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“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
Eaton and Cathcart between them were aware that in marauding Tripoli a situation existed that might be turned to American advantage. The incumbent pasha, Yusuf Karamanli, had won his throne by deposing his brother, Hamet, who still had vengeful supporters on his side. Couldn’t America enter the picture as the champion of Hamet’s legitimacy, thereby dividing the minds and forces of this piratical kingdom, then a loose dependency of Turkey’s Sublime Porte? According to the Eaton-Cathcart plan, ex-Pasha Hamet, a wavering weakling, was to be brought around to our side against his reigning brother, Yusuf; an agitation was to be built up among Tripolitans (nourished by the prospects of American gold) for the rightful ruler’s return against the usurper; and Hamet, once restored, would of course call off any further attacks upon his American patrons. With its understanding of the arts of boring from within, of fomenting a resistance, and of building an eventual puppet or satellite, the Eaton-Cathcart scheme cast its shadow before.
Four generations later, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was to find himself at the head of an immeasurably greater expedition on North African soil conducting delicate negotiations with his puppet, French Admiral Darlan. And there are other correspondences over the decades. In the fall of 1942 the advance agent for the Allied landings on that Axis-dominated coast, United States Consul General Robert Murphy, guardedly reconnoitered local political leaders to test their attitudes, and Major General Mark Clark made the celebrated secret journey by submarine in which he inspirited dissident officers and managed to lose his trousers. One hundred and forty years earlier Consul Eaton had no less quietly canvassed the entire Barbary Coast, sending home detailed intelligence as to anchorages, fortifications, and key personages and their prices, against the eventuality of an American assault.
In 1942 General Bernard L. Montgomery, having broken Marshal Rommel’s offensive at the gates of Egypt, pursued the Afrika Korps westward with his British and Anzac armor across the Libyan desert via Sollum, Tobiuk, and Denia on the high hump of Cyrenaica. This was precisely the route Eaton’s army had taken long before on foot and camelback, bearing muskets and scimitars, accompanied by herds of braying sheep and Arab camp followers, and towing just one venerable fieldpiece.
William Eaton, born in 1764, was the product of a small Connecticut town: his early decades had been mildly adventurous and frequently unstable. He had run away from home at sixteen to join the state militia, seen service in the cause of the Revolution, gone to Dartmouth College and then back into the Army again, winning a captain s commission and serving with General “Mad Anthony” Wayne against Ohio Indians. Yet his army career had soon become blighted by charges of insubordination and unbecoming conduct; the man seemed blustery, choleric, ill-disciplined. Despairing of a future in the service, he cast about for another livelihood and found a patron in an influential fellow Xew Engländer and fellow Federalist, Timothy Pickering, who as Secretary of State in iygy arranged for the young maverick from Mansfield township to proceed to Tunis with letters of exequatur as United States consul there.
European peoples have been puzzled over the generations by the unique system, or lack of system, by which the United States picks its emissaries abroad, placing a seasoned professional here, an utter innocent there, and in between an unpredictable assortment of political pensioners, spoilsmen, and gifted amateurs. Few choices seemed more unlikely at the time than Pickering’s appointment of a poorly regarded ex-soldier of the frontier to one of the most sensitive posts in the complex and threatening Barbary world—a world with which such major diplomatic lights as Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Joel Barlow had each in his turn tried to reach accommodation. Yet in retrospect, one can find imagination in Pickering’s choice. We had dealt too long with the arrogant deys, beys, and pashas on a basis of treaties, protocol, respect—and tribute; a time was close at hand when we would have to recognize them for what they were—pirates, no more nor less—and deal with them accordingly.
Whether or not Pickering himself saw this ahead when he picked Eaton, the credit is his for choosing a man who soon helped to make him see it and stirred up a reluctant capital.