Since 1991, and particularly for the last fifteen years, the United States has been engaged in conflicts across the Middle East, primarily in Afghanistan and in Iraq. America embarked on each campaign with the stated purpose of safeguarding its citizens. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the country could not ignore those who posed a “clear and present danger” to its security. To that end, the U.S. employed all methods available, even toppling the existing governments and helping establish elected governments friendlier to the United States. This was not a new strategy, however. It first came into being over two hundred years ago. Then, as now, American interests were threatened by Islamic extremists — in this case, state-sponsored pirates living along the North African coast. One of those most committed to combating the new enemy was an American soldier turned diplomat turned soldier. He determined to end the threat these extremists posed, and he did so with a bold new strategy known as “regime change.” His name was William Eaton. This is the story of how he led a campaign to eradicate a direct threat to America’s national interests during the Barbary Wars.
William Eaton’s military career began long before he rode at the head of an army across the Libyan desert. He was born in February 1764 in Woodstock, Connecticut to a middle-class farmer, but like others his age, he yearned for a life of adventure. Consequently, in 1780, at age sixteen, he ran away from home and joined the Continental Army. Although the Revolution was winding down, Eaton remained with the colors, ultimately attaining the rank of sergeant, before Britain formally recognized the United States as an independent nation in 1783. After the war, he returned home and entered New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College. He graduated in 1790 and briefly served as a clerk for Vermont’s legislature, but it was not long before a military life again called to him. In 1792 Eaton rejoined the U.S. Army as a captain and soon found himself part of the expedition against the Indian tribes residing in the Ohio River Valley. Under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s direction, Eaton spent two years defending forts such as Fort Recovery, Ohio and scouting Miami Indian villages. He also sporadically engaged Indian warriors in battle. His efforts helped the U.S. secure the Northwest Territory, present-day Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. In 1795 he transferred to Georgia to protect inhabitants from menacing Creek warriors and Spanish invaders coming from Florida. Although successful, clashes with his commanding officer forced him to resign in 1797. Eaton soon found, however, that his exploits had impressed Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, who appointed the former officer U.S. Consul to the Barbary State of Tunis in North Africa.
After arriving in Tunis in January 1799, William Eaton watched as the Barbary States of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli took delight in humiliating the U.S. These nations had long preyed on American vessels in the Mediterranean, seizing cargo and crew, which they held for ransom. Now, the Barbary rulers, exploiting a radical Islamic worldview, insisted on receiving lavish “tributes,” essentially blackmail money, in exchange for peace between themselves and America. Tunis, for example, required America to pay $20,000 a year as well as provide a keg of gunpowder for every cannon salute (a traditional sign of respect among nations) an American ship received. As if paying “tribute” was not enough, several Barbary leaders audaciously added to their demands, such as when Tripoli’s Bashaw Yusuf Qaramanli called for $10,000 following George Washington’s death as well as a down payment of $225,000 prior to further negotiations, even though a peace treaty already existed. Eaton was enraged that peace should be bartered for, especially at such an exorbitant price. He wrote to the U.S. State Department that the “more you give the more the [Barbary States] will ask for.” His fury intensified in September 1800 after the dey (ruler) of Algiers commandeered the USS George Washington and forced the crew to ferry his ambassador and accompanying entourage to Constantinople, now Istanbul, to pay homage to his Ottoman Empire overlords. Appalled at the thought of a U.S. warship becoming nothing but a glorified taxi service, Eaton questioned how long his country would remain silent in the face of such degrading insults. A fledgling nation based on freedom and the rule of law was confronted with a direct threat from religiously inspired despots. The country’s national honor was at stake. As for himself, he believed America should launch an immediate military campaign against the Barbary States.
In early 1801 Consul Eaton wrote to President Thomas Jefferson in Washington, D.C. of the mounting tensions between America and Tripoli and how the U.S. needed to project a strong military presence into North Africa. His worst fears were realized when Tripoli declared war on America in May. Two months later, Commodore Richard Dale and four warships arrived off the Barbary Coast, signaling a dramatic shift in American policy. Despite achieving a victory over a Tripolitan ship, however, Dale’s blockade of Tripoli was largely ineffectual. A second squadron under Captain Richard Morris met with even less success, as Morris preferred paying social calls to European nations over engaging the Tripolitans in battle. Believing a new strategy was called for, William Eaton saw an opportunity to execute a daring new operation — one that promised to secure American interests as well as undo a travesty of justice.
Eaton had recently learned Bashaw Yusuf Qaramanli was not the rightful ruler of Tripoli. The throne actually belonged to Hamet Qaramanli, Yusuf’s older brother who had been deposed and exiled. In return for Eaton’s help in regaining power, Hamet promised to establish a lasting peace with America and allow the U.S. use of Tripoli as a military base. In a letter to President Jefferson, Eaton proposed to lead an army against Tripoli. Commodore Edward Preble, the new American commander in North Africa, supported Eaton’s endeavor. Preble believed such land-sea cooperation would ensure Tripoli’s defeat in only a few months. As Jefferson contemplated Eaton’s proposal, disaster again befell America when the USS Philadelphia was captured in late October 1803 off the Tripolitan coast and all 307 crewmembers were made prisoner. Efforts to secure the prisoners’ release proved futile as Bashaw Yusuf remained defiant. In addition to the promises previously extracted, therefore, the exiled Hamet agreed to free the Philadelphia’s crew unconditionally. Convinced restoring Hamet was America’s best option, Eaton, having returned to the U.S., persuaded both Congress and Jefferson to back his venture. By the end of 1804 he was in Cairo, Egypt telling Hamet their operation was on.
