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“General” Eaton And His Improbable Legion

June 2024
20min read

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

When he wrote his classic History of the United States the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison seventy years ago, Henry Adams was inclined to look with mild disdain upon some of the sudden and uncertain forays in the foreign ReId undertaken under Jefferson in particular. Moreover, this most fastidious of the Adamses was generally not an admirer of the martial spirit. Yet he singled out fur approbation a by then long-forgotten overseas functionary of Jefferson, named William Eaton, as “the navy agent [who] led his little army into the desert with the courage of Alexander the Great, to conquer an African kingdom.”

Just what a civilian shore agent of our Navy was doing leading a march of conquest in North Africa puzzled many fellow citizens of Eaton’s own time, and his exploit remains unique to this day. To say that William Eaton—or “General” Eaton, as he liked to style himself, though he was never more than a sell-appointed general of Arab irregulars—was an original is not quite enough. He was perhaps the most original representative ever sent abroad by the United States. This, for a nation that has so often surprised the world by the unconventionality of its envoys, is saying a good deal.

The place was the Barbary Coast of the first years of the past century. The occasion was the increasingly insufferable depredations by its pirates upon American commerce in the Mediterranean. The time was one of isolationist sentiment and naval enfeeblemcnt at home, together with costly imperial rivalries abroad—preoccupations that between them had caused the business of dealing with the marauders to be neglected or bungled. The man who came forth on the hot sands with a fire of wrath in his eye was an American ex-soldier who had in turn been made United States consul at Tunis and then the “navy agent” of Henry Adams’ chronicle, in which capacity he performed the feat of raising virtually on his own a polyglot army that struck across five hundred miles of Libyan desert to take the freebooters in the rear. And the outcome of his adventure, when joined to reinvigorated efforts by our frigates at sea, was to put down the source of Barbary lawlessness for one thing, and for another, to advance America in the eyes of all the civilized world as a champion of law and order on the high seas.

When United States marines today intone the words of their Corps song, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli …” they are recalling their own forebears in “General” Eaton’s army—all eight of them, captained by Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon, U.S.M.C. But this corporal’s guard was the only American contingent present in Eaton’s ragged force of four hundred, the remainder being recruited from the mercenary flotsam of almost every eastern Mediterranean eddy—Greeks, Egyptians, and Arabs, united chiefly by a hankering for American dollars and characterized (as Eaton was to find to his dismay) by an impulse to run away in the face of danger. Nevertheless, the leader of this improbable legion persisted and prevailed. When Henry Adams likened Eaton’s courage to that of Alexander, he neglected to add that the earlier conqueror’s host had numbered fully eighty times Eaton’s at the outset, and that his Greek phalanxes, unlike the American’s, were so stiffened by crack Macedonian cavalry that they hadn’t been tempted to run away.

In fact, tew expeditions more odd and paradoxical than William Baton’s ever swept across foreign soil and turned the tables of whole kingdoms and sources of wealth. Here was a foreign legion—and what a legion!—deployed for a daring intervention four thousand miles away from home in behalf of the world’s youngest, remotest, and militarily all-but-weakest nation—a republic that in those years, moreover, loudly decried the very thought of foreign intervention and involvement. The legion’s commander, although sporting a military title, was at the time a rank civilian. Finally, while Eaton to outside appearances was a bluff, swashbuckling character spoiling for a fight—a home-grown Yankee original—his real originality lay in a quality one would not have suspected from his background: his political imagination.

For the root of his plan in North Africa was political far more than military. His desert march was the culmination of a carefully laid scheme of what we would today call psychological warfare and subversion. This scheme he hatched and nurtured in close partnership with another bright and original spirit on the Barbary Coast, the United States consul at Tripoli, James L. Cathcart, a sometime merchant sailor who had been captured and enslaved by Algerian pirates, yet who by shrewd manipulation had managed to get himself appointed chief Christian secretary to the Dev of Algiers before winning release.


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.

