William Eaton and The Battle of Derna

Eaton Builds His Own Army

Before he could start his campaign, Eaton needed an army. Hamet had arrived with roughly 100 followers, whose actual fighting ability was dubious at best. Eaton had requested a contingent of 100 marines from Barron, but his request had been denied. This left him with only the eight marines who had accompanied him on his search for Hamet. They were led by an able young lieutenant named Presley O’Bannon who, along with Leitensdorfer, would become one of Eaton’s most valuable commanders. O’Bannon and Eaton immediately set about recruiting mercenaries in Alexandria and soon assembled a rogue’s gallery of Turkish, Greek, French, English, Spanish, Indian, and Eastern European mercenaries.

While Eaton was busy rounding up mercenaries, Hamet was attempting to rally disaffected Tripolitans, Egyptians, and other Arabs to their cause. His efforts met with a modicum of success. Together, Eaton and Hamet managed to amass a force of roughly 400 men. It was not enough to accomplish their lofty goals, but it was a start.

Their polyglot army set out for Tripoli on March 8, 1805. Their first target was Derna, the second largest city in Tripoli. The original plan of attack had been to approach Derna by sea, but Hamet insisted on taking the overland route to remain close to his followers. The overland route to Derna was long and arduous, leading across hundreds of miles of scorching desert populated by hostile Bedouin tribesmen. The expedition was for an ungainly sight as it crossed the desert. Arab cavalry, scores of polyglot mercenary infantry, and nearly 200 camels stretched as far as the eye could see. The varying nationalities made communication difficult, and the equally various religious affiliations threatened to splinter the party along doctrinal lines. It took all of Eaton’s, O’Bannon’s, and Leitensdorfer’s joint efforts to keep the rival groups from killing each other.

On the fifth day, a rider approached Eaton with the welcome news that Derna had revolted in favor of Hamet. The Arab riders at the front of the column immediately began firing their guns in celebration. The noise startled those in the rear of the column, who feared they were under attack by Bedouins. The frenzied European and Arab mercenaries nearly attacked each other in the resulting confusion before Eaton and his commanders managed to regain control and avert a bloodbath. Ironically, the expedition had nearly self-destructed over nothing—the rumors of an uprising at Derna turned out to be false.

A Long, Contentious March to Derna

As the march wore on, both funds and supplies began to run low. It had cost Eaton nearly $100,000 to assemble, equip, and supply his force. That amount was over twice his proposed budget, so he had little left over for contingencies. Two weeks into the march the Arab camel drivers revolted, claiming that they had not been paid for the entire journey. They demanded the rest of their money, or they threatened to abandon the expedition. Eaton’s coffers were dry and he was forced to take up a collection among the marines and other men to mollify them. His efforts were wasted when most of the camel drivers deserted during the night.

Relations between Eaton and the Arabs worsened as the group drew closer to Derna. Rumors that Bey Yusef was sending an army to reinforce the city terrified the Arab cavalry. Their leader, Sheikh El Taiib, refused to continue and had to be repeatedly coerced. The rumor of Yusef’s approaching army became so pervasive that it threatened to destroy the expedition. Even Hamet, the centerpiece of the plan, became so frightened that he refused to proceed. After a heated argument, Eaton took his marines and mercenaries and continued marching across the desert. He hoped that Hamet’s shame at being left behind would overcome his fear of Yusef. The ploy worked, and the deposed bey sheepishly caught up with Eaton a few hours later.

The march to Derna was not all hardship and turmoil. Along the way, Hamet managed to recruit 80 Arab horsemen and 150 infantry soldiers. These forces significantly added to the expedition’s ranks, as well as to Eaton’s growing debt. The motley army began attracting more followers when they finally entered Tripolitan territory. The expedition soon ballooned to over 1,000 people, including baggage train drivers and the families of the Bedouin horsemen.

By April 8, the expedition’s supplies were nearly gone and the Arabs were once again refusing to continue. Eaton argued that American vessels were waiting to resupply them at the nearby Bay of Bomba, but that failed to convince them. Hamet did not help the situation when he announced that he was returning to Egypt. Furious, Eaton ordered that no more supplies be distributed to the Arab cavalry. He hoped that their hunger would compel them to move forward, but it only added to the growing tensions inside the expedition.

These tensions nearly boiled over into outright violence when a group of irate Arabs attempted to storm the supply tent. Anticipating such an action, Eaton had positioned O’Bannon and Leitensdorfer, along with the marines and other non-Arab mercenaries, in front of the supply tent. Both groups stared at each other with weapons drawn. The vastly outnumbered mercenaries held their ground, although they knew that the slightest provocation would result in a massacre. Eaton nearly provided that provocation when, in his usual blunt manner, he began insulting the Arabs and claiming that they were afraid to fight. He hoped that his taunts would shame them into backing down, but it nearly resulted in catastrophe. It wasn’t until Hamet rode between the two groups and announced that he was staying with the expedition that cooler heads prevailed.

