Battle of Derne: U.S. Marines Spearhead Capture of Barbary City; "…to the shores of Tripoli"
"U.S. Marines Capture the Barbary pirate fortress at Derna, Tripoli, 27th April 1805"
Oil on canvas by C.H. Waterhouse (illustration courtesy of www.wikigallery.org)
Today in Military History: April 27, 1805
Few battles in American history are as "little-noted" or "long-remembered" as this little set-to from the early years of our country's existence. It took place during the First Barbary War (1801-1805), and involved secret diplomacy, a harsh desert march, a near-mutiny, point-of-the-bayonet persuasion, and – ultimately – an anticlimax of disappointment.
As early as the mid-15th century, Islamic pirates from a number of North African seaports had made life tough for merchants of various European nations. Concentrating on the waters of the western Mediterranean, these corsairs were known as the "Barbary Pirates." They would attack the ships of several European nations – mainly Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal – and would take cargoes and take prisoners. These captured prisoners were sold into slavery more often than no. [However, a beautiful woman might find herself placed in a Barbary ruler's harem.] The Barbary pirates also raided many towns on the Mediterranean coast, even sailing as far as England or even Iceland in search of plunder and slaves. They also attempted to extort ransom for captured sailors from the unlucky nations.
Many of the European nations targeted by these seafaring robbers paid "tribute," aka protection money, to shield their ships from pirate attacks. American merchantmen were protected under British tribute until the Revolutionary War. At that time, American ships were protected by France under the terms of the "Treaty of Alliance" from 1778-1783. When America won its independence, American merchant shipping was attacked like any other non-Islamic vessel. Consequently, the U.S. began paying tribute of its own, both to avoid further pirate seizures or attacks, and to ransom captured American sailors. Between 1785 and 1800, the U.S. paid up to $1 million per year to the three major Barbary States: Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis.
President Jefferson Refuses Tribute, Provokes War
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3rd U.S. President
(Painting by Rembrandt Peale in 1805)
When Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as the third U.S. President in March of 1801, he was almost immediately asked for a tribute payment of $225,000 from Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli. After sixteen years of recommending against continued extortion payments, Jefferson now forcefully refused the demand. Two months later, on May 10, 1801, the Pasha declared war on the U.S., not through any formal written documents but in the customary Barbary manner of cutting down the flagstaff in front of the U.S. Consulate. This marks the beginning of the First Barbary War.
As a result, nearly every major ship in the U.S. Navy was sent to the western Mediterranean to combat the Barbary depredations. Although Congress never voted on a formal declaration of war, they did authorize the President to instruct the commanders of armed American vessels to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli "and also to cause to be done all such other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war will justify."
Several events from this conflict have become part of the U.S. Navy's early history. Probably the most famous is the burning of the USS "Philadelphia" after its capture by the Barbary pirates of Tripoli. [To read more of this particular event, please see my Burn Pit post of February 17, 2010 entitled, "Stephen Decatur Retakes, Burns USS Philadelphia in Tripoli Harbor" at http://burnpit.us/2010/02/stephen-decatur-retakes-burns-uss-philadelphia-tripoli-harbor .] The war was entering its fourth year, with no real end in sight.
William Eaton Hatches a Plan
In May of 1804, William Eaton, the former U.S. consul to the Barbary state of Tunis, returned to the Mediterranean to make his own unique contribution to the U.S. Navy's efforts in North Africa. He was sent back to the region to make a political move that could benefit America. In 1793 Hamet Karamanli was deposed as the ruler of Tripoli by his brother Yusuf. Two years later, he was sent into exile, eventually reaching Alexandria in nearby Egypt. Hamet was contacted by Eaton and offered American help to restore him to his former office, with the understanding that he would be more amenable to American maritime policy. Karamanli enthusiastically accepted the offer.
William Eaton (1764-1811), by Rembrandt Peale
Eaton, with a new commission as a U.S. Navy lieutenant, began seeking assistance to realize his plan. His mission was supervised by Commodore Samuel Barron, who had three vessels under his command: the USS "Nautilus," the USS "Hornet," and the USS "Argus." The three vessels were to provide offshore bombardment support. Eaton signed a contract with Hamet, although it was unclear whether he had the authority to do so. This contract, which was forwarded to Secretary of State James Madison, specified that the United States would provide cash, ammunition and provisions for Hamet Karamanli's re-installation as pasha. Eaton appointed himself as "General and Commander-in-Chief" of the land forces.
Next, Eaton began recruiting men to accomplish his mission. Commodore Barron gave him a detachment of 8 U.S. Marines and 2 Navy midshipmen to get him started. These Americans were under the command of Marine First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon. Over the course of several months, he accumulated 40 Greeks, about 160 Turks and 200-300 Arab or Berber mercenaries (some sources even claim these last were Mamelukes). On March 8, 1805 Eaton, Karamanli and his small army began an overland march to reinstate the deposed pasha of Tripoli. Their target was the port city of Derne, capital of the richest province of Tripoli. They were accompanied by 190 camels and some pack mules.
