Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805

Richard Zacks

NEW copy. Hardcover with dust jacket. Hyperion, 2005. Decorated end pages, maps, illustrations, chronology, appendices, bibliography, index, 400 pages.

FROM THE PUBLISHER: "The declaration of war by Tripoli in 1801 marked the first foreign policy test of Thomas Jefferson's administration. Then, on Halloween of 1803, the unthinkable happened: The USS Philadelphia accidentally ran aground in Tripoli harbor and the Barbary Pirates captured three hundred U.S. sailors and Marines. The Moslem ruler renamed the frigate The Gift of Allah and held the Americans as his slaves, to be auctioned at his whim. Newspapers around the world proclaimed America's shame in headlines. Faced with this hostage crisis and an ongoing war with Tripoli, Jefferson dispatched diplomats and navy squadrons to the Mediterranean, but he also authorized a secret mission to overthrow the government there. This is the story of America's first overseas covert operation, one of the strangest, riskiest, most compelling adventures ever undertaken for love of glory and country. Jefferson chose an unlikely man to lead the operation. Forty-year-old William Eaton was a failed diplomat, deeply in debt, who had been court-martialed from the Army. He saw this mission as a last chance to redeem himself and resurrect his career. His assignment was to find an exiled prince named Hamet hiding in Egypt and convince him to mount a civil war in Tripoli. But before Eaton even departed, Jefferson grew wary of 'intermeddling' in the internal affairs of another nation and withdrew Eaton's supplies, weapons, and troops. Astoundingly, Eaton - who was forced to beg cash from British merchants - persevered and found Hamet up the Nile and lured him to Alexandria, where he rounded up a ragtag force of European mercenaries and Bedouin fighters; Eaton then borrowed eight U.S. Marines - including fiddle-playing Presley O'Bannon - and led them all on a brutal march across five hundred miles of Libyan desert to surprise attack Tripoli. After surviving sandstorms, treachery, and near-death from thirst, Eaton achieved a remarkable victory on 'the shores of Tripoli' - commemorated to this day.


William Grimes - The New York Times: " Mr. Zacks relies heavily on a wealth of first-person accounts that, time and again, resuscitate the narrative. He also, quite wisely, makes plenty of room on the stage for the charismatic Eaton, a compelling figure who fully deserves the hero's treatment that Mr. Zack accords him.

Sudip Bose - The Washington Post: "Jefferson's navy in those days consisted of fewer than 10 ships, but he sent the USS Philadelphia to blockade Tripoli harbor in the hope of making peace. The maneuver failed. The mighty Philadelphia and its crew of 307 were captured, and Karamanli set ransom at an astonishing $1,690,000. The failure was, as Richard Zacks puts it in The Pirate Coast, 'a national disaster for the young United States.' How those captives were eventually rescued is the subject of Zacks's lively popular history.

Publishers Weekly: "The author of The Pirate Hunter, which made Captain Kidd come to life, focuses here more broadly on a piracy hot spot. Resolved to stop the enslavement of American merchant sailors by North African nations, Jefferson deployed most of the infant U.S. Navy to the Mediterranean and sent a column of troops overland from Egypt to place the pasha of Tripoli's brother Hamet on the throne in 1801. The leader of that motley array of mercenaries, Muslim tribesmen, Hamet's retainers and a handful of U.S. Marines was the colorful and combative William Eaton, who led them more than 500 miles across the desert to 'the shores of Tripoli.' By the time he arrived, peace negotiations were underway, in the hands of one Tobias Deane, who was neither honest nor competent. Eaton had to abandon Hamet and was in turn virtually abandoned by the Jefferson administration, leaving him with a mountain of debt and a drinking problem that eventually killed him at 47. There has been a dearth of good material on the Barbary War and particularly on Eaton's trek; Zacks has researched thoroughly, writes entertainingly and shows a knack for sea stories and characterization. This is the book that Captain Eaton has long deserved."

Library Journal: "Freelance writer Zacks (The Pirate Hunter) has written an exceptional book about pirates, covert missions, and governmental denial, all during the initial U.S. involvement with North Africa's Muslim city-states. The focus is on the long-forgotten William Eaton, dispatched by Jefferson to lead a column of troops, including eight U.S. Marines, overland from Egypt to Tripoli to overthrow the Bashaw, or Pasha. Eaton didn't quite make it to 'the shores of Tripoli,' which have since been immortalized by the Marine Hymn, because Jefferson had also certified diplomatic peace negotiations that trumped the invasion. An exciting, informative book."

Kirkus Reviews: "William Eaton, brash and defiant diplomat, is dispatched to Tripoli in 1805 by Thomas Jefferson to free 300 American hostages in what became the first U.S. covert mission to overthrow a foreign nation. The animalistic Barbary pirates, far from the swashbuckling Errol Flynn variety, provide ample villainy for Zacks's recap of an obscure historical event. Bashaw Yussef is the ruler of Tripoli, controls the high seas and demands tributes from nations desiring safe passage for their vessels. America, young and desperate to defy tyranny, refuses the Bashaw's extortion and ends up in an overseas hostage situation at a time when its fledgling navy boasts six ships in total. While enforcing a blockade, the Philadelphia runs aground off Tripoli's coast, and the entire crew of 300 is enslaved. The set-up to this true underdog narrative barrels forward like a cinematic tidal wave and continues when a flawed savior is called upon, the disgraced and ill-prepared Eaton being sent to place the Bashaw's exiled brother on the throne and rescue the hostages without paying tribute. The engaging "first act" is one hook after another, but as Eaton's mission falters, so does the forward motion of the story. Infantry headcounts and pages of diplomatic correspondence take center stage in lieu of shipwrecks and betrayal among men both captive and free. Zacks does an expert job of explaining the diplomacy and machinations of the U.S. government even when those fail to rise to the dramatic urgency of the story's central event. He also fills these gaps in the action with many exquisitely researched, character-enhancing tangential anecdotes, including a riveting account of the perpetration of deceit against George Washington by a lesser-known diplomat named Lear. Where Zacks excels is in his research, quipping asides and loving grasp of the subject; where he slides are in the places he can't alter. When this sometimes slow story picks up steam, the pages sail by."