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  • James Houser

April 27, 1805 - The Barbary Wars, the Battle of Derna, "the Shores of Tripoli"

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

April 27, 1805. At dawn, the Libyan city of Derna is attacked from two sides by the U.S. Navy and a mixed force of local mercenaries and U.S. Marines. The battle is the turning point of the First Barbary War, the United States military’s first overseas victory against a foreign nation, and will find its way into American myth through the Marine Hymn as “the shores of Tripoli.”

Around the time of the American Revolution, the “Barbary States” were a catchall term for the Arab North African nations of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli (modern-day Libya.) Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli were technically part of the Ottoman Empire, but in name only; they basically did whatever they pleased. What they were pleased to do was piracy. With their long Mediterranean coastlines and well-fortified ports, the Barbary States were pirate havens and the chief centers of the infamous Arab slave trade.

The Barbary States ran something like a protection racket – pay regular tribute, and we don’t attack your ships and take your people hostage. Big countries with strong navies like Britain, France, or Spain could get away without paying the tribute. This was especially true for Britain because the Royal Navy was the absolute king of the seas – take a British citizen or two hostage, and hell was coming for you. So the Barbary Pirates avoided British ships, and up until the American Revolution that included American ships as well. As soon as the United States were independent, they were fair game.

Barbary pirates began to attack American merchant shipping across the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The new United States came into existence with no real navy and heavily in debt, so it had no choice at first but to pay the tribute to keep its commerce safe. The U.S. relied on overseas trade for rare and manufactured goods, and not paying the tribute meant that their ports and economy would close overnight. Over the 1780s and 1790s, the U.S. made multiple treaties with Morocco and Algiers that granted the Barbary States tribute in exchange for safe passage on the seas.

Thomas Jefferson, George Washington’s Secretary of State, fiercely opposed the tribute. Jefferson believed the United States had to assert its freedom of the seas early, or it would be taken as a sign of weakness. Jefferson’s view was hypocritical, however, since he was also a longtime opponent of a standing military due to his philosophical beliefs about freedom and small government. When Jefferson pushed for the creation of a Navy that could protect American interests overseas, it would not be the last time he bent over backwards to square his political ideals with harsh reality.

Jefferson was elected President in the election of 1800, and just before he took office Congress authorized the creation of a new American navy with the building of the famous six frigates. This tiny fleet, the birth of the U.S. Navy, was purpose-built to contest the Barbary pirate raids. As soon as Jefferson took office, though, he received a notice from the Pasha of Tripoli demanding $225,000 as tribute in exchange for peace. Jefferson put his money where his mouth was and refused the demand, and on May 10, 1801, the Pasha declared open season on the United States.

Tripoli is the capital of the modern nation of Libya, a vast stretch of Sahara and Mediterranean coastline. Jefferson immediately dispatched a small naval force under Commodore Edward Preble to operate against the Pasha’s forces. Without any fanfare, this was one of the most momentous events in American history: the first time a U.S. military force had been sent overseas to fight a foreign enemy.

Preble’s forces spent the next four years blockading Tripoli, engaging in fights with the Pasha’s ships and sinking their commerce. Their base was in Sicily, with the friendly King of Naples as their host. Commodore Preble’s forces gained control over the seas around Tripoli, but could not capture the city itself or make any effort on land.

In October 1803, the USS Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli and was captured by the Arab forces. The crew were taken hostage, and the ship was anchored in the harbor and used as a floating battery. On February 16, 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur of the U.S. Navy steered a captured Tripolitan ship in a night attack on the Philadelphia. Decatur and a small detachment of U.S. Marines boarded and burned the ship in a commando raid that British Admiral Horatio Nelson called “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

The United States Marine Corps was tiny at this point in its history, only intended for service about the Navy’s wooden ships. The Marine Corps consisted of a battalion 500 strong, and its highest-ranking officer was a Major. With virtually no exploits or credits to its name yet, it was not yet the legendary organization it would later become.

After several more inconclusive battles, Preble was replaced by Commodore Samuel Barron, who had instructions to end the war somehow. The small U.S. Navy couldn’t keep patrolling in front of Tripoli until Judgment Day; Napoleon and Britain were at war, and there was a high chance the Navy would soon be needed elsewhere. Soon Barron received another visitor in Mr. William Eaton, an American official sent by Thomas Jefferson. Eaton proposed that he make contact with Hamet Bey, former ruler of Tripoli who was overthrown by his brother Yusuf Bey, and use his connections to make an attack into Libya itself.

