Review – Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American HistoryThomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager
Synopsis from GoodReads:
Only weeks after President Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801, he decided to confront the Tripoli pirates who had been kidnapping American ships and sailors, among other outrageous acts. Though inclined toward diplomacy, Jefferson sent warships to blockade Tripoli and protect American shipping, and then escalated to all-out war against the Barbary states.

The tiny American flotilla—with three frigates representing half of the U.S. Navy’s top-of-the-line ships—had some success in blockading the Barbary coast. But that success came to an end when the USS Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli harbor and was captured. Kilmeade and Yaeger recount the dramatic story of a young American sailor, Stephen Decatur, who snuck into the harbor, boarded the Philadelphia, and set her on fire before escaping amid a torrent of enemy gunfire.

Another amazing story is that of William Eaton’s daring attack on the port city of Derna. He led a detachment of Marines on a 500-mile trek across the desert to surprise the port. His strategy worked, and an American flag was raised in victory on foreign soil for the first time.

Few remember Decatur and Eaton today, but their legacy inspired the opening of the Marine Corps Hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land, and sea.”
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates tells a dramatic story of bravery, diplomacy, and battle on the high seas, and honors some of America’s forgotten heroes.

I don’t read as much nonfiction as I used to, but when my dad handed me this book I thought it looked really interesting, especially as I didn’t recall learning about any such thing when I studied Jefferson way back when I was still in grade school.  In fact, the only facts I recalled about Jefferson were: he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he was the third president and the one who authorized the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and he was a Virginian plantation owner who had owned slaves.  No mention of any war, let alone one with pirates.

Despite his name in the title, however, Jefferson is mostly a secondary player in this book, a supporter of the naval forces, marine corps members, and diplomats who take center stage in their efforts to find a way to stop the Barbary States from kidnapping U.S. sailors, disrupting U.S. shipping, and demanding ransom and tribute to stop them from doing it, something the new nation could not afford.

The story begins before the creation of the United States as we know them today, during the time when the newly independent colonies were governed by the Federalist Papers, and shows how three successive presidents attempted to deal with the Barbary States.  Both Washington and Adams choose peace and appeasement while Jefferson chooses military power, specifically naval, in an attempt to discourage the Barbary Pirates and their backers, the rulers of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli.

I cannot speak to how historically accurate this novel is, but I will point out that the authors appear to have done a lot of research based solely on their notes and sources.

As for the enjoyment level… there were times when I eagerly read on and times when I felt rather bored, but that’s usual for historical nonfiction and me.  It’s not the most exciting book, but I still found the stories that made up the bigger picture fascinating.  To say nothing of the combination of bad luck, good luck, and right people in the right place – and wrong people in the wrong place.

If you like learning about U.S. naval or shipping history, this book is definitely for you.  Otherwise, you might find it a bit boring.

3 out of 5 stars.  Interesting, but not engrossing.

ETA: Forgot to say, this book counts for the 1800-1899 slot on my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

One thought on “Review – Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

  1. […] 1500-1599: 1600-1699: The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands 1700-1799: 1800-1899: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger 1900-1919: 1920-1939: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman 1940-1959: 1960-1979: 1980-1999: […]

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