Marine Security Guards

MSG Shield 001Marine Corps history reveals a lengthy relationship with the United States Department of State, beginning in 1805 at the Battle of Derna —the tale of this beginning is interesting.

When Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated President of the United States in March 1801, he inherited troubled relations with the Barbary States —otherwise known as the Ottoman Regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, as well as with independent Morocco.  The United States had diplomatic treaties with all four, but tensions were high and getting worse.  Mr. Jefferson was partially responsible for this anxiety long before he became President.

Regional American diplomats wanted the assurance of an American naval presence (which given Mr. Jefferson’s loathing for the Navy, arguing that it was too much of an expense), must have been an irritation.  These early diplomats regularly urged Jefferson to bolster a naval presence, if not in exact word, then certainly of similar pleadings as from Lisbon in 1793: “When we can appear in the ports of the various powers, or on the coast of Barbary with ships of such force as to convince those nations that we are able to protect our trade, and compel them if necessary to keep faith with us, then, and not before, we may probably secure a large share of the Mediterranean trade, which would largely and speedily compensate the United States for the cost of a maritime force amply sufficient to keep all those pirates in awe, and also make it their interest to keep faith.”

As noted above, Mr. Jefferson was well aware of the situation unfolding in the Mediterranean. In 1784, Congress appointed Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin as peace commissioners.  Their task was to negotiate treaties of amity and commerce with the principal states of Europe and the Mediterranean, including the establishment of relations with the Barbary States.  What these men learned was that European states had concluded treaties with the Barbary states, which involved agreements to pay them tribute, which in those days were called an annuity.  This was necessary because any merchant ship found operating in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean Sea without this protection placed itself on the mercy of state-sponsored marauders.  These raiders were also referred to as corsairs or pirates.  The peace commissioners reported this information to Congress and requested its guidance.

In December of that year, having learned that a small American brig had been seized by a Moroccan corsair in the Atlantic, Jefferson developed a no-nonsense approach to the problem.  He wrote, “Our trade to Portugal, Spain, and the Mediterranean is annihilated unless we do something decisive.  Tribute or war is the usual alternative of these pirates.  If we yield the former, it will require sums which our people will soon feel.  Why not begin a navy and then decide on war?  We cannot begin in a better cause nor against a weaker foe.”  At this time, Jefferson believed that going to war was more honorable, more effective, and less expensive than paying tribute.

In 1786, while serving as the United States’ first Ambassador to France, Mr. Jefferson and John Adams (then serving as the US Ambassador to Great Britain), met in London with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the Tripolitan ambassador to Great Britain. American flagged ships had already been captured by corsairs and their crews and passengers imprisoned and held for ransom.  The Americans wanted to negotiate a peace treaty that would spare their ships from pirate attacks.  Congress had been willing to appease the Barbary pirates, but only if they could gain peace at a reasonable price.

During the meeting with Rahman, Jefferson and Adams asked him why Moslems held such hostility toward the United States, a nation with which they had had no previous contacts. Jefferson later related the ambassador’s response to John Jay: the reason for Moslem enmity was that “It was written in their Koran that all nations that had not acknowledged their prophet were sinners; it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave the infidel.”  Rahman assured them that every Mussulman [Moslem] who was slain in this warfare was sure to achieve paradise in the afterlife.  After the meeting, Jefferson purchased a Koran.  Should war with these Moslems be necessary, he wanted to find out what kind of religion these people believed in.

The Barbary challenge to American shipping sparked a great deal of debate in the United States over how to cope with the aggressive behaviors of the Barbary States. Jefferson’s early view guided him in future years.  In 1786, he doubted whether the American people would be willing to pay an annual tribute (bribe), and he wondered if it would not be better to simply offer these Barbary states an equal treaty.  Should they refuse,  the United States could go to war with them.

Mr. Jefferson believed that America needed to become a trading nation.  Jefferson wrote to James Monroe, “… this will require a protecting force on the sea.  Otherwise, the smallest powers in Europe, every one which possesses a single ship of the line, may dictate to us and enforce their demands by captures on our commerce. Some naval force then is necessary if we mean to be commercial.”  Jefferson added, “And if it be decided that their peace shall be bought it shall engage my most earnest endeavors.”

