Harpers Ferry —Part I

The American Civil War did not just happen one day. It was a travesty long expected even as men spoke of saving the Union. The trigger events included: The Missouri Compromise (1820), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), The Wilmot Proviso (1846-1850), The Compromise of 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional book titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, and John Brown’s Raid of Harpers Ferry in 1859.

John Brown was born in 1800, the son of Owen Brown and Ruth Mills. His roots were deeply religious, and his life experiences nothing if not tragic and depressing. Married twice, he raised twenty children. A tanner by trade, his businesses failed one after another. Moving again to the ideologically progressive community of Springfield, Massachusetts, Brown felt at home at a place emotionally invested in the abolition movement. Perhaps the murder of a Presbyterian minister by a pro-slavery mob pushed him in this direction. In any case, by 1855, Brown learned from his sons living in Kansas that pro-slavery forces were militant and dangerous to abolitionists. Determined to help protect his family and oppose the pro-slavery movement, Brown went to Kansas with brief stops in Albany, New York and the Western Reserve section of Ohio where he obtained moral and financial support for his cause.

Kansas John Brown, 1856
Kansas John Brown, 1856

In Kansas, things were heating to a boil: on the one side, ruffians threatened to take the state by force if necessary and establish a pro-slavery government. Standing opposed to this movement was Brown and his followers, equally dedicated to bringing Kansas to statehood as a free state. The sacking of Lawrence, Kansas in 1856 and Preston Brooks’ caning of Charles Sumner angered Brown. Before the Pottawatomie Massacre, 8 people had lost their lives in the Kansas dispute; after abolitionists massacred the Doyle family in May 1856, 29 were killed in retaliation —hence the name, Bleeding Kansas.

John Brown returned to the east where he raised funds and gathered forces. By now, Brown was convinced that the only solution to the slavery problem was through violent action. He intended to attack slave owners. Harriet Tubman, who had access to networks and resources that could assist Brown, joined him. For his part, Brown felt that the creation of a state for freed slaves and a demonstration that he was fighting for them would lead to a massive slave revolt across the south.

Brown arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859. He rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland under the name Isaac Smith; there he awaited thee arrival of his recruits. They never materialized. In late August, Brown met with Frederick Douglas and revealed his plan for attacking the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Douglas had known about the plan for some time and had encouraged blacks not to join Brown in this endeavor. In late September, Brown’s pikes arrived; there were 950 of these. The plan called for a Brigade of 4,500 men … Brown had 21 (16 white, 5 black). His troops ranged in age from 21 years to 49. Twelve had served with Brown in Kansas. Brown led his force of 18 men in an attack on October 16, 1859. Brown left three men at the farmhouse as a rear guard.

Brown’s men were armed with Beecher’s Bibles, code name for the breech loading Sharps Rifles smuggled to him by the cowardly insurrectionist Henry Ward Beecher: always selecting a weaker intellect to do his bidding, never able to quite get it done himself —which I feel is typical of the so-called progressive mindset. The weapons were called Beecher’s Bibles because he shipped them in crates marked as “books.”

In seizing the armory, Brown gained access to 100,000 muskets and rifles. He planned to use these weapons to arm local slaves, and then heading south, draw off more slaves from plantations and fight only in self-defense. This strategy, Brown felt, would collapse one county after another, denying economic viability within pro-slave states.

Brown met no resistance entering the town of Harpers Ferry. They cut telegraph wires and captured the armory by defeating a single watchman. Next, Brown rounded up hostages, including the great-grandnephew of George Washington, Colonel Lewis Washington. They spread word everywhere to all slaves that their liberation was at hand. An eastbound train approached the town and the baggage master attempted to warn passengers of the insurrection. Brown’s men opened fire and killed Hayward Shepherd, the baggage master, who became the first casualty of the Brown insurrection. He was also a free black man. Two of Washington’s slaves also died in the raid.

The first word of the raid came from by telegraph by A. J. Phelps, the Through Express passenger train conductor. His abbreviated message: “Express train bound east under my charge was stopped this morning at Harper’s Ferry by armed abolitionists. They have possession of the bridge and the arms and armory of the United States.” News of the raid reached Baltimore early that morning and then on to Washington by later morning. In the meantime, local farmers and shopkeepers pinned down the raiders in the armory by firing from the heights from the town, some local men received wounds from Brown’s men.

