To the shores of Tripoli

Exactly two hundred and ten years ago this week, the United States of America won its first land battle on a foreign shore – taking the city of Derne, in Libya, against the Barbary Pirate state of Ottoman Tripoli.  This battle essentially won the war for the young nation and resulted in the freeing of all 300-odd American sailors then rotting in the bey of Tripoli’s dungeons.

But President Jefferson squandered the gain.

In 1804, Jefferson dispatched a former diplomat, William Eaton, alone to the Mediterranean with instructions to overthrow the bey of Tripoli, Yusef Karamanli.  The idea was to install Yusef’s brother, the deposed Hamet, in his place.  Hamet had promised to stop the piratical practice of kidnapping American merchant sailors for ransom.

Eaton called himself “General” Eaton, the “Naval Agent to the Barbary States.”  After searching around the narrow corners of Alexandria, Egypt, he found the compliant Hamet hiding out from his brother and breathed some courage into him, and the two scrounged up 500 Greek and Arab mercenaries to come along with a promise of future payment.

On March 6, 1805, Eaton planned a surprise attack from the land on the bey’s port city of Derne and corralled his ragtag force, led by ten Marines under the command of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.  But Derne was a 600-mile march away, through the desert.  It took 50 days, but Eaton and O’Bannon trekked through.  Just outside Derne, the Marines found the USS Argus, the Nautilus and the Hornet, under the overall command of Captain Isaac Hull, awaiting them. 

When the local governor refused to grant safe passage to Tripoli, the ultimate strategic objective, Captain Hull lent the little army one of his cannons and then started bombarding Derne’s fortifications with his ships.  This was the cue for “General” Eaton and Lt. O’Bannon to attack.  

Although seriously wounded, Eaton, his Marines, and some mercenaries breached the wall with their sole cannon and charged into the city.  From the Argus, Captain Hull saw the Americans "gaining ground very fast though a heavy fire of musketry was constantly kept upon them."  Capturing the loaded batteries, the Marines turned them on the defenders and fired.  The defenders fled into Hamet’s mercenary force flanking them as O’Bannon raised the American flag over the citadel.  The Americans fortified the city.

Eaton’s plan was now to march on Tripoli and install Hamet as the new bey, who would free the prisoners and conclude a favorable treaty.  While under way, runners informed Eaton that the American consul, under instructions from Jefferson, had concluded a treaty with Bey Yusef, caving to the demand that Hamet be installed but freeing all the American sailors.  Eaton decried the sellout, and Hamet went back to Egypt.  The mercenaries were never paid up, although Yusef got $60,000 out of the deal.

Jefferson’s cave-in came back to haunt America, which eventually faced a new onslaught of sailor-kidnappings and had to fight the Second Barbary War to finally end the practice.

Two hundred years ago, an American president faced a Muslim enemy devoted to kidnapping and killing Americans.  He responded with what he no doubt assumed was a limited, proportionate response to apply pressure to the regime.  Against all odds, it worked.  The regime backed down, but only for a time, and soon our nation had to go to war again to utterly crush the foe.  Sound familiar?

Christopher Carson holds a masters degree in national security studies from Georgetown University.

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