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US military in Tripoli? It's happened before.

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(Read caption) "Pirates on Deck of their Ship" by Niels Simonsen (1807-1885)

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Where did U.S. military forces fight their first land battle overseas? And this isn’t just a random history question – it has a connection to current events, as well as a famous song.

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The answer is... Libya. Or a city-state along the north African coast, which is currently part of Libya, anyway.

Today the problem with Libya is Muammar Qaddafi’s brutality toward his own country’s protesters. But two centuries ago, the problem the West had with Libya was pirates.

Raiders from what Europeans then called the Barbary Coast began preying on US merchant ships in the 1780s. By the early 1800s, the US was tired of paying protection money to the Qaramanli pashas of Tripoli in an effort to get them to leave American trade alone. So the newly formed US Navy sailed to the waters off what is today Libya and began chasing down Tripoli privateers.

Most of these fights went America’s way. Not all of them, though.

In 1804, one skirmish ended with the frigate USS Philadelphia grounded on a reef and its crew captured. So an expeditionary force of US Marines and an army of about 500 Greek, Arab, and Berber mercenaries marched 600 miles across the desert from Egypt to seize the eastern Libyan city of Darnah. This show of force persuaded the Tripoli leadership to agree to ransom the Philadelphia’s sailors and sign a treaty of peace and friendship.

The Battle of Darnah – aka the Battle of Derna, or the Battle of Derne – was not just the first US land battle in a distant country, by the way. It was the first battle on foreign soil for the US Marines, too, and is immortalized in the first verse of the “Marines’ Hymn”:

“From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea.”