The Storming of Derna

Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon at Derna.

Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon at Derna.

Derna was the administrative and military hub of Cyrenaica, Tripoli’s distant eastern province and traditionally its most restive, as a result of its 500-mile remove from the capital across stretches of hostile territory. Its nomadic Berber and Bedouin tribesmen remained largely outside Yusuf’s authority. Hundreds of them had rallied to Hamet’s standard, swelling his ranks to 1,000 fighting men. Derna itself was only nominally in the bashaw’s camp and just as liable to switch sides.

After the American consul at Tunis, William Eaton, Hamet, and their army occupied the hills overlooking the provincial capital on April 26, Eaton scouted the enemy defenses with a small mounted force and gathered intelligence from dissident city chiefs. What he learned was not reassuring. The city was defended by at least 800 government troops, a shore battery of eight 9-pounders and a 10-inch howitzer on the terrace of the governor’s palace. A third of the populace was firmly in Yusuf’s camp, and most of them lived in the city’s southeast district. They had fortified that area of the city by cutting firing ports in the walls of the homes. In the northeastern sector, defenders had thrown up breastworks tying in with the buildings. The chiefs warned Eaton that he would have difficulty dislodging the troops because they knew that if they held out, Yusuf’s 1,200 cavalry and infantry would relieve them in a day or two. This information made Eaton eager to attack as soon as possible, but disheartened Hamet. “I thought the Bashaw wished himself back to Egypt,” Eaton noted drily in his journal.

After reconnoitering Derna and seeing to his army’s disposition for the night, Eaton joined Lieutenant Isaac Hull on the Argus, and they mapped out a battle plan for the next day. Eaton spent the night on the brig and awakened the following morning with the fatalistic thought that this day might well be his last. Before boating ashore to rejoin his army, he left instructions for doling out his personal effects in the event that he was killed in battle. Hull would get his cloak and smallsword; Captain James Barron, his Damascus saber; his stepson, Eli Danielson, his gold watch and chain; and Charles Wadsworth, his estate executor back in America, was to receive the rest.

Derna’s defenders and the assault troops in the hills tensely watched Lieutenant John Dent maneuver the Nautilus close to shore east of Derna with the two 24-pound carronades Eaton had requested. They were landed at an awkward spot, at the foot of a sheer 20-foot-high rock. The cannoneers rigged a block and tackle, but inching just one of the carronades up the escarpment was so time-consuming that Eaton decided to leave the other one behind.

Mustifa Bey, Derna’s governor, had spurned Eaton’s one attempt to avoid battle. Eaton had offered Mustifa a position in Hamet’s future government if he granted the expeditionary force passage through his city and permitted it to buy supplies. “I shall see you tomorrow in a way of your choice,” Eaton wrote in closing. The messenger returned with the governor’s answer, scrawled on Eaton’s letter:

My head or yours

Mustifa

Eaton deployed his forces. All was in readiness.

At 1:30 P.M., the two armies began to pepper one another with small-arms and cannon fire. By 2:00, this overture had swelled to a roar along Derna’s well-defended southeast corner, opposite which Lieutenant O‘Bannon commanded the Marines, the sixty cannoneers and Greeks, and a couple of dozen Arab foot soldiers. Derna’s harbor batteries fired at the three U.S. ships in the harbor. Blue-gray smoke hung over the battlements and harbor. Hamet whirled off with his Arab cavalry to seize an old castle overlooking the southwest part of town.

The Argus, Hornet, and Nautilus drew themselves up 100 yards from the city and opened up with their 9-pounders, and over the next forty-five minutes silenced the waterside batteries, one by one. However, the gunners facing O‘Bannon’s men kept up a withering fire that drowned out Eaton’s lone carronade that was firing shrapnel at the defenders. The heavy musket and cannon fire began to rattle Eaton’s men. Then the carronade crew shot away the rammer, the long wooden stave for pushing shot, wad, and cartridge down the bore, and the gun fell silent. Raked by artillery and musket fire from hundreds of enemy troops, and with their one fieldpiece out of commission, O’Bannon’s European and Arab foot soldiers were on the verge of bolting.