First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon (1776-1850), USMC
The trip across the Libyan Desert was not without its problems. Food and water began to run out quickly, at one point the men were forced to slaughter a camel for food. Eaton barely managed to keep a tight rein on his multi-national command. The Christian and Muslim mercenaries were constantly arguing, with some verbal confrontations leading to fisticuff. Mutiny was a constant threat. On about April 16, the expedition reached the small port city of Bomba, where the U.S. Navy had agreed to land ammunition, supplies, and money for the mercenaries. Arriving at Bomba, no ships were seen. At this point, the mercenaries were prepared to depart, leaving Eaton and Karamanli high and dry. The Marines, at the threat of bayonet point, convinced the recalcitrant hirelings agreed to wait a day or two. On the next day, the American vessels appeared and landed the needed food, ammunition, and cash to satisfy the mercenaries.
Assault on Derne
On April 25, 8 days after the resupply and at the end of a 50-day march, Eaton's force arrived at the city of Derne. A message was sent to the governor, request his capitulation. The reply was short and sweet; "My head or yours." Plans for an assault on the city were formulated. Eaton divided his force into two parts. Hamet Karamanli was assigned to command the Muslim Arab mercenaries, with the mission of heading southwest of the city to cut off any possible reinforcements, then to attack the western side of the city, which containing the governor's palace. With the remaining Greeks, Turks, and Americans, Eaton would attack the harbor batteries.
Around noon, the USS "Argus" received a message from "General" Eaton, requesting that two artillery pieces assigned to the expedition be landed as soon as possible. However, the steep, rocky beach allowed the Navy to only land one cannon. At about 2:00 pm, the American ships began bombarding the shore batteries. An hour later, Eaton launched his attack, with the Marines and Navy personnel in the lead. Hassan Bey, the city's commander, had received information of the approaching enemy force, and had reinforced the harbor fortress and sent a request for reinforcements to Tripoli. His garrison consisted of some 2000 horsemen and an equal number of infantry. However, he had essentially denuded the western walls of the city, which allowed Hamet Karamanli and his men to capture the western suburbs and the governor's palace.
15-stars, 15-stripes U.S. flag raised over Derne, April 27, 1805
In the meantime, Eaton and his men had assaulted the main city fortress, and were initially thrown back. Grabbing a musket, Eaton then led the Marine contingent in an assault of the fortress walls. For his trouble, Eaton was wounded by a musket ball in his left wrist. Finally, after about an hour of fighting, Lt. O'Bannon led his men over the wall, driving the Barbary gunner from their artillery. The Tripolitans left in such haste that they left their cannon loaded and did not spike them to render them useless to the enemy. Soon afterwards, Lt. O'Bannon brought out a flag he had been carrying with him, and raised it over the battlements of the fortress.
Turning the liberated cannon on the Barbary defenders, Eaton, O'Bannon and friends shelled the city, driving the Tripolitans westward. The fleeing defenders then promptly ran into Karamanli's men approaching from the west. Caught in a vice, the defenders promptly surrendered. After about two hours of savage fighting, the battle of Derne was over.
Amazingly, casualties for the battle were light – at least for "Gen." Eaton's command. In addition to Eaton's wound, 2 Marines were killed and 3 wounded. Among the Greek and Turkish mercenaries, they suffered 9 killed or wounded. Tripolitan losses were estimated at 800 killed and 1200 wounded.
Footnote #1: Two weeks later, the pasha of Tripoli sent a relief force, and attempted to retake Derne from Eaton and Karamanli. This attempt to recapture Derne was unsuccessful.
Footnote #2: After receiving word of Derne's capture, Yusuf Karamanli began negotiations to end the war. In mid-June, as he was leading his min-army across the desert to capture Tripoli, Eaton received word that Yusuf had made a treaty with special envoy Tobias Lear. Lear negotiated the release of the "Philadelphia" hostage for a ransom of $60,000, ending the First Barbary War. In addition, Hamet Karamanli was required to return to Alexandria, abandoning Derne which he had fought so hard to capture. Eaton was furious at this act.
Mameluke sword, as worn by U.S. Marine officers
Footnote #3: Lt. O'Bannon's bravery was recognized by Hamet Karamanli, when a Mameluke sword was presented to the Marine after the battle. Except for a short period between 1859 and 1875, every U.S. Marine officer has included as part of his dress uniform a Mameluke sword modeled on the one given to O'Bannon since 1826.
Footnote #4: The raising of the American flag over Derne marked the first time that the Stars and Stripes flew over a captured foreign installation. It was also the inspiration for the lyrics of the Marine Corps Hymn, "…to the shores of Tripoli…"
Footnote #5: The schooner USS "Nautilus" was commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry, who would achieve one of the few naval victories over the British during the War of 1812. He commanded the American squadron which defeated a British flotilla at the Battle of Lake Erie. Perry's victory message was, "We have met the enemy and they are ours…" He died of yellow fever contracted in South America.
Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819)  by Edward L. Mooney