- Historic Sites
“General” Eaton And His Improbable Legion
Weary of his humiliating job—American pay-off man to the piratical Arab states—this bold Yankee civilian raised his own army and won our strangest foreign war
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
When he wrote his classic History of the United States the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison seventy years ago, Henry Adams was inclined to look with mild disdain upon some of the sudden and uncertain forays in the foreign ReId undertaken under Jefferson in particular. Moreover, this most fastidious of the Adamses was generally not an admirer of the martial spirit. Yet he singled out fur approbation a by then long-forgotten overseas functionary of Jefferson, named William Eaton, as “the navy agent [who] led his little army into the desert with the courage of Alexander the Great, to conquer an African kingdom.”
Just what a civilian shore agent of our Navy was doing leading a march of conquest in North Africa puzzled many fellow citizens of Eaton’s own time, and his exploit remains unique to this day. To say that William Eaton—or “General” Eaton, as he liked to style himself, though he was never more than a sell-appointed general of Arab irregulars—was an original is not quite enough. He was perhaps the most original representative ever sent abroad by the United States. This, for a nation that has so often surprised the world by the unconventionality of its envoys, is saying a good deal.
The place was the Barbary Coast of the first years of the past century. The occasion was the increasingly insufferable depredations by its pirates upon American commerce in the Mediterranean. The time was one of isolationist sentiment and naval enfeeblemcnt at home, together with costly imperial rivalries abroad—preoccupations that between them had caused the business of dealing with the marauders to be neglected or bungled. The man who came forth on the hot sands with a fire of wrath in his eye was an American ex-soldier who had in turn been made United States consul at Tunis and then the “navy agent” of Henry Adams’ chronicle, in which capacity he performed the feat of raising virtually on his own a polyglot army that struck across five hundred miles of Libyan desert to take the freebooters in the rear. And the outcome of his adventure, when joined to reinvigorated efforts by our frigates at sea, was to put down the source of Barbary lawlessness for one thing, and for another, to advance America in the eyes of all the civilized world as a champion of law and order on the high seas.
When United States marines today intone the words of their Corps song, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli …” they are recalling their own forebears in “General” Eaton’s army—all eight of them, captained by Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon, U.S.M.C. But this corporal’s guard was the only American contingent present in Eaton’s ragged force of four hundred, the remainder being recruited from the mercenary flotsam of almost every eastern Mediterranean eddy—Greeks, Egyptians, and Arabs, united chiefly by a hankering for American dollars and characterized (as Eaton was to find to his dismay) by an impulse to run away in the face of danger. Nevertheless, the leader of this improbable legion persisted and prevailed. When Henry Adams likened Eaton’s courage to that of Alexander, he neglected to add that the earlier conqueror’s host had numbered fully eighty times Eaton’s at the outset, and that his Greek phalanxes, unlike the American’s, were so stiffened by crack Macedonian cavalry that they hadn’t been tempted to run away.
In fact, tew expeditions more odd and paradoxical than William Baton’s ever swept across foreign soil and turned the tables of whole kingdoms and sources of wealth. Here was a foreign legion—and what a legion!—deployed for a daring intervention four thousand miles away from home in behalf of the world’s youngest, remotest, and militarily all-but-weakest nation—a republic that in those years, moreover, loudly decried the very thought of foreign intervention and involvement. The legion’s commander, although sporting a military title, was at the time a rank civilian. Finally, while Eaton to outside appearances was a bluff, swashbuckling character spoiling for a fight—a home-grown Yankee original—his real originality lay in a quality one would not have suspected from his background: his political imagination.
For the root of his plan in North Africa was political far more than military. His desert march was the culmination of a carefully laid scheme of what we would today call psychological warfare and subversion. This scheme he hatched and nurtured in close partnership with another bright and original spirit on the Barbary Coast, the United States consul at Tripoli, James L. Cathcart, a sometime merchant sailor who had been captured and enslaved by Algerian pirates, yet who by shrewd manipulation had managed to get himself appointed chief Christian secretary to the Dev of Algiers before winning release.