Throughout the course of American history, there were many heroes who have gone unrecognized. This can be chalked up to the sorry state of public education or the common inclination among the mainstream media to denigrate the accomplishments of great figures from our past. Here at Joe for America, we have set out to highlight the success of these leaders through a series of articles we call Profile of an American Patriot. Our first article featured Dr. Joseph Warren, a leader in the Revolutionary War. This week’s article concerns William Eaton, the man who defeated the Barbary Pirates.
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Following the Revolutionary War, the United States lost the protection of the British Navy, a critical force in securing American trade vessels. This reality became most apparent along the Barbary Coast, where significant American economic interests existed. The Barbary Coast was known for its pirates, state-sanctioned brigands who would raid trade vessels, loot the cargo, and ransom the sailors.
Historically, European countries would mitigate this threat by paying tribute to the countries along the Barbary Coast. In exchange, these countries, mostly Muslim members of the Ottoman Empire, would call off the pirates and allow trade to peacefully commence. American Presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson all agreed to continue this tribute policy, believing that the tribute payments were less costly than war.
William Eaton was an officer in the United States Army at the time. He served as the U.S. Consul to Tunis, one of the Barbary nations, and there had a firsthand insight into the trade issues of the region. Unsurprisingly, the same folks who used pirates as a bully tactic were not particularly reliable when it came to honoring their agreements. The Barbary nations were constantly raising the amount of tribute required to do business. During Eaton’s tenure, the United States began to get behind on its payments, and the pirate raids returned. Eaton recognized that this protection racket was a raw deal, and became convinced that opening up a can of American Whoop-Ass on these pirates was a wiser course of action.
In 1804, Eaton was sent on a mission to locate the disaffected leader of Tripoli, Hamet Karamanli. There he persuaded Hamet to aid him in forming a mercenary army to retake the city of Derne. Eaton went into personal debt to secure more soldiers and supplies for the mission. With a band of 500 Christian and Muslim mercenaries and ten U.S. Marines, Eaton led a 600 mile march from Alexandria to Derna. Along the way, supplies ran short and tensions grew between the Muslim and Christian mercenaries. Eaton’s troops teetered on the edge of mutiny and desertion for most of the journey.
On April 27th, 1804, Eaton and his men attacked the city of Derne. By splitting in half and attacking from two directions, they successfully captured the key city, despite being outnumbered 8 to 1. Fearing a similar assault on Tripoli, Governor Yusef Karamanli pleaded for peace. On June 4th, a peace treaty was brokered, much to Eaton’s dismay.
Eaton was never formally recognized for his heroism at the Battle of Derne due to partisan politics at the capitol (not much has really changed). However, it is important that every American know this story of patriotism, courage, perseverance, and the defiance of incredible odds.