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How the United States went to war with the Barbary Coast

The US went to war with the Barbary States from 1801 to 1805 and then again in 1815 in an ef­fort to cur­tail cor­sair at­tacks. The Bat­tle of Derna was the de­ci­sive skir­mish of the First Barbary War, led by Lieu­tenants Wil­liam Eaton and Pres­ley O’ban­non. Tasked with restor­ing a de­posed pasha of Tripoli, Hamet Caramelli, in the be­lief that he would be more favourable to Amer­i­can ships, they trekked from Alexan­dria, Egypt, to Derna, in mod­ern-day Libya. Though their suc­cess was un­der­mined when the US signed a peace treaty that saw Caramelli re­moved again in re­turn for hostages, the bat­tle led to the line ‘To the shores of Tripoli’ be­ing added to the Marine’s Hymn as well as the adop­tion of the Mameluke sword by the Corps.


On the day of the bat­tle, the US war­ships Argus, Nau­tilus and Hor­net all con­verged ready to launch the at­tack on Derna, with Nau­tilus an­chor­ing close to the shore. Eaton had led his troops 800 kilo­me­tres through the North African desert to Derna, only to be re­fused en­try by the gov­er­nor – who taunt­ingly chal­lenged Eaton to at­tack.


The ships opened up com­mu­ni­ca­tion with each other to dis­cuss their plan of at­tack. The night be­fore, Eaton told Nau­tilus that he wanted to launch an of­fen­sive as soon as pos­si­ble once the field ar­tillery had been landed. Cover pro­vided by the ships would be cru­cial to the suc­cess of the as­sault as the US Marines were out­num­bered.


Eaton sent a mes­sage to the Marines on board Argus re­quest­ing that they land their field ar­tillery as soon as pos­si­ble, so that he could be­gin his march on the city. How­ever, Argus strug­gled to land its guns on the shore and in the end only one ar­rived. To avoid wast­ing time, Eaton de­cided to con­tinue with the as­sault re­gard­less.


Once the field ar­tillery was ready, Eaton or­dered the start of the land of­fen­sive. In the mean­time, the three ships took up their po­si­tions along the shore and be­gan to fire heav­ily on the city. While all of this was hap­pen­ing, en­emy fire rained down from the fort for around an hour, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for the United States to ad­vance.


Us­ing the ship’s heavy fire as cover, the Amer­i­can sol­diers bravely charged to­wards the Ber­ber fort. As the en­emy fled in ter­ror, mem­bers of Argus, in­clud­ing Lieu­tenant O’ban­non, ran in­side and re­moved the na­tive flag. In its place, they raised the Stars and Stripes and took con­trol of the fort’s guns, which were primed and ready for im­me­di­ate use thanks to the va­cated Ber­bers who had been fir­ing them be­fore­hand.


The US forces man­aged to suc­cess­fully cap­ture both the city and the fort. They then sent in boats to de­liver am­mu­ni­tion for the sol­diers as well as to re­cover those Marines who were wounded and needed med­i­cal at­ten­tion. Eaton left or­ders with the fort and he per­son­ally made his way to Derna in or­der to make sure that ev­ery­thing was or­gan­ised, and that se­cu­rity had been ar­ranged for the even­ing.


Af­ter en­sur­ing that the city was se­cure, Eaton re­turned to one of the ships in or­der to re­ceive med­i­cal at­ten­tion him­self. Dur­ing the bat­tle, he had been se­ri­ously in­jured when he was hit in the left wrist by a mus­ket ball while lead­ing the charge. Nev­er­the­less, Eaton sur­vived and he re­turned to his home country a hero along with O’ban­non and the rest of the troops.


With Derna firmly un­der the con­trol of the United States af­ter two hours of bloody fight­ing, it was time for the troops to rest and savour their vic­tory. While the Amer­i­can forces ul­ti­mately suf­fered min­i­mal losses, ap­prox­i­mately 800 Tripoli­tans were killed by the end of the skir­mish and 1,200 were wounded, with many more forcibly driven out of the city.

Pres­ley O’ban­non, the lieu­tenant who raised the Amer­i­can flag in­side the en­emy fort

The Barbary Wars lasted 14 years

Lieu­tenant Wil­liam Eaton led the charge dur­ing the bat­tle

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