Battle of Derna (1805)

Battle of Derna
Part of the First Barbary War

William Eaton leading the attack on Derna
DateApril 27 – May 13, 1805
(2 weeks and 2 days)
Result American victory
 United States  Tripolitania
Commanders and leaders
United States William Eaton
United States Presley O'Bannon
United States Oliver Perry
Ottoman Tripolitania Hamid Karamanli
Ottoman Tripolitania Yusuf Karamanli
Ottoman Tripolitania Hasan Bey

8 U.S. Marines
400–500 Arab

and about 50 Greek mercenaries
1 sloop
1 brig
1 schooner
Casualties and losses
14+ killed and wounded Unknown

The Battle of Derna at Derna, Cyrenaica, was the decisive victory in April–May 1805 of a mercenary army recruited and led by United States Marines under the command of U.S. Army Lieutenant William Eaton, diplomatic Consul to Tripoli, and U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon. The battle involved a forced 521-mile (839-km) march through the North African desert from Alexandria, Egypt, to the eastern port city of Derna, Libya, which was defended by a much larger force.[1]

The Battle of Derna and the broader First Barbary War highlighted the challenges faced by the United States in dealing with piracy and asserting its interests in the Mediterranean during the early years of its existence as a nation.

Background edit

In 1804, the former Consul to Tunis, William Eaton (1764–1811), returned to the Mediterranean Sea with the title of Naval Agent to the Barbary States. Eaton had been granted permission from the United States government and President Thomas Jefferson to back the claim of Hamet Karamanli, the rightful heir to the throne of Tripoli who had been deposed by his brother Yusuf Karamanli, who had assassinated his older brother by shooting him in front of his mother.

Hamet was out of the country at the time and decided to remain in exile. Upon his return to the area, Eaton sought out Hamet, who was in exile in Egypt. Hamet agreed to Eaton's proposal to restore him to the throne.[2]

Commodore Samuel Barron, the new naval commander in the Mediterranean Sea, provided Eaton with naval support from several small warships of the United States Navy's Mediterranean squadron: USS Nautilus, commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry, USS Hornet, under Samuel Evans, and USS Argus, captained by Isaac Hull. The three vessels were to provide offshore bombardment support.[3] Consul Eaton was given a small detachment of seven United States Marines, commanded by First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon. Eaton and O'Bannon based their operations at Alexandria, Egypt. With the help of Hamet Karamanli, they recruited about 400 Arab and Greek mercenaries.[4] Eaton appointed himself general and commander-in-chief of the force.[5]

Lieutenant Eaton's army route to Derna 8 March – 25 April 1805.

On March 8, 1805, Lieutenant Eaton led his forces on a 500 miles (800 km) trek westward across the Libyan desert from Egypt.[6] Their objective was the port city of Derna, the capital of the Ottoman province of Cyrenaica (now in eastern Libya). The mercenary force was promised supplies and money when it reached the city. During the 50-day trek, Eaton became worried over the strained relationship between the Christian Greeks and the roughly 200 to 300 Muslim Arab and Turkish mercenaries. The expedition's supplies dwindled, with Eaton reporting in 1805, "Our only provisions [are] a handful of rice and two biscuits a day." At one point, some of the Arabs in the expedition made a desperate attempt to raid the supply wagon but were beaten back by the Marines and a few Greek artillerymen, who used the expedition's lone cannon. Mutiny threatened the expedition on several occasions. Between March 10 and March 18, several Arab camel drivers mutinied before they reached the sanctuary of Massouah Castle. From March 22 to March 30, several Arab mercenaries, under the command of Sheik el Tahib, staged mutinies.[7] By April 8, when Eaton crossed the border into Libya and Tripoli, he had quelled the Arab mutinies. In late April, his force finally reached the port city of Bomba, on the Gulf of Bomba, some miles up the coast from Derna, where United States Navy warships Argus, Nautilus and Hornet, with Commodore Barron and Captain Hull, were waiting for him. Eaton received fresh supplies and the money to pay his mercenaries.

Battle edit

On the morning of April 26, Eaton sent a letter to Mustafa Bey, the governor of Derna, to ask for safe passage through the city and additional supplies, but Eaton realized the governor probably would not agree. Mustafa reportedly wrote back, "My head or yours!" On the morning of April 27, Eaton observed a fort in Derna with eight guns. The brig USS Argus sent a cannon ashore to use in the attack. Captain Hull's ships then opened fire and bombarded Derna's batteries for an hour. Meanwhile, Eaton divided his army into two separate attacking parties. Hamet was to lead the Arab mercenaries southwest to cut the road to Tripoli, then attack the city's left flank and storm the weakly defended governor's palace. Eaton, with the rest of the mercenaries and the squad of Marines, would attack the harbor fortress. Hull and the ships would fire on the heavily defended port batteries.

The attack began at 2:45 p.m., with Lieutenant O'Bannon and his Marines leading the advance. O'Bannon led his Marines and 50 Greek gunners with the field piece from the Argus, but the gun's effectiveness was lessened after the firing crew carelessly left the ramrod in the barrel and fired it down range. The harbor defenses had been reinforced, and the attackers were temporarily halted. That, however, weakened the defenses elsewhere and allowed the Arab mercenaries to ride unopposed into the western section of the city.[8]

