Derna, Libya (1805 AD)
The Battle of Derna marked the beginning of the Barbary Wars, a series of campaigns between the United States and its allies and the Barbary pirates of North Africa backed by the Ottoman Empire. It was the first battle in which United States troops fought in a foreign theater of war, making it America’s debut onto the geopolitical stage. It was also America’s first victory against a foreign power on enemy soil. The unexpected victory not only caught the attention of the Ottoman Empire, but of all of the naval powers of Europe. Derna was the beginning of the end of the reign of terror by the Barbary pirates which had been ongoing since the 16th century.
In the early 19th century, North Africa was dominated by the Barbary States, a collection of pirate kingdoms under the protection of the Ottoman Empire. For well over two hundred years the Barbary pirates raided shipping across the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic, attacking at will the naval and merchant vessels of the western European powers. However, by the 1800s the European navies were generally too powerful for the pirates to deal with, so they turned against the ships of the fledging United States, thinking them easier prey.
Under the guidance of newly elected president Thomas Jefferson, congress authorized the acquisition of a new fleet keeping in mind the Barbary menace. In 1802 the navy was sent across the Atlantic to deal with the pirates. There they joined with a naval force from Sweden, another aggrieved power. For several years the American fleet raided the Barbary ports and shipping, but though the pirate ships were contained, little headway was made at destroying the enemy bases.
In 1804 the Americans made an alliance with a deposed Barbary leader who was in exile in Egypt. Together they raised a large force of mercanaries and, led by a small detachment of marines, marched from Alexandria to Libya. In April 1805 the force reached the city of Derna on the Libyan coast where they linked up with several heavily armed naval vessels. There they were challenged by forces loyal to the Barbary kingdom of Tripoli.
The Americans unleashed an artillery bombardment by both land and sea. After the enemy had been weakened, they expeditionary force charged into withering musket fire, but held steady and quickly overcame the city’s defenses. In the ensuing days, Barbary reinforcements arrived and attempted to retake the city but were unsuccessful. The capture of Derna provided the Americans the base they needed from which they would capture Tripoli later in the summer, and ultimately doomed the Barbary states and their piratical activities forever.
The Battle of Derna was less an open battle and more of the American charge on the defender’s fixed, if inadequate, positions. The site where most of the fighting took place is largely open, barren land on the outskirts of the town. The battlefield is well known, if not well marked or commemorated, and looks much today as it did two centuries ago.
The Derna Battlefield is located just to the east of modern-day Derna and just south of the coast, approximately 140 miles east of Benghazi and 400 miles west of Alexandria. It is an open site. There is no cost of admission. Web: N/A.