The Thin Blue Line
Musket balls whizzed overhead like angry bees while chunks of lead kicked up stones and dirt as they slammed into the ground nearby. William Eaton stood beside Marine lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and studied the enemy rampart that blocked their path while his men, strung out on either side of him, fired back. They were pinned down on a hillside overlooking their objective, the pirate fortress of Derna. To get into the town, they would have to cross the Wadi Derna, which lay below them, and then overcome the Arab defenders who had formed a defensive position on the opposite bank of the river by piercing the walls of houses with loop-holes, from which they kept up a steady fire on Eaton’s men.
Eaton shifted his gaze from the fortifications and looked beyond them, where he spied their main objective: the fortress of Raz el Matariz, guarding the seaward approaches to Derna with eight nine-pound guns. Eaton snapped shut his glass and cursed. They were pinned down within site of their objective; unless they somehow overran the parapet that lay before them, they would go home defeated, or worse.
It was April 27, 1805, and Eaton and his ragtag army had journeyed from Alexandria, Egypt, across more than five hundred miles of desert, to reach this town and wrest it from Yusuf Karamanli, the ruler of Tripoli. Their avowed purpose was to install his brother, Hamet, in Yusuf’s stead. Eaton hoped that once Derna fell, the other major towns of Benghazi and Tripoli would follow suit, Tripolitans would flock to Hamet’s banner, and Yusuf would be forced to flee into exile. But first they had to find some way of taking Derna.
As fire from the ramparts increased, Eaton glanced at his men. Six blue-jacketed U.S. Marines, directed by their sergeant, carefully aimed their long rifles at the Arab defenders, squeezing off shots whenever an enemy appeared too long in their sights. On their flank, forty Greek mercenaries, veterans of numerous European wars, were firing on the ramparts as well, directed by Captain Luco Ulovix and Lieutenant Constantine. Lastly, Eaton heard the steady boom of their supporting field piece, manned by twenty-eight cannoniers and led by Selim Comb, his janissary and translator, and Lieutenants Connant and Rocco.
In all, Eaton had seventy-four men strung out on the barren hillside. He estimated they were facing ten times that number, judging from the rate of fire and the steady whine and slap of the musket balls that peppered the slope. But more important, Eaton realized he was losing momentum and that the assault on Derna was in jeopardy. The next few moments would determine the outcome of four years of careful planning. If he and his men succeeded, Yusuf would be forced to sue for peace and free the more than three hundred American sailors imprisoned in a squalid dungeon in the capital city. If Eaton’s attack was successful, Derna would fall, Tripolitans would flock to Hamet’s banner, and Yusuf would be removed from power, something America, using only the conventional arms of the U.S. Navy, had been unable to do for the past four years. Yet in a few minutes, if Eaton did not get his men to move and take the ramparts, their dreams of victory would be dashed, American power and prestige in the Mediterranean would ebb, and all that had been fought for would be lost.
Eaton grimaced and swung his telescope to the left and scanned the open ground to the south of town where the rest of his force, a mixed contingent of Arab cavalry and foot soldiers led by Hamet, were flanking the town, securing the two districts that were most loyal to Hamet. They could hold the approaches to town, but Eaton knew they would not take it unless he and his small force cracked the defenses that lay in front of them, routed the defenders, and then took the battery at Raz el Matariz, whose guns could easily be turned on Eaton’s army. Eaton swung his telescope toward the blue-green ocean, shimmering in the afternoon sun, and saw that Isaac Hull, commanding the American squadron, was doing his part. Jets of flame and smoke erupted from the gun ports of the Nautilus, Hornet, and Argus as they fired on the battery, keeping the enemy gunners within the battery pinned down.
Eaton knew something had to be done, and quick, to save his army from defeat. He conferred with O’Bannon, who had stood with him through uncertainty, mutiny, hunger, and disaster over the past five months. The twenty-nine-year-old lieutenant nodded grimly as Eaton told him what he intended to do. Eaton signaled to the bugler as O’Bannon ran along the thin blue line of marines, telling them to ready themselves. The bugler put the instrument to his lips, and the shrill, wailing notes rose above the whistle and crack of musket balls. As the bugler sounded the charge, Eaton raised his scimitar and roared as marines, Greeks, and cannoniers rose from the dusty ground and began to run through a hail of lead toward the ramparts.