John Adams favored the same approach, which is to say that he believed paying bribes would be cheaper than convincing the American people that the United States needed a navy.  Congress did decide to pay the bribes, commissioning Thomas Barclay (to Morocco) and a merchant sea captain by the name of John Lamb (to Algiers) to effect treaties.  In Morocco, the American proposal was accepted with only minor changes. Jefferson, Adams, and the Congress were very pleased because the agreement only entailed a one-time payment.

The agreement with Morocco did not serve as a template for the other North African tribes.  Algiers was more dependent on the fruits of its pirating operations: captured goods, slaves, ransoms, and tribute —so they were less amenable to a peace treaty with the United States.

In the midst of these negotiations, Barclay and Lamb learned that two ships had been captured by Algerian corsairs: The Maria and the Dauphin.  Mr. Lamb was instructed to negotiate a ransom for the captives in Algiers and to broker a treaty to prevent further attacks on American shipping, although the amount of money sequestered for this purpose was much too small to suit the Algerians.  The Lamb mission failed.

Over the next several years —both as Secretary of State under George Washington and as President himself— Jefferson made further attempts to re-start negotiations with Algiers.  Every effort failed, and the only safety accorded to American shipping came from joining European convoys.  American ships even flew European flags, which of course was illegal (not to mention dishonorable).  Nevertheless, American ships benefitted from the protection offered by the Portuguese Navy for several years.  This ended in 1793 when it was time for Algiers and Portugal to renegotiate their treaty.  Within a few months, Algerian corsairs had seized eleven American ships, ten of these in the Atlantic; more than 100 crewman and passengers were taken captive.

After Jefferson’s tenure as Secretary of State, the United States finally did secure an agreement with Algiers in 1795.  An annual tribute was part of this treaty.  A year later, Algiers released their hostages, which included a few survivors of the Maria and Dauphin.  A treaty was concluded with Tripoli in 1796, Tunis in 1797, and it wasn’t long after that when the United States appointed emissaries to each Barbary state.

America’s consuls awaited the new administration of Thomas Jefferson, but their communiques over the previous months were nothing if not distressing.  Tensions with Tripoli were high because the ever-sensitive Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli believed that the Americans had slighted him.  He threatened war with the United States. Five months before Jefferson assumed office, in October 1800, Consul James Cathcart in Tripoli received an ominous message from the Pasha: “If you don’t give me a present, I will find a pretext to capture your defenseless merchantmen.”  Cathcart dutifully notified other consuls of the possibility of hostile actions.

When the Quasi-War with France [1] ended by the convention of 1800, newly inaugurated Jefferson could turn his attention to the Barbary coast.  The US Navy was a fledgling force at this time, but new ships were coming online from contracts awarded in 1793.  Thus, in early June 1801, a small squadron of three frigates [2] and a schooner [3] sailed for the Mediterranean under Commodore Richard Dale. Dale was ordered to protect American shipping if, upon arrival, he found that a state of war existed.  In that case, Dale was to “chastise their insolence by sinking, burning, or destroying their ships where they were found, blockade the harbor of any of the regencies that had declared war on the United States, and convoy merchantmen as best he was able. [4]”  Dale was also ordered to transmit to the rulers of Algiers and Tunis letters, gifts, and tribute payments so long as no state of war existed.

On 14 May 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States.  The first assault came that very morning when the Pasha ordered the flagpole outside the consulate chopped down.  Commodore Dale arrived at Gibraltar on 1 July.  He was promptly informed that a state of war existed between Tripoli and the United States.  For a number of months, the American squadron played patty-cake with Tripolitan ships.  The only real action involved the schooner USS Enterprise in engagement with the Tripolitan ship Tripoli off the coast of Malta on 1 August.  Tripoli was soundly defeated in this encounter.  Given the speed of communications of the time, Jefferson wasn’t able to inform Congress of these actions until four months later.

