Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Edward Preble’s Leadership Qualities Analysis

Midshipman 3/C Christian Dumangas

Edward Preble was a United States naval officer who was most famous for his efforts during the First Barbary War from 1801–1805. The leadership qualities he exhibited during this war would contribute to the success of the United States against the barbary pirates—both diplomatically and strategically. In Edward Preble: A Naval Biography, 1761–1807, Christopher McKee (1972) stated that Edward Preble’s defining naval accomplishment was his command of the U.S. Navy’s Mediterranean Squadron during some of the most heated months of the 1801–1805 conflict. This diplomatic and military conflict between the United States and the Islamic States of North Africa which consisted of Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli would be better known as the First Barbary War.

Background of Tripoli War and Preble’s Efforts

Joshua London, in his book Victory in Tripoli (2005) says that, in 1803, Preble sailed to the Mediterranean on the frigate, Constitution, to settle the conflict with Tripoli. However, as he arrived to Gibraltar, he discovered another problem, undeclared war set on the United States by Morocco. With a diplomatic victory, Edward Preble was able to diffuse the situation with Morocco, using their strong naval force, before moving to their primary target, Tripoli (London 2005). Before reaching his planned destination, he was challenged once again. This time, he learned that an ally ship, the Philadelphia, had been captured by the enemy after it had run aground off Tripoli (London 2005). In an effort to render the ship useless to the enemy, Preble delegated the scuttling of the ship to Stephen Decatur, who successfully destroyed the captured ship at the Tripoli harbor (McKee 1972). Arriving at his destination, Edward Preble tried to settle the conflict with Tripoli using diplomacy, but ultimately made no progress in doing so. His next plan was to lead a naval offensive against the city, which would take place in 1804 (London 2005). Preble borrowed six gunboats and two bomb ketches from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and with this combined force, he led a series of six attacks on the city and harbor of Tripoli (McKee 1972). Notably, on August 3, Preble was able to capture three Tripolitan gunboats in hand-to-hand combat (London 2005). Preble continued his siege on Tripoli through naval means, until he was replaced by a senior officer when the U.S. had sent reinforcements (London 2005). Returning home, Edward Preble was bitter for not resolving the war, but was welcomed back as a hero for his persistence in defeating Tripoli using naval power (London 2005).

Edward Preble’s Leadership Qualities Eventually Leading to a Victory

Although Edward Preble wasn’t able to conclude the First Barbary War, himself, it was his efforts and leadership qualities that laid the base for a U.S. victory. His first hurdle was the undeclared war Morocco had placed with the U.S. Using intimidation and wits, Preble was able to win a diplomatic victory by defusing the situation without violence. This is important because it shows that Preble is cunning enough to adapt to a dire situation and resolve it nonviolently, while keeping his units fresh and undamaged for the fighting soon to come. The second obstacle Edward Preble had to face, was the captured U.S. frigate, the Philadelphia (London 2005). Knowing the capabilities of such a ship, Edward Preble knew that it must be destroyed before it was used against them. Preble sent Stephen Decatur to destroy the frigate at the Tripoli harbor, a leadership tactic known as delegation. He delegated the task to a junior naval officer and showed the leadership trait of trusting in one’s team to get the job done. Stephen Decatur was a lieutenant during the First Barbary War, and Preble’s decision to let Decatur handle the situation is important because it not only led to a success, but it gave Stephen Decatur the experience he would eventually need during his career as a naval officer. Last, but not least, is Edward Preble’s persistence and courage in the face of disproportionate odds. Edward Preble was tasked to resolve a war with a land-based power, Tripoli, with one frigate, three brigs, and three schooners. By battling consistently and winning minor skirmishes, like the capture of a Tripolitan gunboat in August 3, Edward Preble was able to wear down the enemy enough for the U.S. reinforcements to finally crack Tripoli and win against them. To win a war against a land-based power using only naval power is no easy task, and for Edward Preble to hold his own against Tripoli is commendable. According to Fletcher Pratt in his book Preble’s Boys: Commodore Preble and the Birth of American Sea Power, although he was violent, controlled his temper poorly, and held a reputation as a harsh disciplinarian, Edward Preble had earned the respect and admiration of his younger subordinates. According to Fletcher Pratt in his book The Compact History of the United States Navy, one of these subordinates was Isaac Hull, a naval officer who defeated a British frigate during the War of 1812, proving that Britain’s navy was killable. Edward Preble had gained this respect, largely, due to his vigorous and decisive conduct, persistence, and courage during the First Barbary War.