Eaton met Hamet in Alexandria, Egypt, and brought seven U.S. Marines along with him, commanded by 1st Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon. Eaton recruited several hundred Greek and Muslim mercenaries, since one squishy diplomat and seven illiterate Marines do not an invasion force make.

On March 8, 1805, Eaton, Hamet, O’Bannon and the ragtag little army set out across the desert. Their destination was Derna, the capital of eastern Libya, a 500-mile trek. The 50-day journey was long and arduous; the expedition crossed the long desert on a handful of rice and two biscuits a day. Eaton and O’Bannon had a lot of trouble with their mercenaries; the Christian Greeks and Muslim Arabs and Turks did not get along, and various mutinies threatened to overturn the whole mission. I imagine the seven Marines probably slept back-to-back with loaded weapons. By late April, Eaton finally made contact with Commodore Barron and three U.S. Navy ships, who provided him with supplies and the much-needed money to pay his mercenaries.

On April 26, Eaton’s army finally arrived at Derna. He sent a letter to the governor of the city asking for free passage, the reply to which was “my head or yours!” That was clear enough. Eaton and his force would attack from the landward side, while the three Navy ships would attack from the sea.

At dawn on April 27, the American assault began. Derna was defended by a fortress with eight cannon, the key to the whole city. Eaton borrowed one of the cannon off the USS Argus and crewed it with some of the Greek mercenaries to open fire on the fort. He sent the Muslim mercenaries under Hamet to surround the city from the west, while the Marines and Greeks attacked from the east. O’Bannon’s small Marine detachment led the way, under heavy musket and cannon fire, while Commodore Bannon’s navy bombarded the town. Eaton’s force drew away most of the defenders, allowing Hamet to enter the city from the west, but the battle grew heated.

As Eaton led his Greek mercenaries forward, he was wounded in the wrist by a musket ball. Command fell to O’Bannon, who was all of 29 years old. A Virginian, he had only been born in 1776 – the year of American independence – and now found himself in Libya, leading Greeks, against Arabs. He probably didn’t have time to contemplate the strange series of events that had led him here, but led the Marines and Greeks through a “shower of musketry” straight into the fort of Derna. The defenders panicked and retreated, leaving their cannon still loaded. By 4:00 pm, Lieutenant O’Bannon had raised the American flag over Derna – the first time the Stars and Stripes had been raised on overseas soil - and the small army turned the fort’s guns on the enemy. The city had fallen.

Derna cost the U.S. Navy and Marine forces two killed and three wounded, and the mercenaries 9 dead. The fighting was not over; the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Bey sent a force to counterattack the Americans and take Derna back. This force attacked on May 13 but was driven back by Eaton’s mercenaries, the reinforced fort, and naval gunfire. Eaton was about to set out from Derna to attack Tripoli itself, but soon received word that the United States and Tripoli had signed a peace treaty.

Eaton was furious that Hamet Bey had been “sold out” by the peace treaty, but American support for Hamet was never intended to do more than apply pressure to Yusuf Bey. Hamet didn’t seem to have too many ill feelings about the “sellout,” since he gave Lieutenant O’Bannon the gift of a magnificent jeweled scimitar. Either way, the victory at Derna had been decisive, and the United States had won the First Barbary War. American ships would now be safe in the Mediterranean.

The United States also had its first war heroes since the Revolution. William Eaton, Presley O’Bannon, and especially Stephen Decatur all returned home to a hero’s welcome. Decatur would be back in 1815 to deliver a swift kick in the teeth to the rulers of Algiers in the Second Barbary War. It was a noteworthy event for a brand-new nation: their first successful overseas war. For the first time, the United States had sent an expeditionary force across the Atlantic to fight and win a combined operation.

The Battle of Derna also saw the first amphibious expedition of the United States Marine Corps. From such small beginnings, it would become one of the most famous fighting forces in the world. The Marines have never forgotten their origins to this day; the first line of the Marine Hymn, of course, goes “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the Shores of Tripoli…”

As a side note, I think it’s kind of funny that the United States’ first foreign conflict was a regime change war in Libya. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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