Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805

By Richard Zacks

Hyperion. 432 pp. $25.95

In the very early days of the 19th century, the fierce and notorious Barbary pirates were the menace of the Mediterranean -- capturing ships, raiding towns, taking hostages and proving to be a formidable problem for the powers of western Europe.

The pirates, who hailed from the North African states of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Tripoli (present-day Libya), practiced an early form of state-sponsored terrorism, though they carried out their attacks not in the name of holy war but for financial gain; booty gained from the conquests of Western merchant ships represented a significant source of income for many of the pashas established along the Barbary Coast. To appease the pirates, Europe paid handsome sums of tribute money. But what could the United States -- a country in its infancy with relatively shallow financial resources -- do when its ships were attacked?

Indeed, not long after Thomas Jefferson took office, Tripoli's ruler, Yussef Karamanli, decided that American ships were not paying sufficient tribute and declared war. Jefferson's navy in those days consisted of fewer than 10 ships, but he sent the USS Philadelphia to blockade Tripoli harbor in the hope of making peace. The maneuver failed. The mighty Philadelphia and its crew of 307 were captured, and Karamanli set ransom at an astonishing $1,690,000. The failure was, as Richard Zacks puts it in "The Pirate Coast," "a national disaster for the young United States." How those captives were eventually rescued is the subject of Zacks's lively popular history.

The book's subtitle -- "Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805" -- is somewhat misleading, for the protagonist is not the third American president but William Eaton (1764-1811). A former captain in the U.S. Army, Eaton had served as consul to Tunis but returned from that appointment in 1804, disgraced and in critical debt. Perhaps nothing had inflamed the passions of this stubborn, outspoken, opinionated New Englander more than the idea of paying off pirates. And it was Eaton's scheme, which Jefferson reluctantly accepted, to launch a secret mission to topple Karamanli's regime and install the pasha's older brother, Hamet -- the exiled claimant to Tripolitan rule.

"Sending an American operative to abet civil war in a foreign country," Zacks writes, would not become a routine aspect of U.S. foreign policy until "after World War II, with the birth of the CIA." But if a sympathetic Muslim ruler could assume power in Tripoli, so Eaton thought, the United States would have won a crucial ally in a hostile region. It is hard not to think of this early, uncertain covert operation as a forerunner to our more recent military forays -- some covert, others not -- into the Islamic world.

From the start, the trouble with Eaton's mission was the utter lack of support from the U.S. government. He "received absolutely no commitment of men, weapons, ammunition, supplies, or money," Zacks writes. Furthermore, his "orders to coordinate with Hamet in the overthrow of the Bashaw [pasha] of Tripoli were never put into writing" -- a way for Jefferson to deny any involvement in an attempted usurpation of a foreign power, if the mission were to fail.

Eaton felt slighted by Jefferson, among others, but his determination and his unyielding faith in Hamet's legitimacy (as well as the hope that a successful outcome would rid him of his personal debt) propelled him to Egypt, where, after numerous setbacks, he finally tracked down the elusive exiled pasha. The plan was to combine forces with Hamet, form a makeshift army, march more than 500 miles across the harsh northern stretches of the Sahara, and lay siege to Derne, an important town in eastern Tripoli with a population of about 5,000. From there, the men hoped to move on to Tripoli and vanquish Karamanli, thereby freeing the American captives.

"As far as either man knew," Zacks writes, "no army in a thousand years had attacked Derne from the deserts of Egypt." Eaton assembled a motley bunch, including only eight Marines (earning a salary of $8 a month) and several hundred mercenaries (Americans, Frenchmen, Arabs, Turks and Greeks, among them). The journey to Derne saw constant tensions between the Christians and Muslims in the group, adding to the problems of hunger and thirst. Zacks renders a dismal portrait of the situation at one stop: "The Americans had no map; they didn't speak Arabic; Eaton didn't trust his guides, and they didn't trust him. The bleached bones of dead horses and camels were scattered in the area around this unexpectedly dry water hole."

What Eaton didn't know, as he led his men on their arduous trek, eventually capturing Derne in what must be one of the most extraordinary military accomplishments in early U.S. history, was that force was not the only option Jefferson was considering to bring about peace with Karamanli. The diplomat Tobias Lear was concurrently using his skills at negotiation to secure a treaty: Tripoli would hand over all American prisoners (who spent nearly 600 days in captivity) in exchange for a $60,000 ransom and the release of Tripolitan prisoners in U.S. custody.

When Eaton learned of the terms of the peace, he was outraged. The delicacy (and slickness) of diplomacy had little appeal for him; he had wanted to storm forth from Derne and settle things with military might. Eaton detested Lear and later developed an unhealthy obsession with the diplomat, railing against him to anybody who would listen. He felt doubly betrayed by Jefferson for abandoning faith in Hamet (who was deemed unfit to rule), and this sense of betrayal gnawed at him for the rest of his life, informing the increasingly fractious relationship he maintained with the president.

Zacks tells this story with plenty of panache, but the book seems unnecessarily long, with too much detail and repetition. Zacks seems to have been trying too hard to write a suspenseful book (no need to do so with such compelling material to start with); as a consequence, his prose often reads like an old-fashioned boy's adventure story. Still, "The Pirate Coast" is an engaging portrait of the cantankerous and tragic Eaton, who went from obscurity to celebrity and back to relative obscurity again, his life curtailed by his overheated passions and his addictions to gambling and drink.

The book is also the story of the earliest U.S. Marines, whose exploits on "the shores of Tripoli" were later memorialized in the service's famous hymn. Those exploits -- and the reassertion of Ottoman control of Tripoli in the 1830s -- helped eliminate the piracy of the Barbary states, making the waters of the Mediterranean a bit less menacing for a time.