Saddle up our high horses and gallop to America's rescue

The USA in Libya: Battle of Derne

By —— Bio and Archives--February 22, 2015

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Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.—Sun Tzu (circa 544-496 BC) The Art of War

From the halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land and sea….                 
—USMC Hymn

Nearly a thousand years after Islamists attacked Rome and desecrated the Tomb of St. Peter (846 AD) America got its turn at bat against Muslims during the 1st Barbary War (1801-1805). Fighting Muslims overseas no doubt helped to build the very fabric of our nation—thanks for the leg up, Islam.


Stephen Decatur’s raid on Tripoli’s harbor is arguably the most famous deed of that war, but for my money the lesser known Battle of Derne (Derna) is the more spectacular exploit.

The attack on Derne was the brainchild of William Eaton, who as a 19-year-old served as a sergeant in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He was later commissioned as a captain in America’s Legion of the United States (a forerunner of the US Army). He was the US Consul to Tunisia when the 1st Barbary War broke out, and his official title when he undertook the attack on Derne was US Navy Agent for the Barbary Regencies. Dispensing with this unwieldy title, he took it upon himself to wear the uniform of a US Army general and referred to himself as General Eaton (General and Commander-in-Chief Eaton to be precise).

Eaton has been aptly described by Baar Seitz as part Lawrence of Arabia, part Teddy Roosevelt, and part George Patton—Eaton was no doubt a colorful character. Nor was he the only colorful character involved in the attack on Derne. For example, Eaton’s secretary and aide de camp, Colonel Jean Leitensdorfer, was no slouch in that department himself. I get the distinct impression that Eaton and crew had more in common with The Wild Bunch than makes for comfortable pigeonholing in the annals of US military history. In addition, I suspect that neither the Army nor Navy has ever really been sure where to place General Eaton.

[Sidebar: The following short bio of Leitensdorfer is from David Smethurst’s book Tripoli: The United States’ First War On Terror.

Leitensdorfer’s real name was Gervasso Santuari. He was an Italian, hailing from a village near Trent in the Tyrol. [He] joined the Austrian army in its campaign against the Turks. He fought at Belgrade from 1789 to 1790, and continued serving in the Austrian army during the siege of Mantua. Then in 1797, the Austrian army collapsed, surrendering to Napoleon. [Leitensdorfer] changed his name to Carlo Hossando and joined the French army. He was accused of being a spy and thrown into a French jail. He escaped by poisoning his guards and changed his name again. He rejoined the French army and was part of the force that invaded Egypt, but switched sides later on and joined the British.

Smethurst goes on to describe how Leitensdorfer opened a coffee shop in Alexandria, Egypt; married a Coptic (Christian) women; left Egypt and entered a Capuchin monastery as a Catholic friar; traveled to Constantinople where under the name Murat Aga he became a Muslim whirling dervish; made his way to Mecca; worked as an interpreter for a Scottish nobleman in Abyssinia, and then returned to Egypt where he met Eaton—and the rest, as they say, is history.

Following the 1st Barbary War Leitensdorfer traveled to the United States, where he helped architect Benjamin Latrobe lay the foundations for America’s new capitol, Washington D.C. In recognition of his part in the Battle of Derne Congress awarded Leitensdorfer 320 acres in Missouri, where he eventually moved and lived until his death in 1845. End of Sidebar]

Let me describe a bit of the backstory to the Battle of Derne in order to set the scene. To avoid getting bogged down in the byzantine politics of the day (which involved Britain, France, the USA, Egypt, Turkey, the Mamelukes, the Barbary States and other players), I’ll suffice it to say that the United States was at war with the Muslim state of Tripoli (basically comprised of what is today known as Libya). Eaton’s game-plan was to replace the ruler of Tripoli, Yussif Karamanli, with his brother Hamet, who was much more amenable to overtures of peace from the United States.

In order to displace Yussif and replace him with Hamet, Eaton planned on first capturing the Tripolitan city of Derne, located on the eastern edge of the state, and then attacking the city of Tripoli, on its western side—picking up supporters of Hamet along the way.

I suppose it all looked good on paper, but the difficulties involved in actually pulling it off were daunting. First and foremost was the problem of organizing a fighting force, closely followed by the problem of getting that fighting force to Derne. Reaching Derne would require an epic journey of over 500 miles across some of the most inhospitable geography on earth—the North African desert.

But before any epic trek could take place, Eaton first needed to round up Hamet and a small army (no mean feat in and of itself). Eaton used Alexandria, Egypt as his staging area, and it was there that he formed his army, which consisted of around 400 Muslims and 75 Christians. The Christian element of the army included Greek and Italian mercenaries, US Navy Midshipman Pascal Peck (who made the march across the desert, but was replaced by Midshipman George Mann shortly before the battle), and the backbone of Eaton’s force—a detachment of seven US Marines under the command of 1st Lt. Presley O’Bannon.

Cassandra Vivian describes Presley O’Bannon as a colorful…soldier who enjoyed the women in the Mediterranean ports. Oh joy, another colorful character. I believe that Smethurst is correct when he writes Eaton knew that what drove men like [this] was the craving to do something no man had done before, and to do so in the company of men like themselves.

