April 27th, 1805, US Marines Hit the City of Derna – To Take Down Pirates

Lt Presley O’Bannon

Pirates have been around in all eras- from before the American Revolution to modern day. On April 27th, 1805, the United States Marines went after the infamous Barbary Pirates at the city of Derna. The Battle of Derna in the First Barbary War is legendary among the Corps. They had a mission – to restore Prince Hamet Karamanli to the throne of Tripoli, and rescue US sailors captured in a previous battle.

Today, we have Somali pirates that target oil tankers and other vessels off the East coast of Africa. They’ve had a few setbacks targeting those vessels when US forces foiled their attempts. But they’re still around. They may not look exactly like the pirates you see in cartoons or movies, but they’re still pirates.

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April 27th, 1805the First Barbary War 1801-1805. America’s First land battle on foreign soil.

U.S. Army Lieutenant William Eaton, diplomatic Consul to Tripoli, and U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon led their troops (a large contingent of which were mercenaries from Egypt and Greece) 521 miles through the African desert to the city of Derna. The city was fortified and contained a much larger force with the odds about ten to one against them. Eaton sent a letter to the Muslim governor of Derna, asking for safe passage through the city so they could get much needed supplies. His answer – “My head or yours?”

Keep in mind that the term “leathernecks” comes from the historical fights against Muslims who used their words for beheadings. So the Marines wore heavy leather around their necks to protect them.

Three US Navy ships were deployed by President Jefferson to assist the Marines: the Argus, Nautilus, and Hornet. The battle began at around 2:15 on April 27th.

On the 27th, the USS Nautilus unloaded an artillery gun to the shore for Eaton’s forces. The USS Hornet and Argus arrived next. The next day, Eaton and Lt. O’Bannon began their attack. The three vessels bombarded the town, while the ground forces assaulted Derna from the east and south, utilizing classic combined arms tactics. Lt. O’Bannon commanded the Marines and 50 Greek artillerymen, attacking from the southeast. According to the two American reports of the battle, “heavy fire of Musquetry was constantly kept upon them” and within 45 minutes the enemy artillery, the greatest enemy threat, was neutralized. At this time, the Greek cannoneers accidentally left the ramrod in the tube when firing, and blasted it away along with their shot, reducing the effectiveness of the gun. Then, “Mr. O’Bannon… urged forward with his Marines, Greeks, and such cannoniers as were not necessary to the management of the field Piece, pass’d through a shower of Musketry from the Walls of houses, took possession of the Battery, planted the American Flag upon its ramparts, and turn’d its guns upon the Enemy…” It was the first time the American flag was raised in the Old World.

In two and a half hours, Derna was in American hands. There were fourteen casualties, including four Americans. Eaton took a musket ball through his left wrist, limiting his ability to fire his musket. John Wilton, a Marine, was killed in action. David Thomas and Bernard O’Brian, both Marines, were wounded in action; one later died of his wounds, but history does not record which one.

US Marine Corps history

The prisoners from the Barbary Pirate burning of the USS Philadelphia held at Derna were released. There is much more to the story, which you can read on various historical accounts. O’Bannon has become something of a legend to the Marines, and the Mameluke sword presented to him by the Virginia General Assembly is a ceremonial remembrance of that time. The Corps says there is little evidence that the sword was presented to him by Hamet the Viceroy of the Ottoman empire, but that has become the stuff of legend as well. It’s good to think of a hero being rewarded.

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Featured Photo: US Marine Corps: Lt Presley O’Bannon

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