A TRIPOLITAN TRAGICOMEDY

This is a funny story about chopping down a flag pole from the book Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History by Brian Kilmeade, Don Yaeger.

A TRIPOLITAN TRAGICOMEDYThomas Jefferson.jpg

Three days later, the bashaw (Yusuf Qaramanli) made good on his threat. On May 14, 1801, he dispatched his men to the American consulate; the party of soldiers arrived at one o’clock that Thursday afternoon.

(James Leander) Cathcart was ready to make one last offer to keep the peace, to avoid what had begun to seem inevitable. He approached the seraskier, the leader of the squad and the bashaw’s minister of war, and asked that the promise of a tribute of $lO,OOO be conveyed to the bashaw. A messenger departed for the castle, but returned minutes later. The bashaw had rejected the offer.

(James Leander) Cathcart knew any further attempts at diplomacy would be futile, and stopping the bashaw’s men by force was impossible. Helpless, he stood watching on that bright, hot Thursday as the Tripolitans began hacking at the flagpole.

The bashaw’s men shouted encouragement to one another as they swung their axes but to their dismay, felling the pole was harder than it looked. Chips flew, but the flagpole refused to fall. As if to mock the men, the flag fluttered with each stroke of the ax, its staff staunchly in place. A gesture meant to humble the Americans was rapidly becoming a humiliation for the Tripolitans.

The bashaw had ordered that, if the men had trouble dropping the pole, they should pull on the halyard, the line anchored at the top of the pole used to hoist the flag. He thought they might be able to break the pole in half by doing so. To the dismay of the men, that strategy failed, too, and once again, the resilient flagpole refused. to fall. The men who had arrived to dishonor the flag were proving singularly inept.

More than an hour passed before the Tripolitans finally caused the pole to splinter just enough to lean against the consulate house. The American diplomats looked on, darkly amused by the whole episode. (James Leander) Cathcart wryly recorded the events in a dispatch to Secretary of State James Madison.

“At a quarter past two they effected the grand atchievement and our Flagstaff was chop’d down six feet from the ground & left reclining on the Terrace …. Thus ends the first act of this Tragedy.”

 

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