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Book review: Jefferson’s War by Joseph Wheelan

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Barbary Coast war - Jefferson's War by Joseph WheelanStrangely, in all the books I’ve read about Jefferson (six as of the typing of this review), none of them discuss the terrorism by the Barbary States and the Barbary Coast War in any more than just a few paragraphs. Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror by Joseph Wheelan presents a much clearer, in detail picture of that foreign war than I had thought to look for.

I think it’s interesting that people forget (or never knew) that the United States was fighting wars almost constantly from about 1775 until about 1815 – the Revolution, the Quasi-War with France, this ‘war on terror’ with the Barbary States, and then with England in the War of 1812.

Know before you read

The Barbary Coast war was a naval war – and I only have a vague idea of what ships fighting each other entails. Most of my concept of naval prowess during this rough time frame comes from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. There is an assumption of a small amount of knowledge – sentences like “The New York pulled over a 6-gun galley, thinking she was Tripolitan,” I can *imagine* what that means, but I don’t know for sure. There is a slight naval-vocab learning curve in reading this book.

Also, the author Joseph Wheelan was a reporter, NOT a historian. Personally, I don’t see why that should make a difference, but it does to some people. I really enjoyed his book about John Quincy Adams that I have read, so I was looking forward to this one. His books are all about those small stories that most other history books just brush over – a man after my own heart.

The Barbary Coast War

This book is quite thorough – especially when you consider that most of this info you won’t find in other Thomas-Jefferson-presidency books. It opens with a short history of the Barbary States and how they became the piratical nations they were by 1801. But the book also contains a small look at the beginning of and development of the United States Navy – I feel like I need to find a book specifically about Naval history now.

One thing I notice in my reading, all books about wars tend to include those stories of ineffectual officers or commanders. The Barbary Coast War featured 2 such commodores from the very beginning. You can just feel the frustration of the Secretary of the Navy, or of the subordinate officers who have to deal with poor decision making.

Some of the detail in this book is incredible – especially the battle sequences and blow-by-blow hand-to-hand combat passages. How could this much detail be available to historians and yet none of it showed up in any other book I read about Jefferson’s presidency? I don’t get it.

Random tidbit: General William Eaton was apparently fascinating. Never heard of him before this book, but through a little bit of research I learned that there is a book about him from 1813 that is available via Google Books. I might have to read it.

Verdict on this book: If you are like me and want to learn everything possible about U.S. History, this is a good one. There are a couple other books about the Barbary Coast War, which I can’t speak to, but I really enjoy Joseph Wheelan’s books so start with this one.

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