Colonel Robert E. Lee, 1858
Colonel Robert E. Lee, 1859

A message reporting the insurrection at Harpers Ferry arrived on the desk of Secretary of War John B. Floyd late in the morning of October 17, 1859. Floyd was not known as an able administrator but on this particular morning, there was no time for the shuffling of paper, or spending too much time on minute details. Floyd was a Virginian and well aware of the events surrounding Nat Turner’s rebellion and what happened at Haiti at the start of the century. He sent a telegram to Fort Monroe and by noon, Captain Edward O. C. Ord with 150 artillerymen was already on his way to Baltimore, the first stop on the way to Harpers Ferry. Floyd also summoned from his home across the river Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee, who would command the military response.

President Buchanan suggested to Mr. Floyd that he was not moving fast enough. There were no troops closer to the scene of the action than at Fort Monroe and he was in a quandary about what to do. He was unable to find any troops closer to Harpers Ferry than those under Captain Ord were. Then, miraculously, Navy Secretary Isaac Toucey offered Floyd a solution: United States Marines. Shortly thereafter, the Chief Clerk of the Navy Department galloped through the main gate of the Washington Navy Yard and asked for First Lieutenant Israel Greene, who was temporarily in command of the Marine Barracks. Asked how many Marines Greene had at his disposal, Greene answered, “around ninety men.”

Upon return to the Navy Department, Toucey sent an order to Colonel Commandant John Harris: “Send all available Marines at Head Quarters under charge of suitable officers by this evening’s train of cars to Harpers Ferry to protect the public property at that place, which is endangered by a riotous outbreak.” Once the Marines arrived at their destination, they would serve under the command of the senior Army officer present.

Colonel Harris was concerned that First Lieutenant Greene may lack the necessary experience to command such a force of Marines; after all, he only had twelve years service. The only other senior officer was Major William W. Russell, the paymaster. Russell, a staff officer, probably had less field experience than did Lieutenant Greene. Harris placed Russell in charge of the Marine contingent, assisted by First Lieutenant Greene. Greene, meanwhile, demonstrated detached professionalism making sure that each of his eighty-six Marines had drawn necessary equipment for field operations: musket, ball, rations. Because no one had a clear idea what was going on at Harpers Ferry, the Marines also prepared two 3-inch howitzers. At 1500 hours, Russell and his Marines boarded the westbound train for Harpers Ferry.

War in Korea, 1871

The United States developed a keen interest in Japan in 1853. On 8 July of that year, Commodore Matthew Perry led a squadron of US Naval vessels into the Harbor at Tokyo Bay. He was seeking to establish regular trade with the Japanese, diplomatic dialogue, and humane assistance for shipwrecked sailors. Initially, the Japanese weren’t having any of it, but they were impressed with modern technology demonstrated by Commodore Perry and today we are all living happily ever after.

RODGERS J AdmiralAfter the Civil War, the US government wanted to continue establishing diplomatic relations with East Asian nations. So, in a manner similar to that demonstrated by Commodore Perry, a naval squadron was sent to support American diplomatic delegations hoping to establish trade and political relations with Korea. The US delegation also sought to ascertain the fate of SS General Sherman [1]. On 1 June 1871, Korean shore batteries fired on American warships operating adjacent to the Korean island of Ganghwa. When Admiral John Rodgers failed to receive an apology from the Korean government within ten days of his demand, he initiated punitive action against the Joseon government.

Korea 1871 001On 10 June, Admiral Rogers landed 650 Americans; objective: capture and render ineffective coastal forts. In the doing of this, American forces killed 200 Korean defenders with a loss of only three American killed in action.

The expedition consisted of 550 sailors, 100 Marines, and five warships: Colorado, Alaska, Palos, Monocacy, and Benicia. Admiral Rogers’s flagship was the Colorado; embarked with him was Frederick F. Low, US Ambassador to China. The leading Korean was General Eo Jae-yeon commanding what Koreans called the Tiger Hunters.