Eaton's mercenary army was hesitant under the enemy's musket fire, and he realized that a charge was the only way to regain the initiative. Leading the charge, he was seriously wounded in the wrist by a musketball. On the Argus, Captain Hull saw the Americans and mercenaries were "gaining ground very fast though a heavy fire of Musquetry [sic] was constantly kept upon them." The ships ceased fire to allow the charge to continue. Eaton would report that O'Bannon with his Marines and Greeks "pass'd through a shower of Musketry from the Walls of houses, took possession of the Battery." The defenders fled in haste and left their cannons loaded and ready to fire. O'Bannon raised the American flag over the battery (the 15 stars, 15 stripes emblem used from 1795 to 1818, later made famous in the War of 1812 as the "Star-Spangled Banner"), and Eaton turned the captured guns on the city. Hamet's force had seized the governor's palace and secured the western part of the city. Many of the defenders of the harbor fortress fled through the town and ran into Hamet's force. By 4:00 p.m. the entire city had fallen, and for the first time in history, an American flag flew over fortifications on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.[8] According to Tucker, casualties during the fighting for the Americans were two killed and three wounded, and those among the Christian Greek mercenaries were nine killed or wounded. Muslim Turkish or Arab mercenary casualties are unknown, as are those of the defenders.[9]

Yusuf, in Tripoli to the west, was aware of the attack on Derna and had sent reinforcements to the city. By the time the force arrived, however, the city had fallen. His men dug in and prepared to recapture the city. Eaton fortified his new position, and Hamet took up residence in the governor's palace and assigned the Arab mercenary forces to patrol the outer areas of the city. Yusuf's men dug in south of the city and waited. On May 13, they attacked the city and drove Hamet's Arab forces back and almost recaptured the governor's palace. USS Argus and Eaton's captured batteries pounded the attackers, who finally fled under heavy fire.

Nightfall found both sides back in their original positions. Skirmishes and several other minor attempts were made on the city in the following weeks, but it remained under American control. From Derna, Eaton now planned to march across the desert and attack Tripoli from the land. During his march, he was informed of the treaty signed on June 10, 1805, between American emissary Tobias Lear from the United States State Department and Yusuf Karamanli. In the middle of his trek, Eaton was ordered to return to Egypt with Hamet.[citation needed]

Aftermath edit

The Battle of Derna was the first land battle of the United States on foreign soil after the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783).[10] It was the decisive action of the First Barbary War (1801–1805) although Eaton was furious over what he called a "sell-out" between the State Department diplomat Tobias Lear and the bey. Hamet returned to Egypt. The very few Marines and the Greek mercenaries left Derna without notifying the Arab part of the force. The Arab mercenaries were left in Derna and were never paid for what they had achieved.

William Eaton returned to the United States as a national hero. Legend holds that O'Bannon was presented a Mameluke sword by Hamet, the Ottoman Empire viceroy. No evidence supports that claim. The first mention of Hamet giving O'Bannon a bejeweled sword seems to be in a lengthy article, "Kentucky Officer First to Carry Stars and Stripes to Victory in Foreign Country," by John Presley Cain in the 29 July 1917 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal. One sword that was purported to be the sword in question has turned out to be a late-Victorian era forgery.[11] He was later awarded a sword of honor by his home state of Virginia. A further legend holds that O'Bannon's exploits in North Africa inspired the Marine Corps officers to adopt Mameluke swords, but that is also uncorroborated by any contemporaneous sources. Swords of the style were very popular in Europe, and a more likely scenario is that the Marines imitated the influential military leaders who were wearing them.[12]

Legacy edit

The attack on Derna was the inspiration for the lyrics of the Marines' Hymn in the line "to the shores of Tripoli."[13]

In 1850, the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the poem "Derne" to commemorate this battle.[14]

The USS O'Bannon (DD-450), the Fletcher-class destroyer that was the US Navy's most decorated destroyer during World War II, was named in honor of First Lieutenant O'Bannon.

References edit

  1. ^ "Naval History and Heritage Command, Battle of Derne", April 27, 1805, Selected Naval Documents
  2. ^ Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. Hill and Wang, 2005, p. 150.
  3. ^ Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. Hill and Wang, 2005, p. 152.
  4. ^ Hickman, John. Early American Wars. Kurose Ross, 1982, p. 82.
  5. ^ Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. Hill and Wang, 2005, p. 151.
  6. ^ "1775: Founding of the Marine Corps".
  7. ^ The Lore of the Corps: Taking the shores of Tripoli required a long land march. Issue Date: March 22, 2004; accessed December 2017.
  8. ^ a b Naval Documents Relating to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume V. Washington: United States Government Printing Office. 1944. pp. 547–548, 553–555.
  9. ^ Tucker, Spencer, ed. (2014). The Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Early American Republic, 1783–1812: A Political, Social and Military History. Vol. I: A–K. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. p. 167. ISBN 9781598841572.
  10. ^ "Battle of Derna". US Marine Corps. Archived from the original on July 22, 2011.
  11. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2015-10-06.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. ^ "First Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon". Who's Who in Marine Corps History. US Marine Corps. Archived from the original on August 6, 2007.
  13. ^ Kelly, Jack (April 12, 2009). "Kill the pirates". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2009-04-14.
  14. ^ Whittier, John Greenleaf (2018). Anti-Slavery Poems: Songs of Labor and Reform. Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany: Outlook Verlag GmbH. pp. 1–4. ISBN 978-3-73265-557-1.

Bibliography edit

Further reading edit

  • Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill & Wang, 2005. ISBN 978-0809028115
  • London, Joshua E. Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005. ISBN 0-471-44415-4
  • Parisis, Ioannis (10 July 2013). "The first US Marine's operation in the Mediterranean – A Greek-assisted attack in the Battle of Derna". The Academy for Strategic Analyses. Retrieved 11 September 2016.
  • Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror 1801-1805. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003. ISBN 0-7867-1404-2
  • Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805. New York: Hyperion, 2005. ISBN 1-4013-0003-0.
  • Naval Documents related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume V, Part 3 of 3, Naval Operations including diplomatic background from September 7, 1804 through April 1805 by United States Government Printing Office Washington, 1944.