“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
Two weeks later Eaton reached Alexandria, only to find that his exiled friend Hamet had disappeared, evidently in fear of his ruling brother’s assassins. Finally the pretender was located in an outlying village—a sallow, frightened reed of a man—and confronted with an imposing convention drawn up by Eaton for him to sign. It began: GOD IS INFINITE
Article I: There shall be a firm and perpetual peace, and free intercourse, between the Government of the United States of America and His Highness, Hamet Karamanli, Bashaw, the legitimate sovereign of the kingdom of Tripoli …
It went on to specify that
William Eaton, a citizen of the United States now in Egypt, shall be recognized as general and commander in chief of the land forces which are, or may be, called into service against the common enemy.
Drawing on Barren’s $20,000, Mr. Eaton—now the “general” of desert irregulars—had already let the word be passed into Tripoli that the time for revolt was now ripe. In Cairo he hired as his organizer an international soldier of fortune and notorious wastrel named John Eugene Leitensdorfer, a great operator when he could lay hands on a little money, who in turn rounded up more drifters.
Ninety men composed Hamet’s own “suite”; the mercenary Greeks numbered forty; two Arab sheiks provided cavalry on 107 camels. On March 8, 1805, with Eaton, Lieutenant O’Bannon, Navy midshipman Pascal Paoli Peck ( his name was real, not made up), and Leitensdorfer as “chief of engineers” (there were no engineers) in the van, and Hamet surrounded by his footmen and bearers, the motley array got under way from the outskirts of Alexandria. First destination: a rendezvous with American warships at Bomba, 400 desert miles away.
Almost at once there was trouble between Christians and Moslems, between marines and foreigners, between Hamet’s functionaries, who were getting a good part of the $20,000 for disbursement, and the supporting Bedouin cavalry, who complained they were not getting anything at all. On March 10, when only approaching the Libyan waste, Eaton faced his first threat of mutiny. “The forenoon was consumed, and no appearances of a disposition to proceed ahead. I ordered the Christians under arms and feinted a countermarch; threatening to abandon the expedition and their Bashaw, unless the march in advance proceeded immediately. This project took effect; the mutiny was suppressed.”
Thus impressed by its “general,” the caravan moved onward, covering twenty miles the next day, and twenty-one the day after that. But on March 13, after a practice shoot, “Our foot Arabs, who were in the rear with the baggage, hearing the firing, and apprehending that we were attacked by wild Arabs of the desert, attempted to disarm and put to death the Christians who escorted the caravan.” Next day, order again was re-established: “Marched 26 miles over a barren, rocky plain.” Then came high winds and driving rain. “Our Arabs refused to proceed farther without money. Reconciled them with promises. Marched twelve miles—camped in a deep ravine.” Then the sun bore down on the desert: luckily there were wild cattle to be seized for food at the oases. But a week later and another hundred chartless miles westward, supplies had run low and there were no more stray beasts and no oases. April 10: “Only three days half-rations of rice left, and no other supplies whatever.” April 11: Again, “no water.” April 12: “Marched twenty-five miles … neither water nor fuel. The residue of our rice issued today; but the troops were obliged to eat it without cooking.”
In the meantime Hamet himself, the man for whom, supposedly, the expedition had been mounted, had lost heart and tried to desert. His followers were discovered about to seize and make off with Eaton’s ammunition train. Eaton lined up his marines and Greeks and threatened to open fire. Once more, order was restored; and now they reached the Libyan port of Bomba, where they were to rendezvous with American ships for supplies to carry them on. But there were no ships, and the Arabs, again losing courage, determined to rise en masse and quit. Eaton lit all-night campfires around his headquarters tents. Next morning good fortune greeted them: there, close inshore, lay U.S.S. Argus . “Captain Hull had seen our smokes, and stood in.”
This fortunate encounter was the turning point. The feeble Hamet, seeing American victuals riding ashore to the ragged legion from Hull’s trim brig, took heart again. Eaton was able to prevail upon his ward to resume the march over even more rugged and lonely leagues westward. Ten days later their lead scouts sighted the key port of Derna. Its white walls gleaming against the blue sea beyond, Derna presented an inviting but also a forbidding appearance, for gunnery loopholes had been cut in its terrace walls, and earthworks had been thrown up around it. Eaton deployed his force so as to make a bold impression, and, learning from line-crossers that many of the local Tripolitans would like to give in, sent the local governor a flag of truce and a call for surrender. “My head or yours!” was the pithy response—and the governor had a garrison of eight hundred to back him.