Supporting Eaton’s efforts was a small splinter squadron of US Navy ships under the command of Master Commandant Isaac Hull (comprised of the brig Argus, sloop Hornet, and schooner Nautilus). The Navy’s main functions were twofold: (1) resupply Eaton’s army when it neared Derne, and (2) use their cannons to neutralize the fortress guarding Derne’s harbor once the attack began.

In early March, 1805, Eaton and his army left Alexandria and set off for Derne. Almost from the start Eaton ran into difficulties. Only a couple of days into the journey one of the Muslim sheiks tried to extort more money from Eaton. The sheik told Eaton that either he paid him more money or he and his men were taking their camels and going home. Eaton begged, cajoled, threatened, and fumed—all to no avail. Finally he gathered the Christian elements of his army together and resumed the march toward Derne without the Muslim contingent. To Eaton’s great relief, after a period of sulking the Muslims gradually followed him.

And so began a series of near mutinies that continued ad nauseum throughout the entire journey. Talk about herding cats! In this case a group of especially recalcitrant cats, greedy recalcitrant cats, with guns and swords. Overextended metaphor aside, Eaton must have had the patience of Job.

Near the end of their arduous trek, Hamet Karamanli decided that this whole replacing his brother in Tripoli thing wasn’t such a great idea after all, and told Eaton that he and his men were heading back to Alexandria. Eaton begged to differ, which resulted in a Muslim/Christian standoff in which Christians and Muslims eyeballed each other in opposing lines while waiting for the other side to blink.

Eventually the situation was defused and a potentially bloody fiasco was avoided—but it was a very near thing. In any event Eaton was out of money, out of food, out of patience, and out of time. He and his men were at the point where they would soon need to start slaughtering camels and eating them in order to survive—and you can imagine how well that would have gone over with the various Arab sheiks.

Enter the US Navy to the rescue. To Eaton’s immense relief the Navy ships Argus, Hornet, and Nautilus did show up at the rendezvous point in the Bay of Bomba, where and when they were expected. It was mid-April, and Eaton’s army was only two day’s march from Derne—replenished, restored, reinvigorated, and ready for action.

Eaton’s route from Alexandria to Derne.

After resting for several days Eaton and his army set off for Derne and were soon on its outskirts. They arrived at their destination after 52 grueling days in the desert. At one point during this final push Eaton noticed that some of the Muslims were headed in the wrong direction (i.e. back towards Alexandria). He promised them more money and another mutiny was averted. If Eaton’s experience is anything to go by, if you plan on partnering with Muslims bring money, and lots of it. In any event, on the morning of April 27, 1805 the US Navy’s ships were in position off of Derne, and Eaton ordered his army to advance.

Eaton split his army into two: Hamet (whose ranks had swelled to around 2,000 Muslims by that time) would take his force and sweep around Derne in order to attack it from the south and west (and incidentally cut off Derne from any troops sent by his brother Yussif in Tripoli), while Eaton would use his Christian contingent, complemented with a company of Muslim foot soldiers, to attack Derne from the east. Hull and his ships would attack from the north. Derne would be simultaneously attacked from all points of the compass.

Eaton (who had a plethora of cannoneers but only one cannon) opened fire on the defending force opposing him and his men on the other side of a ravine (wadi) on Derne’s eastern edge. Meanwhile Hull and his ships opened fire on the fortress guarding Derne’s harbor. The Navy gunners were quite effective, and soon the fortress’s Muslim defenders abandoned their guns and fled the fort.

That was a good news/bad news scenario, as the men who abandoned the fortress rushed to swell the ranks of Muslims opposing Eaton’s men. Eaton found himself in a stalemate, with his force and Derne’s Muslim defenders exchanging musket fire across the ravine. The stalemate ended when Eaton’s lone cannon became inoperable. O’Bannon and Eaton had a quick head-to-head meeting and decided that their only hope lay in charging straight ahead, now—which is just what they did.

They quickly overran the opposing Muslims and rushed into the fortress, where they turned several cannons around to face the city of Derne proper. Caught between Hamet’s forces, and Hull and Eaton’s cannons, Derne’s defenders soon surrendered. Derne was in American hands, and the USA’s first overseas land battle had been won.

The cost was surprisingly low for the American’s (numerically that is—percentage-wise not so much). Two Marines died (John Wilton died in battle; David Thomas was mortally wounded and died later).

Eaton was elated, for he had long considered taking Derne to be the most difficult part of his plan to capture Tripoli and force the Muslims to sue for peace. Unbeknownst to Eaton, however, American diplomats had already signed a peace treaty with Hamet’s brother Yussif, and Eaton and Hull were told to immediately stop all hostilities.

Eventually Derne was given back to Tripolitan control (Yussif Karamanli signed the peace treaty in large part because he knew that his brother Hamet and Eaton were approaching Tripoli from the east). Eaton was furious, as he believed that the only way to keep the Mediterranean’s Muslim pirates in check was by defeating them thoroughly. History would prove him correct, as a few years later America found itself embroiled in the 2nd Barbary War.