They surged downhill, the Stars and Stripes rippling in the breeze. As Eaton’s force raced forward, the ramparts erupted in smoke and stabs of flame as the defenders redoubled their fire. Suddenly, a blue-jacketed marine stumbled and fell, facefirst into the North African soil. The remaining men closed ranks, screaming at the top of their lungs and surging forward to determine the outcome of the United States’ five-year-long war with Tripoli, and map out the young nation’s place in the world.
Consul to Tunis
William Eaton took hold of the taffrail to steady himself as the Sophia plunged through the Mediterranean swell and gazed intently at Algiers, the capital city of the most powerful of the Barbary States. His stepson, Eli Danielson, and James Leander Cathcart, the American consul appointed to Tripoli, stood next to him, their feet firmly planted on the newly washed oak deck.
After a passage of thirty-three days from Delaware, they had arrived at this strange port on the North African coast. The date was February 9, 1799. Before them was a city of white, square-roofed houses, interspersed with minarets and the domes of mosques, that hugged the rugged hills shadowing a large, crescent-shaped bay. At the top of the highest hill was the Dey’s palace fortress, called the Kasba, which was adorned by minarets. The anchorage was a poor one, with no natural mooring. It was, however, well defended. A pier extended from the walled city into the Mediterranean on which was built a large mole covered by batteries and a castle, all supplemented by shore batteries. Fortresses guarded the landward approaches to the city.
William Eaton, a thirty-four-year-old former captain of the U.S. Army, was one of three consuls selected by President John Adams to ensure that America maintained friendly relations with the Barbary States, with which the United States had concluded peace treaties—Morocco in 1786, Algiers in 1795, and Tripoli and Tunis in 1797. Eaton stood five feet, eight inches tall, and his blue eyes, set in a ruddy face, expressed energy, authority, and intelligence. Eaton was passionate, perceptive, bold and independent, qualities Secretary of State Timothy Pickering believed would make an impression with the Barbary States.
Eaton was born in Woodstock, Connecticut, on February 23, 1764, the second son of a farmer. In 1780, at the age of sixteen, he left home and joined a battalion of Connecticut troops during the Revolutionary War. The start of his military career had been undistinguished: He served as a dishwasher and waiter in the officers’ mess. After a year, he returned home, but grew bored and reenlisted. By the time he was discharged in 1783, he had made the rank of sergeant.
After the war, Eaton studied at Dartmouth, then taught school in Vermont. But army life still beckoned, and with the help of a senator from Vermont, he gained a captain’s commission and made his way to Pittsburgh to join General Anthony Wayne, who was fighting Indians on the Northwest frontier in the Ohio Territory. After the conclusion of the campaign, Eaton made his way to Savannah, Georgia, where he clashed with his commanding officer and was court- martialed. Pickering, though, had taken a liking to the pugnacious, independent-minded young officer and appointed him consul to Tunis. It was the perfect assignment for Eaton. Brusque, outspoken, and strong-headed, Eaton was the least likely choice for a diplomatic post, but in negotiations with the Barbary corsairs, Adams wanted men of strong character to ensure that peace was maintained.
The safest anchorage was to the right of the pier, where breakwaters formed a harbor. Eaton peered at the port in disgust and recognized the three American ships that now rode at anchor and were “gifts” to the Dey. Those ships, along with the Sophia, had departed together from Delaware a little more than a month before and were destined to join the Algerian navy. The Hassan Bashaw was a 275-ton brig carrying eight six-pounder cannons, the Skjoldabrand was a 250-ton schooner the U.S. government had purchased from Sweden armed with sixteen four-pounder guns, and the El Eisha was a 150-ton schooner carrying fourteen four-pounder guns. A fourth ship, not to be handed over, the Hero, was some distance behind. She was a slow sailor, loaded with naval stores for the Dey as part of America’s treaty obligation. Eaton shifted his gaze from these gifts to the pirate galleys that bobbed at anchor. This was his first glimpse of these peculiar warships. The vessels had sails, but for additional speed, Christian slaves chained to benches rowed the ship under the lash of their Algerian guards.
The “gifts” were demanded after the United States had defaulted on its treaty payments. Under the treaty of 1795, the United States had agreed to pay Algiers $642,000 and provide the Dey with an annual tribute in naval stores, including powder, lead, iron, bullets, bombshells, masts, poles, and yards, at a value of 12,000 gold sequins or approximately $21,000. The payment was late and the Dey had used the threat of war to demand three new ships to augment his navy.
