[Republished from 13 June 2011] A little bit over a month ago, at his home blog Information Dissemination, Galrahn noted that the 27th of April marked an important day in the history of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, the anniversary of the Battle of Dernah. In his post Galrahn drew a connection between the First Barbary War and Operation Odyssey Dawn and the current operations that are being conducted under Operation Unified Protector. It can certainly be said that the success of Hamet Karamali’s insurgent army, led in reality by Naval Agent William Eaton and Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannnon, played a central role in the conclusion of the First Barbary War for the United States of America. In 1805 boots on the ground mattered after nearly four years of naval operations which had experienced little success driving the Tripolitan Pasha Jousef Karamali to the negotiating table. However, the history of Eaton, O’Bannon, and Hamet in Dernah offers a great deal more to consider than a simple lesson about the effectiveness of land forces.
The March to Dernah
Hamet Karamali had been the crown prince of Tripoli, but was deposed by his brother Jousef after their father’s death. It was Jousef who had declared war on the United States in 1801. When Eaton found him in Alexandria and offered to build him an army, and to help him lead it to Tripoli to reclaim his throne, Hamet jumped at the chance. Eaton, a former U.S. Army officer and previous U.S. consul to Tunis, had at his disposal twenty thousand dollars and a small detachment of United States Marines led by O’Bannon.
On the third of March, 1805 a rag tag army set out from Alexandria, Egypt to cross the desert toward the Tripolitan region of Bomba. About six hundred fighters strong, the force that Eaton organized marched for many different reasons. Some were Greek mercenaries (frequently referred to in the dispatches of the American officers involved as “the Christians”) who were in it for the money that Eaton promised them. Some were tribal loyalists to Hamet. Others were members of local desert tribes who’s Sheiks had been bribed, cajoled, or promised positions of power to join the insurgency. Eaton lamented the “ungovernable temper of this marauding malitia [sic],” which traveled with their families and flocks and offered constant leadership challenges and two mutinies as they crossed the desert.
When they arrived near the coastal city of Dernah on the 24th of April the army was twenty five days since their last meat and fifteen days since their bread ran out, mainly subsisting on rice and water. Eaton’s force rendezvoused with USS Argus and USS Hornet. Under the orders of Master Commandant Isaac Hull, the Sloops of War offloaded as much food, supplies, and ammunition as they could spare which reanimated the insurgent army. They moved forward and took position on a hill south of the town.
On the 26th Eaton sent a letter to the Governor of Dernah and made him an offer to join the insurgency. By allowing Hamet’s army to resupply and pass unmolested he would be permitted to retain his position when Hamet took the throne. Eaton closed the letter saying “I shall see you to morrow, in a way of your choice…” The Governor responded that evening: ”My head or yours.”
On the morning of the 27th Hull’s Sailors moved a field piece ashore, hoisting it up a twenty foot beach front cliff to Eaton and his men. Joined by USS Nautilus, the three Sloops moved to positions off the fortress that protected the town with a battery of eight cannon that faced the sea. Hornet’s skipper, Lieutenant Evans, brought his ship within one hundred yards of the fortress and anchored by setting spring lines. Argus and Nautilus took up positions on either side. It was about two in the afternoon when Hamet’s tribesmen and the mercenaries were in position and the assault began. Eaton later reported that “The fire became general in all quarters.” All three ships opened fire on the fortress and battery, decimating the eight cannon that opposed them. The bombardment lasted about an hour while Hamet led his tribesmen into the southern end of the city. Eaton and O’Bannon led the Marines and the mercenaries around the town and assaulted the fortress along the beach. Hull wrote in his report that “about half past three we had the satisfaction to see Lieut. O’Bannon and Mr. Mann, Midshipman of the Argus, with a few brave fellows with them, enter the fort, haul down the Enemy’s flag, and plant the American Ensign on the Walls of the Battery.” By four o’clock the insurgents had taken control of the town.
A City Under Siege
The Battle of Dernah, however, is just the beginning of this story. The great Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. It is after the battle that we begin to pick up the rhythm that reminds us of today’s challenges on the North coast of Africa.