Over the next three years, the Pasha’s obstinance forced the United States to devise a rotational schedule for its Mediterranean squadrons.  In 1802, corsairs from Tripoli successfully evaded American blockades to attack US merchantmen.  Nor did the blockade prevent trade among the Barbary states; it was only a minor inconvenience.   Other Barbary rulers sided with Tripoli and in late 1802, the United States was faced with the possibility of an expanding war with Tunis and Morocco.  Mr. Jefferson had other problems, too.  The challenge of Tripoli could not be ignored, but neither could he ignore America’s rising national debt.  Jefferson thus debated which would be less costly: tribute, or war?  Should the United States be practical, or principled?

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William Eaton

Secretary of State James Madison sent a note to Consul Cathcart suggesting that it was not necessary to confine himself to a single position: he might agree to pay the tribute, but neither should he exceed authorized dollar amounts; if engagements were necessary, Madison instructed, they should be kept small, if possible.  In time, Mr. Cathcart was no longer welcomed in Tripoli, Tunis, or Algiers.  Mr. William Eaton [5] had also been asked to leave Tunis.  Both men returned to the United States.  Tobias Lear assumed the duties of Consul General in Algiers in November 1803, replacing Richard O’Brien.  Lear also took over negotiations with the Pasha of Tripoli. Commodore Dale was replaced by Edward Preble.  When Preble arrived on station, he learned that Morocco was at war with the United States.

In October 1803, the frigate USS Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli.  Corsairs swept in to take advantage of the Philadelphia’s condition and her 307-man crew was imprisoned.  Philadelphia was re-floated and repaired, but before the Pasha could make use of her, a U. S. Navy team led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur slipped into Tripoli harbor after dark and fired the ship.  Philadelphia was totally destroyed, but the crew remained captive.  When this news finally reached the United States, the American people were very unhappy with Mr. Jefferson; the loss of a U. S. Navy vessel had happened on his watch. Jefferson requested that Congress provide two additional frigates to deal with the Barbary problem.  Congress funded the President’s request.

In 1804, the former Consul to Tunis, William Eaton, returned to the Mediterranean Sea with the title Naval Agent to the Barbary States.  Mr. Eaton had been granted permission from President Jefferson to support the claims of Hamet Qaramanli (the rightful heir to the throne of Tripoli), who had been deposed of his title by his brother Yusuf.  Eaton sought out Hamet, who was then in exile in Egypt and made a proposal to reinstate him in exchange for a mutually agreeable treaty.  Hamet agreed to Eaton’s plan.

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Presley Neville O’Bannon

Commodore Samuel Barron, now commanding the Mediterranean squadron, provided Eaton with naval support from the USS Nautilus, USS Hornet, and USS Argus.  The frigates were to provide offshore bombardment support. A detachment of seven (7) U. S. Marines under the command of First Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon [6], USMC was detailed to assist Eaton in an overland campaign from Egypt to Tripoli.  With the help of Hamet, Eaton and O’Bannon recruited 400 Arab, Turkish, and Greek mercenaries.  Eaton appointed himself a general and Commander-in-Chief of the makeshift multinational force.  The campaign took the Marines and mercenaries 500 miles across the Libyan-North African desert.  During the 50-day march, Eaton and O’Bannon had to contend with strained relationships between Moslem and Greek Christian mercenaries.

On 26 April 1805, Eaton sent a letter to Mustafa Bey, the governor of Derne, asking for safe passage through the city and an opportunity to resupply his force.  Mustafa replied, “My head or yours.”  USS Argus transferred one its cannon ashore to assist Eaton in the attack on the fortification at Derne and then joined the other two ships in a general bombardment of Derne’s defensive batteries.

With ships directing offshore fire, Eaton divided his force into two assault groups.  Hamet would lead the Arabs southwest to cut the road to Tripoli and then turn to attack the weakly defended governor’s palace. Eaton, the Marines, and the remaining force would attack the harbor fortress.  The attack began near mid-afternoon. Lieutenant O’Bannon and his Marines, along with 50 Greek gunners and the Argus’ cannon, led the assault. The fighting was bloody, and Eaton was wounded during the assault.  Once the Marines had breached the walls of the shore battery, the defenders fled, leaving behind their loaded cannon.