Eaton was a pragmatist and knew America had few options. Even though three new warships had been launched in 1797—including the forty-four-gun United States, the forty-four- gun Constitution, and the thirty-eight-gun Constellation—and three more were being built, America did not yet possess a navy capable of tackling the Barbary pirates. For now, America needed to buy time.
Eaton was also well aware of the history of the Barbary pirates and Europe’s long accommodation with them. Washed by the Mediterranean and bounded on the east by Egypt, on the west by the Atlantic, and to the south by the vastness of the Sahara desert, the four Barbary States—Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—had been a scourge on seaborne commerce for centuries.
During the Crusades, from 1095 to 1295, Muslim pirates, operating from bases in North Africa, plundered ships carrying Christian soldiers and pilgrims, selling many into slavery. Two hundred years later, as Spain and the Ottoman Turks struggled for supremacy in the Mediterranean, an Algerian adventurer named Khair ad Din, called Barbarossa (“red beard”), fought with Turkey to secure the Maghrib (Northwest Africa) from the formidable Spanish armada. For his troubles, Barbarossa was appointed the Ottoman sultan’s regent over this territory; “Barbary” was derived from his name.
In the seventeenth century, Barbary pirates plundered ships at will, grabbing sailors and soldiers to be sold into slavery or held as hostages. The corsairs sometimes also raided coastal settlements in Britain, Ireland, Andalusia, Calabria, and Sicily, running their craft onto unguarded beaches, then creeping up on villages in the dark to snatch their victims and retreat before the alarm could be sounded.
Eaton knew the Europeans could easily beat them into submission. Yet they paid them off. Yearly tributes from Britain, Spain, Italy, France, the Dutch, and Germans ran into the hundreds of thousands from each nation. A portion of the money was paid to ransom slaves, although many of these unfortunates languished in captivity for decades while the ransom money was spent to further trade. It was not the most heroic of systems, but it did put up a convenient trade barrier to those nations that would not, or could not, pay such tribute.
The United States had little choice but to do as the Europeans had done—pay off the pirates. In the ten years prior to signing the peace treaties, she had suffered losses of both ships and men. More than a dozen ships and over a hundred sailors had been interred in Barbary dungeons including Cathcart. As a result, American commerce, and prestige, had suffered.
Eaton understood Adams’s motives. The president was a realist; he believed that the young nation should buy peace to save her commerce. After all, compared to the benefit, the price was small: Each year, more than a hundred ships carried tons of salted fish, flour, lumber, and sugar to the Mediterranean, and returned with lemons, oranges, figs, olive oil, opium, and wine. Furthermore, American commerce was growing briskly in the Mediterranean, and a war might interrupt that growth. In addition, Adams felt that the United States was just that, a collection of people who identified themselves as New Yorkers or Virginians, Green Mountain Boys or Georgians, and was unable to fight such a foe. And so, Eaton knew, he had been posted to Tunis to maintain the peace, while Cathcart had been sent to maintain good relations with Yusuf Karamanli, the Bashaw of Tripoli.
But Eaton didn’t like it, and found himself siding with Jefferson’s views of dealing with the pirates. When Thomas Jefferson had been secretary of state to George Washington, he had urged Congress to wage war on the Barbary pirates and “repel force by force.” That, Eaton thought, is what America should do, not post diplomats to keep the peace. The United States was taking a businesslike approach instead of being forceful and taking on the barbarians.
Eaton gazed at the harbor and felt a sense of adventure and excitement mixed with some small trepidation. In a few moments, Richard O’Brien, who had arrived ahead of them and was consul to Algiers, would greet them. Both O’Brien and Cathcart were old hands. Eaton, on the other hand, had no experience with the Barbary pirates. Cathcart had been a prisoner in Algiers since 1785, and had used those years to his advantage, working his way up to serve as the clerk to Prime Minister Hassan, who became the Dey of Algiers. He had an entrepreneurial spirit, and during his captivity he had opened three taverns to serve local Christians, using the money from their sale to purchase a bark upon his release. O’Brien had commanded a privateer during the Revolutionary War. He had also been a slave of the Algerians and had skillfully assisted during the treaty negotiations between Algiers and the United States.