The Battle for Derna

The expedition reached Bomba a few days later and was resupplied by the waiting American vessels. After a week of rest, Eaton and his army set off to cross the final 60 miles to Derna, a city of roughly 10,000 inhabitants that was defended by a garrison of 800 troops. It would be a tough nut for Eaton’s force to crack. The expedition took up positions outside the city on April 26 and prepared for battle. Eaton attempted to avoid a conflict by writing to the governor of the city and offering him a position in Hamet’s new government if he would resupply the expedition and allow it to pass through Derna unmolested. Eaton concluded the letter with the line, “I shall see you tomorrow in a way of your choice.” The governor’s response was brief and to the point: “My head or yours.”

Although storming the city was going to be difficult, Eaton was excited. This was the moment he had dreamed about since he was a boy. Hamet, on the other hand, was not pleased—the thought of assaulting a fortified city terrified him. Adding to his fear was the rumor that Yusef had dispatched a 1,200-man relief force to Derna. Eaton snidely remarked that Hamet “wished himself back in Egypt.” Eaton’s plan called for a two-pronged attack. An assault force of 60 marines and mercenaries, led by O’Bannon, would attack the city’s barricades while Hamet and 200 Arab horsemen attacked the city from the south. The rest of the Arab cavalry would remain to the south of the city to act as a reserve and prevent any relief forces from reaching Derna. The operation would be assisted by covering fire from three American vessels: Argus, Hornet, and Nautilus.

The battle began the next morning when Derna’s shore batteries fired at the American vessels in the harbor. The ships responded with broadsides and soon the air was filled with cannon and musket fire. The opening rounds of the battle went well for Eaton’s forces. The American ships succeeded in silencing the shore batteries, and Hamet’s Arabs managed to capture an old castle on the outskirts of the city. However, O’Bannon’s strike force was pinned down under heavy fire from the city’s defenders. Eaton knew that the undisciplined mercenaries would flee if something wasn’t done immediately. In typical grandiose fashion, he decided to charge.

Amazingly, even though the defenders outnumbered the attackers by nearly 10-to-1, they retreated in the face of Eaton’s audacious assault. The strike force stormed the barricades and took possession of the shore batteries.

Eaton was shot in the left wrist during the assault but still managed to raise the American flag above the fort at the Derna harbor. It was the first time in history that the Stars and Stripes had flown over foreign territory.

Eaton’s men aimed the fort’s cannon toward Derna and joined the American warships in shelling the city. Hamet’s force pressed the assault from the south and managed to capture the governor’s palace. With the fall of the palace, all resistance ended. The battle to capture the city had been brief, lasting only two and a half hours. It had also been relatively painless, claiming the lives of only two Marines.

The battle to hold the city, however, had just begun. It turned out that Hamet’s fears of a relief force were well founded. An army sent by Yusef was only a few days’ march away.

The anticipated attack came on May 13 when Hassan, the commander of Yusef’s relief column, led 1,200 men against Derna. They overwhelmed an outpost defended by Hamet’s Arabs and rapidly closed in on the city. Eaton pointed the guns from his newly renamed Fort Enterprise toward Hassan’s attacking column. Their withering fire, along with broadsides from the American ships, managed to drive back the attackers.

Eaton’s capture of Derna would become one of the most celebrated victories in American military history. It inspired the famous second line of the “Marine Corps Hymn.” The saber that Hamet awarded to O’Bannon after the battle became the model for all subsequent Marine officers’ swords. The victory was also lauded in “Derne,” a popular if not particularly accomplished poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that included the following bombastic stanza about Eaton:

“Dark as his allies desert-born,/
Soiled with the battle’s stain, and worn/
With the long marches of his band
Through hottest wastes of rock and sand,
Scorched by the sun and furnace-breath/
Of the red desert’s wind of death,/
With welcome words and grasping hands,/
The victor and deliverer stands!”


Comment: Another good yarn. And it’s history. The full article fleshes out the life of William Eaton, soldier, diplomat, spy and one crazy-assed adventurer. In my opinion he’s a forefather of our Special Forces. I’m posting this today because it’s the anniversary of his assault on Derna. It was the beginning of our long history of foreign military adventures, the beginning of our long quest for monsters abroad to destroy.

Since my father was a former Marine, I was well aware of Lieutenant O’Bannon, his Mameluke sword and the immortal words of the Marine Corps Hymn. But it wasn’t until a few years ago when I read “The Pirate Coast” by Richard Zachs that I became aware of US Army Captain William Eaton and his leading part in the saga of the shores of Tripoli.



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One Response to William Eaton and The Battle of Derna

  1. mcohen says:

    Well I tell you what,Mr William Tell
    There is no plac3 left in heaven
    Cause it’s shot to hell
    And whatever keeps you believing
    It’s not what I’m seeing.

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