With the end of the American Revolution, American merchant ships lost the protection of the British Navy. Soon, they became the favorite prey for the Barbary corsairs (Muslim pirates) of the North African coast, particularly the Ottoman province of Tripolitania. Hundreds of American sailors were seized and those not ransomed were either forcibly converted to Islam or sold into slavery. In 1796, President George Washington and Congress paid $900,000 ($15 million today), or 1/6th of the American Federal budget (633 billion with a “b” today), to free 113 American hostages and a yearly tribute of $43,000 (2.5 million today). The hostages were freed, but as ransoms usually go, it was still not enough to stop the depredations.
The US Congress authorized the creation of a navy in 1794, but the initial six frigates weren’t ready until 1798. In 1801, the US declared war on the Barbary States of Morocco and Tripolitania. After three years of blockade and inconclusive fighting during the First Barbary War, President Thomas Jefferson authorized the regime change of Tripolitania, replacing its ruler Jusef Qaramanli with his pro-American exiled brother, Hamet.
In early 1805, a former army captain and consul to Tunis, William Eaton, traveled to Egypt with a Marine detachment under 1st Lt Presley O’Bannon. They recruited 500 Greek, Arab, and Berber mercenaries. They then made a 600 mile trek to capture Derna, the capital of Cyrenacia and the stepping stone to the capital, Tripoli.
The Marines put down several mutinies during the grueling march and the small expedition finally met a small squadron of US ships off of Derna on 26 April, 1805. The next morning, Eaton demanded the Bey of Derna surrender. The Bey, who thought he was safe behind his 4000 warriors, replied, “My head or yours!”. Eaton and his small army, led the Lt O’Bannon and his eight Marines, stormed the town. At 4 pm, they raised the Stars and Stripes over the fortress protecting the harbor.
It’s the first time the American flag had flown over an overseas foreign territory. Impressed with the professionalism and fighting spirit of the U.S. Marines, Prince Hamet gave his Mameluke sword to Lt O’Bannon as a sign of gratitude and respect.
The Battle of Derna is immortalized in the second line of the Marine Corps Hymn, “to the shores of Tripoli” and USMC officers wear a replica of Prince Hamet’s sword with their Blue Dress Uniform to this day.