Eaton immediately set about shoring up the defenses of the city. The guns of the fortress’ battery were turned inward toward the desert and Hull and the skippers of the other Sloops landed Sailors to help move supplies ashore and work on the city’s defenses. After helping the Marines and mercenaries reinforce their defenses the Sailors embarked on their ships. Hull, unsure of Commodore Barron’s orders with regard to the occupation of the city, began cycling the Sloops back to Malta to resupply and inquire about orders. Hornet was sent first, while Argus and Nautilus remained with three weeks of provisions each. Hornet would return with fresh stores and ammunition for the city.
Hull sent a report to Barron detailing his thoughts on the occupation, and what it would take to move the insurgency forward. He felt that holding the city itself would not necessarily be a difficult task and could be completed by the force on the ground as long as it was provided proper supplies from the sea and that at least one warship was kept on station to provide fire support against any attempt by the regime to retake the city. In order to push forward toward Tripoli, however, it would have required a different approach in the young Master Commandant’s mind. He wrote “I am clearly of the opinion that three or four hundred Christians, with additional supplies, will be necessary to pursue the expedition to Bengaze and Tripoli.” It was a significant increase in support, and an escalation from the American reliance on sea power.
Eaton came up with a plan that was slightly different. Pointing out that, with the proper funding, Hamet could recruit local Sheiks as he moved west, Eaton thought the insurgent army would grow. He recognized that loyalty that was purchased was suspect as a motivator for fighters. To counter that he suggested that as the force encountered difficult or entrenched enemies he would need detachments of Marines or regular soldiers to be landed by the American squadron. This support by amphibious forces would “aid and give effect to such operations as require energy.” After each amphibious raid the forces could embark aboard ship and continue to patrol the coast awaiting the next call.
It wasn’t long after the insurgents victory at Dernah that an army from Tripoli arrived. Initially they took up position on the hill south of town where Eaton and Hamet had planned their own assault. The regime forces laid siege to the city. Attacks or probes were made several times a week. During some of the heavier attacks the regime forces penetrated through the defenders outer lines and into the city. Brutal house to house urban combat was conducted by the insurgents and, with fire support from the Sloops sitting in the harbor; they were able to drive their attackers back to their positions outside the city. In a few instances Eaton lead his Marines and mercenaries out to face the irregular cavalry and undisciplined infantry that opposed them, each time having minor successes but never driving away the Pasha’s army.
While Eaton and Hull endeavored to keep the siege lines away from Dernah, and the regime’s forces at bay, the American Naval and Diplomatic leadership began to listen to Jousef’s new attempts at negotiation. Whether it was the deteriorating situation in his own country, the poor harvest that year, lack of popular support for the war with the Americans (all of which appeared to be true), or whether it was the threat posed by his brother’s foothold in Dernah, the Pasha made an overture for peace.
As the diplomats worked their negotiations the regime’s forces continued to attack and probe at Dernah. Eaton reported that spies had heard dispatches received with orders from Tripoli. The Pasha intended to conclude a peace with the United States and once it was complete he would be able to “dispose of his internal enemies.” Eaton warned Commodore Barron not to accept terms of peace too hastily, and pointed out that consideration of Hamet’s position could result in a true ally on the coast rather than a suspect treaty. He pushed hard, commenting that the honor of the United States required that they not simply abandon Hamet on the shores of Dernah. Cooperation between the United States and Hamet would, according to Eaton’s reasoning, “very probably be a death blow to the Barbary System” of piracy and hostage taking.
Eaton realized, as time went on and the regime’s army was reinforced, that Hamet was being used as a bargaining chip. He received a report that a pair of women had come into the city with orders to poison him and he began spending more time aboard Argus or Hornet, Nautilus having been dispatched for more supplies. On the 4th of June Hull received orders to return to Syracuse with Argus and Hornet and sent word for Eaton and the Americans to join him. Eaton confided to Hull that he was sure that his position in Dernah was playing an important role in the negotiation and he didn’t feel that he could leave until he knew that the negotiation had been completed. Hull prepared to send Hornet to Syracuse as ordered, but remained off Dernah aboard Argus, unwilling to abandon his countrymen.
