Historically Doomed – The Battle of Tripoli 1800 - 2011
The remains of 13 American navy men who went on a special ops mission to Tripoli and were killed were left behind enemy lines and now their remains lay at Green Square, the epicenter of the Libyan revolution, ring side seats at the 50 yard line of history.
What can they tell us?
Since it began in late December 2010 in Tunisia, there have been periodic pauses in the action, long enough to allow clear thought and reflective analysis of the situation.
While the relatively peaceful and purposefully non-violent demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt brought down regimes in 28 days and 18 days, with total deaths of about 300 in each country, and the youthful Arab revolt has spread to Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, Djibouti, Iran and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, the events in Libya have taken a decidedly violent bent.
Col. Mommar Ghadaffi will not go gently into the good night, but has decided to fight, and has a the family and mercenary support to do it, primarily holding out in the capitol city of Tripoli and surrounding areas.
As the large public squares in each nation’s capitol becomes the center of revolutionary activity, as it did in Tahrir Square in Cairo and Pearl Roundabout in Dahrain, Green Square in Tripoli has traditionally been the center of such public gatherings and is where Mussolini addressed the crowds in the 1930s, where Gahadaffi held the anniversary parade for his revolution in 2009 and where he addressed his supporters from the ramparts of the old castle fort during the first week of the revolt in Libya.
Green Square is also where the remains of eight of the thirteen officers and men of the USS Intrepid lay buried in unmarked graves, including the Intrepid’s last commander Lt. Richard Somers, of Somers Point, New Jersey, Lt. Henry Wadsworth, Longfellow’s uncle, Midshipman Israel of Maryland, and eight of the ordinary seamen who volunteered for the suicide mission that went astray on the night of September 4, 1804.
Their mission was to set the Intrepid, a captured pirate ship laden with explosives, in line to sail into the anchored pirate fleet in Triopoli habor, light a fuse and escape in two rowboats, but something went horribly wrong and the Intrepid prematurely exploded, killing all thirteen men. Their bodies washed ashore and the next morning, American prisoners from the captured frigate Philadelphia buried them two cable’s lengths, a few hundred yards east of the old castle foor, what is now Green Square.
There they remained until the 1930s when Italy occupied Libya and the Italian army built new roads in which they uncovered the remains of five of the men of the Intrepid, who were reburied in marked graves at Old Protestant Cemetery, about a mile east on the coast road.
In reviewing the history of those battles at Tripoli, two things stand out that should be lessons learned, including the Libyan penchant for feigning surrender, only to resume fighting again when the enemy’s guard is down. Another lesson is to prevent the co-opting of the purpose of the battle by accepting peaceful resolution without accomplishing the mission or desired regime change.
Both of these lessons were learned by the American combatants in the battles against the Barbary Pirates in the early 1800s.
The first lesson, the pirate’s penchant to feign defeat and surrender, was learned during the first engagement between the Americans and pirates when Lt. Sterret, captain of the schooner USS Enterprise, came upon the pirate ship Tripoli in the act of commandeering an American merchant ship. Sterret and the Enterprise effectively attacked the Tripoli, but after the captain of the enemy ship appeared to surrender, striking their colors, they resumed fighting again until they were thoroughly and decisively defeated.
During one of the two US Naval attacks on Tripoli harbor, Lt. Stephen Decatur led one task force while Lt. Richard Somers led another. In the course of the battle, Decatur’s younger brother was killed by a pirate captain who had previously surendered, an act of treachery that led Stephen Decatur to abandon a captured enemy ship in order to avenge the death of his brother, which he did.
While the navy bottled up the pirates and kept them busy in Tripoli habor, US counsel to Egypt William Eaton, USMC Sgt. Presley O’Bannon, a few hundred Greek Christians and a ragtag army of Arab mercenaries traveled 500 miles across the Libyan desert to attack and capture the eastern port city of Darma. There they gathered together and prepared to march on Tripoli and free the American prisoners being held there.
When news of the fall of Darma reached Tripoli however, the pirate BeyYusuf Karamanli decided to negotiate, and US counsel Tobias Lear brokered a truce that freed the 300 captured prisoners from the USS Philadelphia, paying a ransom of $60,000, but no tribute, and allowing the Bey to remain in power.
This co-opting of the war that we were winning decisively did not go over well with those who were fighting, or with those in Washington who wanted to win the war on the ground and sea and not accept any peace terms that failed to accomplish the mission, which they did.
Today, as the Battle of Tripoli 2011 rages on, we should remember the lessons that were learned in the early Battles of Tripoli, and not accept a feigned surrender, or accept any peace terms that permit Ghadaffi to stay in power.