Battle of Derna, 27 April 1805: Selected Naval Documents

With the unsatisfactory result of the bombardments of Tripoli in 1804 the Tripolitan War had languished in a stalemate. In early 1805 the US Navy Agent for the Barbary Regencies, William Eaton, resolved to combine diplomacy with a land campaign to bring stronger pressure on the Bashaw, Yususf Karamanli. An unlikely opportunity arose from the dynastic squabbles that characterized the monarchies of the Barbary States in the form of Bashaw Yusuf's exiled brother, Hamet Karamanli. Eaton approached Hamet with the proposal for an alliance. In return for his assistance in mounting a land expedition against Tripoli, Hamet would compensate the United States for its expenses in the war and further promised to make no more demands for tribute.

As a result of these negotiations, Eaton, assisted by US Navy Lieutenant John H. Dent (later replaced by Midshipman George Mann), was able to assemble a mixed force of some 400 men, composed of 38 Greek mercenaries, 25 mostly European artillerists, 90 men serving under Hamet Karamanli directly, 190 camels and their drivers, a small force of Arab cavalry, and eight US Marines commanded by First Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon. This force began its march in Egypt on 8 March 1805, and after six weeks of mutiny, hunger, thirst, Arab intransigence and religious tension arrived on 25 April before Derna, the eastern-most fortified town under Tripolitan control. Eaton, despite the fact that the garrison consisted of 945 cavalry and 1,250 infantry, called on Governor Mustapha Bey to surrender, a summons that was contemptuously rejected. Supported by gunfire from the brig Argus, sloop Hornet and schooner Nautilus, Eaton began an assault on the town on 27 April. Despite the heavy odds, a redoubled effort led by First Lieutenant O'Bannon and Midshipman Mann succeeded in taking the town.

After assuming the garrison role itself, Eaton's force was then counter-besieged by a Tripolitan cavalry force. Before any decisive action could take place, however, the frigate Constellation arrived on 11 June with the news that Bashaw Yusuf, who had come to the conclusion that there was nothing else to be gained in continued fighting, had agreed to end the war. Hamet Karamanli and his followers had no choice but to return to exile, while the Americans and Europeans departed on board Constellation. The remainder of the Arab force was left to its fate.


[10 September 1804]

U.S. Squadron in the Mediterranean

[Résumé, presumably prepared in Navy Department about 1806 or 1807, concerning the U.S. Squadron in the Mediterranean.]

THE SQUADRON OF COMMODORE SAMl BARRON:

On the Capture of the Philadelphia, Congress passed Act of 25th March 1804. - The President was authorized to employ such of the armed vessels as he might deem requisite for protecting the Commerce and Seamen of the United States and for carrying on warlike operations against the Regency of Tripoli, and any other of the Barbary Powers which might commit hostilities against the United States. Whereupon the President directed to be put in Commission, to be under the Command of Commre S. Barron, the following Vessels, Vizt

The President further directed that the United States' Vessels of War in the Mediterranean under Commodore Preble, consisting of, Constitution, Siren Brig, Argus Brig, Vixen Schooner, Nautilus Schooner, Enterprise Schooner, should be under the Command of Commodore Samuel Barron.

On the 26 June 1804 the John Adams left the Capes and on the 5 July was followed by the Squadron which appeared off Tripoli the beginning of September. On the 10th Commodore Preble resigned to Comre Barron the Command of the joint Squadron and returned to the United States in the John Adams. -

The Season being too far advanced for another attack on Tripoli the Squadron was detached different ways to protect our Commerce.

The Government having received information of the probable advantages of a co-operation with Hamet the ExBashaw of Tripoli appointed William Eaton Esqr Agent for the Barbary Powers, to be under the orders of Commodore Barron. Mr Eaton took passage for the Mediterranean on board the President, & in Novr Sailed for Alexandria in Egypt in search of Hamet, who had joined the fortunes of the Beys. Having proved successful in discovering & extricating the ExBashaw from Egypt, Mr Eaton with Lt OBannon of the Marines, Midsn Mann & Peck and some few other Americans, traversed the Deserts of Lybia and on 15 Apl [1805] arrived at Bomba a Town about 120 Miles to the Eastward of the East Cape of the Gulf of Sidra and there made a stand for the purpose of making arrangements with the Squadron and collecting the Adherents of Hamet. Having collected 500 Arabs, Mr Eaton with 10 Marines, a Company of Greek Christians, Lieut OBannon & Midsn Mann advanced with Hamet and on 27 April 1805 attacked and took, in conjunction with the Argus, Nautilus, and Hornet, the Town of Derne in the Province of the same Name. In this action Mr Eaton was shot through the wrist, & Lt OBannon & Mr Mann planted the American Colours on the Walls. Jussuf the Reigning Bashaw of Tripoli having received Information of Mr Eaton's movements dispatched a force against him which arriving after the surrender of Derne, attacked & drove the Troops of Hamet posted before the place but were finally repulsed from works thrown up by the Americans. Several other Skirmishes took place alike unfortunate to the Tripolitans. Mr Eaton and his party were then preparing to advance to Bengazi, but the Bashaw alarmed at the ill fortune of his Arms, threatened by the Squadron in front, and dreading the progress of Mr Eaton, made overtures of peace through the Spanish Consul at Tripoli.

