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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Intrepid Sailors                To the Walls of Derne

Cover Art: Intrepid Sailors

Intrepid Sailors: The Legacy of Preble’s Boys and the Tripoli Campaign
Chipp Reid
Naval Institute Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1-61251-117-7, $35.95

A primary purpose of the American navy in the early years of the republic was to thwart piracy. When we gained our freedom from Britain, we lost that country’s protection from attacks by Barbary corsairs. A number of our merchant ships were captured and their crews held for ransom and/or enslaved. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, President Thomas Jefferson sent three squadrons to the Mediterranean to address the problem. The third of these succeeded where the first two failed. The commander of this particular squadron was Commodore Edward Preble. He and his officers became legendary figures in their own time, although most would eventually be forgotten. They and the men who served under them made courage and honor hallmarks of the United States Navy, legacies that continue even today.

Unlike his predecessors, Preble had backbone and refused to back down when dealing with the pirates and rulers of the Barbary States. His audacity impressed friends and enemies alike. When he appeared before the emperor of Morocco, he refused to kneel and when asked if he feared being arrested, Preble replied “No sir. If you presume to do it, my squadron in your full view will lay your batteries, your castles and your city in ruins.” (29) Bluff didn’t exist in his vocabulary and he intended to carry out his commission to the best of his ability. Prior to his arrival in the Mediterranean, however, one of the squadron’s ships, the USS Philadelphia, ran aground in Tripoli’s harbor. How Preble decided to meet this unexpected challenge required audacity, skill, and courage from his men.

While this book is about Preble’s entire squadron – including the captured Philadelphians – Reid focuses on three of his officers: Stephen Decatur, Jr., Richard Somers, and Charles Stewart. The rivalry and friendship of these three boyhood friends challenged each to be the best he could be and to risk their lives in defense of their country. “Intrepid” refers not only to Preble’s boys and those who served under them, but also to the sacrifices they made and a small vessel that made two daring voyages. The first was aimed at destroying the captured American frigate to prevent the Tripolitans from using her against us; the other was meant to force Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli to surrender the 306 Philadelphians.

Reid begins with an introduction of the main players in this historic episode and how the navy came into being. He intersperses the narrative with contemporary accounts from the principals involved. He also discusses the conflict that arose within the government over having and building a navy. Throughout the book, he provides vital background information on the people and times, as well as the key players that influenced the men who take center stage. As a result Intrepid Sailors becomes not only an account about the navy, but also one of pirates and privateers. The final chapter summarizes what happened to the men once they returned home. Maps, pictures, chapter notes, a bibliography, and index enhance the reading experience.

The only drawback, and it is minor, is the author’s tendency to repeat information. The purpose is to remind readers of who’s who and where they are, but after awhile, the consistency of doing so wears thin. If readers can ignore this weakness, they will discover a stirring account that evokes many emotional responses, while gaining a good grasp of what Preble faced and why he made the decisions he did. Readers also come away with a better understanding of why these intrepid sailors answered the call to defend their country when war came again in 1812.

  Review Copyrighted ©2013 Cindy Vallar

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              Art: To the Walls of Derne
To the Walls of Derne: William Eaton, the Tripoli Coup and the End of the First Barbary War
By Chipp Reid
Naval Institute Press, 2017, ISBN 978-1-61251-813-8, $29.95

To the Walls of Derne begins where Intrepid Sailors (2012) ends in the U. S. Navy’s war with Tripoli. The conflict came about because of this Barbary State’s pirates’ frequent incursions on American merchantmen and the bashaw’s demand for payment of tribute, which President Thomas Jefferson and others likened to extortion, to stop such raids. When this book opens, the USS Philadelphia has already been captured and destroyed and her crew imprisoned and forced to endure slave labor, poor rations, and abusive treatment at the hands of the Tripolitans.

Into this tense situation steps an American soldier, diplomat, and would-be adventurer named William Eaton. Popular, arrogant, intelligent, direct, and overly courageous, he has long dreamed of being a hero. His audacious plan to replace the current bashaw with his older brother, with the assistance of the United States, offers him that opportunity if he can convince the president to sanction and fund the expedition. For this plan to succeed, Eaton must first find Hamet Karamanli and then convince him to take up arms against his brother.

Hamet Karamanli is the middle son of Tripoli’s ruling family. Although intelligent, conversant in many languages, and a combatant fighter, he never wanted or expected to rule his country. His primary desire is to take care of his wife and children, while living a life of ease. But his younger brother holds Hamet’s family hostage while Hamet lives in exile somewhere in Egypt.

Astute and ruthless, Yusuf Karamanli is a very ambitious man. As a child, he yearns to rule Tripoli, but is the third and youngest son. To accomplish this goal, he kills his oldest brother and usurps the throne from Hamet. Bashaw Yusuf’s dream is to make Tripoli the equal of any European or Near Eastern country and to fund this desire, his pirates capture ships of other nations to gain slave labor and force a peace that includes hefty payments to insure the safety of seamen and free trade in the Mediterranean. Yet the Americans prove to be irritating thorns. They destroyed their captured frigate. They blockade his harbor, which prevents much-needed grain shipments from arriving. The loss of tribute and the lack of food mean his people are starving and questioning whether he should be ruler. Then there are the whispers from spies who tell him that Hamet may lead an army to unseat Yusuf.

But these three men are not the only players on the stage in this daring scheme. President Jefferson wavers on what is the best option for securing peace. He ultimately decides a three-pronged strategy will be the most effective in curtailing this costly and seemingly endless war. He authorizes Eaton’s plan, but fails to provide Eaton with full control over the expedition. That privilege goes to an ailing Commodore Samuel Barron, who assumes command of the U. S. Navy squadron currently blockading Tripoli. Jefferson’s third maneuver is to send Tobias Lear, who opposes Eaton’s plan, to the Mediterranean with the authority to negotiate peace.

Thus, in April 1805, the stage is set for what becomes a dangerous and bold, 500-mile trek across the desert with a polyglot army. Seven marines and a self-styled general in hostile lands, at times pitted against their own followers, achieve the impossible only to have petty jealousies, diplomatic machinations, and service rivalries prevent them from achieving the ultimate goal. This story – immortalized in a line in the U. S. Marine Corps’ “Marines’ Hymn” – unfolds within the pages of To the Walls of Derne. The book includes maps, notes, a bibliography, and an index, as well as an epilogue in which Reid shares what happened to the principal participants once the expedition ends.

This may not be the most riveting account I’ve read of this episode in American history, but what makes this book an important contribution to studies of our relations with the Barbary States and Barbary piracy, as well as the formative years of our fledging nation, is that Reid doesn’t color his recounting with modern-day concepts of terrorism and radical Islam. He delved beyond the usual sources to examine material about the Karamanlis that are rarely consulted by Western historians. While this four-year conflict failed to solve the problem of paying tribute – that would come later – he also demonstrates how the seven marines who bravely fought in this war prevented the American government from doing away with the U. S. Marine Corps. To the Walls of Derne skillfully shows the price our freedom costs and the depth to which our armed forces are willing to go to defend our country.

Review Copyrighted ©2017 Cindy Vallar
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