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Tripolitan War of 1801-05


Tripolitan War of 1801-05 -- Attack on Derna
William Eaton © Hulton Archive / Getty Images

America's weak response to Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic had led to war. The blockade of the harbor at Tripoli had resulted in the burning of the USS Philadelphia ...

Dealing with Yusuf Karamanli Pasha
While Preble was bombarding Tripoli, the American Consul to Tunis, William Eaton, was hatching a plot. Eaton was not sympathetic to the demands of the Barbary States. In June 1799 he wrote to the US Secretary of State describing the character of the local Muslim population:

"Taught by revelation that war with the Christians will guarantee the salvation of their souls, and finding so great secular advantages in the observance of this religious duty [i.e. keeping captured cargoes] their inducements to desperate fighting are very powerful."

Eaton, with additional support from James Cathcart, proposed to President Jefferson that they should back Hamet Karamanli, the elder brother of Yusuf Karamanli Pasha and the rightful heir to the regency, in a military coup. Eaton returned to the Mediterranean with the new title 'Navy Agent to the Barbary States' and permission to carry out his plans. Naval support was to be provided by Commodore Barron, who assigned Eaton the use of the Hero under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, and a small detachment of US Naval Marines. Three ships, the Argus, Nautilus, and Hornet, would be made available to ferry provisions and provide offshore bombardment.

Eaton entered into negotiations with Hamet after tracking him down in Egypt. Despite his family being held hostage by Yusuf in Tripoli, Hamet agreed to the plan. A 'convention' was signed between Hamet Karamanli and William Eaton on the 23rd of February, 1805, which included a 'secret' article:

"His Highness Hamet Bashaw will use his utmost exertions to cause surrender to the commander-in-chief of the American forces in the Mediterranean the usurper Joseph Bashaw, together with his family, and chief admiral ... to be held by the Government of the United States as hostages..."

To the shores of Tripoli
Eaton and Hull, based in Alexandria, recruited around 400 mercenaries, including Europeans (mainly Greeks), Arab cavalry, Turks, and a caravan of camels. They were promised supplies and money on arrival at their first target, the Tripolitan port of Derna. Eaton, now styling himself 'General', led the "motley" army on a fifty day trek across 500 miles of desert. He was not, however, confident about the relationship between his men (specifically Midshipman Peck and the seven naval marines led by Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon) and the 200 odd Muslim mercenaries he had recruited:

"We find it almost impossible to inspire these wild bigots with confidence in us or to persuade them that, being Christians, we can be otherwise than enemies to Musselmen [Muslims]. We have a difficult undertaking." (Eaton's personal journal, 8 April 1805)

On the 25th of April they received limited supplies (they were particularly short of munitions) and funds (not enough to pay the mercenaries) at a rendezvous with the ships just down the coast from Derna. Two days later, 27 April, they attacked.

Attack on Derna
Recorded as the first land engagement of American troops outside the American continent, the battle at Derna has a particular place in the memory of the United States Marine Corps. The trek across the desert is commemorated in the first verse of the Marines' Hymn: "To the shores of Tripoli".

While Hamet and the Muslim mercenaries were supposedly attacking the castle at Derna, Lt. O'Bannon and his marines led the attack on the harbor fortress. At 2:45 pm, backed up by a large number of European mercenaries, and following an offshore bombardment, O'Bannon bravely rushed the harbor defenses. The defenders turned and ran - leaving cannon loaded and ready to fire. After raising the 'Stars and Stripes', O'Bannon turned the guns towards the town. By 4 pm the entire town had fallen.

Tradition has it that Hamet was so impressed by O'Bannon's bravery that he presented him with his own sword - an honor commemorated by the presentation of a 'Mameluke' sword, engraved with the legend 'The Shores of Tripoli', to every US Marine Officer on graduation or direct commission.

Eaton's attack on Derna was a success, but back in Tripoli a new treaty was being formed by Colonel Tobias Lear, the Consul General to the Regency of Algiers and Yusuf Karamanli Pasha. The treaty was signed on 4 June 1805 and required Eaton to immediately evacuate Derna ...

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