Ever since America had achieved independence, her relations with the Barbary predators had been an open scandal. Yet people at home argued that all Europe’s relations with them had been an even greater scandal from way back; so why should we rush in with arms where older and greater nations preferred not to tread? Ever since the Arab conquests of the eighth century, the Mediterranean had been a feuding ground between Arab corsairs and Christian traders (often with their own corsairs attached). It had been thought that with the rise of British and French power in the inland sea, the Moslem marauders under their Turkish suzerains would finally be brought to book. Yet nothing of the sort had happened. The European powers, locked in struggle with each other, had found it cheaper to buy off the pirates than to fight them. By 1800, this unheroic great-power arrangement had taken on the additional advantage ot turning Barbarian eyes upon other, weaker Western nations less able to pay such blackmail—particularly upon the United States, whose Mediterranean commerce was booming.


Indecisive, isolated, and anxious not to risk its small Meet, the United States had first signed up with the robber barons of Morocco lor protection, purchasing peace and exemption from capture lor a trifling $25,000. Relieved Americans thought these terms a bargain. But then came the Dey of Algiers, who, having taken several of oui ships and crews, demanded and got an outright ransom of $640,000, plus an annual tribute to the value of $20,000 in the form of naval stores, including ammunition that could be used against us. This in turn aroused the lust of the next neighbor along the line, the Bey of Tunis, who demanded gilts exceeding $100,000 if his buccaneers were to be called off. Finally came the Pasha ol Tripoli, who proclaimed that amid this general shakedown he was not to be left out, either.

It was into this den of thieves that Pickering sent Eaton, a Horid, corpulent, rugged man, with instructions to try to get the Tunisian chieftain to modify his terms; this might in turn mollify Tripoli. President John Adams, usually a proud personage, penned an obeisant introduction for his new emissary to the pirates’ lair that, began: “To the most Illustrious and most Magnificent Prince, the Bey, who commands the Odgiac of Tunis, the abode of happiness, and the most honored Ibrahim Dey and Soliman, Aga of the Jani saries, and Chief of the Divan of all the Elders of the Odgiac.” Since the illustrious prince also had a particular fondness for jewels, Eaton was to reassure him that plenty would soon be on their way, if only he would reduce some of his other demands. Here were some personal gifts that United States Minister Rufus King in London was charged with purchasing to grace the ruler’s abode of happiness:

For the Bey:

1 Fusee [musket] six feet long, mounted with gold, set with diamonds

4 [of the same] set with gold mounting, ordinary length

1 pair of Pistols, mounted with gold, set with diamonds

4 pair ol Pistols, mounted with gold

1 poniard, enamelled, set with diamonds

1 diamond Ring

1 gold repeating watch, with diamonds, chain the same

1 gold snuffbox, set with diamonds

6 pieces of brocade of gold

30 pieces superfine cloth of different colours

6 pieces Satin, different colours

But even before Consul Eaton arrived at Tunis to confer about these and other fine points of tribute, he was to stop oil en route at Algiers to pay respects to that principality’s ruler and check up on how our agreement on foreign aid was going there. How an American tribute-bearer was received in Algiers in the year 1798 is best described in Eaton’s own words. After being led through a maze of dimly lit palace corridors, he was instructed to remove his shoes before being admitted to the sublime presence. Then, “we were shown to a huge, shaggy beast, sitting on his rump, upon a low bench, covered with a cushion of embroidered velvet, with his hind legs gathered up like a taylor, or a bear. On our approach to him, he reached out his fore paw as if to receive something to eat. Our uuide exclaimed, ‘Kiss the Dey’s hand!’ ”


Eaton’s description went on sardonically: “The animal seemed at that moment to be in a harmless [mood]: he grinned several times; but made very litlle noise.” Then lhe newly arrived consul erupted: “Can any man believe that this elevated brute has seven kings of Europe, two republics, and a continent, tributary to him, when his whole naval force is not equal to two line of battle ships? It is so.”

