The Barbary Wars (1801–1805) was a conflict between the U.S. and several predatory nations in North Africa that officially supported piracy against neutral ships unless they were paid bribes. By the 1780s American merchant ships were targets of several predatory nations. Those known as the "Barbary Pirates," Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis, had preyed upon ships in the Mediterranean for centuries. The U.S. government, in order to avoid difficult problems that could not be easily solved, like most governments, paid those nations an annual tribute.
Yusuf Caramanli, the Bey of Tripoli was angered when the U.S. government refused additional bribery payments. Tripoli then began attacks upon American sea-borne commerce. The U.S. Navy assembled a fleet of four men-of-war, all with Marine detachments, to make an effort to eliminate the problem.
One of them, the USS Philadelphia was cast upon the rocks at Tripoli on 31 October 1803 and the crew, including 2d Lt. William S. Osborne and his 44 enlisted Marines, were captured and imprisoned by the Bey. Several attempts were made to assault Tripoli but all failed. American offers of $100,000 as ransom for the crew and ship were ignored.
William Eaton, an American described as an American diplomatic agent, but rather was truly a soldier of fortune, managed to convince the Navy to loan him Marines, an officer and enlisted men, for an attack upon the walled city of Derna, seemingly the center of the problem. Lieutenant Presley Ó Bannon, with seven Marines, plus a naval midshipman, and a pick-up force of 67 Greek adventurers, and another hundred Arab fighting men, plus 200 local camel drivers, marched with Eaton from Cairo, Egypt, across the murderous desert. There were many interruptions during this march. Most requiring Eaton’s diplomatic intervention, but all were settled and the march continued. On 25 April 1805 Eaton and his band deployed before Derna’s walls. Eaton demanded surrender of the walled town. Yusuf shouted back “My head or yours.” The Americans accepted the terms and off the little band of Marines went. After a few hours of heavy fighting, suffering the loss of two Marines, the town was taken and Ó Bannon raised the American flag over the fortress. It was the first time that flag rose above a fortress in the Old World.
Every effort made by the Tripolitans to retake the city was defeated. On 28 May 1805 five American Marines, with their leader Ó Bannon, launched a spirited bayonet charge which forced the enemy to entirely withdraw. Finally, after successful negotiations, the American prisoners were released upon payment of $60,000 and return of Derna to the Bey on 12 June 1805.
- The Marines who accompanied Ó Bannon were: Acting Sergeant Arthur Campbell; Private’s Bernard Ó Brien; James Owens; David Thomas, wounded in action on 27 April 1805; John Whitten, killed in action on 27 April; and Edward Steward, who died of his wounds on 30 May 1805.