On the 22d May 1805 Commodore Barron resigned to Capt John Rodgers the Command of the Squadron, his Ill Health having incapacitated him from the duties of the Station.

In May, the Government dispatched to the support of the Squadron, Gun Boats No 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, & 10, which were soon followed by the Spitfire and Vengeance, Bomb-Ketches.

The overtures of Peace having been received from the Bashaw of Tripoli, Consul General Lear was sent from Malta to Tripoli, to adjust the terms of pacification. After a short time spent in discussion, Mr Lear offered his ultimatum which was accepted by the Bashaw and on the 3d June 1805, Peace was made and signed. The following are the preliminary articles,

    I. There shall be a firm and lasting Peace upon Principles of reciprocal advantage.

    II. The Exchange of Prisoners, man for man, and the payment of Sixty thousand dollars to Tripoli for the balance in their hands.

    III. The evacuation of Derne by the Americans, and their using all means in their power to persuade Hamet to withdraw from the Territory of the Bashaw, in this case the Bashaw to give up the wife and Children of Hamet.

    Signed by TOBIAS LEAR -
    & JUSSUF - BASHAW. -

These Articles being carried into effect, the Frigate President, Capt Jas Barron, havin Comre Barron on board sailed for the United States and the Remainder of the Squadron in the Begg of July Rendezvoused at Syracuse under the command of Comre John Rodgers.

Source: Naval Documents related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Vol. 5, Naval Operations Including Diplomatic Background, From September 7, 1804 Through April 1805, (Washington, DC: 1944): pp. 8-10.


[19 February 1805]

Extract from a letter to an officer on board U.S. Brig Argus, from Midshipman Pascal Paoli Peck, U.S. Navy, son of Colonel William Peck

dated Malta, July 4.

"By the President, which sails for America in a few days, I embrace the favorable opportunity of writing you a few lines. You will no doubt be anxious and feel a little surprised at my long silence, and will, perhaps, place it to neglect or want of affection; but when I assure you I have not been in a christian country for nearly eight months before, you will form an opinion that will be more correspondent to the feelings of my heart. Time and duty will not permit me to write you as lengthy as I could wish; I will, however, give you a short account of our journey across the Lybian Desert, where we suffered almost every thing possible, but in the end gained a glorious victory, and in a great measure contributed to the bringing the Bashaw of Tripoli to terms of peace. About the middle of November we sailed from Malta, bound to Egypt (having on board, as passenger, William Eaton, esq) in search of Hamet Bashaw, the rightful sovereign of Tripoli, to endeavor to effect a cooperation with him against his brother, the reigning Bashaw of Tripoli. We arrived at the port of Alexandria on the 24th Nov. and Mr. Eaton went to grand Cairo in search of the ex-Bashaw, After a long series of difficulties, dangers and vexations, Mr. Eaton arrived near Alexandria with the Bashaw, and about 40 persons in his suit, about the 6th of February. Mr. E. returned on board, and the Bashaw formed his camp 11 miles from Alexandria, where he was occasionally reinforced by the Bedouin or Desert Arabs. At the pressing solicitation of Mr. Eaton, and at the request of capt. Hull, I consented to accompany the former across the desert, with the proviso of joining the brig at Bomba. On the 19th of Feb. Mr. E. our lieutenant of marines, myself, and seven marines, left the brig and joined the army, and the brig sailed for Syracuse. On the 6th of March we commenced our march with about 300 well mounted Arabs, 70 christians recruited at Alexandria, and 105 camels, laden with our provisions and baggage. Our 1st day's march was near 40 miles. On encamping, we found the well, to all appearance, dry, and there was no water within 6 hours' march. Here commenced the first of our sufferings - after marching near 40 miles in a burning sun, buoyed up with the idea of finding water at the end of our march, we found on encamping, not the least sign of water, nor was a green thing to be seen. All hands were employed in clearing out the well, but were so thirsty and fatigued they could hardly move. For myself, not having taken the precaution to procure a small skin of water to carry on my horse, had it not been for a few oranges I had, I should hardly have been able to move next morning. I laid myself down on my bed to sleep, but I could not, being for the first time in my life almost dead with thirst. Had I possessed thousands I would have given them for a gill of water. About day light, a little water was found, worse, if possible than bilge water; but to me it was more delicious than the most precious cordial We moved on the 8th and continued our march, by irregular stages, until the 22d, halting wherever water was to be procured, and frequently suffering very much for the want of it; our only provisions a handful of rice and two biscuits a day, and every day perplexed and harrassed by the Arabs for money, who finding us in their power, endeavored to extort every thing from us. The 22d about noon, we encamped on a spacious barren plain, where there were about 5000 Bedouin Arabs encamped, all in our interest, about 10,000 camels and 50,000 sheep fed. Here we remained 5 days to refresh our troops. The 27th we commenced our march with a small reinforcement, consisting of 37 Arab families, with about 150 fighting men. We might have taken the whole of them, had we had a sufficiency of provisions, which were now reduced to rice only. - Water was growing more and more scarce every day, and the Arabs becoming more troublesome. They seemed determined not to proceed to Bomba until news came of the arrival of our vessels, never once supposing they would arrive, but remained under an idea that we wished to get possession of some strong hold in their country, and reduce them to Christianity. They said it was impossible for a christian and a mussulman to have the same interest. Our provisions were drawing to an end, and our christian soldiers on the point of mutinying. Our prospects were now gloomy indeed, when, on the 10th of April, at the time when we had discovered a mutiny, a courier arrived with news of our vessels being off Bomba. In an instant the face of things changed from pensive gloom to enthusiastic gladness; the soldiers who had refused to mount guard returned to their duty. The next morning we marched on in high spirits, being only three good days march from Bombay, although we had only provisions for the next day. The 12th, our provisions being expended, we killed a camel for subsistence, which lasted us the 13th. On the 16th we arrived at Bomba, having been 3 days without a mouthful of provision, except a little sorrel we found now and then, and a small root we dug out of the sand. To add to our distress, no vessel was to be seen, and no water to be found; we remained that night without a drop. The Arabs again began to murmur. Early on the morning of the 17th I was roused by the joyful sound of a sail! a sail! I went out of my tent, and enjoyed the pleasing sight of the Argus coming down the coast under full sail. All was now rejoicing, and mutual congratulation. About 8 the Argus discovered us, and at 10 I enjoyed the pleasure of embracing my messmates, and sitting down to a comfortable meal, which I had not enjoyed for near 40 days. When I think on our situation in the Desert, where no other christian ever sat his foot, and consider what thieves the Arabs are, who would shoot a man for the buttons on his coat, and their religous prejudices, which would have been sufficient to warrant our deaths, as christians and enemies to their religion, I frequently wonder how it was possible for us to succeed in reaching Bomba. Certainly it was one of the most extraordinary expeditions ever sat on foot. We were very frequently 24 hours witbout water, and once 47 hours without a drop. Our horses were sometimes three days without, and for the last 20 days had nothing to eat except what they picked out of the sand. The country was a melancholy desert throughout, and for the space of 450 miles we saw neither house nor tree, nor hardly any thing green, and, except in one place, not a trace of a human being.