Proceeding along the coast from the Dey to the Bey, Eaton again removed his shoes, kissed lhe Tunisian’s hand, and was sharply taken to task for delays in the arrival of some of America’s “gifts.” The consul gave reassurances and meanwhile tried to renegotiate a particularly frivolous treaty demand of the Key’s, namely that one barrel ol good LJ ni ted States gunpowder be delivered lor every single gun salute tendered by a Tunisian vessel or shore battery to any visiting American. (Tunisian sloops were virtually smothering arriving American vessels with saluting gun smoke in order to build up their own ammunition stocks thereby; the nine salutes due a United States consul or commodore, for instance, meant nine barrels for the Bey.)

Flushed and shoeless on the Bey’s carpet, Eaton soon found himself in bitter wrangles on this point. “[I said that] the article considered in relation to the expense was a trille; but as it was unprecedented in any of his treaties with other nations, it would be humiliating in us to agree to it, and not very honorable in him to demand it: we trusted, therefore, he would not insist on so singular a demand for so trifling a consideration.”

“ ‘However trifling,’ said he, ‘it may appear to you, to me it is important. Fifteen barrels of gunpowder will furnish a cruiser which may capture a prize and net me $100,000.’ ”

Eaton retorted that both justice and our national honor forbade such degrading terms as these.

“ ‘You consult your honor,’ said he, ‘I my interest.’ ”

Eventually Consul Eaton reached a compromise with the Key, only to find the next-door chieftain at Tripoli breathing dollar-hungry fury and dispatching an ultimatum for his share. Seized by moral revulsion, the Yankee on the spot rebelled against all our past policy in Xorth Africa and lashed out in private and public philippics against the disgrace of our submission. “Barbary is Hell,” he told his private journal (adding as a staunch New Englander that “So, alas, is all America south of Pennsylvania, for oppression, and slavery, and misery are there.”) The Barbary chieftains, he wrote, “are under no restraints of honor nor honesty. There is not a scoundrel among them, from the prince to the muleteer, who will not beg and steal.” Soon angry letter after letter went forth from him to Secretary Pickcring. “When has a tyrant ever been known to lift his foot from the neck of a voluntary slave? Where is the evidence of Barbary’s being satisfied with the generosity of its friends ? Does Spain, Italy, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, exhibit it? Will the United States ever exhibit it? Xever, so long as they have powder to give, and want the energy to burn it!” And then this rousing summons, of a sort not to be expected in the reports of mere consuls: “We must either bribe their avarice or chastise their audacity. Giving only increases their avidity for more … it is devoutly to be hoped that the United States may have the honor (very easily obtained) of setting the first example, among the tributaries, of chastising the insolence of their lords.”

In his wrath, Eaton sometimes became overheated and sounded like a thumping xénophobe. Algiers was “a vulture”; Tunis and Tripoli were “dog kennels”; Britain, France, and Arab and Jewish trading interests were arrayed in an “infamous league” against us; and as for the Turkish su/erains of Barbary, they were “a contemptible military, and at sea, lubbers .”

Yet, back in the capital, President Adams went on swallowing his pride and copying the European example of paying rather than fighting. A cautious Congress, with a small war against French privateers already on its hands, had no starch for further trouble. Adams fired Secretary Pickering as a troublesome meddler, which left Consul Eaton virtually without an addressee for his eruptive, warning messages.

To be sure, Adams’ rival, Thomas Jefferson, had cried out some time back in a moment of ardor: “Tribute or war is the usual alternative of these Barbary pirates. Why not build a navy and decide on war? We cannot begin with a better cause or against a better foe.” But by 1800, sensing the home temper, Jefferson had reversed himself and run for office on a platform proclaiming that “Peace is our passion.” Between a penny-wise Adams and a pacifist Jefferson, there was little lor a smoldering Eaton in faraway Barbary to choose from. On Adams’ very last day in office, a Federalist Congress had passed a bill laying tip a major part of our small Navy, along with half of its captains—and Adams had signed it. The incoming anti-Federalist was in no mood to reverse it.

“There is but one language which can be held to these people, and this is terror .” So Eaton had written home about the Barbary pirates. But the elections of 1800 told both him and the Arab chieftains that America was probably not going to apply “terror” or anything like it. What other possibilities were there, then?

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.

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.

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.


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