Eaton knew he must attack now or lose control of his men. He and O‘Bannon exhorted the motley force of just over sixty men, clad in Marine Corps garb, scraps of uniforms from European armies, civilian clothing, and Arab robes, to follow them. Eaton’s army surged across the open ground toward the walled city, bayonets flashing.

The defenders outnumbered the attackers ten to one and had the advantage of being able to fire from behind walls. But the brazen frontal assault threw them into a panic. They got off a ragged volley, abandoned their positions and beat a pell-mell retreat into the city. They stopped to fire from behind walls and palm trees, thinning the ranks of Eaton’s assault troops. But Eaton’s men kept coming. Suddenly Eaton clutched his left wrist and lagged behind, hit by a musket ball.

O‘Bannon took charge, aided by Midshipman George Mann of the Argus. The assault force cleared the batteries of enemy with bayonets and small-arms fire. O’Bannon and his Marines lowered the bashaw’s ensign and ran up the American flag over the ramparts—the first time the Stars and Stripes was planted on a hostile foreign shore by U.S. troops. Cheers erupted from Eaton’s men and the sailors on the three U.S. warships.

The Americans turned around the enemy’s cannons, already loaded and primed, and opened fire on the retreating government soldiers running through the city streets. The warships joined in with supporting fire as Hamet’s cavalry charged in from the opposite side, pinching the defenders between the two attacking forces. A little after 4:00 P.M., Hamet and his force burst into the governor’s palace, and resistance ended.

While no work of military genius, the storming of Derna was the first decisive American victory of the Barbary War. It was a heavy blow to the bashaw’s hopes for a quick, lucrative treaty, and an amazing personal triumph for Eaton. At the head of a mutinous army, Eaton had crossed 520 miles of forbidding desert and wrested Tripoli’s second city from a large armed force waiting behind prepared fortifications, at a cost of just two dead—Marine Privates John Whitten and Edward Seward—and a dozen wounded, Eaton among them.

Derna made O‘Bannon the U.S. Marine Corps’s first hero. In years to come, the Marines’ pivotal role at Derna would be immortalized by the anonymous lyricist who penned the words “to the shores of Tripoli,” one of the two named battles in “The Marine’s Hymn.” O’Bannon later accepted a scimitar from Hamet as thanks, and it remains the model for the ceremonial sword still issued to Marine officers. Despite all the encomiums, O‘Bannon resigned his commission two years later, frustrated over not being promoted to captain; the Marine Corps was authorized to have only four, and the slots all were filled. He moved to Kentucky, where he became a community leader and served in the legislature. He died on September 12, 1850. The headstone over his remains, moved by the state to Frankfort in 1920, misstates his rank but accords him the laurels he had earned: “The Hero of Derne Tripoli Northern Africa April 27, 1805. As Captain of the United States Marines He was the First to Plant the American Flag on Foreign Soil.”

Mustifa, Derna’s governor, was trapped in Derna by Eaton’s and Hamet’s converging forces. He hid in a mosque, then in a harem, the most sacrosanct of Moslem sanctuaries. His protector was a sheik who, coincidentally, had sheltered Hamet when Yusuf’s troops had come after him two years before. Now the sheik just as stubbornly denied Hamet and Eaton access to Mustifa, claiming the prerogatives of a Moslem host. The sheik said a breach of hospitality would bring down the “vengeance of God” and “the odium of all mankind.” Eaton threatened him with bombardment and menaced his home with fifty bayonet-wielding Christian troops. The sheik said he preferred bombs to God’s chastisement. “Neither persuasion, bribes nor menace, could prevail on this venerable aged chief to permit the hospitality of his house to be violated,” Eaton wrote wearily. Eaton knew that if he trespassed on the sheik’s protection the entire city would turn against him. He was reduced to plotting ways to lure Mustifa into the open, hoping to capture and trade him for Bainbridge. But Mustifa managed to slip out of Derna and join Yusuf’s troops on May 12.