Preble’s Leadership Qualities Applicable in Today’s Time

The leadership qualities Edward Preble exhibited in the First Barbary War were: adapting to a critical situation, delegating authority, remaining tenacious, and leading by example. Let’s analyze his adaptation to a dire situation. Edward Preble was conscious of the fact that he had to go to war with the Barbary States, however, he had just discovered that Morocco waged war against the U.S. Using wit and intimidation, Preble was able to make peace with Morocco using a diplomatic victory. By doing so, he was able to save what little ships he had in his fleet to contest the forces of Tripoli. Adapting to a new situation is a skill all officers should sharpen, and we can relate this to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where U.S. forces were taken by surprise by the Imperial Japanese Navy and had to perform a retreat and engage strategy. Preble delegated his authority to Stephen Decatur and tasked him to scuttle the captured U.S. frigate, the Philadelphia, of which he successfully completed. Delegation of authority is a basic and crucially important skill officers require to split up tasks that are too complex for them to handle by themselves. It allows the officer to focus his efforts on another task, while enabling the delegate the ability to learn leadership from experience. This act would prove effective, because Stephen Decatur would eventually become a famous naval officer in his time and earn the spot amongst one of the greatest naval commanders. The third leadership quality we will examine is Preble’s tenacity. Edward Preble was tasked to contest the national power of Tripoli using one frigate, three brigs, and three schooners. By winning skirmish after skirmish, Preble allowed U.S. reinforcements to take down the power. To be tenacious, to remain strong and courageous against overwhelming odds is what the U.S. military prides itself on. Whether it be the American Revolution or the Battle of Iwo Jima, tenacity will live on forever in the hearts and souls of every U.S. military member. Last but not least, is Preble’s leadership by example. The young men such as Isaac Hull, James Lawrence, and Stephen Decatur, who served under Edward Preble would be known as “Preble’s Boys.”  These young men would eventually become national heroes and notable naval commanders in their own right, because they had learned from the example Edward Preble had set for them. Leading by example is a trait that the best officers exhibit, and it has proven itself effective in the hands of Preble.

Conclusion and Modern Influence

In conclusion, Edward Preble was a naval officer who was well known for his heroic efforts during the First Barbary War, which had occurred from 1801–1805. Although he wasn’t able to resolve the conflict himself, it was his efforts that would eventually lead to a U.S. victory over Tripoli. If it wasn’t for his leadership qualities, the U.S. victory over the Islamic States of North Africa would be nonexistent. Exhibiting persistence, courage, utilizing delegation, and by adapting to new problems, Edward Preble was able to win a diplomatic victory over Morocco, destroy a captured U.S. frigate before it was used against them, and weaken Tripoli for U.S. reinforcements. For these feats, Edward Preble is a heroic figure immortalized in today’s society by means of dedicating a hall to him at the United States Naval Academy, and by naming a destroyer, Preble (DDG-88), a high school, three towns, a county, two townships, and a number of roads after him.


London, Joshua E. Victory Bibliography in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005).

McKee, Christopher. Edward Preble: A Naval Biography, 1761–1807 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1972). 

Pratt, Fletcher. Preble’s Boys: Commodore Preble and the Birth of American Sea Power (New York: William Sloane, 1950).

——— “The Compact History of the United States Navy” (Washington, DC: U.S. Navy, 1957).

“USS Preble”

Published: Mon Aug 13 12:57:30 EDT 2018