Few US Marines know and even fewer Greeks, that the
Marine's Hymn celebrates the very first joint Greek
and American military cooperation. It took place in 1805 and resulted
in the release of 308 Americans held hostage for ransom by
pirates. The reference to American Marines in action on "the shores of Tripoli”
commemorates the attack on a stronghold of the Pasha of Tripoli
(Libya), who along with the rulers of three other petty North African states,
Morocco, Tunis and Algiers, practiced piracy against commercial shipping in the
Mediterranean in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
Known as the Barbary pirates, these tribal autocrats sent their sailing ships known as corsairs to attack merchantmen for loot and to capture sailors and travelers whom they held for ransom. The Americans, who were commercially active in the Mediterranean, suffered numerous humiliations at the hands of the pirates and were forced to pay substantial amounts of tribute money to them. At one time a man-of-war, the USS George Washington, was forced by the Bey of Algiers to haul down its flag, replace it with that of the Bey
Inevitably things came to a head and war broke out between the US and the Pasha of Tripoli. However, one of the frigates, the Philadelphia, sent to block and bombard the port-town of Tripoli, hit a reef and its captain and 307 men were taken prisoners by the Pasha. A small contingent of U.S. sailors in a disguised USS Intrepid (which looked like a local vessel because she had been captured by the Navy when she left Tripoli three months earlier) and led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur were able to invade the harbour of Tripoli and burn the Philadelphia, denying her use to the enemy. A subsequent naval attack against Tripoli resulted in a series of inconclusive battles. At this point the American Consul at Tunis William Eaton, a former army officer, decided to act. He persuaded President Thomas Jefferson that neither bombardment nor a blockade would yield results and that only a land attack on Tripoli would force the Pasha's hand. Eaton's plan, accepted by Washington, called for an alliance with the pretender to the Tripolitan throne, who was in exile in Egypt, to aid him militarily to overthrow the Pasha of Tripoli.
The implementation of Eaton's plans are detailed in his papers and correspondence, which Professor Harry Psomiades, Director of the Centre of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Queen's College, made public in 1977. A detachment of nine Marines were sent to help Eaton under the command of Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon. After reaching an agreement with the pretender, they proceeded to organize a small army comprised mostly of Arabs and a few Europeans. The most reliable contingent other than the Marines was a company of 40 Greeks, fully armed and led by two captains.
Eaton's army made an epic march across the Libyan desert from Egypt and stormed Tripoli's second most important city, Derne. Eaton then made preparations to attack the main port city of Tripoli. In his report Eaton cites the number of casualties his army suffered which included three marines. He adds that the rest were "chiefly Greeks, who in this little affair, well supported their ancient character.” He also notes that the Greeks had saved the whole operation, including his own life and that of the Marines, when prior to the attack the Arab recruits conspired to rebel, kill the Americans and steal the war chest they were carrying. Fortunately the Greeks got wind of the conspiracy and neutralized it.
The fall of Derne alarmed the Pasha of Tripoli who compromised with the Americans and released the prisoners. President Jefferson conducted secret negotiations without Eaton's knowledge and paid $60,000 for the release of the prisoners.Washington also signed a peace treaty with him. In agreeing to pay a ransom of sixty thousand dollars for the American prisoners, the Jefferson administration drew a distinction between paying tribute and paying ransom. At the time, some argued that buying sailors out of slavery was a fair exchange to end the war. William Eaton, however, remained bitter for the rest of his life about the treaty, feeling that his efforts had been squandered by the State Department diplomat Tobias Lear. Eaton and others felt that the capture of Derna should have been used as a bargaining chip to obtain the release of all American prisoners without having to pay ransom. Furthermore, Eaton believed the honour of the United States had been compromised when it abandoned Hamet Karamanli after promising to restore him as leader of Tripoli.he accused Washington decision makers of "betrayal,” submitting to a "dishonorable peace” and for the "stabbing in the back” the American fighting men who had risked their lives.
Of the Greeks little else is said except that the Americans evacuated them to Sicily. According to Psomiades, the Greeks were members of organized military companies that offered their services to the British, French, Americans, Russians and even the Ottomans. He speculates that this particular group was probably from the Peloponnese and had fled to North Africa after the Russian-supported 1770 Greek revolt against the Ottomans failed. Professor Psomiades notes that they could just as easily have been Souliotes or Roumeliotes who fled Greece to escape Turkish tyranny and who fought for their living. They were probably guerrilla fighters known as "kleftes" or "armatoloi," who would soon lead the 1821 revolt against the Turks.
This first Greek-American military venture is now immortalized in the Marine's Hymn