The Rise And Fall of William Eaton: Hero of The Barbary War

Historical Article Series May 10, 2020 > The Rise And Fall of William Eaton: Hero of The Barbary War

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 52, No. 2, November 2016

A search on eBay for Mansfield items uncovered a colorful but largely forgotten military figure with ties to Mansfield.  Up for auction was a biography, The Life of the Late Gen. William Eaton, published in 1813.  A further internet search revealed a digitized copy of this biography as well as lengthy articles on Wikipedia and several military history websites. A condensed account of William Eaton’s life follows, drawing from these resources.  Where there was conflicting information, the 1813 biography was used as the definitive source.  The 448-page volume contains transcriptions of Eaton’s journal entries and many of his papers.

William Eaton was born on February 23, 1764 in Woodstock, Connecticut. He was the second-born son of Nathaniel and Sarah (Johnson) Eaton, one of thirteen children.  His father was a farmer, who also taught school during the winter months.

When William was ten years old, his family moved to Mansfield.  There he excelled in his studies, but found rural farm life dull.  Even at a young age, he had an adventurous spirit and often engaged in reckless behavior.  His biographer relates one Mansfield incident in which he climbed a tall cherry tree and fell out, resulting in a concussion and dislocated shoulder.

Seeking adventure, William Eaton ran away from home at the age of sixteen and enlisted in the army.  To his disappointment, he saw little action and spent most of his time serving as a waiter/clerk to Major Dennie of the Connecticut troops.  A year later, he fell ill and was allowed to return home.  His stay, however, was brief.  As soon as he recovered his health, he rejoined the army and served until April 1783, attaining the rank of sergeant.

After he was discharged William returned home to the family farm, but soon grew restless.  He then set his sights on higher education.  To prepare for college, he studied Latin and Greek with the Rev. Samuel Nott of Franklin.  

William Eaton
William Eaton 1764 – 1811

In October 1785, William was admitted to Dartmouth College from which he graduated in August of 1790.  During his college years, he took several leaves during which he taught school in order to finance his education.  He taught in Scotland, Connecticut and later in Windsor, Vermont.  During the summers he returned home to help out on the family farm.  He continued his studies under the direction of the Rev. Moses Cook Welch of the congregational church in North Mansfield.  

Rev. Welch saw great promise in the young man and urged him to enter the ministry.  William briefly considered this career path, but his quest for adventure would soon lead him in a different direction.  Among his surviving papers, there is a letter written to Rev. Welch dated August 22, 1799.  Included in it is a sermon that William had written during his college years.  Rev. Welch was likely surprised to find the letter addressed from the ruins of Utica in Tunis (now Tunisia).

Following his graduation, William resumed teaching in Windsor and then served a term as Clerk to the House of Delegates in Vermont.  But the clarion call of the military remained strong.  Thanks to the influence of Senator Stephen R. Bradley of Vermont, William was appointed a captain in the U.S Army in March 1792.  He was placed in charge of troops in Bennington, Vermont.  

On August 22, 1792, he married Elizabeth Sykes Danielson, the young widow of General Timothy Danielson.  He had previously met the general and his wife during visits with his brother Calvin in Brimfield, Massachusetts.  Upon his marriage, William acquired an instant family of three step-children to which he later added four more children of his own.  

In September, Capt. Eaton received his marching orders.  He left his new wife and proceeded with his company to Albany and thence to Pittsburg.  There Eaton and his company were assigned to the American Legion, a combined-arms unit con-sisting of infantry, artillery and light dragoons.  Serving under Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne, Eaton received his first taste of combat during the Ohio Valley campaign.  

In late 1794, Eaton was reassigned to Georgia where his troops protected settlers from attacks by Creek Indians and also guarded the Georgia border from Spanish incursion from Florida.  During this time, Eaton became a wealthy man through his speculative investments in western lands.

Eaton had a fiery temperament and often clashed with his commanding officer, Colonel Henry Gaither. Their relationship worsened when Gaither became jealous of Eaton’s newfound wealth.  It reached a breaking point when the colonel suffered a financial loss from his own land deals.

In the fall of 1795, Col Gaither brought court-martial charges against Capt. Eaton for allegedly selling government supplies to the Creek Indians and for improperly using his time in the military to further his private land deals. Eaton was sentenced to two months suspended commission.  A review board later overturned the conviction and chastised Gaither for bringing the charges.  Nevertheless, Eaton’s reputation was now tarnished in the military. Not wanting to remain under Gaither’s command, he resigned his commission in December 1796 and returned home to his family in Brimfield.