Korea 1871 002The American first objective was a lightly defended garrison on Ganghwa along the Salee River. The second objective was a light garrison at Deokjin. The Koreans were poorly armed and denied effective range by American naval artillery and 12-pound howitzers. The American third objective was the Fort at Deokjin, which the Koreans promptly abandoned. Navy and Marine Corps shore party quickly dismantled the fort and continued to the Gwangseong Garrison, a citadel. By this time, Korean forces regrouped there. Along the way, Korean units attempted to flank the Americans, but they were beaten off by well-aimed artillery placed on two hills.

McKEE HW LT USNArtillery fire from ground forces and Monocacy offshore pounded the citadel in preparation for an assault by US forces. A force of 547 sailors and 100 Marines grouped on the hills west of the fortress (infantry troops were on the hill directly west of the fortress, while artillery troops on another hill both shelled the fortress and also covered the Americans’ flanks and rear) keeping cover and returning fire. Once the bombardments stopped, Navy Lieutenant Hugh McKee led the American charge at the Citadel.

SCHLEY WS Cdr USNKorean forces were armed with matchlock rifles, a fact that aided the Americans who were armed with Remington rolling block carbines. The Americans made it over the walls and found themselves confronting Korean troops armed with rocks. McKee was the first to enter the citadel, but he was fatally wounded. Commander Winfield Scott Schley was the second American to enter the citadel; he shot the Korean that had shot McKee. Corporal Charles Brown from the Colorado and Private Hugh Purvis from the Alaska captured General Eo’s standard. Private James Dougherty killed General Eo when he failed to surrender. Corporal Brown, Privates Dougherty and Purvis, and Carpenter Haydn received the Medal of Honor for their courage under fire.

The fighting only lasted fifteen minutes; in the end, 243 Koreans lay dead. American killed in action included Lieutenant McKee, Seaman Seth Allen, and Private Denis Hanrahan. Ten additional Americans received battle wounds. Twenty Koreans were captured. In total, the Americans captured five forts, dozens of various sized cannon, and while the Americans hoped to use the captives as bargaining chips with the Korean government, the Koreans refused —referring to the captives as cowards. One of these included General Eo’s deputy commander.

Diplomatically, the mission was a failure. The Koreans simply refused to negotiate and the American aggression led the regent Daewon-gun to strengthen his policy of isolation. He issued a nation proclamation against appeasing foreigners. On the other side of this coin, there were no further attacks on foreign ships. In 1876, Korea established a treaty with Japan after the Japanese Navy threatened to fire on the city of Seoul; apparently the Japanese learned quite a bit from Commodore Perry twenty-three years earlier.  The development of a Japanese Navy in that time period is nothing short of remarkable. Treaties between Korea and European countries and the US soon followed.

In addition to the Marines receiving the Medal of Honor for this engagement were:

Chief Quartermaster Grace

Quartermaster Troy, Franklin, and Rogers.

Boatswain’s Mate McKenzie

Ordinary Seaman Andrews

Carpenter Hayden

Landsman Lukes and Merton

These were also the first medals of honor awarded by the United States for a foreign engagement.

From April-May 1882, the United States and Korea negotiated and approved a 14-article treaty. The treaty established mutual friendship and mutual assistance in case of foreign attack, and also addressed such specific matters as extraterritorial rights for American citizens in Korea and most favored nation trade status. The treaty remained in effect until Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910.

The next conflict in Korea involving the United States occurred in June 1950.


[1] The General Sherman was a US merchant side-wheel steamer that visited Korea in 1866. After passing the Keupsa Gate without permission of the Korean government, the ship was attacked. Ships company battled for several days, but ultimately the ship was destroyed.

At Tripoli —Part II

Algerian Corsair Andries Van Eertvelt
Algerian Corsair by Andries Van Eertvelt

It is hard to imagine how the Barbary States (Morocco, Tunisia, Tripoli, and Algiers) might have competed with European nations at the end of the 18th Century, and at the beginning of the next. What did they have to trade that anyone wanted? Well, the Berbers did have the sea and what might be caught in it, and they also had sleek corsairs capable to running across the waves at a fast clip, overtaking merchantmen whose holds were filled with vast riches, and/or whose passengers may be important to someone back home. In the Berber countries, wealth was never something evenly distributed among the inhabitants of those lands. Rather than piracy being done in order to achieve national wealth, it had more to do with making an already prosperous Islamic leader even wealthier.

