By 2ndLt. Dominic Galante
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the kingdoms of North Africa, called Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—today, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, respectively—conducted piracy in the Mediterranean Sea against American and European shipping. In 1785, the U.S. agreed to pay Algiers an annual ransom of $1 million, equivalent to about 10% of yearly revenues.
The U.S. Marine Corps and Navy were reformed in the 1790s, and that gave the U.S. the tools to fight back. Thomas Jefferson put more pressure on the Barbary States by deploying a squadron to the Mediterranean. The Battle of Derna was central to the war, and it was led in part by a Marine First Lieutenant, Presley O’Bannon. O’Bannon was born in 1776 in Facquier County, Virginia and took a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps on 18th January 1801. In June 1802, he set sail as part of the Mediterranean squadron. The ensuing conflict came to be known as the Barbary War.
Enter William Eaton, who served with the Army in the Revolutionary War as well as in Ohio, before acting as U.S. Consul at Tunis 1797-1803. Apparently he did not lose interest in the region. He concocted a plan to end Barbary piracy and free the U.S. of onerous tribute payment. He came up with the idea of installing Yousef’s brother Hamet as the pasha in exchange for peaceful relations with the U.S. Eaton went about selling the idea to Congress, Secretary of State James Madison, and President Jefferson. In late 1804, the mission was approved and given $40,000 and artillery, arms, and provisions.
Meanwhile, Hamet had fled to Egypt. Eaton presumptuously took the title of “General” and went chasing after him. The American party found Hamet and brought him to Alexandria to enlist a mercenary army. Lt. O’Bannon joined Eaton at Alexandria with a sergeant and six junior Marines from the USS Argus. “Wherever General Eaton leads, we will follow. If he wants us to march to hell, we’ll gladly go there…” wrote Lt. O’Bannon.
With an army of about 300 Arabs, Greeks, and Americans, Eaton and O’Bannon set off in March 1805 towards Derna, the easternmost city of Tripoli, across 500 miles of scorching, barren North African desert. They planned to link up with ships from the Mediterranean squadron and assault the city. The march was anything but easy. Eaton, O’Bannon, and the Marines had to manage food shortages (at times cutting down to half-rations and rice only), the mercenaries’ demands for more money, threats of desertion (including from Hamet), and simmering religious tensions that nearly burst into open conflict on more than one occasion. All the while, the army sometimes made as little as 5 miles per day, attempting to find any water source in the parched terrain.
The army arrived outside Derna on 25th April, after 52 days of marching. The Americans observed a fort with 8 nine-pound artillery pieces. Barricades were constructed on the east side of the town, perforated with murder holes for muskets. Eaton sent a letter to the Governor Moustapha, ostensibly seeking passage through the city, writing “Sir, I want no territory. … Give us a passage through your city… I shall see you to morrow in a way of your choice.” Moustapha wrote back his reply, “My head or yours.”
On the 27th, the USS Nautilus unloaded an artillery gun to the shore for Eaton’s forces. The USS Hornet and Argus arrived next. The next day, Eaton and Lt. O’Bannon began their attack. The three vessels bombarded the town, while the ground forces assaulted Derna from the east and south, utilizing classic combined arms tactics. Lt. O’Bannon commanded the Marines and 50 Greek artillerymen, attacking from the southeast. According to the two American reports of the battle, “heavy fire of Musquetry was constantly kept upon them” and within 45 minutes the enemy artillery, the greatest enemy threat, was neutralized. At this time, the Greek cannoneers accidentally left the ramrod in the tube when firing, and blasted it away along with their shot, reducing the effectiveness of the gun. Then, “Mr. O’Bannon… urged forward with his Marines, Greeks, and such cannoniers as were not necessary to the management of the field Piece, pass’d through a shower of Musketry from the Walls of houses, took possession of the Battery, planted the American Flag upon its ramparts, and turn’d its guns upon the Enemy…” It was the first time the American flag was raised in the Old World.
In two and a half hours, Derna was in American hands. There were fourteen casualties, including four Americans. Eaton took a musket ball through his left wrist, limiting his ability to fire his musket. John Wilton, a Marine, was killed in action. David Thomas and Bernard O’Brian, both Marines, were wounded in action; one later died of his wounds, but history does not record which one.
Of Lt. O’Bannon’s conduct, Eaton wrote that it “needs no encomium, and it is believed the disposition of our Government has always discover’d to encourage merit, will be extended to this intrepid, judicious and enterprising Officer.”
Eaton, Lt. O’Bannon, and Hamet held the town for another six weeks, and repelled a counterattack from Yousef’s forces. In early June, the American consul signed an agreement with Yousef that freed American prisoners in Tripoli. Eaton and O’Bannon evacuated Hamet and his retinue on June 12th.
The Battle of Derna no doubt put pressure on the Yousef’s regime to change their policy of piracy, and to release the American hostages in Tripoli. In a wider sense it proved the ability of the American military, which had reformed in the mid-1790s.
The General Assembly of Virginia awarded Lt. O’Bannon a sword in commemoration of his victory. Contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that Lt. O’Bannon also received a curved sword, called a Mameluke sword, from Hamet. But the Mameluke sword was popular amongst professional officers, especially in Europe, and it was made a standard weapon for Marine officers in 1825. Lt. O’Bannon remains important to the history of the Marine Corps. A barracks aboard Camp Barrett in Quantico, Virginia, where the Marine Corps trains newly-commissioned lieutenants at The Basic School, is named after him and has housed tens of thousands of lieutenants from the Viet Nam era up until today.