The next morning, Yusuf’s army counterattacked.

For five days, Hassan Bey’s troops had watched the city from the same hills where Eaton had launched his attack. He had sent spies to try turning the townspeople against Eaton and Hamet, hoping to gain an edge. Well aware of Hassan’s preparations, Eaton and his officers found, as Mustifa had before them, that defending a city of Derna’s size properly would unfortunately require more troops than they had. They would have to depend on manned outposts along the city’s outskirts to alert them to an attack and hope they could respond swiftly and repel whatever came, wherever it might be aimed.

On May 13, Hassan’s troops overran an outpost held by 100 of Hamet’s Arab cavalrymen and raced toward Derna. The Argus’s and Nautilus’s alert gunners opened up. Hamet’s two fieldpieces joined in. But the horsemen raced through the shot and shell fire. At the edge of the city, they ran gantlets of musket fire from O‘Bannon’s infantry and armed Derna sympathizers—among them the sheik who had protected Mustifa so diligently—and charged into the middle of town, straight to the governor’s palace, where Hamet and his entourage had encamped.

The attackers intended to storm the palace and capture Hamet, knowing this was the surest way to end the threat to their bashaw. One final surge into the palace, and the expedition and all of Eaton’s and Hamet’s hopes would perish.

And then a well-aimed shot from one of the ships landed dead among Yusuf’s cavalrymen in the palace courtyard, horribly mangling two of them before their shocked companions. The attackers’ nerve abandoned them. They wheeled around suddenly and tore off into the countryside, harried by cannon and musket fire. It had been a close call, reminding Eaton and Hamet of their tenuous hold on Derna, but it also was a scalding experience for Hassan’s soldiers, who had lost 28 killed and 56 wounded, of whom 11 later died of their wounds. Eaton’s troops suffered 14 killed and wounded.

With Hassan rocked back on his heels, Eaton turned to the pressing problem of how to replenish his alarmingly low stocks of bread, rice, coffee, sugar, and ammunition. Hull had no additional supplies and no cash to buy them, owing to Barron’s tightfistedness toward Eaton, but Hull was eager to help Eaton if he could. They hit on the desperate contingency of bartering the Argus’s prize goods for meat in Derna. “A humiliating traffic, but we have no cash,” Eaton noted tersely in his journal. On May 20, Hamet implored Hull to give him $300 to pay off his Arab chiefs, who were threatening to switch sides and join Yusuf’s army. Hull didn’t have the money. But he loyally offered to turn his cannons on the town and destroy every house if the people of Derna showed ingratitude to Hamet. Finally, touched by Hamet’s “very low spirits,” Hull stripped his ship of goods and equipment to help him meet the emergency and buy food and supplies.

Hassan’s 350 Tripolitans, 200—300 Arab cavalry, and 300 desert Arab foot soldiers began readying for another attack. Worried that he might not be able to fend them off this time, Eaton proposed a preemptive night strike on their camp three miles from town. Hamet’s Arabs said they did not fight at night. So they waited.

Hassan also was having trouble inducing his soldiers to attack. After the bloody debacle of May 13, they were wary of charging into the city again. They complained of the way the Americans fought, firing “enormous balls that carried away a man and his camel at once, or rushed on them with bayonets without giving them time to load their muskets.” Hassan tried to motivate his soldiers with bribes and bounties: $6,000 to anyone who killed Eaton, twice that sum if he were captured alive, and $30 for every Christian killed. They were unmoved. Hassan’s officers began collecting camels to serve as “traveling breastworks.” But the Arabs objected to their camels being used in this manner, and the project was abandoned.