Thus, piracy became a state-sanctioned enterprise in the same way that terrorism has; barbarity has its purpose.  To understand it, one has to understand the Mohammedan mindset—which is an enterprise that interests me little.  Neither do I have the band width.  It may be suffice to say Islamic parents have long sent their sons out to perform a jihad after someone has deposited a large sum of money into their pockets (large sum being entirely relative). In more recent times, Saddam Hussein paid $2,500.00 to the families of young men and women who blew themselves to hell, taking dozens of innocents along with them.

One simple fact is that it was profitable to seize European and American merchant vessels; were this not so, then the pirates would have found another line of work. From the perspective of the nations who lost these vessels, heads of state may have reasoned that it was cheaper to pay tribute than to go to war with the Barbary States. As for paying ransoms —only someone likely to bring a hefty price would escape the depredations of white slavery.

Barbary Pirate
Barbary Pirate

Water was the most economical way to transport goods. An emerging United States had things to sell, but getting these goods to market may have entailed sailing them through the Mediterranean Sea to a buyer. Presidents Washington and Adams were among those who reasoned that paying tributes was cheaper than fighting wars —even when paying tribute was no guarantee at all for the safety of ships, crew, or cargo. It must have occurred to the various heads of the Barbary States that from their perspective, piracy was a very worthwhile investment and worth the risk.  Moreover, if the Americans were willing to pay some amount of money in tribute, perhaps they would be just as willing to may more and so the price of tribute for return of US ships and crew (never what was in the ship’s hold) kept going up.

The First Barbary War was nothing if not anti-climactic. Yes, Jefferson did achieve a peace with Tripoli, but his rules of engagement were too restrictive, the conflict took too long, and the result was dishonorable. We sent Consul-General/Navy Lieutenant Eaton to solve the problem. In solving the problem, Eaton made an agreement with Hamet Karamanli. The United States government reneged on its (Eaton’s) agreement. Of course, one may argue that Eaton exceeded his authority in making such agreements with Hamet, but that is quite beside the point. Having commissioned Eaton to solve the problem, his words must be honored as much as if Jefferson himself had spoken them.

Having signed a treaty with Tripoli, the United States proceeded to sign accords with Algiers and Tunis, as well. And piracy did decline somewhat in 1807, except that Algeria was quite aggressive in its resumption of privateering against American flagged ships. Spain also maintained an aggressive program of guarding their territories and inspecting American ships. In 1808, a first mate recorded in his journal, “Privateering has likewise become very trifling to what it once was.” He added, “Men who obtain their sovereign commission to annoy the Enemy for want of other Employ are sure trouble to Friends.”

He may have been speaking about the alliance between Great Britain and Algeria. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, the British turned to their Algerian allies and urged them to declare war against the United States —which is, of course, exactly what the Algerians did. But for the present time, the Algerians would have to wait their turn.

With the British blockage along the Atlantic seaboard, American trade anywhere within the Mediterranean came to a halt. President Madison did request that Congress declare war on Algeria, and this authorization came on February 23, 1815. On May 20, 1815, Commodore Stephen Decatur led a ten-ship squadron to Algiers; an even larger force commanded by William Bainbridge was close behind.

USS Constellation
USS Constellation

Operating off the Algerian coast on June 17, 1815, the frigate USS Constellation drove the 44-gun frigate Meshuda (flagship of the Algerian Fleet) directly into the guns of Decatur’s flagship . With two broadsides, everyone on Meshuda not already killed or dying fled to below decks and the flagship surrendered. Algeria’s senior-most naval commander was among the dead.

Two days later, USS Guerriere led the squadron in driving a 22-gun brig ashore. USS Guerriere arrived at Algiers on June 28, 1815 —prepared to capture every Algerian ship that entered port unless the Dey of Algeria ratified the terms of a peace treaty sent ashore to him on June 30th. The treaty was ratified. Next, USS Guerriere led the squadron in a show of force that resulted in a peace settlement with Tunis on July 13, 1815 and with Tripoli on August 9, 1815.