On March 6, 1805 General William Eaton, as he had styled himself, departed Cairo at the head of a four hundred-man army — comprising eight U.S. Marines, ninety Tripolitans and three hundred Greek and Arab mercenaries. With this force, he intended to march five hundred miles across the desert and capture Derne, Tripoli’s second-largest city, before marching to Benghazi where U.S. warships would transport his men to Tripoli City for the final attack that would end the war. As he advanced, his ranks swelled to nearly seven hundred men as dozens of Bedouin warriors flocked to his colors. He believed his army was more than an equal match for Bashaw Yusuf’s army, but soon the expedition threatened to dissolve as supplies ran low. Matters came to a head in early April when the mercenaries refused to go any further until a rendezvous was scheduled with the supply ship USS Argus at Bomba, nearly ninety miles away. Eaton knew the army could not stop or it faced extinction, so he ordered rations ceased until the mercenaries agreed to press on. Outraged, the Arabs prepared to storm the supply tent and seize the rations by force. Eaton was prepared for this eventuality and, together with Marine Lieutenant Pressley O’Bannon, he stood firm as two hundred Arabs charged toward him. Seeing he would not back down, Arabian sheiks ordered their men to fire on him and the marines, but Eaton still refused to capitulate. Joined by Hamet’s officers, he forced the Arabs to rejoin the column, and soon after, the army reached Bomba where they rested and resupplied before covering the final distance to Derne.
Arriving outside Derne on April 25th, Eaton found four thousand Tripolitans defending the city. He had less than a thousand. Hoping to avoid battle, he dispatched a message to the city’s governor claiming he had no wish to seize territory but only wished to see Hamet restored to power. He requested safe passage through town as well as supplies. The governor answered in unambiguous terms — “My head or yours.” With little choice, the general prepared to attack. He directed three American ships, Argus, Nautilus, and Hornet, to bombard Derne from the sea while he employed field guns against the city’s southeastern defenses. With the enemy focused on the Americans, Hamet would attack the city from the west. At 1:30 on the afternoon of April 27th, the bombardment began. From his position overlooking the city, Eaton watched the Hornet close to within one hundred yards of the shore at the same time Lieutenant O’Bannon’s marines opened fire with muskets and round shot. In forty-five minutes, defenses had crumbled, but the Tripolitans refused to give up. Training their cannons on the marines, the Tripolitans disabled the Americans’ field gun and threw the marines into confusion.
Sensing the marines were faltering, William Eaton unsheathed his sword and shouted for them to charge down the hill — straight into the enemy’s guns. Mounted atop his horse, he rode in the forefront of the attack as his men crossed the open beach. From the ramparts, Tripolitans leveled their muskets and opened fire. One marine fell severely wounded, and another dropped dead with a shot to the chest. The remaining soldiers pressed on, however, with Eaton at their side. Five bullet holes were later discovered in Eaton’s robes, but the only wound he sustained was a musket ball to the left wrist. Forced to halt, he watched as Lieutenant O’Bannon covered the last few yards to the city’s walls where he planted the Stars and Stripes. He then led his men to the cannons lining the walls and turned them on the fleeing Tripolitans. As Eaton looked on, word reached him that Hamet’s forces had driven into the city, and the exiled bashaw was, at that very moment, raising his own flag over the governor’s palace. Derne had been taken in only two and a half hours.
Eaton was jubilant at his victory, and he prepared to march on Tripoli City. He requested additional supplies and reinforcements, but instead he was told how U.S. Consul General Tobias Lear had brokered peace with Yusuf Qaramanli. In return for $60,000 and a promise that foreign forces would leave Derne, Yusuf released the Philadelphia’s crew. Eaton was flabbergasted that Lear would negotiate with a tyrant. Worse, he viewed the deal as a betrayal of all he and his men had fought and bled for. He bid farewell to Hamet, who spent the remainder of his life in Egypt, and sailed for the U.S. Despite being disheartened, he returned home a national hero for leading American soldiers into battle on foreign soil for the first time. Massachusetts awarded him ten thousand acres in Maine, and in 1807 Congress presented him with a settlement of over twelve thousand dollars for expenses incurred during the campaign. That same year he performed his final act of service when he testified at the treason trial of Vice-President Aaron Burr. Shortly thereafter, he settled in Brimfield, Massachusetts where he died in June 1811. Not only did he leave behind a legacy to inspire American actions during the early twenty-first century, but he also established the standard of heroism that echoes forever in the words of the Marine Corps Hymn — “to the shores of Tripoli.”
Since its earliest days, America has refused to allow its national interests and its citizens to be threatened by extremists who may hide behind the banner of religious zealotry. One of the greatest threats to peace and security today has ties to a time over two hundred years ago when this country confronted the forces of oppression along the Barbary Coast of North Africa and sought to bring about stability and safety through regime change. William Eaton was willing to be the instrument of that change, for he recognized the need to take firm action. Though he respected the power of diplomacy, he fully understood that at times military force is the only effective tool left to employ. While his plan was not allowed to be fully executed, William Eaton stands proudly among those oftentimes forgotten patriots whose ultimate loyalty and dedicated service to country serve as a clarion call to us that there finally comes a time to take a stand.