The riveting news of rebellion in Libya, and possible American involvement against Tripoli, brings to mind the first time American forces attacked the North African shore, in the early 1800s. The episode, unsurprisingly, intersected sharply with the path of Aaron Burr. (So much did!)
The events are enshrined in the Marine Hymn, of course (“From the Halls of Montezuma, to . . . “), but it’s easy to forget how the lyric arose. The North African shores of the Mediterranean harbored a great many pirates in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Under the nominal control of the decaying Ottoman Empire, the satraps and warlords of the region sponsored organized piracy which preyed on American merchant ships, since the United States was deemed too weak to stop the piracy.
President Thomas Jefferson sent the cream of the small U.S. Navy to the Mediterranean to punish the pirates. Led by early naval heroes such as the young Stephen Decatur, the Navy achieved its mission.
But the most remarkable adventure of the Barbary Wars was achieved by William Eaton, a Massachusetts native and soldier who was an American diplomat in Tunis when the fighting began.
Eaton promptly formed an alliance with the brother of the pasha in Tripoli, who hoped to seize his brother’s throne. Eaton and the would-be pasha met in Cairo — doubtless at a cafe owned by Sidney Greenstreet — and resolved on an expedition to Tripoli. They recruited a handful of U.S. marines and five hundred Greek and Egyptian mercenaries and set off across the Sahara.
Eaton’s expedition reached Derna, the richest city in Tripoli, which is on the Mediterranean coast, east of Benghazi (the center of today’s rebellion). While American ships bombarded Derna’s fort, Eaton led a dashing attack and swept out the pasha’s men, winning the city.
So how did this involve Aaron Burr? Well, despite his heroics, Eaton ended up a very unhappy man. After the victory at Derna, an American diplomat negotiated a peace with the incumbent pasha that left Eaton’s would-be pasha out in the cold. When Eaton returned to the United States, he found that Congress was very slow to reimburse his considerable expenses from the expedition. Eaton became a fixture in Washington’s taverns, drinking heavily and cursing President Jefferson’s name.
Such conduct by a military hero swiftly drew the attention of Aaron Burr, who was planning his own extraordinary expedition — to lead a thousand men down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers who would join an insurrection in New Orleans, an invasion of Spanish Florida and Mexico, and even invite the secession of the Western states and territories.
Burr assiduously courted Eaton, hoping to enlist him in the expedition. Eaton had proved himself a man of pluck and daring, and he shared Burr’s low opinion of Jefferson. Eaton plainly considered joining up with Burr until he confirmed that the American government did not support Burr’s plans, at which point he pointedly withdrew and (in a roundabout fashion) warned the president to beware of Burr.
At Burr’s treason trial, Eaton was a key witness against the former vice president, recounting that Burr had proposed to infiltrate a corps of desparadoes into Washington, D.C. to conduct a coup against the American government. Nevertheless, Burr was acquitted.