Heroes From History: William Eaton

William Eaton was a U.S. Army officer who led an expedition of U.S. Marines and hired mercenaries to Derna, Tripoli during the First Barbary War in 1805. He was the first American to lead forces into battle on foreign soil and raise the American Flag in victory over the enemies of the United States. William Eaton was an accomplished leader, warrior, and adventurer.

Terror on the Mediterranean

The Barbary States of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli waged campaigns of piracy and slave raiding against merchant vessels and coastal villages in the Mediterranean Sea. The Muslim pirates depopulated entire regions taking hundreds of thousands of Christians as slaves, which the Ottoman Empire condoned as part of their war against all they declared infidels. Previously, the Knights of Malta had kept the Barbary pirates and slavers at bay. However, Napoleon Bonaparte attacked and plundered the Knights of Malta in 1798, stripping the world of the defense they had previously provided. Now, the scourge of the Barbary was set loose upon the seas in earnest.

The United States had disbanded its navy following the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War. Congress did not wish to pay the costs for maintaining a navy, despite warnings that doing so would invite future attacks against the country. This quickly came to pass for the young nation, as the Barbary were extorting American merchant vessels for safe passage through the Mediterranean, demanding the U.S. pay “tribute” or face attacks. Even when this tribute was paid, American vessels were still at risk of being raiding by the pirates and slavers. The attacks increased in severity when Tripoli declared war on the United States after Thomas Jefferson was elected president and refused to continue paying tribute to the Barbary.

American Forces Deploy

In 1801, Jefferson sent a naval squadron to the Mediterranean with the mission to patrol the sea lanes, protect American merchant vessels, and interdict enemy ships. They attempted a blockade of the Barbary in 1803 and launched sorties on the enemy ports to try and destroy ships at anchor when they were most vulnerable. This proved to be unsuccessful, however, as the Barbary ports were heavily defended by a combination fixed artillery on land in forts and mobile units both on land and in the harbor. The American forces made numerous attempts to destroy the enemy fleet at anchor. They tried frontal naval assaults; deploying in small boats to scale city walls and burn ships with torches; and even attempted sending a fire ship loaded with explosives to suicide bomb the fleet. However, all these efforts were repulsed by the well equipped and highly coordinated Tripolitan forces, and the USS Philadelphia was captured and converted into a stationary weapons platform. In 1804, the Americans scored some victories after allying with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies which had just declared war on Tripoli, but they never managed to ameliorate the threat completely.

A Plan and a Journey

Dismayed with the inability of the naval task force to quell the enemy conventionally, William Eaton came up with plan to ameliorate the treat posed by the Barbary. Yusuf Pasha Karamanl was in charge of Tripoli at the time after deposing his brother, Hamlet. Eaton and Hamlet agreed that if the U.S. helped Hamlet take back power, he would end hostilities between Tripoli and the United States. Eaton was able to persuade Congress, the Secretary of State, and the President to fund the regime change plan as a quicker and more effective alternative to the as of yet unsuccessful efforts at a purely naval campaign. Eaton received $40,000 worth of weapons and supplies for the mission.

Eaton then made his way to the city of Alexandria in Egypt where he met up with Hamlet Karamanl and a group of 8 U.S. Marines under the command of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon. They hired a mercenary band of between 300-500 Greeks, Arabs, and Berbers to bolster their numbers. This was a great risk, as their loyalty was to their pocketbooks rather than the mission at hand. However, it was a risk which would eventually pay off. With his small army in tow, Eaton began his march across the deserts of North Africa. This would prove to be a challenge all by itself, and tested the limits of Eaton’s hired men.

William Eaton and his forces marched 500 miles, or about 800 kilometers through the desert from Alexandria, Egypt to reach their target of Derna where they were to assault the city by land while the naval squadron attacked by sea. Food rationing began from the start and all the men had to make due on half day’s rations for the journey. They reportedly only marched 5 miles a day toward the target city, as they spent much of their time arguing and searching for water. Religious differences between the diverse group of warriors also became a problem. Threats of mutiny and demands for more pay became common, even from Hamlet himself. Yet somehow, Eaton managed to lead the men out of the desert and all the way to the city of Derna after 52 days of marching.

