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Presley O'Bannon
09.14.2018 25723028253

"If he wants to lead us to hell, we’ll gladly go there."


Hey, I'm doing this again.

I took a break to write a bunch of books, but if I'm coming back to this whole website thing, I figure it’s appropriate to start this off right, by talking about one of the stone-cold jarheads who helped cement the United States Marine Corps’ legacy as being one of the most elite fighting forces in human history – First Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon.  The first American to raise the U.S. flag over enemy soil in a time of war, the man whose famous blade is still the basis for the USMC officers’ sword to this day, and the dude who emblazoned “The Shores of Tripoli” into the Marines’ Hymn when he laid waste to a heavily-fortified enemy artillery position with just one squad of Marines and a fairly liberal application a half-dozen well-maintained bayonets.

 

 

The story starts in the Mediterranean in the late 1790s, when the brand-new United States of America was having a serious problem with the North African states of Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis.  These places, known at the time as the Barbary States, were technically part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, but the OTE wasn’t really killing it as hard as they were back in the Glory Days of Suleiman, and the Barbary Sultans were basically just doing whatever the heck they felt like at this point.  And what they felt like was jacking merchant ships, old-school pirate style, looting them, and then holding the crews for ridiculously-high ransoms.

It’s a time-honored tradition dating back to the days of Ottoman corsairs like Barbarossa, and one that you can still find in use today off the coast of Somalia – a merchant vessel would be trying to put into port somewhere in Italy, Southern France, Greece, etc., and then out of nowhere they’d be ambushed by an ultra-fast warship teeming with hardcore pirates.  The Barbary Pirates were famous for chucking grapples to their target’s gunwales and then somehow swinging aboard with a knife in each hand and another knife in their teeth.  It was freaking terrifying in any situation, but the crews of these merchant ships also weren’t professional warriors – so when your options are to try and hold off a swarm of knife-wielding lunatics with a one-shot musket or run up a white flag, the decision wasn’t typically all that complicated.  The pirates would take your ship, loot it, sink it (usually), and then drag you screaming back to North Africa for a fun life of slavery and servitude until your homeland decided you were worth a couple hundred grand in ransom cash.  Which didn’t always happen – one American merchant crew was captured in 1786, had their ransom set at a half a million dollars, and remained enslaved in Tripoli for eleven freaking years before finally being ransomed back home.

 


Barbary pirates

 

One guy who really unbelievably hated this was Thomas Jefferson, who was the Minister to France at the time this was all going down.  Jefferson had made a treaty with Morocco to stop shipjacking Americans, but the Barbary States weren’t about to give up a practice that was making them tons of cash.  Jefferson argued hard to try and fight back, but because there wasn’t much of a United States Navy to protect American shipping, President John Adams really didn’t have much of a choice but to pay 10% of the American GDP to North Africa every single year as tribute to keep the Barbary Pirates from ruining the lives of American civilian sailors.

Meanwhile, in 1798, he also created the Department of the Navy.  And he told them to start building some dang warships.
Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as President of the United States in 1801.  The day of his inauguration, he received a letter from Prince Yusuf of Tripoli, demanding $225,000 as tribute to keep him from unleashing his pirate armada on American vessels in the Mediterranean. 

Jefferson told him to get lost. 

Prince Yusuf was so pissed he chopped down the flag pole outside the American consulate in Tripoli.  This was going to be war.

Jefferson told him to bring it.

 

 

The U.S. Navy headed to North Africa to protect American vessels there, but in a storm one night the USS Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli harbor.  In the morning, the sailors on board saw dozens of Tripoli vessels approaching in attack formation.  The Philadelphia was captured, and its crew taken hostage.

It was time to establish a now-famous aspect of American foreign policy:  If you screw with the United States, she will send guys to your house to kick in the door and rearrange your face.

There were some heroic actions by the U.S. Navy in Tripoli Harbor that I will likely talk about in this column at some point down the line, but ultimately it was determined the harbor was too heavily-defended by the Barbary forces, and it quickly became clear that any assault on the city would need to come from a different direction.  Luckily, American Navy Lieutenant William Eaton had a plan.

