The story begins with the First Barbary War. President Jefferson sent former U.S. Counsul to Tunis, William Eaton, to Egypt in 1804 to track down Hamet Carmelli, whose brother, Yusef, had overthrown as leader of Tripoli (now Libya). The plan was to have the United States overthrow Yusef and reinstate Hamet as the potentate of Tripoli. Eaton had only First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon, Navy Midshipman George Mann, and seven Marines. A better choice than O'Bannon could not be made.
Born sometime in 1776, he was the son of a captain in the Continental Army and a grandson on his mother's side of General Joseph Neville.
O'Bannon grew up in Fauquier County, Virginia. In 1801, at age 25, O'Bannon joined the Marines. He did a tour of duty in the Mediterranean aboard the USS Adams, returning in 1803. On November 29, 1804, O'Bannon and the rest of the group landed in Alexandria. Flush with money, Eaton and O'Bannon recruited 500 Greek, Arab, Berber and Levantine mercenaries. The men he recruited were so tough that Chesty Puller would have liked them. Eaton and O'Bannon hatched a plan that would have made Mad Anthony smile. Instead of attacking Tripoli in a beach landing in its well-fortified harbor, the Americans went by land -- which meant an arduous 600-mile march through the Sahara Desert.
On March 8, 1805, the caravan of 500 Marines and mercenaries, 100 camels and a few mules, began their long trek to Derne, arriving 45 days later.
However, the troops should have completed the journey in two weeks. Instead, O'Bannon had to deal with preventing Muslims from plundering Christians, as well as many revolts by the camel drivers. Several times he had to prod the Arab chiefs to continue their travel. These delays stretched food rations, and occasionally exhausted water supplies. O'Bannon and his Marines acted as U.S. Marines have always acted: with courage and dignity.
"There was no escape from the broiling African sun. Even in the thin shade of the kneeling camels and the shelter tents, sweat dripped steadily from the squad of Marines standing guard over the sacks of dried food and goatskins of water. They were in dress blues too, with the mercury at over 100, for the Lieutenant had early discovered that the slippery, treacherous minds of the natives were impressed as much by the bold colors of the uniforms as by the proven fighting ability of the men who wore them," historian F.O. Cooke wrote in Leatherneck magazine in August 1942.
After completing that journey, this motley crew had to then go into battle.
The plan called for the USS Argus to rendezvous and re-supply the Marines, but when the O'Bannon contingent arrived at the Gulf of Bomba on April 15, 1805, there were no American ships. Twelve days later, the ships and the supplies arrived. Re-supplied, the Marines and their mercenaries went to battle on April 27, 1805. O'Bannon led the charge as the battalion attacked and took the city of Derne, and captured the harbor fort of Ras del Matarix. Commodore Isaac Hull, captain of the USS Argus, and the rest of an American squadron off shore observed as the battle unfolded.
“At 3:05 p.m., Marine Lieutenant O’Bannon, with one midshipman, one sergeant and six Marines, led a huge mob of Arabs down to the harbor sweeping aside, like chaff, the defending force, which evacuated the entire eastern portion of Derne and took refuge in the western part of the city, which was ringed by its own inner wall. O’Bannon, although powder-streaked, appeared to be in a festive mood, and when he saw me watching him, raised his sword to me. I immediately returned the gallant officer’s salute,” Commodore Hull wrote.
Hand-to-hand combat marked the Battle of Derne. However, the Marines and the mercenaries prevailed and shortly after 5 p.m., in the most important Marine flag-raising until Iwo Jima, O’Bannon raised the Stars and Stripes for the first time over a conquered city. Hamet Carmelli, a mameluke, would later give O’Bannon a tribal sword as a token of respect for his bravery, and a modified version of the mameluke sword remains the Marine sword to this day.
Twice, Yusef Carmelli's forces tried to regain the city. Twice the Marines repelled them. Finally, Yusef gave up. For years, the women of Derne would sing in one of their songs, "Din din Mohamed U Ryas Melekan manhandi," which means "Mohamed for religion and the Americans for stubbornness."
Eaton thought he could march on and take Tripoli, however, he and the first Marine to raise our flag over a foreign city was about to learn the sad truth: Americans win wars and lose the peace. U.S. Consul-General Tobias Lear negotiated peace with Yusef Carmelli, which returned Derne to Tripoli on June 4, 1805, and agreed to pay Tripoli $60,000 for the release of the crew of the USS Philadelphia, which had run aground in Tripoli in 1803. In a daring mission, Lieutenant Steve Decatur led a raid that deliberately destroyed the ship.
O'Bannon received a hero's welcome when he returned to home. The lieutenant resigned from the Marine Corps on March 6, 1807. He married the daughter of Major James Heard, who was on her mother's side a grand-daughter of General Daniel Morgan, the hero of Saratoga as well as Cowpens.
The O'Bannons lived on a farm in Russellville, Kentucky, where he died at on September 12, 1850, at age 74. Seventy years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution re-interred him at Frankfort, Kentucky, where they erected a memorial to his honor.
The peace Tobia Lear negotiated didn't last. There was a Second Barbary War, which finally ended the practice of paying extortion to tyrants in Tripoli. Had Lear unleashed O'Bannon, all that would have been unnecessary. The Shores of Tripoli were a lesson applied 40 years later when we did not give away the Halls of Montezuma without extracting our price: Texas and California.
Presley Neville O'Bannon was not only a Great American, but a Great Marine. They sing his praises every time they sing "The Marine Hymn."