As he lay on the stony, bare ridge rising above the old, walled city bounded on the other side by the blue sea, waiting to give the order to advance, he might well have marveled on how life moves in unexpected ways. Twenty two years before, he'd been a farmboy from Connecticut, a 19 year old sergeant recently discharged from the Continental Army. And now, on April 27, 1805, he was about to lead American forces in the new republic's first land battle outside its boundaries, in the country we know today as Libya(1).
(The Marines storm Derna, painting by Charles Waterhouse)
Born in 1764, William Eaton was one of 13 children of a Woodstock, CT farming family. At sixteen he ran away to join the Continental Army from which he was discharged in 1783 at the conclusion of America's war of independence. Graduating from Dartmouth College in 1790, Eaton was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army two years later, seeing action against the Indians in the Northwest Territories and Georgia, before resigning in 1797 as a result of a controversial episode involving his commander. By then he'd already come to the notice of Secretary of State William Pickering who recruited Eaton for secret work. In turn, that brought him to the attention of the new President, John Adams, for whom he also undertook a sensitive assignment (the country and its government were much smaller then allowing this circumstance to arise). Eaton's success allowed him access to more public positions and he requested and was granted appointment as U.S. Counsel to Tunis. Why Tunis? Eaton had been fascinated by Arab culture and Islam since he was a child and had even taught himself some rudimentary Arabic. For the 33 year old it was an adventure and exciting way to seek his fortune in a land he'd dreamt about for years.
Tunis was one of four Barbary States, the others being Morocco, Algiers and Tripoli, which made their living by piracy, seizing ships, ransoming cargoes and crews to European states and the new United States, as well as conducting slave raids along the Mediterranean coasts of Europe. Various Muslim states in North Africa had been doing so since the 8th century (see The Song of Jan Sobieski, Part I for more background).
(map from warfare history network)
The Barbary States were an ongoing problem for the American republic. With a very small navy, it was unable to adequately protect American commercial vessels in the Mediterranean. At times, the U.S. agreed to pay tribute to the states to allow for passage, but for many owners it remained too dangerous to enter these waters and American commerce suffered as a result.
Arriving in 1799, Eaton befriended its ruler, the Bey, and agreement was reached on a revised treaty in early 1800. Later that year he was asked to join negotiations with the Bey of Tripoli, the most unruly of the Barbary states. Arriving in January 1801, Eaton found the situation going from bad to worse as the Bey kept increasing his demands. On May 14, the Bey declared war on the United States. Without knowledge of this event, an increasingly aggravated President Thomas Jefferson decided on May 15 to send an American naval squadron to try to cow the Barbary States. The squadron, which departed the following month, also carried a complement of Marines, on their first potential combat mission.
Eaton, returning to Tunis, struck up a friendship with Hamet Karamanli, the elder brother of the Bey of Tripoli, who had been overthrown by his younger brother and, understandably, sought revenge. During this period, Eaton also raised funds for himself and Hamet through some murky trading ventures, in the course of which he borrowed funds from the Bey to finance his business. It resulted in the end of his career as Counsel for in March 1803, Commodore Morris of the U.S. Navy ventured into Tunis to negotiate return of a Tunis merchant vessel seized by the Americans. Instead the Bey seized Morris and his men, demanding to be repaid the monies he'd loaned to Eaton. The outraged Morris and Eaton managed to raise the funds. After repayment, the Bey expelled Eaton from Tunis and Morris denounced him.
Eaton returned to Washington where he tried to interest President Jefferson in a scheme to replace the Bey of Tripoli with his brother Hamet. Not much attention was given to this plan until news of dramatic events reached America. Since 1801, the American squadron had negotiated successfully with Morocco and Algiers, but Tripoli had remained intransigent. In 1803, the Americans began a blockade of Tripoli, but the effort went awry in October when the frigate Philadelphia went aground, was captured by the Tripolitans and converted into a floating gun battery to aid in defense of the harbor. It was a humiliating turn for the United States. In February 1804, Lt Stephen Decatur led a daring night time raid in which the Philadelphia was burnt (for more on Decatur read Decatur's Deal).
