Excerpt from The Battle for Derna

Before dawn, Eaton had placed the Marines, the Greek infantry, the remaining Piedmontese artillerymen, and several dozen Arab foot soldiers in a deep ravine some hundred yards from the northeast breastworks. Eaton and Kirkpatrick rejoined their men, sprinting through musket fire to take shelter in the ravine.

battle of derna

Hamet had led his cavalry, now numbering a thousand, to the southwest to capture the citadel, prepare to attack Mustifa Bey’s forces from the rear, and block attempts at relief should any elements of Hassan Bey’s advance force appear. At Eaton’s command, a rocket was fired from the ravine and the bombardment began with a deafening roar from the American ships, answered by brisk, resolute fire from the fort’s batteries.

A thick, acrid gray pall rapidly settled over the fortress and harbor. From the cliff, Eaton’s lone fieldpiece blazed away at the breastworks, seeking to open gaps through which the infantry could charge.

Within thirty minutes, the ferocity and accuracy of the American barrage had silenced the shore batteries. Rather than abandon their positions in a rout, however, Mustifa Bey’s artillerymen had managed an orderly retreat, bringing two of their 9-pounders with them to support the musketeers facing Eaton’s small detachment. Now, to the withering hail of fire from hundreds of enemy muskets was added the crash of shrapnel, pinning Eaton and his attackers in the ravine. Just at that moment, the overzealous carronade crew on the cliff shot away the ramrod. Without any way to load the cannon, Eaton’s one source of covering fire fell silent.

Kirkpatrick huddled next to O’Bannon near the top of the ravine, their faces turned away from the constant spray of sand and dirt kicked up by the relentless fusillade raining on their position. They looked at the troops huddled below them. Some of the Arab foot soldiers and new recruits from the Derna population were clearly cracking, and there were grim, even fearful looks on many of the European soldiers’ faces.

“We’re in a bad way here, Lieutenant,” he shouted to O’Bannon. “In about five minutes this army is going to get a whole lot smaller.”

At that moment, Eaton, as if he had read Kirkpatrick’s mind, rose to his feet, seemingly impervious to the hail of musket fire. “American Marines,” he cried. O’Bannon’s men snapped their eyes around at the sound of his voice, carrying strongly above the din. “Today you write the first glorious chapter of a history that will earn you undying honor as the finest fighting men in the world. In years to come, many battle honors will adorn your banners, but none so bravely won as those you are about to gain here in Tripoli!” He then turned to the European troops.

“Men of Greece, descendants of the heroes of Thermopylae and Marathon! Men of the Piedmont! You know the tyranny of slavery and the oppressor’s lash. But in your hearts burns a love of freedom—a fire so strong that nothing can stand before it. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; have we come this far through the hell of the desert not to seize the glory that is in our very grasp? If we are marked to die, then we are enough to do our nation’s loss; if destined to live, why then the fewer the number, the greater each man’s share of honor. One resolute charge and resistance melts before us!

“Lieutenant O’Bannon, have you our country’s flag?” Eaton cried. Sergeant Campbell shook out the American flag mounted on a boarding pike. “Then let the flag of freedom forever banish with its bright light the darkness of tyranny! Bayonets and cold steel, my boys!” he cried. With that, Eaton sprung to the top of the ravine, twirled his sword above his head like a Turkish Janissary, and charged the enemy. The Greek drummer and bugler, utterly caught up in the passion of the moment, sounded the call for “Charge.”

As one man, the Marines, Kirkpatrick, and the Greeks surged out of the ravine, the American flag flashing in the sunlight. With a loud shout the Piedmontese followed, sweeping up the Arab foot soldiers in their enthusiasm.

The next few minutes were a blur to Kirkpatrick. He saw Private John Whitten drop next to him from a musket ball in the face, just a few steps from the lip of the ravine. How any of them survived that first few seconds in the open, exposed to a curtain of fire, was a mystery—or a miracle.

But what the defenders saw, thanks to the uniforms with which Eaton had equipped the Greek infantrymen, was a nightmare surge of ravening blue-coated American wolves, the blood-thirsty beasts of Tripoli, merciless, razor-sharp bayonets glinting in the sunlight, charging under that strange flag Arabs and Turks had come to loathe and fear. The army of Mustifa Bey, outnumbering their attackers ten to one, fired one panicky volley. Then, first one at a time, and then by squads, and then in companies, they bolted from their positions.

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