"To-morrow morning we sail again for Alexandria. I have but a few minutes to spare from my duty to finish this. Suffice it to say, that on the 27th of April, Derne, the most valuable province of the kingdom of Tripoli was taken by the united forces of Hamet Bashaw and Mr. Eaton, and the Argus, Nautilus, and sloop Hornet; and that about the middle of June a peace was concluded with the reigning Bashaw of Tripoli; and the Ex-Bashaw, with about 60 of his followers, obliged to abandon their country, without knowing where to seek a home or subsitence. There is not the smallest doubt but that our getting possession of Derne was the reason of the Bashaw's coming to terms. But I must hasten to conclude, as a boat is now waiting to take the letters on shore. Our whole squadron is at Syracuse, and will go down the Mediterranean in a short time. The President sails for America shortly. Commodore Barron is on board her in a very low state of health. The John Adams and three gun boats have arrived at Syracuse."

Source: Naval Documents related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Vol. 5, Naval Operations Including Diplomatic Background, From September 7, 1804 Through April 1805, (Washington, DC: 1944): pp. 361-363.


Painting: 'The Assault on Derna, Tripoli, 27 April 1805,' by Charles H. Waterhouse, Marine Corps Art Collection.

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 3 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 challenge, 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 up 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 ½ 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 a 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, had down the Enemys 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 bad 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 possission 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 a 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
William Eaton Esqr
David Thomas, Marine
Bernard O.Brian     Do
George Emanuel (Greek)
Spedo Levedo         Do
Bernardo Jamase     Do
Nicholo George       Do
George Goree          Do
Capt Lucca              Do
Names unknown 3   Do
Angelo Fermoso Maltee
Killed  
Wounded
  do    
  do    
  do    
  do    
  do    
  do    
  do    
  do    
  do    
  do    

Source: Naval Documents related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Vol. 5, Naval Operations Including Diplomatic Background, From September 7, 1804 Through April 1805, (Washington, DC: 1944): 547-548.


For further information:

Bauer, Jack K. ed. The New American State Papers: Naval Affairs, Vol. 4, Combat Operations. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1981.

Parker, Richard B. Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Wright, Louis B. and Julia H. Macleod. The First Americans in North Africa: William Eaton's Struggle for a Vigorous Policy Against the Barbary Pirates, 1799-1805. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1945.