There were no amphibious landings during the Second Barbary War —no long marches through a sweltering desert, no engagements where the officer commanded his men, “Fix Bayonets!” But this isn’t to say that the Marines were not fully engaged as part of ship’s company. Wherever the Navy went, they took their Marines with them. If Stephen Decatur departed New York with ten ships, then he also took with him ten Marine Detachments. It might also be interesting to note that in 1800, the U. S. Marine Corps consisted entirely of 25 officers, 343 enlisted men. In 1810, the strength of the Marine Corps was 10 officers, 513 enlisted men.

Marines had four duties aboard ship: provide musket fire aboard ship in combat when opponents were in close proximity; provide boarding parties when the order was given to assault an opposing vessel; provide a landing party when ordered to go ashore; provide sentries outside the captain’s cabin and at such other places as the ship’s commander deemed necessary.

First Lieutenant, USMC
First Lieutenant, USMC

The Marine Detachment Commander had two masters: he reported to the Commandant of the Marine Corps in matters relating to professional fitness, training, supply, pay, and the discipline of his men. He reported to the Ship’s Captain for the daily employment of his Marines. The Detachment Commander was more likely as not a first lieutenant; his second in command was a second lieutenant. It is likely that a Marine Captain served aboard the squadron or fleet flagship as principal advisor to the commodore.

So —while true that the Second Barbary War lacked drama and heroic demonstrations of the earlier conflict in Tripoli, it was nevertheless an important gain for American prestige and an excellent demonstration of the skill of the United States Navy.

Finally, the United States realized that while the Barbary States had witnessed an important demonstration, they were, after all, Mohammedans who are famous for breaking treaties. In 1816, Algeria attempted to renege on their agreements and President James Madison wasted no time deploying US squadrons to the Mediterranean Sea. In August of that year, a combined British-Dutch fleet attacked the city of Algiers, forcing the Dey to release over 1,000 European slaves. Still, several European states continued paying the Algerians tributes through 1822 and, no surprise, the piracy continued through 1830.

At Tripoli —Part I

The opening line of the Marine Corps Hymn is, “From the Halls of Montezuma, To the Shores of Tripoli…” Whoever wrote the hymn has these events out of sequence, but I’ve tried it the other way around and it simply doesn’t work —so we will have to acknowledge some poetic license and I vote we keep the hymn the way it is now.

The brevity of the refrain leads people to think that at some point, Marines stormed ashore at some place called Tripoli. My guess is that most high school graduates, along with 85% of all college graduates, have no idea where Tripoli is—or even what happened there. It is more complex than most think.

Berber Corsair
Berber Corsair

The practice of state-supported piracy was a common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries. One may recall that the fledgling United States went to war for a second time with Great Britain because the British navy accosted US flagged ships and impressed their crew to serve involuntarily aboard British ships of the line. Additionally, European maritime states hired privateers to attack each other’s shipping. The decision of Great Britain and France to pay tribute to the Barbary pirates encouraged the scallywags to increase their piracy —which benefitted England and France through less competition in the Mediterranean. And, of course, the navies of England or France were not the huckleberries a pirate vessel would want to challenge.

Before American independence, extortion along the North African coast was not an American problem. We were then a colony of Great Britain; the problem was theirs. After independence, American shipping enjoyed no protection whatsoever from either England or France. After independence from Great Britain, our English cousins were quick to inform the Barbary Pirates that they could avail themselves of American shipping at their leisure. It didn’t take long; in 1785, Dey Mohammed of Algiers declared war on the United States and captured several of our maritime vessels. The financially troubled confederation was hardly in a position to pay exorbitant ransoms for the return of ships or ship’s company. Nor could the Americans raise a navy —or pay tribute. The United States attempted to negotiate with the pirates.

The Barbary States consisted of several North African states. Morocco, an independent kingdom, seized a US merchant vessel in 1784 after the Americans ignored their diplomatic overtures, but once the US acknowledged Morocco’s strategic position, negotiations progressed smoothly and productively; by 1786, a trade agreement did exist between the US and Morocco. Algiers, on the other hand, assumed a belligerent, condescending tone in demanding tributes that the United States simply could not afford. In an effort to circumvent Algiers, the US Minister to France attempted to establish a coalition of weaker naval powers to defeat Algiers. In this, our minister was unsuccessful; his name was Thomas Jefferson. However, Portugal was also at war with Algiers. It’s navy was strong enough to block Algerian ships from sailing past the Straits of Gibraltar an so for a time, American merchantmen had safe passage.

