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To the shores of Tripoli: Battle of Derna

nono umasy

The Battle of Derna, fought on April 27, 1805, holds a special place in United States Marine Corps history as part of the First Barbary War (1801-1805). It was a significant confrontation that not only demonstrated the Marines' capability in foreign expeditions but also contributed to the phrase "to the shores of Tripoli" in the Marines' Hymn, underlining its historical importance. This battle marks the first recorded land battle the United States fought on foreign soil and showcases the Marines' role in early American military successes abroad.[1]


The backdrop to this engagement was the piracy and tribute demands imposed by the Barbary States on American shipping in the Mediterranean. In response, Lieutenant William Eaton, a former diplomat and then Naval Agent to the Barbary States, orchestrated a bold plan approved by President Thomas Jefferson. His strategy was to reinstate Hamet Karamanli, the rightful ruler of Tripoli ousted by his brother Yusuf, thereby destabilizing Yusuf’s regime.

Commodore Samuel Barron, the newly appointed naval commander in the Mediterranean, provided Eaton with naval support through three small warships from the United States Navy's Mediterranean squadron: the USS Nautilus, led by Oliver Hazard Perry; the USS Hornet, under the command of Samuel Evans; and the USS Argus, captained by Isaac Hull. These vessels were tasked with providing offshore bombardment support to Eaton's operations.[2] Eaton, along was initially given a small contingent of seven United States Marines under O'Bannon's command. With the collaboration of Hamet Karamanli, they recruited approximately 400 Arab and Greek mercenaries to bolster their ranks.Eaton declared himself the general and commander-in-chief of this assembled force.

The campaign began with a grueling 500-mile march through the desert from Alexandria, Egypt to Derna, confronting harsh conditions, dwindling supplies, and internal dissent among the troops. Upon arriving at Derna, Eaton and O'Bannon faced a well-defended town but were determined to capture it to secure a bargaining chip against Tripoli.

Battle of Derna

The decisive Battle of Derna took place on April 27, 1805. The confrontation began when Eaton, having been denied peaceful passage through Derna by its governor Mustafa Bey, launched a coordinated assault on the city. Utilizing naval bombardment from Captain Isaac Hull’s warships, including the USS Argus, and dividing his forces into two attacking groups, Eaton’s strategy was to simultaneously strike the city's harbor fortress and its more vulnerable governor's palace.

The battle unfolded quickly with initial complications when the field cannon, delivered by the USS Argus, was rendered less effective due to a mishandled ramrod. Despite this, the harbor's defenses were weakened by Eaton's feint and direct assaults, allowing Arab mercenaries to infiltrate the western section of Derna unopposed. As Eaton’s forces faced intense musket fire, he led a daring charge that resulted in him being seriously wounded, yet this aggressive move helped his troops gain significant ground.

In a symbolic moment marking a historic military achievement, O'Bannon raised the American flag over the captured harbor battery, signifying the first time the flag flew over foreign fortifications.[3] The fall of Derna was swift thereafter, with the governor's palace captured and the city’s defense collapsing by 4:00 p.m. the same day. The aftermath saw Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli dispatching reinforcements, which arrived too late to prevent Derna's fall but managed to mount a counterattack on May 13, temporarily threatening the newly established American control. However, persistent defense, aided by Eaton’s forces and naval support, repelled the assault, securing Derna under American and allied control for the time being.


Despite its military success, the battle concluded with diplomatic maneuvers that frustrated many involved, particularly William Eaton, who perceived the subsequent treaty between U.S. diplomat Tobias Lear and Yusuf Karamanli as a betrayal. After the battle, the aftermath was mixed for those involved. Eaton returned to the United States heralded as a national hero, but the situation for his allied forces in Derna was less favorable. The Arab mercenaries who played a crucial role in the capture of the city were left unpaid and uninformed about the departure of the Marines and Greek mercenaries, demonstrating the often transient and precarious alliances in such military campaigns.

A legendary aspect of the battle's legacy revolves around First Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon, who is rumored to have received a Mameluke sword from Hamet Karamanli, the rightful ruler of Tripoli Eaton and O’Bannon had reinstated. However, historical evidence does not support this claim, and the story appears to be a later embellishment. Despite this, O'Bannon was honored by his home state of Virginia with a sword, and the tale contributed to the adoption of Mameluke swords by Marine Corps officers—an element of their dress uniform that persists today, though it likely reflects broader 19th-century military fashion trends rather than any specific event from the Barbary Wars.


  1. "Naval History and Heritage Command, Battle of Derne", April 27, 1805, Selected Naval Documents.
  2. Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. Hill and Wang, 2005, p. 152.
  3. Naval Documents Relating to the United States Wars with the BarbaryPowers, Volume V. Washington: United States Government Printing Office. 1944. pp. 547–548, 553–555.

Further Reading

  • Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World New York: Hill & Wang, 2005. ISBN 978-0809028115
  • 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
  • Parisis, Ioannis (10 July 2013). "The first US Marine's operation in the Mediterranean – A Greek-assisted attack in the Battle of Derna". The Academy for Strategic Analyses. Retrieved 11 September 2016.
  • Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror 1801-1805. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003. ISBN 0-7867-1404-2
  • 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.
  • Naval Documents related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume V, Part 3 of 3, Naval Operations including diplomatic background from September 7, 1804 through April 1805 by United States Government Printing Office Washington, 1944.

Last Updated: Tue Apr 30 2024

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