 

 

Eaton was a Rev War vet who had served as the American Consul to Tunis for the past few years, so he knew the situation pretty well.  He knew that the leader of Tripoli, Prince Yusuf, was actually a usurper, and that the rightful ruler was Yusuf’s older brother Hamet (Hamet was the middle brother; when Yusuf usurped the throne, he killed the oldest brother by shooting him in the head in front of their mother… he seems like a delightful fellow).  Eaton’s plan was to land in Alexandria, Egypt, get a crew together, find men loyal to Prince Hamet, and then march 500 miles across open desert to attack Tripoli from the land, overthrow Yusuf, and install Hamet as the Prince of Tripoli.  Hamet would help recruit men to fight for him, and in exchange for being made ruler he would agree to stop Barbary attacks on U.S. shipping. 

It was borderline-crazy, absolutely daring, and extremely dangerous.  Eaton requested a hundred United States Marines to serve as the spearhead for his mission.

He got eight.

That was all he needed.

 

 

The mini-MEU was commanded by First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, a tough-as-nails frontiersman from the backwoods of Kentucky.  The son of a Revolutionary War Captain, O’Bannon was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, in 1776, but his family moved out to Daniel Boone country in the mountains of Kentucky, and O’Bannon became well-known in his home town for being an excellent shot with a rifled musket.  He joined the Corps in 1801 as a Second Lieutenant, did tours in Gibraltar, Stateside, and even aboard “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution.  In 1803 he saw action against the Barbary pirates while serving aboard USS Adams, when he was part of a crew that boarded and captured a freaking pirate ship… which is a feat that you don’t typically see on the resume of a United States Marine Corps officer.  

O’Bannon was commanding the Marines on USS Argus when he got word he was going to be assigned to the mission.  He hand-picked seven men and put ashore with Eaton at Aboukir Bay, at the mouth of the Nile River in Egypt.  O’Bannon wrote that when he landed he could still see the wreckage from the Battle of the Nile, where Horatio Nelson smashed Napoleon’s fleet to splinters in 1798.  That battle had taken place six years earlier, but the entire place was still completely strewn with bones, bodies, and wreckage as far as you could see in any direction.  It must have been a hell of a sight.

 

 

Eaton and Prince Hamet linked up and put together a force of about 500 mercenaries, mostly Turks, Arabs, and Greeks.  They set off from Alexandria on an insane 500 mile forced march through the dang Sahara Desert that sounds like it was every bit as excruciatingly brutal as you’d expect.  For nearly two months, the army staggered through the sands, crossing rough country in blazing heat and sleeping in the freezing cold of a desert night.  Christians and Muslims in the army found themselves getting into arguments (Greeks and Turks don’t really like each other that much, I don’t know if you’ve heard this or not), and the lack of food, rest, or water led to plenty of desertions and even a couple full-on mutinies.  O’Bannon wrote that he eventually put out a standing order that his Marines were to sleep on top of their rifles at night because he was worried about some of these mercenaries jacking their guns and running off during the night. 

But the miserable march across the desert was only the beginning.  On April 25, 1805, the force finally reached the Tripoli-controlled city of Derna – the last stop between the Marines and Tripoli itself.  Eaton wrote a letter to the local governor asking for safe passage through the city.

The governor’s response was pretty easy to decipher:  “My head or yours.”

It was going to be that kind of a party.

 

 

Derna must have been a pretty damn imposing sight, even if you weren’t coming off of a 50-day forced march through the world’s most terrifying desert.  There was a large fort, defended by eight cannon, and while the exact number of defenders is not known, it’s almost certain that they outnumbered the American force by a decent order of magnitude.  Eaton had 400 guys and one gun, and any approach to the city was going to have to be across featureless open desert in full view of the enemy.

William Eaton (who at this point was calling himself “The General” for some reason) ordered Prince Hamet to take a force of Arabs and Turks around the flank to attack the governor’s hall, while the Greeks and Marines would assault from the front.  He also called in for some artillery support in the form of a couple American warships that were going to sail into the harbor and bombard the city from the sea. 