As mentioned previously, Eaton’s aide Leitensdorfer continued his adventurous life after the end of the 1st Barbary War (at one point visiting Eaton in Massachusetts). Isaac Hull retired from the US Navy as a Commodore after an illustrious career (a sea battle involving the USS Constitution, under the command of Hull, led to the Constitution being given the nickname Old Ironsides).  Presley O’Bannon was given a commemorative Mameluke sword in honor of the important part he played in the Battle of Derne. Replicas of this sword are worn by US Marine Corps officers to this day. Eaton, Hull, and O’Bannon all had US Navy ships named in their honor.

Eaton was celebrated and feted upon his return to the United States—but over the next few years he slowly became ill and disillusioned. In 1810 he wrote to a friend, Death has laid himself alongside and thrown his grappling hooks upon my quarter and forecastle, but I keep him off amidships yet. A year-and-a-half later he was dead. Today he is largely unknown in America.

Does the Battle of Derne contain any lessons of value for the modern world? I would say yes. One of the lessons we can take away is that if you are in a war against radical Islam then you must fight to win, and win in no uncertain terms.

The US government under Obama has been fond of claiming that Islamic radicalism (which to their minds is apparently neither Islamic nor radical) can be thwarted by sitting down and talking things over with them—perhaps offering them financial aid and economic incentives.

That sort of nonsense may have once been swallowed by a gullible public, but in light of the demonic savagery of ISIS, it has been exposed for the puerile drivel that it is. The Obama regime’s sophomoric attitudes endanger the United States and its citizens to such an extent that their willful blindness can only be construed as treasonous. Do you actually think that the Obama Administration’s cavalier response to the threat posed by Muslim extremists is merely the result of supercilious stupidity? If only it were that simple.

Another, more complex, lesson we can bring away from Derne is that when you are at war with elements of radical Islam it does not behoove you to be at war with Islam as a whole. Such blanket condemnation cuts your own throat. Without Hamet and his fellow Muslim’s cooperation Eaton would not have stood a chance at Derne.

The successful US Surge in Iraq would not have been a success without the help of friendly Muslims. Former SEAL Marcus Luttrell was saved by a Muslim in Afghanistan. The famous raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan was made possible by a Muslim (who shamefully now rots in a Pakistani cell). The list of such helpful Muslims is extensive indeed. To tar courageous Muslims such as President Sisi of Egypt with the same brush used on ISIS is as dangerously infantile and shortsighted as the Obama regime’s stubborn refusal to admit to the reality of rampant Islamic extremism.

There is a problem in trusting Muslims however—and it is a big one. It can be summed up in four Arabic words: takiyya, kitman, tawriya, and muruna

Takiyya is basically straight-out lying. Kitman refers to lying by omission. Tawriya (closely related to kitman) refers to lying by misdirection (e.g. exclusively quoting surahs from the Quran that extol peace, while neglecting to mention the surahs encouraging slavery, violence, and murder). Muruna is a type of camouflage, a flexibility that allows a Muslim to blend in unobtrusively within a non-Islamic environment (e.g. going beardless and/or drinking alcohol). These techniques are permitted, indeed encouraged, if their use helps to spread Islam.

With such widely sanctioned tools of deception at their command, how is a stealth jihadist to be recognized? Unfortunately, more often than not they cannot be recognized at all. (One telltale indication of a possible stealth jihadist is their downplaying of the importance of jihad, taqiyya and the like—ridicule is often used for this purpose).

In any event, we the people are faced with a conundrum: we do not wish to wage war against Islam as a whole, and yet because of stealth jihad and its techniques of deception, we dare not take at face value anything a Muslim tells us.

I suppose that given the current situation the best that we can do is to trust certain Muslims, but do so with a skeptical eye and an alert attitude of caution. The phrase trust but verify should perhaps be replaced with trust but then again don’t—an obvious oxymoron I grant you, but then conundrums are often awkward to resolve. Regardless, the government assisted infiltration of US agencies by Muslims is suicidally irresponsible and must be stopped, and then rolled back.

In the spirit of Eaton, O’Bannon and Hull, I would say that it is past time for we the people to saddle up our high horses and gallop to America’s rescue. Let us not dither about this until our streets flow with the blood of innocent victims—although sadly that may be what it takes to wake Americans up to the grave danger upon us.

Is that the cavalry I see on the horizon?


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Jim ONeill -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Born June 4, 1951 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Served in the U.S. Navy from 1970-1974 in both UDT-21 (Underwater Demolition Team) and SEAL Team Two.  Worked as a commercial diver in the waters off of Scotland, India, and the United States.  Worked overseas in the Merchant Marines.  While attending the University of South Florida as a journalism student in 1998 was presented with the “Carol Burnett/University of Hawaii AEJMC Research in Journalism Ethics Award,” 1st place undergraduate division.  (The annual contest was set up by Carol Burnett with money she won from successfully suing a national newspaper for libel).  Awarded US Army, US Navy, South African, and Russian jump wings.  Graduate of NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School, 1970).  Member of Mensa, China Post #1, and lifetime member of the NRA and UDT/SEAL Association.

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