The Shores of Tripoli

The Marine Corps hymn starts with the words “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli…” and Tripoli refers to the fight against the Barbary Pirates in 1803 – 1805. Specifically the exploits of Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.

Fed up with the ever-increasing demands for tribute from the Barbary Pirates, President Jefferson sent almost the entire U.S. Navy to teach the pirates a lesson. Their mission – bring home as many of the U.S. merchant seaman as possible and convince by force, if necessary, the pirates to stop seizing U.S. ships.

When confronted by U.S. Navy warships, the pirates retreated into harbors defended by cannon mounted in stone forts. Solid iron shot is not very effective these types of fortifications and the wooden ships were vulnerable to return fire, particularly “hot shot.”

By heating an iron ball until it is red hot, the heated cannon balls are rammed down the barrel and fired. When the hot cannon ball hits the dry timbers wooden ship, it often starts a fire on a vessel packed with people, powder, tarred ropes, canvas sails and other highly combustible materials.

Yusef Karamanli, in Tripoli had taken his throne by killing one of his brothers. Jefferson authorized William Eaton, the U.S. consul to Tripoli to recruit a group of mercenaries to take Tripoli, restore Hamet Karamanli – Yusef’s surviving brother – to the throne, and negotiate a peace treaty. The promise of gold and plunder was a powerful motivator and Hamet helped Eaton and O’Bannon recruit a motley mix of ~200 Greeks (mostly Christians) and ~300 Turks and Arabs (mostly Muslims).

O’Bannon, Eaton and eight U.S. Marines from the U.S.S. Argus set out with their mercenaries from Alexandria on March 8th, 1803. Destination – Derna – 521 miles away.

Eaton declared himself to be a general even though he served as a sergeant in the Continental Army and then as a Captain in the Legion of the United States (see post 3/22/20 – The Legion of the United States – ). He had resigned from the legion in 1799 to take the post in Tripoli.

With camels as pack animals, the column followed the coast reaching the port of Bomba on April 17th, 1805. Along the way, Eaton and O’Bannon put down a mutiny, deal with truculent soldiers as well as dwindling supplies. For the last few days, each man was subsisting on a bowl of rice and two biscuits.

Resupplied by Argus, they set out for Derna on April 21st and arrived on April 25th, 51 days after leaving Alexandria. Eaton wrote to the Bey of Derna, asking for safe passage for his army so they could proceed on to Tripoli. Mustafa Bey, the governor of Derna, wrote back, “My head or yours.”

Eaton and O’Bannon had no choice but to attack Derna. On April 27th, O’Bannon, and the Marines and the Greeks attacked from the east and Hamet and the Arabs moved around to attack the city from the west.

Under heavy musket fire, the Greek mercenaries hesitated. Believing there was only one way to end this, O’Bannon and his Marines led a bayonet charge that captured the fort. Hamet managed to capture the rest of the city and set himself up in the governor’s residence.

On May 13th, Yusef arrived with a small army and almost drove Hamet’s men out of the city. That is, until O’Bannon, his Marines, and the Greeks counterattacked, keeping Derna in the possession of the Americans and their mercenaries.

Yusef retreated and Eaton and O’Bannon were about to march on Tripoli when he was informed that the U.S. and Yusef’s representatives had signed a peace treaty. Eaton was ordered to return to Egypt with Hamet Karamanli.

When O’Bannon raised his country’s flag on the parapet of Derna’s fort, it was the first time in U.S. history that the Stars and Stripes flew over an enemy position on the eastern side of the Atlantic. This historical footnote pales in comparison to O’Bannon’s courage and leadership that motivated the Greek mercenaries to follow him on the bayonet charge against a superior enemy force. What is also significant is that O’Bannon’s men suffered only 14 casualties.

Painting is called O’Bannon at Derna by COL Charles Waterhouse, USMC (retired).

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