This was a good plan and all, but ultimately the heavy lifting in this operation was going to fall to Presley O’Bannon and his squad.  It was just him, a sergeant, and six privates, plus a couple dozen Greek soldiers.  Their objective?  The enemy fort.  Head on.  Into cannon fire, across open terrain.

It was time for the Marine Corps to earn its reputation.

 

 

On the morning of April 26, 1805, “General” Eaton and Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon moved out on their assault.  While American cannon fire rocketed in from the sea, and the Greek cannon laid down fire behind them, ripping and blasting holes in the city structures, the Marines gripped their rifles and marched forward towards the enemy. 

Gunfire met them almost immediately, as a massive barrage of musket and cannon fire poured down from the walls of the fort.

Eaton was wounded in the arm early in the attack, and was forced to fall back to cover.  As he fired his musket at the enemy positions, he watched with amazement as O’Bannon and his Marines fearlessly rushed forward, head-on into the enemy fortifications.  One Marine, John Wilton, was killed in the attack, and three others were wounded, but despite these casualties, Presley O’Bannon wasn’t going to be stopped – he charged forward, leading his men into the breach, firing from his musket and pistol, and then switching to his sword when he got close enough.  Marines and Greek soldiers clashed into the Tripoli gunners, cutting down many of them.  After a quick but brutal melee, the Barbary forces turned and bolted for it.

Unfortunately for them, they left their cannons behind.  And a few of them were still loaded.

 

 

O’Bannon and his crews turned the Barbary cannons around and proceeded to open fire on the town, ripping it apart and slicing through defenders with grapeshot.  One determined enemy counter-attack was broken at the point of the bayonet.

Two hours after the attack began, the town was held by the Corps.  O’Bannon raised an American flag over the city, marking the first time the Stars and Stripes was flown over a captured enemy town outside North America.  The moment is now immortalized in the line from the Marines’ Hymn about “The Shores of Tripoli”.

But it wasn’t over yet.

Prince Yusuf sent out reinforcements from Tripoli to get out there and re-take Durna, and on May 13th O’Bannon and Eaton had to somehow hold the city against 1,200 enemy light cavalry.

They did.  The small detachment of Marines and mercenaries drove off the Prince's men, and then, late at night on the 28th, O’Bannon personally led a moonlight attack into the Tripoli camp to destroy supplies, rip up fortifications, and create chaos.

The plan from here had been to march on Tripoli and separate Prince Yusuf from his head, but the war ended before that could happen.  With his flank threatened, Prince Yusuf sued for peace, and the Americans accepted (O’Bannon and Eaton were pretty upset about this… and so was Prince Hamet, as you might imagine).  The Marines were extracted on June 12th, after holding the city for six weeks against multiple enemy attacks.

 

 

Prince Hamet was pretty bummed that he didn’t get to be the ruler of Tripoli, but he was also pretty impressed by the heroism he saw from the Marines at Derna.  He gave O’Bannon a ceremonial sword as a gift – a curved scimitar decorated with gold and jewels.  In 1825, this style of sword, known as the “Mamluk sword” (a Mamluk is a kind of Egyptian soldier from roughly this time period) was adopted by Commandant Archibald Henderson as the standard sword for Marine officers. 

It still is today.

After the war, O’Bannon went home, served as a Kentucky State Senator, and lived to be 74.  Three U.S. Navy destroyers have been named after him, including the USS O’Bannon, which had 17 service starts in World War II – more than any other destroyer in U.S. history.  There’s a barracks at The Basic School in Quantico named after him, and the Tripoli Monument – the oldest military monument in America – is now on the campus of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis.

 

 

 

Sources:

 January, Brendan.  The Aftermath of the Wars Against the Barbary Pirates.  Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2009.

Kelly, C. Brian and Ingrid Smyer-Kelly.  Proud to Be a Marine.  Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2017.

Reid, Chipp.  To the Walls of Derne.  Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017.

Tucker, Spencer C.  Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Early American Republic.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014.

Frederiksen, John C.  The United States Marine Corps.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011.

Frederiksen, John C.  American Military Leaders.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.

 

 



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Tags: 19th century | Libya | Military Commander | United States | US Marine Corps

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