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THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI
The infamous pirates of the Barbary Coast were a major hazard to Mediterranean shipping in the early 19th century, but the great powers of Europe were content to just pay the occasional ransom whenever one of their ships was captured.
Not so America, a burgeoning commercial empire with a tiny but capable navy, who couldn’t afford to keep paying off the pirates every time they lost a boatload of cargo. From 1801 to 1805, the young United States Navy cut its teeth by patrolling the coast of Northern Africa and besieging seaports and cities. Unfortunately, the fleet was still prone to rookie mistakes, as the frigate USS Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli harbor and was quickly seized by the locals.
This mistake was rectified by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, who led a party of Marines onboard the ship in the dead of night, overpowered the guards, and put the frigate to the torch, denying the Tripolitan navy of what would have been their largest and most powerful vessel.
Decatur (who became one of the Navy’s first heroes and whose name graces dozens of cities and counties throughout America) discovered that the Philadelphia’s crew was being held hostage ashore in the city of Derna. Acting on this information, Marine Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon led a force of Marines and Greek mercenaries on a desert march from Alexandria to Derna, successfully freeing the captives and raising the American flag on foreign soil for the first time.