The following July Secretary of State William Pickering recruited the disgraced officer for a confidential mission.  A Congressional committee was investigating Senator William Blount who was suspected of conspiring with the British to seize the Spanish-controlled territory in Louisiana.  Dr. Nicholas Romayne of New York was a suspected co-conspirator.  Eaton’s mission was to arrest Romayne and seize his papers.  With the conspiracy uncovered, Blount was expelled from the Senate and became the first public official to face impeachment.

After the successful completion of this covert mission, William Eaton was offered a diplomatic position as American Consul to Tunis.  He eagerly accepted.  He embarked on December 22, 1798 to assume his new position.  

Tunis, along with Tripoli, Morocco and Algiers, comprised the four Barbary states on the northern coast of Africa.  For centuries privateers from this area had preyed on merchant vessels.  They took the ships and their cargo and often ransomed the crew or sold them into slavery.  Tunis, like the other Barbary states, extorted annual “tribute” payments from other nations in exchange for protection from their pirates.  

By the early 19th century, such tribute payments had become exorbitantly high.  A treaty that America had signed with Tunis in 1797 provided little protection from piracy and imposed heavy taxation on American goods. Eaton was tasked with negotiating a more favorable trade agreement with the bey (ruler) of Tunis.  It took two years of negotiation to reach agreeable terms.

Eaton’s success, however, was soon overshadowed by a humiliating incident in Algiers.  In September 1800, the American frigate George Washington arrived in port to deliver America’s annual tribute to the Algerian bey.  The bey had recently offended the Ottoman sultan by signing a treaty with France.  To avoid retribution, a shipment of gold and other goods was to be sent to placate the sultan.  Under orders from the bey, the George Washington was seized and its captain was forced to deliver the shipment to Constantinople.  The American government was outraged to learn that one of its naval vessels had been commandeered and forced to sail under a foreign flag.  War clouds began to gather.

During this tense time, James Cathcart, the American consul to Tripoli, requested Eaton’s aid in negotiating with the Tripolitan bashaw, Yusef Karamanli (alternatively spelled Caramelli).  Yusef had seized power in 1795 after assassinating his older brother and driving his other brother, Hamet, into exile.  As bashaw (ruler), Yusef had increased Tripolitan attacks on American shipping and demanded ever-larger tribute payments from the American government.  

Eaton arrived in Tripoli in January 1801 and met repeatedly with Yusef to no avail.  Eaton and Cathcart agreed that military intervention was the only answer.  Eaton voiced this opinion in an impassioned letter to the Secretary of State dated April 10, 1801.  It concluded: “But if our government yield these terms to the Bashaw of Tripoli it will be absolutely necessary to make provisions for a requisition of double the amount for the Bey of Tunis. Algiers also will be to be respected according to rank. If the United States will have a free commerce in this sea they must defend it. There is no alternative. The restless spirit of these marauders cannot be restrained.”

The tribute was not paid and on May 11, 1801, the small nation of Tripoli declared war on the United States.  Before this news even reached Washington, President Jefferson authorized sending naval forces to the Barbary coast.  A squadron of three frigates and one sloop departed on June 2.  But this small squadron was not enough to quell the continuing attacks on American vessels.  In April 1802, a second squadron was sent, increasing the American naval force in the Mediterranean to eight warships.

Meanwhile Eaton hatched his own plan to end the conflict.  He befriended Hamet Karamanli, the deposed brother of Yusef.  He saw in Hamet a chance to depose Yusef and install a bashaw in Tripoli who would be friendlier to American interests.  He proposed his plan to the Jefferson administration but there was little interest.

Undeterred, Eaton proceeded with his plans without government backing.  To fund the operation, he purchased a small merchant vessel, Gloria, and proceeded to sell goods at inflated prices throughout the Mediterranean region.  Due to his consular position, his ship sailed under the protection of the American Navy.  

Eaton’s plans went awry in March 1803 when Commodore Richard Morris paid a visit to Tunis.  He came to negotiate the status of a Tunisian merchant vessel seized by the American warships.  Morris was arrested and ordered held until a debt that Eaton had incurred was repaid to the bey.  Government funds were delivered from the American squadron to pay the debt.  Morris was released and then the bey ordered Eaton to leave Tunis.  Eaton’s diplomatic career was over.

Eaton returned to Washington and reported on the dire state of affairs in the Mediterranean.  That May two more frigates, the powerful Philadelphia and Constitution, were sent to join the squadron. It was the fate of the Philadelphia that would later set Eaton’s grand plan into motion. 