A brief Portuguese-Algerian peace once again exposed American merchant ships to extortion in 1793. The efforts of diplomats sent to North Africa in 1795 concluded treaties with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. The treaties agreed to pay tribute to these states, and the treaty with Algiers resulted in the release of about 80 sailors.

It wasn’t until after ratification of the US Constitution in 1789 that the federal government had the authority to levy taxes and raise and maintain an armed force. When Algiers seized American ships in 1794, Congress authorized the construction of six ships for the U. S. Navy.

In 1797, William Eaton (a former Army officer) was appointed Consul General of the United States. President Adams sent him to Tunis to negotiate peace and trade agreements with the governor (Bey) of Tunis. Tunis was the closest neighbor to Tripoli and the place of exile of the former Pasha of Tripoli, Hamet Karamanli (the elder brother of the reigning Pasha Yusuf Karamanli).

While in Tripoli, Easton devised a plan whereby the United States would support the restoration of the deposed Pasha. This, Eaton argued, would garner respect for the United States throughout the Mohammedan world. Eaton had no support for his plan in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the Bey continued to demand tributes and Eaton refused to convey any of his demands to the US government and the Bey of Tunis ordered Eaton to leave his country. Hamet Karamanli fled Tunis for Egypt.

In 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli sought to punish the United States for its failure in making timely payments of tribute; he demanded higher tributes and polished off these demands by declaring war on the United States. Algiers followed suit. This was the first Barbary War; it was fought between 1801 and 1805.

The First Barbary War began during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, who refused to pay the Barbary States any tribute at all. Aligned with the United States was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In sending a squadron of ships to the Berber Coast, it was Jefferson’s intention to block the harbor at Tripoli and force the Pasha to capitulate his position.

USS ConstitutionCommand of the squadron went to Commodore Richard Dale. The squadron consisted of Dale’s flagship USS President, commanded by Captain Samuel Barron, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur in command of USS Essex, Lieutenant William Bainbridge in command of the USS Philadelphia, and Lieutenant Andrew Sterett in command of the USS Enterprise.

En route to the North African coast, Dale encountered adverse winds, delaying his arrival at Gibraltar until July 1, 1801. There he learned Tripoli had already declared war on the United States and that there were two Tripolitan warships of sizeable consequence berthed at Gibraltar. Their captains claimed they had no knowledge of the war. Dale made the assumption that they were about to embark into the Atlantic to prey on American shipping. Dale ordered the Philadelphia to remain behind and guard the enemy vessels[1].  On August 1, 1801, Enterprise soundly defeated the 14-gun corsair Tripoli.

In 1802, President Jefferson received a Congressional mandate through “An act for the protection of commerce and seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan cruisers.” The act permitted the United States Navy to seize vessels belonging to the Pasha of Tripoli with the capture property distributed to those who brought the vessels into port.

In 1803, the question remained unanswered; while the US Navy went unchallenged at sea, the Tripolitans had not capitulated and a state of war continued to exist. Jefferson increased the US Navy presence along the Berber coast. The squadron of ships was increased to a fleet, which now included Argus, Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, Enterprise, Intrepid, Philadelphia, and Syren (later, Siren).

Firing the Philadelphia
Firing the Philadelphia

In October 1803, Tripoli’s fleet was able to capture USS Philadelphia intact after Lieutenant Bainbridge ran her aground. Efforts of the Americans to float the ship while under fire failed. On the night of 16 February 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a small detachment of Marines aboard a captured Tripolitan ship (re-Christened Intrepid) and, deceiving the enemy guards aboard Philadelphia boarded that ship, overpowered the Tripolitan guards, fired the ship denying her use by the enemy. British Admiral Horatio Nelson proclaimed the operation, “…the most bold and daring act of the age.”

The capture and firing of Philadelphia and the repatriation of the members of its crew held on board motivated President Jefferson to send Consul General William Eaton, who was known for his brash and defiant diplomacy, back to the Berber Coast in 1804, this time on a military mission. In May 1804, Eaton was commissioned a U. S. Navy lieutenant and placed under the command of Commodore James Barron. He was ordered to find Hamet Karamanli, enlist his cooperation in the war, and free 300 American hostages in Tripoli. This would become America’s first clandestine mission designed to overthrow the head of a foreign government.