Neither man knew that on the 3rd of June a peace treaty was signed by Jousef and Tobias Lear who was the State Department’s lead negotiator. The crew of the captured USS Philadelphia, held since the fall of 1803, were freed and sailed for Malta aboard USS Constitution. Lear wrote to Eaton that he had tried to secure some consolation for Hamet, however he decided based on his negotiations that it was “impracticable.” Lear agreed that the United States would remove all support from the insurgent army at Dernah, and also promised the Pasha that he could keep Hamet’s wife and daughters as hostages to ensure that his brother left the country.
The news was slow to spread, and on the 9th and 10th of June the regime’s army launched assaults on the city which were repelled through vicious fighting. The Sloops moved close to the shore and their guns were brought into action, “keeping up a brisk fire” according to Hull’s journal. The Pasha’s army was pushed back yet again and Hull landed more powder for the fortress’ guns.
As the sun reached toward the western horizon on the 11th of June USS Constellation arrived off Dernah, with orders for Eaton and the Americans to embark and withdraw from the assistance of the insurgent army. The withdrawal would be tricky business, and Eaton would not leave Hamet in the lurch. He consulted with the insurgent ruler and they concocted a ruse to have Hamet’s people prepare for an attack on the enemy. After dark on the 13th the Arabs and Tripolitans prepared themselves for their attack while the boats of Constellation rowed to the seawall and began taking off the Greek mercenaries. Once the Greeks were aboard word was sent to Hamet that Eaton wanted a meeting and the leader and his court slipped into the fortress and aboard Constellation’s boats. Eaton, O’Bannon, and the Marines were the last to embark, quietly covering the amphibious withdrawal. By two in the morning the force had been embarked and the insurgent army abandoned. Constellation, Argus, and Hornet sailed into the Mediterranean as Hamet’s tribesmen and the Arabs who had joined him attempted to slip away into the mountains and desert before the regime’s forces could corner them.
The victory of the United State Navy in its first conflict on a foreign shore is something that we continue to celebrate. However, few know these details of the “success.” Many of Hamet’s supporters were able to escape, a small number were captured and executed. Based on their agreement with the Pasha, a representative of the regime was landed by the Americans just before they left and he immediately began demanding loyalty oaths from anyone in the city. The United States paid Jousef sixty thousand dollars and all the Americans held in Tripoli’s slave camps were freed.
The peace held for less than a decade. Once the Barbary powers learned of the American’s war with the British in 1812 they began falling upon American merchants as their Navy fought in the Atlantic. Americans again began to fill the slave camps on the Tripolitan coast. It would take another conflict and two squadrons of battle hardened naval veterans after the end of the War of 1812 to pacify the Barbary Coast again. The Second Barbary War was considered another successful conflict for the early U.S. Navy. However, piracy and slavery on the Barbary Coast didn’t end until several years later when the Royal Navy finally decided to stamp it out.
The study of history does not provide us checklists for success. It doesn’t describe equations which will give military or government leaders a perfect answer every time. However, it can certainly help illuminate the questions that should be asked, and the possible effects of the answers to those questions. April 27th is an important anniversary in the history of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, but so is the 13th of June, when USS Constellation departed the harbor of a besieged city on the Barbary Coast. Eaton, O’Bannon, and Hull slipped away from a besieged insurgency, which had been resupplied and defended from the sea, and which relied on Western support for survival.
Was it the right decision? The expensive war being fought on the other side of the globe was certainly running the American treasury into the red. The infant American democracy struggled with the political challenges of an undeclared war on foreign soil. American casualties were few, the number of Americans taken hostage also dropped, and the reasons to keep fighting seemed small. What of the aftermath? The payment to the Pasha was arguably the very ransom that the Americans did not want to pay. The result of the diplomacy was neither a supportive local government nor a successful treaty of peace. Americans had to risk their lives on the Barbary shore again, many of them the same Sailors who started their career there.
For those who study strategy or who make policy, the story of Dernah may be history worth considering.
Sources: Dudley Knox, Ed., Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers: Naval Operations Including Diplomatic Background From 1785 to 1807, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939-1944). Volumes 5 and 6 contain the original letters and reports related to the Battle of Dernah and the siege of the city.
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