Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon at Derna, 1805
After several years of demanding and receiving tribute, then attacking American ships, on 10 May 1804 the Bashaw of Tripoli declared war upon the U. S. On the 14th he had the flagstaff cut down before the American consulate. This was the formal beginning of the so-called Barbary Wars. William Eaton, the local American consul and adventurer, promised to rectify the situation and persuaded President Thomas Jefferson that it would be easy for him to stir up a revolt against the Bashaw of Tripoli. The president was anxious to believe that and gave Eaton permission to make the attempt.
A Marine officer, 2nd Lt. Presley O’Bannon, had been assigned to him along with six enlisted Marines (names below). This part of the war would be the only land combat in the entire period.
In October 1804, O’Bannon, with the U. S. fleet at Malta, was transferred to the Constitution and three days later to the brig Argus, commanded by Isaac Hull. This ship had received special orders to pick up William Eaton and convey him and his “command” to Alexandria, Egypt.
At Alexandria, Eaton had brought along a willing O’Bannon, Navy officer Joshua Blake, two midshipmen, Eli E. Danielson and George Washington Mann, and a few assorted adventurers. He made arrangements to gather the deposed Tripolitan Bashaw Hamet, while O’Bannon recruited more adventurers in the sea-port town: 67 “Christian” (meaning Greek) mercenaries and 90 Arabs. Midshipman Pascal Paoli Peck and seven Marines from aboard the Argus constituted the entire “army.”
For ten days the army moved westward along the northern coast of Africa toward Derna without encountering serious trouble. On the 18th Eaton had trouble with the camel drivers. Several days later 230 Arabs on horse and foot joined them. As they moved westward, disputes with the Arabs were continuous, but each was eventually settled. At one point only the Americans and a few Christians stood between total revolt and continuing to advance. A few days later the Christians revolted because their food was gone and water was severely limited. By chance three American ships were off Bomba; provisions were landed and once again, all was well. So far the little expedition had traveled over 500 miles across deserts, frequently without water, and with little food.
Eaton requested another hundred Marines but Comm. Samuel Barron refused, although he did return the volunteers, Midshipmen Danielson and Mann. On 23 April their trek resumed. Meanwhile, the Bashaw became alarmed at Eaton’s threat to the fortress of Derna and sent reinforcements from Tripoli. That discouraged Hamet and his Arabs, who had anticipated a bloodless victory. Eaton was forced to bribe them to go on. Two days later, on 25 April, Eaton and his motley force arrived upon the hills overlooking the walled city of Derna.
Eaton at once sent the Bey of Derna a note demanding surrender. The Bey, obviously sure of his 800 defenders, replied simply, “My head or yours.” One field piece was landed via the offshore Nautilus and that was followed by gunfire from the three U. S. ships just a hundred or so yards offshore. Eaton placed the Christian forces under O’Bannon’s command, and Hamet and his Arab horsemen in reserve.
The Marine lieutenant with his command of six Marines and 26 Greeks, plus a few Arabs on foot, were to be the assaulting force. Enemy artillery fire was soon canceled out by the ships’ firing, and the small force charged the defenders. The latter believed in the old adage “There is safety in flight.” O’Bannon and his Marines went over the walls and soon planted the national colors upon a fortress high above the city. There were, however, several counterattacks, all of which failed, and the remaining Marines forestalled any serious attempt by the defenders to stand their ground. The situation was far from bright. In his original attack, though O’Bannon had suffered a modest 14 casualties, three of those were Marines. With only six to begin with, the Marine casualty rate was 50 percent. As Eaton was to report, “The detail I have given of Mr. O’Bannon’s conduct needs no encomium.” He added, “it is believed the disposition our government has always discovered to encourage merit, will be extended to this intrepid, judicious, and enterprising Officer.”
The month of May saw continued efforts to throw the Americans out of Derna, all of which failed. At the end of May, O’Bannon drove off a 50-man attack with his three remaining Marines supported by 35 Christians. A few days later O’Bannon led a feint which forced the Tripolitans to withdraw from the city entirely. Once more, on 11 June, the Bashaw sent another large force to retake Derna, which also failed miserably. On that evening the U. S. ship Constitution arrived with orders to Eaton: Peace had been signed and he and his men were to withdraw from Derna.
William Eaton was terribly disappointed, being sure that with one hundred Marines he could have easily taken all of Tripoli. Tobias Lear, American counsel at Alexandria, had negotiated the, as it later turned out, disadvantageous treaty. But at the time he made complimentary remarks about Eaton, O’Bannon and “our brave countrymen,” meaning the six other Marines. O’Bannon and his three remaining Marines (names below) returned to the Argus. In the summer of 1806 the ship set sail for the United States.
The previous March the Congress had passed a resolution praising the courage, valor, and zeal of the Americans involved. Kind words throughout but little else. On 26 December 1805, O’Bannon’s home state, Virginia, passed a resolution authorizing a sword be created and presented to him. It was designed after a bejeweled Mameluke sword which Hamet had presented to O’Bannon, but which subsequently had disappeared. That sword design is the origin of today’s Marine officer sword. The original Virginia gift now resides in the Marine Museum.
The names of the Marines who accompanied O’Bannon on his hazardous tour are as follows: Acting Sgt. Arthur Campbell; Pvt. Bernard O’ Brien; Pvt. David Thomas, wounded in action on 27 April 1805; Pvt. James Owens; Pvt. John Whitten, killed in action on 27 April 1805; and finally, Pvt. Edward Steward, who died of wounds on 30 May 1805. Not all was victory; the U. S. was forced to pay a ransom of $60,000 to free the American prisoners from the capture of the Philadelphia. The terms did specify there would not be further harassment of American ships in the area.
President Madison approved an act of Congress on 3 March 1815 authorizing force against the Dey of Algiers because of depredations against American ships and the enslavement of their crews. It wouldn’t be until the month of June that any serious counter-action would be taken against the Algerians. On the 17th Comdr. Stephen Decatur’s squadron caught the Algerian frigate Mashuda off Cape de Gat and the Marines were especially cited by Decatur as providing excellent musketry fire from the tops. Two days later they took another Algerian ship, the brig Estedio off Cape Palos, where he again cited the effective fire of Marines as helping greatly in forcing the surrender of the Algerian ship.
At the end of the month, the Dey of Algiers realized that the game was up and signed a no question treaty with the United States. Then, on 31 July, a peace treaty was signed with the Bey of Tunis. This was followed on 9 August with a treaty of peace signed by the Bashaw of Tripoli. These would effectively end all payment of tribute to the nations of North Africa. Decatur obtained a treaty on 30 June, another with Tunis on 26 July and another with Tripoli effective 5 August, all in 1816.
Results: Warfare between the U. S. and various North African states lasted for more than 15 years and the final outcome was a barely visible victory. During the earlier years the USN, with a variety of commanding officers, did rather poorly trying to control access to and from the various nations being blockaded. A major success was the taking and holding of the city of Derna by O’Bannon until at least 11 June 1805. After numerous failed attempts to retake the city, the Pasha signed a peace treaty with the U. S. ending payment of tribute to Tripoli. The treaty subsequently faltered and was rehabilitated on 5 August 1816. However, it wasn’t until that year, more than ten years after Derna, that the USN finally stopped payment of tribute.