In Derna, confidence in Eaton’s leadership soared. His officers were inspired to draft and sign a loyalty pledge. “Everything assures us of complete victory under your command. We are only waiting for the moment to win this glory, and to fall on the enemy. … We swear that we shall follow you and that we shall fight unto death.” O‘Bannon, Mann, the remaining Farquhar, Selim Comb, and two other officers signed the pledge. Eaton himself was so pleased with the expedition’s success that he took to calling his camp in Derna “Fort Enterprize” .

The afternoon of May 21, the sea breeze shifted to the south, and the air became suffocatingly hot and dusty. Then, a towering column of swirling sand rose from the desert. Three miles long, it approached rapidly. “Heated dust, which resembled the smoke of a conflagration … turned the sun in appearance to melted copper … We were distressed for breath:—the lungs contracted:—blood heated like a fever….” For days, all military plans were held in abeyance while the sirocco blew. The searing desert wind warped the white pine boards of Eaton’s folding table, and the covers of his books were seared and wrinkled as though they had lain too close to a roaring fire. Standing water burned fingers when touched. Eaton’s troops stopped working on the fortifications because the stones they were using became too hot to handle. “The heated dust penetrated everything through our garments:—and indeed seemed to choak the pores of the skin,” noted Eaton. “It had a singular effect on my wound, giving it the painful sensations of a fresh burn.” At sea, the blowing sand coated the Argus’s rigging and spars. Hull noted that it was only “with difficulty we could look to windward without getting our Eyes put out with dust.”

While Eaton’s army was on the march to Derna, reports about the expedition’s progress, sometimes weeks old because of slow communications, had begun to reach Yusuf’s castle, causing growing alarm. The Americans, the bashaw complained bitterly, had raised the stakes from tribute to his very throne. He vowed to Cowdery that he would raise them even higher. “He swore by the prophet of Mecca, that if the Americans brought his brother against him, he would burn to death all the American prisoners except me.” Cowdery would be spared, Yusuf said, because he had saved the life of his sick child. The bashaw communicated the same sentiments to Bainbridge, bellicosely threatening to strike the United States “in the most tender part.” When news of Derna’s capture reached Tripoli, “the greatest terror and consternation reigned,” noted Marine Second Lieutenant Wallace W Wormeley, one of the Philadelphia captives. Yusuf convened the Divan, Tripoli’s council of state, in an emergency session, announcing that he wished to execute the American prisoners. But the Divan had no stomach for a bloody massacre and postponed taking any action.

If possible, the Philadelphia crewmen’s treatment worsened. At the height of the sirocco, twenty-five of them were sent with a cart into the countryside to gather timber. After working all day in the dusty, oppressive heat, they were exhausted and thirsty. They asked their Tripolitan driver for permission to drink at a nearby well. The overseer coldly reminded them that they were Christian dogs and deserved no water. Then he beat them with a heavy club.

The bashaw’s spy from Malta arrived in Tripoli on May 19 with more sobering news: The American squadron, he said, intended to pick up Hamet and his army, capture towns all along the coast, and then attack Tripoli itself. “The Bashaw and his people seemed much agitated,” Cowdery reported. Yusuf locked Hamet’s eldest son in the castle. He also reduced the rations of his domestics and Mamelukes to one meal a day. His money gone, racked by apprehensions, Yusuf confided to Cowdery that if it were possible for him to make peace and give up the Philadelphia captives, he would gladly do it. “He was sensible of the danger he was in from the lowness of his funds and the disaffection of his people.”

Reports of the Derna triumph were nearly as unwelcome at squadron headquarters in Syracuse. Lear redoubled his planning for a negotiated peace and assisted the ailing Barron in directing his squadron. Barron—or perhaps Lear, for he was making many of the decisions at this point—denied Eaton money, supplies and the 100 Marines he had requested. The Marines might have welcomed the relief from the tedium of blockading and convoying, although they also would have had to sacrifice their generous liberties in the various Mediterranean ports. To Lear’s annoyance, Eaton had succeeded despite everything, even though Barron—or Lear, ghostwriting his letters—was actively discouraging his support for Hamet’s insurgency.

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