- 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
So there was nothing but to charge the earthworks frontally. Eaton, a good strategist of combined operations, waited until three ships of Barron’s squadron sailed in to take positions off the anchorage. Then, leading one flank himself, the civilian general ordered an assault. “Mr. O’Bannon,” he later reported to Commodore Barron, “… urged forward with his marines, Greeks, and such of the [Arab] cannoneers as were not necessary for the management of the field piece; passed through a shower of musketry from the walls of houses; took possession of the battery; planted the American flag upon its ramparts; and turned its guns upon the enemy; who, being now driven from their outposts, fired only from their houses, from which they were soon dislodged by the whole fire of the vessels.”
In the melee, Eaton himself was wounded in the arm while rushing against “a host of savages more than ten to our one.” But strategic Derna was won, and the ruling Pasha Yusuf’s grip on much of his country was broken. Quickly, in order to forestall any further advance by brother Hamet and to maintain himself on the throne, Yusuf sued for peace. He calculated on dividing his foes by accommodating the Americans but not Hamet, just as Eaton had sought to divide Tripoli by encouraging Hamet. And Yusuf succeeded, particularly after a sharp cavalry raid by his remaining supporters showed up the weakness of Eaton’s and Hamet’s “liberators” at Derna. The treaty he offered, which the United States in due course accepted, afforded the most favorable terms yet won by a Western power in dealing with Arab pirates (release of captives without ransom, promises of friendship without payment), but it left the reformed pirate Yusuf still in command of his domain.
So, exit the hapless Hamet. Exit also Eaton, though he was America’s hero of the hour. For the negotiations for this treaty were conducted entirely above his head and its terms reached over his protest. A new American plenipotentiary appeared on the scene, Consul General Tobias Lear, who had played no part in the undertakings to Hamet, and who solemnized the new agreement. Eaton cried out that he himself as well as Hamet and our national pledges to the latter had been betrayed. To this it was answered that the pledges had been Eaton’s own, that the United States government had never officially placed itself behind Hamet, and that besides, the pretender had proved himself an incompetent. “When we put [Hamet] into possession of Derna,” President Jefferson himself said in a message to Congress, “we found he was totally unable to command any resources, or to bear any part in co-operation with us.”
Satisfied with its ascendance over the incumbent pasha, the United States moreover agreed to evacuate Eaton’s and Hamet’s troublesome irregulars from Derna, even though this exposed their partisans to the ruler’s reprisals. Eaton himself was the last man to leave. Bitterly he wrote: Then the shore, our camp, and the battery were crowded with the distracted soldiery and populace, some calling on the Pasha [Hamet], some on me, some uttering shrieks, some execrations. Finding we were out of reach, they fell upon our tents and horses, which were left standing, carried them off and prepared themselves for flight.
Victory, to be sure; yet it was an ignoble ending for its architect. A realist in power politics, Eaton had been overtaken by men who thought they were more realistic than he. An idealist in his way, he had learned the lesson of those who get far out on a limb. Returning home a transient public figure, he haunted the halls of Congress with memorials and claims in his own and Hamet’s behalf. Eventually, Eaton took to drink, made noisy speeches at veterans’ reunions about the national honor and the betrayal thereof, and at one point managed to involve himself with Aaron Burr’s quixotic and treasonable scheme of setting up a separate American empire in the Southwest. Half discredited and generally ignored, the sometime hero died amid an embarrassed silence in 1811.
Three decades later, however, his oldest surviving North African partner and confederate, now calling himself “Colonel” Eugene Leitensdorfer and since transplanted to a farm in Missouri, was still to be found regaling passers-by with yarns of the great old days when he had fought with “General” Eaton in high Barbary.
In his Teutonic accent overlaid with a Mediterranean vocabulary, Leitensdorfer added wondrous tales of great desert goings-on with multitudes of Arab maidens in tents of Oriental luxury. “He has had, and I believe still has, several wives in several countries which he had inhabited, and owns to 27 children,” one wideeyed rural neighbor recorded. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri presented a bill for the relief of the old wastrel. When the sum was voted, one senator who had heard Benton’s lengthy oratory in behalf of his constituent was quoted as remarking, “By the way, did we ever do anything about old Eaton?”
The answer was No.