Battle of Derne

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Battle of Derne
Part of the First Barbary War
Attack on Derna by Charles Waterhouse 01.jpg
William Eaton leading the attack on Derne with the marines, soldiers and mercenaries under his command
Date April 27-May 13, 1805
Location Derne, Cyrenaica
Result Decisive American victory
 United States

Ottoman Empire

Commanders and leaders
William Eaton
Presley O’Bannon
Oliver Hazard Perry
Hassan Bey
54 marines and soldiers
400-500 mercenaries
unknown artillery
1 sloop-of-war
1 brig
1 schooner
4,000 infantry, cavalry
unknown artillery
Casualties and losses
United States:
2 killed, 3 wounded
Christian mercenaries:
9 killed and wounded
Muslim mercenaries:
~800 killed,
~1,200 wounded

The Battle of Derne, in 1805, was the decisive victory of a mercenary army led by a detachment of ten United States Marines against the forces of Ottoman Tripolitania during the First Barbary War. It was the first recorded land battle the United States fought overseas. U.S. forces and mercenaries marched for 600 miles (970 km) through the desert to attack Derne.[1]


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.[2]

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.[3] The Nautilus was commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry, the Hornet was commanded by Samuel Evans, and the Argus was commanded by Isaac Hull.[citation needed]

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.[4] Eaton named himself general and commander-in-chief of the combined force.[5]

On March 6, 1805, General Eaton began to lead his army on a 600 miles (970 km) trek across the Libyan desert.[1] 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. Between March 10 and March 18, several of the Arab camel drivers mutinied before reaching the sanctuary of the Massouah Castle. From March 22 to March 30, there were mutinies of several of the Arab mercenaries under the command of Sheik el Tahib. On April 8, upon crossing the border from Egypt into Libya Tripoli, General Eaton had quelled the Arab mutinies. 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 the morning of April 26, Eaton sent a letter to the governor of Derne, Mustafa Bey, asking for passage through the city and supplies, though Eaton likely knew that these were terms that the governor could not accept. Mustafa reportedly wrote back, "my head or yours!". On the morning of April 27, Eaton observed a fort in Derne with eight guns, and he believed that the majority of the population would be in favor of Hamet. The Argus sent a cannon ashore for use in the attack. 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 more weakly defended governor's palace; meanwhile 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. O'Bannon led the Marines and 50 Greek cannoneers with the field piece from the Argus, though after about 45 minutes the gun's effectiveness was decreased after the crew left the ramrod in the tube and shot it away. 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.[6]

Eaton saw his mercenary army in confusion from the enemy's musket fire, and that a charge would be the only way to continue the attack. At this time he was seriously wounded in the wrist by a musketball. From the Argus, Hull observed the Americans and mercenaries "gaining ground very fast though a heavy fire of Musquetry [sic] was constantly kept upon them". The ships cut their fires during the charge. Eaton reported that O'Bannon and his Marines and Greeks "pass'd through a shower of Musketry from the Walls of houses, took possession of the Battery". 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.[7]

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.[citation needed]


The Battle of Derne was the first recorded land battle of the United States on foreign soil after the American Revolutionary War.[8] 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).[9] 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".[10]


  1. ^ a b "1775: Founding of the Marine Corps". 
  2. ^ Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. Hill and Wang, 2005, p. 150.
  3. ^ Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. Hill and Wang, 2005, p. 152.
  4. ^ Hickman, John. Early American Wars. Kurose Ross, 1982, p. 82.
  5. ^ Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. Hill and Wang, 2005, p. 151.
  6. ^ Naval Documents Relating to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume V. Washington: United States Government Printing Office. 1944. pp. 547–548, 553–555. 
  7. ^ Naval Documents Relating to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume V. Washington: United States Government Printing Office. 1944. pp. 547–548, 553–555. 
  8. ^ "Battle of Derna". US Marine Corps. Archived from the original on July 22, 2011. 
  9. ^ "First Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon". Who's Who in Marine Corps History. US Marine Corps. Archived from the original on August 6, 2007. 
  10. ^ Kelly, Jack (April 12, 2009). "Kill the pirates". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2009-04-14. 


Further reading[edit]

  • London, Joshua E. Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005. ISBN 0-471-44415-4
  • Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805. New York: Hyperion, 2005. ISBN 1-4013-0003-0.