U.S. Frigate, Philadelphia
U.S. Frigate, Philadelphia on the rocks off the coast of Tripoli.

On October 31, 1803, the Philadelphia ran aground on a reef near the entrance to Tripoli harbor.  It was quickly surrounded by Tripolitan gunboats and forced to surrender.  Some 307 crew members, including Captain William Bainbridge, were taken prisoner.  When the ship later floated off the reef, Yusef’s navy had a 44-gun frigate available for its use.  News of the Philadelphia’s loss sparked outrage throughout America.

On the night of February 16, 1804, the frigate Intrepid slipped into Tripoli harbor with 70 commandos led by Lieutenant Stephen Decator.  The boarding party quickly overcame the unsuspecting Tripolitans aboard the Philadelphia. Under a hail of cannon fire, the commandos set fire to the ship and then escaped back to the Intrepid.  They sailed away past the burning wreckage into the night.  

Against the backdrop of the unfolding Philadelphia drama, Eaton again pitched his plan to depose Yusef.   This time Jefferson was interested.  In May 1804, Eaton was given the title of “Navy Agent of the United States” and was dispatched back to the Barbary coast, under the supervision of Commodore James Barron.  His mission was to locate Hamet Karamanli and enlist his cooperation in deposing Yusef. To achieve this end, Eaton was provided with $40,000 and 1,000 rifles.

Hamet was rumored to be in Egypt.  Eaton, with a company of eight marines led by Lt. Presley O’Bannon, set off to track him down, finally locating him in Alexandria.  On February 23, 1805, Eaton signed a convention (agreement) with Hamet on behalf of the United States.  It specified that the United States would provide cash, arms and provisions for re-installing Hamet Karamanli as the bashaw of Tripoli.  It also designated William Eaton as “General and Commander in Chief” of the land forces that would carry out the operation.  The final article stated: “This convention shall be submitted to the President of the United States for his ratification: in the meantime there shall be no suspence in its operations.” The agreement was forwarded to the Secretary of State but it was never ratified.

Without waiting for clearance, the self-proclaimed General Eaton proceeded posthaste to raise an army.  He requested 100 marines from Commodore Barron but his request was denied.  That left him with just the eight marines led by Lt. O’Bannon. Hamet arrived with about 100 of his followers.  It was a small beginning.

Eaton and O’Bannon began immediately to recruit mercenaries in Alexandria.  They quickly assembled a diverse group of mercenaries of Turkish, Greek, French, English, Spanish, Indian, and Eastern European backgrounds.  Hamet also succeeded in rallying some disaffected Tripolitans, Egyptians, and other Arabs to their cause.  Together, Eaton and Hamet managed to assemble a force of some 400 men.  It would be a difficult challenge to manage this army comprised of so many diverse cultures and nationalities.  

On March 8, 1805, Eaton’s expedition set off across the desert, accompanied by 200 camels.  It was an arduous journey across nearly 600 miles of desert to their first target – Derna, the second largest city in Tripoli. As the march wore on, supplies began to dwindle and tensions rose among the troops. Fights broke out among the different factions and many of the recruits threatened to leave.  Fortunately the army reached Bomba before there was a total mutiny. There American ships waited with more supplies. 

After resting for a week, Eaton and his army pressed on to Derna.  They arrived on April 26, surrounded the city, and prepared for battle.   However capturing Derna would be no easy task.  The city was defended by a garrison of 800 troops and was heavily fortified.

Eaton planned a two-pronged attack.  O’Bannon would lead a strike force of 60 marines and mercenaries to attack the city’s barricades while Hamet and 200 Arab horsemen would attack the city from the south.  The three naval vessels stationed offshore would provide covering fire for the assault. Meanwhile Eaton and the reserve cavalry would stay south of the city to prevent relief forces from reaching Derna. 

At first everything went as planned.  The American warships silenced the shore batteries and Hamet’s cavalry captured a castle outside the city.  However O’Bannon’s men were pinned down by heavy fire from the city’s defenders.  Although his force was heavily outnumbered, Eaton decided to charge.  He led the reserve Arab cavalry in the assault and surprisingly, the defenders withdrew.  O’Bannon’s strike force then stormed the barricades and took control of the shore batteries.  With the taking of the governor’s palace, all resistance ended.  For the first time in history, the American flag was raised in victory on foreign soil.

