A day in the life
THE CORPS THAT DEFINED THE BARBARY WARS DERNA, TRIPOLI, 27 APRIL 1805
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.
BEGIN THE ATTACK
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.
SECURE THE VICTORY
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.
A WAR HERO
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.
REST AND RECUPERATE
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