Eaton located Karamanli in Alexandria and signed an agreement with him to provide cash, ammunition, and provisions in the prosecution of war against his brother, and re-installation of Karamanli as the lawful ruler of Tripoli. In order to ensure American command and control of this operation, Eaton’s agreement with Karamanli also designated Eaton as “General and Commander in Chief” of the land forces that would be used to make the attack. The agreement defined the relationship between Eaton and Karamanli, but the US Senate never ratified it.

Eaton’s land force consisted of himself in command, assisted by Navy Lieutenant John H. Dent (later replaced by Midshipman George Mann), a force of 400 men (38 Greek mercenaries, 25 European artillerists, 90 armed men in service to Karamanli directly, 190 camels and their drivers, a small force of Arab cavalry, and eight United States Marines commanded by First Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon. Eaton and Karamanli made the 600-mile march to Derne through the Libyan Desert from Alexandria, Egypt. Military professionals today continue to wonder what prompted Eaton to take on this forced march without a single map to guide him.

Numerous challenges presented themselves to Lieutenant Eaton over the period of fifty days it took him to cross the Libyan Desert, not the least of which shortages of food, threatened mutiny by Arab factions, squabbling among Christians and Mohammedans, and the physical struggle of march across loose and packed sand in sweltering heat. Lieutenant Isaac Hull commanding the USS Argus was able to resupply Lieutenant Eaton at the Gulf of Bomba —but it was a close call.

Battle of Derne, 1805
Battle of Derne, 1805

Eaton expected Derne to be no more than a layover before proceeding to Tripoli; instead, he found the city heavily fortified. A fervent desire to avoid unnecessary casualties prompted Eaton to demand the surrender of the Bey of Derne; his response was a model of efficiency: “My head or yours.”

An eight-hour battle thus unfolded. Three American Navy frigates began to support Eaton by pounding away at Derne’s guns in the harbor fort, and these were eventually silenced. From then on, as in common in battle, the fight became a one-minute to the next affair. Hamet’s cavalry bogged down when it assaulted a determined outpost and Lieutenant O’Bannon and his contingent staggered under a murderous musket defense. Eaton rushed reinforcements to stiffen the assault, but a stalemate developed. The situation was desperate for the attackers; time was not on their side. Finally, Eaton decided that it was time to swim or sink. With sword extended forward, he led a charge —a gamble that paid off while outnumbered ten to one.

Lt. O'Bannon's Assault
Lt. O’Bannon’s Assault

The battle wasn’t over. The Marines engaged in bitter street fighting; every yard contested—but eventually the Marines secured the fort and Lieutenant O’Bannon raised the US Flag —signaling America’s first victory on foreign soil. Two Marines paid the ultimate price: John Whitten and Edward Steward lay dead. Their bodies were laid to rest in Derne.

The victory of Derne was short-lived. On the next day, the Pasha appeared with reinforcements and the town was soon surrounded. For a month, Eaton held out against a force easily three or four times that of his own. During this time, there were constant skirmishes and raiding parties keep everyone on edge.

The Pasha made a last furious attack on June 11, 1805 ripping apart Hamet’s cavalry. Charge, counter-charge went on for four hours; eventually Hamet’s forces proved the better and the road was finally open to Tripoli. On June 12, 1805, the USS Constellation arrived to inform Eaton that he and his Marines were no longer needed: the United States had successfully concluded a treaty with the Pasha. Eaton was ordered to take Hamet with him, and the rest of the army was abandoned. The directive confirmed for Hamet that the Americans could not be trusted to abide by their agreements.

It may be true that some Marines made it to the shores of Tripoli —but it wasn’t Lieutenant O’Bannon or any of his handpicked squad of deadly riflemen. Yet if there is anything that can be said about the Barbary Wars, it is that American diplomacy is amazingly consistent —and incompetent.


[1] I do not know what Dale’s orders were beyond “guarding” the Tripolitan ships; if they left Gibraltar, was Bainbridge to attack them?