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

After arriving at Derna and surveying the defenses, Eaton was dismayed. The city was heavily defended by forts with up to 8 heavy artillery guns and barricades with murder holes along the city walls. Eaton wrote a letter to the governor of the city, Moustapha, asking for safe passage. After such an arduous journey through the desert and seeing the city up close, Eaton was not inclined to fight. However, Governor Moustapha denied his request, writing back, “My head or yours.” As such, Eaton readied his men to attack the city.

Attack on Derna
“Attack on Derna” by Charles Waterhouse

On April 27th, 1805, the USS Nautilus opened fire on the shoreline of Derna with its artillery. The USS Hornet and the USS Argus arrived the next day and joined in the shelling. The day after that, Eaton and O’Bannon moved in on the city from the east and south. The marines and mercenaries approached under heavy fire from muskets, but the heavy guns had their attention drawn to the attacking ships. William Eaton was shot in the left wrist during the battle, but he kept on despite the injury, overcoming his then limited ability to aim his weapon. In the first 45 minutes of the battle, the enemy artillery was eliminated, and the city’s defender’s were left to fight with muskets and blades. With the attention of the city’s defenders split, the Americans surrounded and closed in on the city, wiping out the Barbary warriors and raising the American Flag on foreign soil for the first time in under 3 hours.

During the battle, the U.S. Marine, John Wilton was killed in action. Two other Marines, David Thomas and Bernard O’Brian, were both injured. Nevertheless, the managed to capture the city of Derna and completed the first phase of their plan. Now, they had to hold the city against enemy counterattack, and eventually march across the desert once more to attack Tripoli itself. Eaton and his men dug in for the inevitable enemy response, fortifying the town as best they could.

The counterattack from Tripoli eventually came, and being heavily outnumbered, Eaton and his men were unable to hold the city walls. Their defensive lines were broken and pushed back to the governor’s palace. However, Eaton turned the tide before the city fell back into enemy hands by turning the artillery guns inward on the city and targeting the Tripolitan forces. Eaton and the U.S. Marines held the city for six weeks before Tripoli finally surrendered. Without needing to remove Yusuf Pasha Karamanl from power, he agreed to a ceasefire and the release of captured Americans he had in his possession. The First Barbary War was over, but hostilities between the U.S. and the Barbary would not be resolved so soon.

William Eaton’s Legacy

As a reward for his valiant and courageous service to the United States, William Eaton was awarded by the Virginia Legislature with a ceremonial Mameluke-style sword which serves as the pattern for officer swords in the U.S. Marine Corps to this day. It is said that Prince Harmet Karamanli was so impressed with Eaton as well that after he was reinstated, he awarded Eaton with a similar sword. The Marines’ Hymn also recounts this epic tale with the first line of the song: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we fight our country’s battles in the air, on land, and sea.”

William Eaton’s story is a massive inspiration to me. It is incredible how he was able to march such a large and diverse group of warriors hundreds of miles across the desert without losing any of them to death or mutiny. His leadership and communication skills must have been legendary. Then to still be able to lead them in battle and take the city of Derna, and then going even further and holding the city against a numerically superior force when the counterattack came. Such a feat was incredible on its own and speaks to the daring and skilled nature of Willaim Eaton.

He also showed the value of ingenuity by achieving such a tremendous success with relatively little advantage after so many attempts to quell the enemy by sea had failed. Eaton knew the Barbary was strongest out on the water and in their harbors. Thus, an assault by land from behind their artillery guns was needed to overtake them. The journey he undertook to achieve this is a legend in and of itself, which is why William Eaton certainly deserves to be remembered as one of the great and accomplished heroes of history. If we all could emulate a small fraction of his perseverance, bravery, and cleverness, we too can achieve great things in our lives.

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer from the United States.

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