For centuries, the inhabitants of present-day North Africa had made their living by extorting tributes from maritime countries that crossed the Mediterranean Sea.
Most European countries accepted this arrangement as a cost of doing business, and paid the tributes. The Federal Government of the new American nation did not have the deep pockets that their European counterparts did. Thus, they balked at paying what they considered exorbitant tributes to maintain free trade.
In 1801 the ruler of Tripoli declared war on the United States because of our refusal to pay extortion money for the protection of the United States ships sailing in the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. re-created a Navy, and once again, the Marines were aboard.
The new Frigate Philadelphia, during blockade duty in Tripoli Harbor, was unlucky (or ill-captained) and ran aground in the harbor, and was captured by the Bashaw of Tripoli, one Yusuf Karamanli. Her crew of approximately 300 officers and men was captured and held for ransom.
A force of sailors and Marines, under the command of Navy Lieutenant Steven Decatur, snuck aboard the Philadelphia and, under the very guns of the fort in Tripoli Harbor, burned her to the waterline, to deny her use to the Tripolitanians. No lesser a person than Lord Horatio Nelson himself praised this action as the “most bold and daring act of the age. This still left the captured crew as a pawn for the Bashaw to use to extort tribute from the United States.
Attack on Derna, Tripoli
In 1805, with the blockade of Tripoli Harbor dragging on, President Jefferson authorized a former envoy to Tunis named William Eaton to attempt an overland attack from Egypt to try to pressure the Bashaw into releasing the hostages.
He was accompanied by a Marine Guard of 7 men under the command of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.
They supported the Bashaw’s brother, Prince Hamet, who Yusuf had forcibly deposed, in his bid to regain his throne, and gain the release of the Philadelphia hostages.
The Marines, with 400 of a mixture of European and Arabic mercenaries, and a few of Prince Hamet’s men, crossed 600-miles of Libyan Desert to attack the city.
Along the way, though vastly outnumbered, the Marines would stand by Eaton and Hamet during numerous small “mutinies” staged by the mercenaries to try to extort more money from Eaton.
Eaton’s first stage in the expedition was to attack and seize Derna, a seaport between him and Tripoli. This would give him a base to rest and re-supply with goods from the US Navy.
During the attack, the Marines would fight hand to hand in the city, while the navy bombarded the city from the harbor.
When the city surrendered, the Marines would raise the “Stars and Stripes” over the captured fortress, the first time the American flag was raised in the Old World.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, diplomatic maneuvering (and a reduced amount of tribute) had secured the release of the Philadelphia hostages, so Eaton and the Marines were evacuated from Derna to Navy ships, and the overland expedition came to an end no closer to Tripoli.
Despite never having been returned to his throne, as a token of gratitude, Prince Hamet presented his own Mameluke sword to Lieutenant O’Bannon. A replica of that sword was adopted for use and carried by all Marine Officers. The Mameluke Sword is the oldest weapon still in use today by any of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Lt Presley O’Bannon’s attack on Derna was commemorated by the phrase “To the Shores of Tripoli,” inscribed on the Marine Corps’ Battle Colors.
With the defeat of Tripoli, America would see very few years of peace before again having to defend her shores. As always, the United States Marine Corps would rise to the defense of our country.