The book recounts a little-known episode that occurred in early 1801, directly after Jefferson’s inauguration as president. Typically focused on diplomatic solutions, the new head of state decided that the pirates based in Tripoli (now the de jure capital of Libya) must be confronted head on. They had been kidnapping U.S. sailors, taking over ships, and generally disrupting international trade.
The infant American Navy mustered three frigates to form a blockade of Tripoli and protect shipping interests. This strategy was having some effect when the USS Philadelphia ran aground in the harbor it was blockading and was captured by Tripoli pirates. One American sailor risked his life in sneaking onto the ship and making sure it burned and was of no use to the enemy. Jefferson subsequently authorized a dramatic attack by Marines on the port city of Derna. The mission required a 500-mile trek through the desert. These early military accomplishments in the Mediterranean were immortalized in the first verse of the Marine Corps Hymn.