With victory in hand, Eaton wanted to march on to Tripoli to reinstate Hamet.  However the battle to hold Derna had just begun.  Within days, Yusef’s forces arrived to re-take the city.  Eaton’s men held them off for over a month.

Meanwhile, Yusef realized he was in a difficult position.  American ships were blockading his harbor and Eaton’s forces would soon be approaching from the east.  He realized it would be in his best interests to resume peace negotiations with the Americans.  On June 3, while the battle still raged in Derna, Yusef signed a peace treaty.  For the first time, the treaty did not require a tribute payment.  However the U.S. had to pay $60,000 in ransom for release of the Philadelphia’s crew. 

With the war over, Eaton was ordered to evacuate Derna but he stubbornly refused to go.  He feared that Hamet and his followers would be slaughtered once the Americans withdrew.  The Constellation was sent to retrieve him.  When the ship arrived, Eaton realized that he had no choice but to abandon Derna.  His dream of further conquest was over.  The evacuation was done secretly, under the cover of darkness.  Eaton, the marines, the Christian mercenaries, Hamet, and a few of his followers piled onto the Constellation’s life boats and escaped to the waiting ship.

Map of the Barbary Coast
Map of the Barbary Coast of North Africa, showing General Eaton’s route to Derna. Reproduced from the article, “General William Eaton: To the Shores of Tripoli…” at http://warfarehistorynetwork.com

Eaton returned home to a hero’s welcome.  For awhile, he was the toast of Washington and his victory at Derna was lauded in the press.  But Eaton had become an embittered man.  He felt he had been robbed of a victory in Tripoli and was highly critical of the treaty that had ended his military campaign.  He was outraged that ransom had been paid for the hostages and he accused the government of not honoring the agreement made with Hamet Karamanli. 

Eaton began to drink heavily and ranted about the government in public.   His opinions were widely published, offending the Jefferson administration.  His criticisms also provided ammunition for Jefferson’s enemies in the Federalist Party.   Eaton’s drunken behavior and outspokenness soon cost him many friends in Washington.  

At this low point in his life, Aaron Burr approached Eaton.  Vice-President during Jefferson’s first term (1801-1805), Burr had fallen from grace following his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton in 1804.  In the succeeding years, he traveled through the west to avoid murder charges stemming from the death of Hamilton.  During this time, he met with several disgruntled military men, including Eaton and General James Wilkinson.  He floated a plan to invade Spanish territory in the southwest and to establish an independent state.  Hoping to regain the president’s favor, Eaton personally warned Jefferson of Burr’s plot.  However his claims were given little credence. 

In 1807, Burr was arrested for treason.  Eaton provided a deposition on January 26, 1807 in which he described his conversations with Burr.  He reported that, on one occasion, Burr “laid open his project of revolutionising the western country, separating it from the Union, establishing a monarchy there, of which he was to be the sovereign, New Orleans to be his capital ; organizing a force on the Mississippi and extending conquest to Mexico.”  Eaton claimed that Burr had offered him the position of second command in his army, with General Wilkinson as chief command.

When Burr’s trial for treason began on August 3, Eaton was one of the key witnesses.  He reiterated the information in his deposition.  To discredit him, the defense questioned Eaton about a payment of $10,000 he had received from the government, implying that his testimony had been bought.  Eaton countered that the payment was reimbursement for his expenses during the Barbary War.  That was true but the judge and jury were unconvinced.  In fact, there was no substantial evidence to support Eaton’s or Wilkinson’s claims against Burr.  Ultimately Burr was acquitted.  Historians still debate the validity of the charges.

Following the trial, the discredited Eaton slunk back to Brimfield.  He continued to drink heavily and fell into debt at the gambling table.  His drinking led to health problems to which he succumbed on June 1, 1811 at the age of 47.  It was his old tutor, Rev. Welch of Mansfield who presided at his funeral, giving a “pertinent and pathetic discourse.” The death of William Eaton, once hailed as a conquering hero, was barely noted by the press.

POSTSCRIPT:  Despite his sad end, Eaton’s legacy lived on.  He became the namesake of Eatonton, Georgia, Eaton, New York, and Eaton, Ohio.  In 1942 the Navy destroyer, the USS Eaton was named for him.  And Eaton’s victory in Derna was immortalized in the first verse of the Marines’ Hymn

From the Halls of Montezuma 
To the shores of Tripoli;
 We fight our country’s battles
 In the air, on land, and sea;
 First to fight for right and freedom
 And to keep our honor clean;
 We are proud to claim the title
 Of United States Marine.

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