Issue Date: March 22, 2004

The Lore of the Corps
Taking the shores of Tripoli required a long land march

By Don Burzynski
Special to the Times

After several years of successfully negotiating U.S. immunity from annual tribute payments to Tunis, in North Africa, Gen. William Eaton — in 1805 named U.S. naval agent to the Barbary States — conceived a military plan to end the pirating of American shipping by Tripolitan forces.
The plan culminated in the successful storming of Derna, Tripoli — now part of modern-day Libya — by an army of several hundred Arabs and others led by seven Marines

But the conquest of Derna was only half the battle. Getting there was just as tough.

It was a 520-mile march to Derna from Alexandria, Egypt, from where the assault force set out March 6, 1805. With Eaton were just seven Marines — Lt. Presley O’Bannon, Sgt. Campbell and Pvts. O’Brian, Thomas, Owens, Whittier and Stewart. They set forth with a composite force of 300 Arab horsemen led by Sheiks Mahomet and el Tahib, 70 Christian mercenaries, 25 cannoneers, 38 Greeks led by two officers, and a 107-camel baggage train.

The trek began during the Khamsin season, a period of some 50 days between late March and early May when a hot wind from the southern Sahara blows across Egypt in a continuing sandstorm. The fine sand got into everything, including food. They had traveled barely 40 miles, two days’ journey, when a disagreement over pay caused the camel drivers to halt the march, according to “Dawn Like Thunder: Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy,” by Glenn Tucker. The drivers apparently did not understand the pay terms and demanded to be paid as they went. As a result, the Marines dug into their own pockets to keep the army moving. The drivers did the same about a week later.

The forces averaged about 20 miles a day, generally on two biscuits per day, rice and foul-tasting water, Tucker wrote, though Bedouins later showed them how to eat wild fennel roots and sorrel leaves. For meat, they ate camels, sheep and a wildcat caught by an accompanying greyhound. The search for fresh water was constant, but they found it in natural cisterns formed by rainwater cascading for centuries onto solid rock.

The army reached the old Carthaginian ruin of Masouah where the resident sheik sold cattle, sheep, goats, fowl, skins of butter, dates and milk to the starving column. The Marines drank the date wine. The Muslims wouldn’t touch alcohol.

A messenger informed the column that Capt. Isaac Hull was on the way with the ship Argus to resupply the force at the Gulf of Bomba, along the march route, for the assault on Derna. Argus was to bring 30 casks of bread, 20 barrels of peas, 10 casks of rice, a cask of brandy, two casks of wine, 100 sacks of flour and 7,000 Spanish dollars.

But Eaton’s request for more Marines was refused.

On March 22, the army met Bedouins at Oak Kerar ke Barre, where new camels were bought at $11 each, Tucker wrote. Dates, cattle, horses, goats and ostriches were for sale. The Marines ate ostrich meat.

Culture clash

Problems with the Arab army continued, however. Sheik el Tahib, a persistent malcontent, twice mutinied and departed over the next week or so, only to return again. Hamet, meanwhile, wanted the horses back from the Marines who, for their part, thought the Arabs had no honor, no patriotism and were thieves who were enthused only over their religion and being hospitable.

On April 8, the Marines quelled a final mutiny by the Arabs, likely by convincing them that there would be more money when they reached Bomba.

The army’s ranks — which tended to shrink and grow as Arab fighters left or joined — finally grew to 700 fighters and 1,200 camp followers, according to Tucker.

O’Bannon drilled the squad on the manual of arms. The Arabs, watching them, mistakenly thought they were going to fire on them when the command “take aim, fire” was called during a dry run. Rice was given to the Arabs and tension eased, according to Tucker.

Hamet called O’Bannon “the brave American” and presented him with a Mamaluke sword from Egypt, the model for today’s Marine officer sword.

The Argus arrived at Bomba with the provisions for the Marines and allies April 18, and a few days later the supplies and money were delivered.

The Marine-led force soon was ready for its April 27 assault on Derna.

The writer is a War of 1812 Marine re-enactor. He can be reached at