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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

March 3, 2015: Forgotten Wars: The First Barbary War

[Two hundred years ago this week, the U.S. declared war on the North African nation of Algiers, leading to the unremembered conflict about which I wrote in Monday’s post. That Second Barbary War is one of many such forgotten wars in American history, and I’ll also highlight and AmericanStudy others for the remainder of the week’s posts. Leading up to a special weekend post responding to a relevant recent piece by one of my model AmericanStudiers.]
On three longstanding legacies of the late 18th century conflict.
I wrote an early post about what I would call the most significant legacy of the First Barbary War (1801-1805): the Treaty of Tripoli with which it concluded, and more exactly that treaty’s unequivocal statement on the separation of church and state in America. In order to nip in the bud precisely the kinds of anti-Muslim sentiments about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, the Treaty’s authors (John Jay and Joel Barlow) included an article that begins “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” in order to argue that “no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” I’ve written at great length about “historian” David Barton and his continual attempts to argue that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation; I don’t pretend that widespread knowledge of the Treaty of Tripoli would dissuade Barton himself, but it might put a dent in the number of Americans convinced by his inaccurate and mythologized accounts.
If the peace treaty that concluded the First Barbary War provided one such lasting legacy, the battle that won the war for the U.S. produced another. Although the Barbary Pirates were primarily a naval threat, this war was won not just at sea (as was the Second Barbary War) but also and perhaps most significantly on land: led by Marine Corps Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, a small group of U.S. Marines and hundreds of foreign mercenaries marched from Egypt into Algiers, capturing the city of Derna, raising the U.S. flag in victory on foreign soil for the first time, and contributing substantially to the decision of Barbary ruler Yusef Karamanli to sign the peace treaty. It’s to remember this victory that the Marine Corps Hymn includes the phrase “to the shores of Tripoli” in its opening line—although, given the fact that O’Bannon’s troop included far more mercenaries than Marines, it’d be important to complicate that enduring image of U.S. strength with a recognition of how much we have also always depended on non-traditional fighters and allies for such victories.
Many of the First Barbary War’s soldiers were thus not part of the American military proper—but many also were, and a group of six prominent such American soldiers who were killed in the course of the war’s assaults on Tripoli were honored in the nation’s oldest military monument: the Tripoli Monument. Designed and sculpted in Italy with the help of the Bishop of Florence, transported to the U.S. aboard none other than the U.S.S. Constitution, and displayed first at Washington’s Navy Yard, then on the grounds on the Capitol, and finally at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, the monument thus reflects not only the war’s efforts and losses, but also the international, naval, and evolving Early Republic histories and identities to which both Barbary Wars can and must be connected. Yet it also and most simply—and in many ways most crucially—reminds us that these wars, like all of our military conflicts, depended on the lives and sacrifices of individual, ordinary Americans, both those who survived to return to life in America and those who did not. I won’t make that point about every war in this week’s series—but I could, and we should be sure to remember it.
Next forgotten war tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other under-remembered conflicts you’d highlight?

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