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Ontology on the gone!

The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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07/25/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: The Pirate Coast"

The Pirate Coast. Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805
by Richard Zacks
Published by Hyperion

Review by Tom Good

The Marine Corps hymn begins:

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the Shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea.

As a child, I learned to play that tune on the piano, but not until reading The Pirate Coast did I learn what actually happened on the shores of Tripoli. Richard Zacks recounts this episode in history, a story so full of larger-than-life characters, bold deeds, and strange twists that it often seems more like the plot from a Hollywood movie than anything that could have really happened.

Though the story takes place 200 years ago, many of the themes could have been plucked from recent headlines. Tripoli had declared war on the United States, and the Barbary pirates attacked foreign ships in what today would be called state-sponsored terrorism. In 1803, when the U.S.S. Philadelphia, one of only six ships in the U.S. Naval fleet, ran aground in Tripoli harbor, its 307 crewmen were captured and imprisoned by the government of Tripoli. This created America's first international hostage crisis, which would be echoed much later in the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Months later, with the U.S. sailors still in captivity, President Thomas Jefferson decided to send a small group of men on a secret mission to overthrow the government of Tripoli. This would be America's first covert military operation on foreign soil.

The leader of the expedition was William Eaton, a sort of 19th century Rambo who felt the honor of the United States was at stake and would do anything to restore it. His daring march across hundreds of miles of desert to attack and capture the city of Derne would be even more inspirational if it were not also such an amazing act of overconfident recklessness. His eventual victory against overwhelming odds serves as a vivid reminder that cautious, sensible men do not often make history.

Rarely is a history book such a suspenseful page-turner as The Pirate Coast. I enjoyed this book so much that as soon as I finished it, I ordered all of Richard Zacks' other books. This chapter in American history deserves to be better known, and so I highly recommend The Pirate Coast.

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