Lieutenant O’Bannon raised the American flag over the battery.  It was the first time the United States Flag was raised over a foreign territory.  Unbeknownst to either Eaton or O’Bannon, this one event signaled the beginning of the Marine Corps’ long relationship with the United States Department of State. Marines were subsequently called upon to serve the interests of the State Department in 1845 (the secret mission of Archibald Gillespie), the siege of the Foreign Legation in Peking, China in 1901 (the Boxer Rebellion), and upon other occasions when the need for guards and couriers were needed at U. S. Embassies, consulates, and delegations, and as security for senior diplomatic officials in unsettled areas of the globe.

Today, the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, headquartered at Quantico, Virginia, carries on this tradition.  Their motto is Vigilance, Discipline, Professionalism.  Marine Corps Security Guards, in their present form, have been in place since December 1948 as authorized by the Foreign Service Act of 1946.  The act authorized the Secretary of the Navy to assign Marines to serve with the U. S. State Department under the supervision of the senior diplomatic officer at embassies, legations, or consulates. This authorization continues today under Title 10, United States Code 5983.

Crossed Swords

End Notes:

[1] The Quasi-War was an undeclared conflict fought almost entirely at sea between the United States and France from 1798 to 1800 during the presidency of John Adams.  Following the French Revolution, the United States refused to continue paying its debt to France, which had supported it during its own revolution.  The United States claimed that the debt had been owed to a previous regime.  In addition, France was outraged that the United States was trading with Great Britain, with whom they were then at war.  The French reaction was to authorize privateers to attack American shipping.  The United States retaliated in kind.

[2] Frigates were ships with three masts and a single gun deck.  The number of guns would depend on the size of the ship.  Early American frigates were called “heavy frigates” because they were rated as 44-gun ships, but in actuality, these ships carried 56 to 60 24-pound long guns and 32-pounder or 42-pounder carronades on two decks.

[3] Schooner were rigged according to their size.  In the late 1700s and early 1800s, American schooners were two-mast vessels with fore and aft rigs with one or more squared topsails.  Armament consisted of 12 6-pound long guns, but in some cases, this was increased to 12 18-pound carronades.

[4] Commodore Dale had a total of four ships at his disposal.

[5] Sixteen-year-old William Eaton enlisted in the Continental Army in 1780 and served until 1783, achieving the rank of sergeant.  In 1790 he graduated from Dartmouth College and found work as a clerk in the Vermont legislature.  In 1792, Eaton was commissioned a captain in the Legion of the United States, retaining his commission until 1797 when he accepted an appointment to serve as United States Consul at Tunis.  Following the Second Barbary War, Eaton returned to his home in Brimfield, Massachusetts where he served one term in the state legislature.  Suffering from rheumatism and gout, and having taken to drink, Eaton died at his home on 1 June 1811, 47 years of age.

[6] A United States Marine Corps Officer most remembered for being the first man to raise the American Flag on foreign soil on April 27, 1805, during the Barbary Wars.  O’Bannon was born in Fauquier County, Virginia and named for his cousin, who had served with distinction as an officer in the Revolutionary War.  After his service in the Barbary Wars, he continued to serve in the Marine Corps, being promoted to Captain, until March 6, 1807.  He resigned his commission and moved to Kentucky.  He later served in the Kentucky State Legislature.  He is often remembered today by the words in the Marine Corps Hymn, to wit: To the shores of Tripoli.  His Mameluke sword, which was presented to him by Hamet, has become the model of all Marine Corps officer swords since 1825.  The United States Navy has named three destroyers in his honor. O’Bannon passed away on 12 Sep 1850, aged 73 or 74.  Initially put to rest in the Dutch Tract Cemetery in North Pleasureville, Kentucky, his remains were later exhumed and reinterred in Frankfort Cemetery.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Marine Security Guards”

  1. Thanks for the history… and filling out many of the details I was not aware of. Sadly Jefferson’s bible being used now to “swear in” new congressmen is even more disturbing with these facts.

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  2. When our nation has had enough of mayhem, the Marines are sent in — and this is right and proper.

    Thank you for this excellent history essay, Mustang. Too bad that this isn’t a lesson included in our American History textbooks!

    Liked by 2 people

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