The Battle of Derne was the decisive victory of a mercenary army led by a detachment of United States Marines and soldiers over pirate forces along the Barbary coast nation of Tripoli during the First Barbary War. It was the first recorded land battle of the United States fought overseas.
6 Further reading
In 1804, the former Consul to Tunis, William Eaton, returned to the Mediterranean with the title of Naval Agent to the Barbary States. Eaton had been granted permission from the United States government to back the claim of Hamet Karamanli. Hamet Karamanli was the rightful heir to the throne of Tripoli and had been deposed by his brother Yussif Karamanli. Upon his return to the area, Eaton sought out Hamet Karamanli who was in exile in Egypt. Upon locating him, Eaton made a proposal to reinstate him on the throne. The exile agreed to Eaton's plan.
Commodore Samuel Barron, the new naval commander in the Mediterranean, provided Eaton with naval support from the USS Nautilus, the USS Hornet and the USS Argus. The three vessels were to provide offshore bombardment support. The Nautilus was commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry, the Hornet was commanded by Samuel Evans, and the Argus was commanded by Isaac Hull.
A detachment of U.S. Marines was given to Eaton under the command of First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon. Eaton and Hull made their base of operations at Alexandria, Egypt. There, with the help of Hamet Karamanli, they recruited about 500 Arab and Greek mercenaries. Eaton named himself general and commander-in-chief of the combined force.
General Eaton now led his army on a 500 miles (800 km) trek across the Libyan desert. Their objective was the port city of Derne, the capital of the province of Cyrenaica. Supplies and money were promised to the largely mercenary force when they reached the city. During the 50-day trek Eaton became concerned with the relationship between the Christians and the roughly 200 or 300 Muslim mercenaries in his force. On several occasions mutiny threatened the success of the expedition. The force finally reached the port city of Bomba in late April, up the coast from Derne, where the Argus, the Nautilus and the Hornet along with Captain Hull were waiting. There Eaton and his force received supplies and money to pay the mercenaries.
On April 27, two days after arriving at Bomba, Hull's ships opened fire and bombed Derne's batteries for about an hour. General Eaton divided his army into two separate attacks. Hamet would lead the Arabs southwest to cut off the road to Tripoli and then attack the left flank of the city and storm the lesser defended governor's palace while Eaton with the rest of the mercenaries and Marines attacked the harbor fortress, while Hull and the other ships opened fire on the heavily defended port batteries At 2:45 p.m. the attack began with Lt. O'Bannon and the Marines in the lead. The harbor defenses had been reinforced and the attackers were momentarily halted, this however allowed the Arab mercenaries sent to cut the road to Tripoli to ride unopposed into the western section of the city.
Eaton led the force over the walls while being seriously wounded in the wrist by a musketball. The defenders fled in such haste that they left their cannon loaded and ready to fire. O'Bannon raised the American flag over the works as Eaton turned the captured batteries on the city and opened fire. Hamet's force in the meantime had seized the governor's palace and secured the western part of the town. Many of the defenders of the harbor fortress continued retreating through the town and right into Hamet's force. By 4:00 p.m. the entire city had fallen. For the first time an American flag was flown over fortifications on that side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Yusuf was aware of the attack on Derne and had sent reinforcements to the city. By the time this force arrived the city had fallen. Still they dug in and prepared to retake the city. Eaton immediately worked on fortifying his new position. Hamet had taken up residence in the governor's palace and his Arab forces patrolled the outlying areas of the city. The reinforcements dug in south of the city and waited. On May 13, they attacked the city and drove the Arabs back almost capturing the governor's palace. The Argus and Eaton's captured batteries pounded the attackers, who fled under continued bombardment. By nightfall both sides were back to their original positions. Skirmishes and several other minor attempts were made on the city in the following weeks but the city remained in American control. From Derne, Eaton now planned to march across the desert and attack Tripoli from the land. During his march he was informed of the treaty signed between Tobias Lear and Yusuf Karamanli. In the middle of his trek Eaton was ordered to return to Egypt with Hamet.
The Battle of Derne was the first recorded land battle of the United States on foreign soil after the American Revolutionary War. The battle was the decisive action of the First Barbary War, although Eaton was angered by what he called a 'sell-out' between Consul Lear and the bey. Hamet returned to Egypt and the mercenaries were never fully paid. William Eaton returned to the United States as a national hero. First Lt. O'Bannon was presented a Mameluke sword by Hamet, the Ottoman Empire viceroy, on December 8, 1805, as a gesture of respect and praise for the Marines' actions and later was awarded a sword of honor patterned on the Mameluke design by his home state of Virginia (which led to adoption of the sword by all U.S. Marine officers to this day). The attack on the city was the inspiration for a portion of the lyrics of the Marines' Hymn that mention "to the shores of Tripoli".