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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
To be sure, a few surviving frigates might show the flag. Yet the last visit to Algiers by an American warship—the frigate Goerge Washington , twenty-four guns, Captain William Bainbridge—had been singularly inglorious. Arriving to deliver twenty-six barrels of tributary dollars to the Dey, Bainbridge had been ordered under the shadow of coastal guns to hoist the ensign of Algiers and convey an Algerian ambassador to the Sublime Porte of Constantinople. When Bainbridge protested, the Dey remarked with primitive logic, “You pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves. I have, therefore, a right to order you as 1 think proper.” Rather than risk war, Bainbridge had obeyed, thereby providing the world with the unique spectacle of an American man-of-war serving as a Moslem ferryboat to the Bosporus.
“Dishonor … disgrace,” Eaton scribbled into his notebooks and dispatches. More was to come. Pasha Yusuf of Tripoli, infuriated at the delay in getting his share, cut down the flag of the American Consulate and thereby challenged us to fight. President Jefferson bestirred himself and sent out a squadron, only to have it placed under the pennant of the ponderous Commodore Richard Dale, who ineffectually blockaded Tripoli for one summer and then blandly sailed home. Next came Commodore Richard Morris, with six good ships—but he, too, sailed about fatuously and was recalled and cashiered.
“[The] Government may as well send out quaker meeting-houses to float about this sea as frigates with Murrays [one of Morris’ captains] in command,” Eaton snorted to the new Secretary of State, James Madison. “Our operations … produce nothing … but additional enemies and national contempt.”
It took Eaton a trip home to explain his own plan of operations to a Congress now growing restive amid the Navy’s failure against Tripoli. He described his and Cathcart’s proposal for dividing the enemy on land by elevating ex-Pasha Hamet. “Remember,” he had already conspiratorily written the pretender,
that your brother thirsts for your blood. I have learned from a certain source that his project in getting you to Derna was to murder you. He is now determined more than ever, because he has intercepted some of your letters to your friends in Tripoli. You cannot be safe, therefore, in any part of your Regency, unless you enter it in your true character of Sovereing [ sic ].
And Secretary Madison, on learning of his consuls’ devious plan, had guardedly declared that
Although it does not accord with the general sentiments or view of the United States to intermeddle with the domestic controversies of other Countries, it cannot be unfair in the prosecution of a just war, or the accomplishment of a reasonable peace, to take advantage of the hostile co-operation of others.
Yet almost a year passed before any practical support was given to the Eaton-Cathcart plan. When it came, it stemmed from President Jefferson himself, who was sufficiently intrigued by its possibilities to have Eaton appointed a special “naval agent to the several Barbary regencies.” He was ordered to report to Commodore Samuel Barron, our newest squadron commander on the spot, and given a vague mandate to try to bring the stratagem off.
The daring idea was not popular with brass-bound Commodore Barron, however. Neither was its expounder— Mister Eaton, as Barron pointedly addressed him. During Eaton’s year in Washington, the Navy had indeed taken firmer hold of matters off Tripoli under the redoubtable Commander Edward Preble—only to lose young Stephen Decatur’s fine frigate Philadelphia right in the pirates’ roadstead. Then Preble had found himself superseded by Barron, another ponderous figurehead of the Dale-Morris stripe, who was now faced to his discomfiture with having to back “Mister” Eaton to the tune of some $20,000—plus a detail of marines—for his mad venture. The cash Barron grudgingly advanced; but of his nearly two hundred marines, he would lend only eight.
After hearing Eaton rehearse all his plans on his quarter-deck, Barron finally, in November, 1804, off the North African coast, wrote out these secret orders to Captain Isaac Hull of brig Argus —one of the most remarkable documents in the history of our Navy: The written orders I here hand you, to proceed to the port of Alexandria or Smyrna, for convoying to Malta any vessel you may find there, are intended to disguise the real object of your expedition, which is to proceed with Mr. Eaton to Alexandria, in search of Hamet Bashaw, the rival brother and legitimate sovereign of the reigning Bashaw of Tripoli; and to convey him and his suite to Derna, or such other place on the coast as may be determined the most proper for co-operating with the naval force under my command, against the common enemy.