanding Petty Despots: The American Navy in the New Republic (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022), 88–90.
10. Smith to Preble, 13 July 1803, NDBW, II: 476.
11. Preble to James Leander Cathcart, 1 June 1804, NDBW, IV: 141; Preble to Smith, 14 March 1804, NDBW, III: 491; Preble to Smith, 11 March 1804, NDBW, III: 485–88; and Preble to Cathcart, 28 May 1804, NDBW, IV: 126.
12. Sheppard, Commanding Petty Despots, 91.
13. Quoted in McKee, Preble, 182.
14. Robert J. Allison, Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779–1820 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 46–54.
15. Allison, Decatur, 59–63; Ian W. Toll, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (New York: Norton, 2006), 234–36.
16. McKee, Preble, 271–76.
17. Toll, Six Frigates, 245–48.
18. McKee, Preble, 249–50.
19. Sheppard, Commanding Petty Despots, 99.
20. Quoted in McKee, Preble, 312.
21. Thomas Jefferson, “Special Message,” American Presidency Project, presidency.ucsb.edu/node/203984.
22. Preble to William Eaton, 8 February 1806, NDBW, VI: 364.
23. Toll, Six Frigates, 262. For other favorable assessments (in varying degrees) of the treaty, see also: Lambert, The Barbary Wars, 154–55; Richard B. Parker, Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004), 146–47; and Fowler, Jack Tars and Commodores, 124–25.
24. Ball to Preble, 20 September 1804, NDBW, V: 42–43.
25. See McKee, Preble, 349–54, for the commodore’s final days; quotation taken from page 354.