The Battle of Derna took place on 27th April 1805 between an American-led mercenary army under the command of William Eaton and the forces of Yousef Karamanli, pasha of the Ottoman Vilayet of Tripoli. It was a major land engagement in the First Barbary War (1801-1805), during which the United States attempted to quell the Tripoli’s pirate activity in the Mediterranean.
Eaton, formerly a consul to Tunis, concocted several plans to free the United States of the onerous annual tribute of $1 million, about 10% of annual revenues, which the U.S. paid to keep its merchant fleet safe in Mediterranean waters. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson sent a squadron of Navy ships to the Mediterranean to protect American interests and Pasha Yousef declared war on 10th May 1801 by cutting down the flagstaff in front of the U.S. Consulate. Eaton at first proposed to kidnap one of Yousef’s top-ranking admirals, which he hoped would entice Yousef into diplomatic talks with the U.S., and then the U.S. would proceed to kidnap Yousef during those talks. Which is a pretty crazy idea and probably wouldn’t have worked.
Eaton finally settled on overthrowing Yousef’s regime and placing his brother Hamet in power in order to get a pro-American government in Tripoli. Eaton went along with the Mediterranean squadron in 1804 and landed in Egypt to find Hamet. After finding Hamet, they enlisted a mercenary army of about 300 Arabs and Greeks, and were joined by Lt. Presley O’Bannon, U.S.M.C., and seven Marines from the USS Argus. They marched 500 miles west along the North African desert, all the while facing food shortages, threats of desertion (including from Hamet), the mercenaries’ demands for more money, and the fear of not being able to find adequate water in the parched terrain.
This rag-tag army finally made it to Derna on 25th April 1805 after a 52 day march. On the 27th they assaulted the town and took it. It marked the first time the American flag was raised in victory in the Old World. The story has been told and retold many times by historians in the two centuries since the battle, but all of them are based on two letters that report on the battle, both by American eyewitnesses and participants. One was written by Master Commandant (later Commodore) Isaac Hull to his boss, Captain Samuel Barron, on 28th April; Master Commandant Hull commanded the USS Argus, one of the ships that provided naval gunfire during the attack. The other is by William Eaton, also written to Capt. Barron, on the 29th. I always prefer to go to the primary sources rather than read about and event through an intermediary like an historian, so I thought I would let them tell the story of the Battle of Derna! It is important to note that there are no Ottoman sources for this battle.
N.B.: the text is as it was printed in the Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers. I would have to insert “sic” so often because of orthographic differences that it would interfere with reading, so I didn’t.
To Captain Samuel Barron, U.S. Navy, Malta, from Master Commandant Isaac Hull, U.S. Navy
UNITED STATES BRIG Argus
DERNE 28th April 1805
SIR, I have the honor to inform you, that at 9 O.Clock in the morning of the 27th being about 10 Miles to the Eastward of the Town of Derne, with the Hornet in Company, we discovered the Nautilus at Anchor very close to the shore, which led us to suppose that Capt. Dent had fallen in with Mr. Eatons Army, as he had been sent in shore for that purpose the day before. — We made all sail for the Nautilus, and at 1/2 past 10 spoke her, and was informed by Capt. Dent that he had, had communication with Mr. Eaton the night before, and that he wished to have the field Pieces landed as soon as possible, and that Mr. Eaton intended to make an attack upon Derne as soon as he could get possession of them, being then about two and a half miles from the Town, and the Enemy having sent him a chalenge, hoisted out our Boat to send the field Pieces on shore with such supplies as Mr. Eaton was in want of, but on approaching the shore we found that it was impossible to land the Guns without hauling them up an almost perpendicular rock Twenty feet above the Boat. But with the perseverence of the Officer and men sent on this service, they effected the landing one of them, by hauling them u the steep Rock. Mr. Eaton finding that we should loose time in landing the other, sent it off again informing me that he should march for the Town as soon as he could possibly mount the field Piece that he had on shore, gave Lieutenant Evans Orders to stand close in shore, and cover the Army while they were preparing to march, in case the Enemy should come out against them, as they had already made their appearance in large numbers outside of the Town, gave Orders for the necessary preparations to be made for the attack by Sea upon the Town and Batteries, and stood down very close to the Town. — At 2 P.M. Mr. Eaton began the attack by Land, at same time the Hornet Lieut. Evans Anchored with Springs on his Cables, within One hundred Yards of the Battery of eight Guns, and commenced a heavy fire upon it.
The Nautilus took her station to the Eastward of the Hornet, at 1/2 a miles distance from shore, and opened upon the Town & Battery. The Argus Anchored without, and a little to the Eastward of the Nautilus, and began firing on the Town and Battery — The fort kept up a heavy fire for about an hour, after which the shot flying so thick about them, they abandoned it, and run into the Town and Gardens back — The Guns of the Vessels were turned on the Beach, and kept a heavy fire upon the Enemy to clear the way for the few brave Christians Mr. Eaton had with him, to enter the fort as they were gaining ground very fast though a heavy fire of Musquetry was constantly kept upon them from behind the Houses and old Walls near the shore. At about half past 3 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 Eenemys flag, and plant the American Ensign on the Walls of the Battery, and on turning the Guns of the Battery upon the Town, they found that the Enemy had left them in great haste, as they were found primed and loaded at their hand. —
Whilst our men were turning the Guns of the Battery upon the Town, Hamet Bashaw had taken possession of the back part of it, which brought the Enemy between two fires, which soon silenced them, and about four in the Afternoon we had complete possession of the Town and Fort, sent all our Boats on shore, for the purpose of carrying Amunition to the Fort, and to bring off the wounded men, as soon as possible, that they might be dressed. — Mr. Eaton gave the necessary Orders at the Fort, and went into the Town to see every thing quiet, and to make arrangements for the Towns being well guarded during the night. At half past five, he returned on board to get his wound dressed, having received a Musquet Ball thro’ his left wrist. — On collecting our men we found one killed and Thirteen Wounded, a list of which I have the honor to send you. — (Signed) ISAAC HULL
John Wilton, a Marine…Killed
William Eaton Esqr…Wounded
David Thomas, Marine…Wounded
Bernard O’Brian, Marine…Wounded
George Emanuel (Greek)…Wounded
Spedo Levedo (Greek)…Wounded
Bernardo Jamase (Greek)…Wounded
Nicholo George (Greek)…Wounded
George Goree (Greek)…Wounded
Capt. Lucca (Greek)…Wounded
Names unknown 3 (Greek)…Wounded
Angelo Fermosa (Maltee)…Wounded
Source: Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume V (1944): pp. 547-548.