This Day in History 4/27: US Marines-led force captures Derne

“Don’t call it a comeback,
I been here for years,
Rockin my peers and puttin suckas in fear…” ~ from “I’m Gonna Knock You Out”, by LL Cool J (1990)

Don’t ever think that we’re new to the regime-change business.  We’ve had over two centuries of experience messing with other countries.

English: William Eaton (1764-1811)

English: William Eaton (1764-1811) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On April 27, 1805, a small force of United States Marines, commanding about 500 mercenaries and supported by three warships, an ambitious diplomat and a deposed former pasha, attacked and captured the city of Derne in modern-day Libya.  It was the first recorded land battle by the United States on foreign soil, and the first time the Stars and Stripes flew in combat in another country.

It was also part of our first war on terror (sensing a pattern here?).

Since the 1600s, pirates sponsored by the Barbary States (Modern day Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya) preyed upon Western ships in the Mediterranean.  The Barbary States were (except for Morocco) nominally part of the Ottoman Empire.  In reality, they stopped listening to Constantinople a long time ago.  Each state quietly sponsored a pirate fleet that pillaged any ship entering their waters, usually for gold, materials, ships and especially captives to be ransomed for big payouts.

To avoid such inconveniences, the Great Powers of Europe did what most Great Powers do: pay off the pirates to leave them alone.  Britain, France and other sea powers paid the Barbary States a yearly “tribute” to let their ships sail the Mediterranean untouched.

By  1801, the young United States suffered a similar problem in the Med.  Unfortunately, it couldn’t afford to pay off the pirate states; thus leading to the rallying cry, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute!”, which actually came from the previous XYZ Affair with the French in 1797-1798, but it seems to fit better here.

For four long years, the US Navy engages in a series of naval and coastal battles with Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli, known collectively as the Barbary Wars.  There were successes and failures on both sides: an American frigate was lost in 1801, the USS Philadelphia, only to have it burned in Tripoli harbor in a daring raid.  It deprived the Tripolitans of their prize and even impressed Lord Horatio Nelson, the great British naval commander who had his hands (or hand, I forgot he lost an arm) full with Napoleon so he couldn’t meddle too much.

Things were seemingly at a stalemate by 1805, when a diplomat, an old veteran of the Middle East, had a crazy idea.

William Eaton was the former US Consul to Tunis, a man with a decent reputation amongst Arabs and Americans alike.  As the war dragged on, Eaton was recalled to Washington and came up with an outrageous way to gain the upper-hand.  Instead of ships slugging it out in the Med, the war could open a second front on land.  The ruler of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, deposed his brother Hamet in a coup ten years earlier.  The plan would involve going to Egypt, where the exiled brother was living, recruit him and hundreds of mercenaries to cross the desert and reinstate him to his rightful throne.  The whole scheme involved naval support from three military vessels and a handful of US Marines led by First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.

Amazingly, the US government gave full support to this adventure, sending Eaton to the Med with the lofty, if slightly bullshitty, title of “Naval Agent to the Barbary States.” He found Hamet Karamanli, who agreed to the plan and helped recruit about 500 Arab and Greek mercenaries—with Eaton acting as general and commander-in-chief (he appointed himself).  They set up a base in Alexandria, Egypt, where Eaton, O’Bannon, Hamet and squadron commander Isaac Hull laid out their plans.  The objective would be the port city of Derne, capital of the province of Cyrenaica and a base of power for Yusuf.

This motley crew sets across the Libyan desert on March 6, 1805.  It would take almost two months and over 500 miles to cross, and it soon became clear that mercenaries tend to be a handful—especially when they’re two groups that hate each other.  They were promised money and supplies upon reaching Derne, and many weren’t willing to wait that long.  On any given occasion, either the Arabs or the Greeks (sometimes both) threatened to mutiny.  In the first week alone, several of the Arab camel drivers mutinied and turned back.  Things didn’t really settle down until April 25, when they reached Bomba, a city up the coast from Derne where the three naval vessels waited with the appropriate money and supplies to keep the mercenaries happy…for now.

Hull’s squadron bombarded Derne on April 27.  Hamet Karamanli led the Arab mercenaries towards the governor’s palace, cutting of the escape route to Tripoli, while Eaton led the Greeks and the Marines towards the harbor fortress.  Hamet’s forces stormed the western part of the city easily, while Eaton was seriously wounded leading his force over the walls of the defenses.  The defenders left all their cannon loaded as they fled, so Eaton turned the guns on the city and opened fire.  Meanwhile, O’Bannon raised the American flag over the Derne defenses.  The town fell by 4 in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Yusuf had already sent reinforcements to Derne, only to find that the city had already fallen.  While Eaton fortified his position, Hamet and the Arabs patrolled the governor’s palace and the outskirts.  When Yusuf’s forces attacked on May 13, the Arabs fell back before Eaton’s guns and the batteries of the USS Argus saved the day, driving the invaders back to their original positions.

Feeling confident, Eaton was ready to press on to Tripoli and finish off Yusuf…and then, en route to his prize, his government stabs Eaton in the back.

Yusuf, eager to keep his throne against his invading brother, sent feelers out to the US to sign a peace treaty.  Tobias Lear, George Washington’s former secretary and now Consul General to the North African Coast, negotiated a Treaty of Peace and Amity with Yusuf on June 4, 1805.  Incredibly, the treaty did exactly as the US didn’t want to do: pay a ransom, this time $60,000 for the release of prisoners from the Philadelphia and other ships.  Even worse, Yusuf would keep his throne, with the backing of the United States.

Hamet would return to Alexandria, the mercenaries would never be paid in full, and although O’Bannon and Eaton returned home as heroes, they never forgave Lear for his perceived treachery.

Despite the setbacks, Derne was more than just a pyrrhic victory.  Important lessons were learned, such as:

Never fuck with the Marines – a handful…yes, a HANDFUL…of Marines managed to recruit a regiment of hired killers, march them 500 miles across the Sahara, then attack a heavily fortified position, take possession AND repel ensuing counterattacks.  Derne made the US Marine Corps, plain and simple.  All jarheads trace their ancestry to Presley O’Bannon and his small band of asskickers—and they did it in those hot-as-hell Napoleonic uniforms, making them even more badass.  Finally, the Mameluke sword Marine officers carry today is modeled on the one supposedly given to O’Bannon by Hamet Karamanli as a gift for his service.

Never run a line of credit on mercenaries – The 500 goons hired to take Derne wanted cash, and fast.  Eaton kept dangling the carrot to get them crossing the desert, hyping the riches of Derne if they just got there.  A few mutinies later, it was clear they had to stop short and pay that deposit.  Mercenaries don’t carry plastic, and they don’t take IOUs or even COD.  When they were forced to return thanks to the treaty…let’s just say any town between Derne and Alexandria was fair game.

In a multinational force, the Yanks often draw the shit job – ask the poor guys at Omaha Beach about this one.  Hamet Karamanli takes the Arabs to the west side of town with almost no resistance, while Eaton and O’Bannon slog over the defenses and sustain a lot of the damage, at least initially.  Their offense ground to a halt while Hamet’s Arabs stormed the rest of the town in a walk.

No one fucks over a diplomat as much as another diplomat – or, for that matter, an FBI agent, a spy, a CIA operative, a Senate committee chairman, etc.  Derne was the start of 200 years of half-finished foreign adventures, thanks to the double-dealing, backstabbing, face-saving and ass-kissing of our federal agencies that rarely play nice together for long.

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