Most Americans are unfamiliar with the First and Second Barbary Wars fought in 1801-1805 and 1815, which is a shame. They were filled with enough derring do to fill an Errol Flynn movie. If Mr. Flynn had made a movie set in that period, a great role for him to have played would have been that of Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, the man whose exploit caused the line “To the Shores of Tripoli”, to be inserted in the Marines’ Hymn.
The Barbary Pirates were muslim corsairs who operated out of North African ports, primarily Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers. Since the 16th century these bandits had been preying upon European shipping, with European nations sometimes fighting them, but often paying them protection money to be left alone. The young American republic attempted initially to have peaceful relations with the Barbary States controlled by the pirates. When that proved futile, President Thomas Jefferson decided to fight. The war was waged on the sea by American naval squadrons.
In 1805 one of the most colorful characters in American history, William Eaton, a former US consul at Tunis, hatched a plan to topple the government of the Barbary State, Tripoli, and reinstall Hamet Caramanli as Pasha of Tripoli. Assembling a motley force of 500 Greek, Arab and Berber Mercenaries, and 8 Marines at Alexandria, Egypt, he embarked upon this unlikely adventure on March 8, 1805.
Leading the Marines was First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon. Born in the year of his nation’s birth, 1776, O’Bannon was a Virginian and had been a member of the Corps since 1801. His Marines were the only portion of his force that Eaton could rely upon and were instrumental in putting down attempted mutinies by some of the mercenaries during the 50 day trek across the Sahara.
After completing the epic, and unbelievably arduous, 600 mile march across the Sahara Desert, on April 27, 1805 Eaton’s force attacked and took the city of Derne, with O’Bannon and his Marines leading the charge which captured the harbor fort of Ras del Matarix. Commodore Hull, who observed the battle from an American squadron off shore, described O’Bannon’s charge: “At 3:05 P.M. Marine Lieutenant O’Bannon, with one midshipman, one sergeant and six Marines, led a huge mob of Arabs down to the harbor sweeping aside, like chaff, the defending force, which evacuated the entire eastern portion of Derna and took refuge in the western part of the city, which was ringed by its own inner wall. O’Bannon, although powderstreaked, appeared to be in a festive mood, and when he saw me watching him, raised his sword to me. I immediately returned the gallant officer’s salute.” One Marine was killed and two were wounded. O’Bannon raised the Stars and Stripes for the first time over a conquered city. Hamet Caramanli gave O’Bannon a mameluke sword as a token of respect for his bravery, and a mameluke sword remains a part of the dress uniform of all Marine officers to this day.
The taking of Derne was the turning point of the War. Forces of the current Pasha, Yusef Caramanli, tried and failed to retake Derne. Peace was negotiated on terms favorable to the US on June 4, 1805.
O’Bannon and his men were national heroes in the US. O’Bannon was awarded a sword by the Virginia legislature. He resigned from the Corps in 1807 with the rank of Major. Moving to Kentucky, he served in the Kentucky legislature. He died in 1850. The Marine Corps keeps his memory ever green.