All of this heightened American anger with Tripoli and President Jefferson agreed to Eaton's plan to make Hamet Karamanli the new Bey. He authorized $40,000 and 1,000 rifles for Eaton and giving him the title of U.S. Naval Agent for the Barbary Coast (Eaton gave himself the title of General when he reached the area).
Eaton set off to find Hamet, going first to Egypt where he was believed to be. Landing in Alexandria with eight U.S. Marines (commanded by Lt. Presley O'Bannon) on November 26, 1804, Eaton set off for Cairo. Working with a cast of colorful characters, the Naval Agent got Hamet out of a scrap with the Turkish authorities who ruled the country and persuaded Karamanli to join his scheme.
Over the next three months they recruited a motley army. There were Eaton and the eight Marines. Hamet had about a hundred men. Eaton and O'Bannon hired Greek, Turkish, English, Spanish, French and Indian mercenaries and Hamet persuaded about 400 other Arabs to join the merry band. On March 8 they left Alexandria for Derna, 600 miles away. Including camel drivers and Bedouin horsemen and their families who joined along the way, they may have been 1,000 in the expedition by the time they reached the area of Derna in late April. Accounts of their trek make it sound like a miracle they made it given the mutual hatreds of varied groups making up the army and demands for payment by the baggage train drivers which led to Eaton and others giving them all the monies they had.
On April 26, the expedition took up positions around Derna and Eaton sent a note to the commander of the garrison demanding his surrender, ending his note with "I shall see you tomorrow in a way of your choice", to which the garrison commander responded succinctly , "My head or yours".
(Modern Derna from wikipedia; from this ridge Eaton looked over the town)
Eaton planned a two pronged attack for the 27th. O'Bannon's Marine and the mercenaries, about 60 in all would storm the barricades while Hamet's horsemen, about 200 in total, would attack from the south. Eaton would command the two cannon of his small army. Three American ships were offshore, Argus, Hornet and Nautilus, to provide cannon support. O'Bannon's outnumbered force was pinned down until Eaton led a charge that caused the defenders to flee. Entering the town, the Americans seized the fort and raised the Stars & Stripes for the first time on foreign territory in time of war. Hamet's force also entered Derna, capturing the governor's palace. The fighting was over in two hours. Two Marines were killed and Eaton shot in the wrist.
The Bey's forces made two attempts to recapture Derna, the first on May 13 and the second on June 11. Both were repulsed. But Eaton was not to enjoy his victory.
On June 3, the Bey had signed a peace treaty with the United States. It ended piracy by Tripoli but it also allowed the Bey to remain in power. Hamet was to continue in exile. Eaton was ordered to leave Derna and abandon his local followers. Returning to the U.S., Eaton, now broke, denounced the treaty and drinking heavily, began roaming the streets dressed as a Bedouin. His discontent made him easy prey for Aaron Burr who was launching his conspiracy to invade Mexico and possibly detach the western states from the Union. Though Eaton eventually broke with Burr and denounced his scheme he was ruined. Retreating to Maine, destitute and drunk, William Eaton died in 1811.
For his bravery at Derna, Lt Presley O'Bannon was presented with a Mameluke Sword by a grateful Hamet Karamanli. The Sword is still the model for the dress sword used by the Marine Corps in the 21st century. It was the Battle of Derna that gave us "to the shores of Tripoli" in the Marine Corps hymn. O'Bannon resigned in 1807. Moving to Kentucky he served as a Representative and Senator in the state legislature. He died in 1850.
Derna is currently controlled by the Shura Council of Mujahideen who seized it from the Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2015.
(1) Some of you may be saying, "What about our invasion of Canada"? You know your history, but the American invasion of Canada during the Revolutionary War took place in 1775-6 before the Declaration of Independence (for more on that episode read, Why Canada Is Not Part of The United States).