Presley N. O’Bannon
On a lonely knoll in a Frankfort, Kentucky cemetery stands a simple stone marking the grave of the “Hero of Derne”. It is among the final resting places of vice-presidents, senators, governors, artists, and scores of local patriots who fell in action against the wilderness and foreign aggressors.
The story of Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon begins in 1805. For several years American ships plying the waters along the coast of North Africa had been endangered by bands of Barbary pirates who grabbed what loot they wanted, killed many of the seamen or shackled them to lives of slavery. Annual payments in tribute to the area’s many rulers were demanded for “protection” of American lives and shipping.
Although the U.S. was tired of a Naval war which had dragged on for several years, it decided to carry the fight to Derne, the inland stronghold of the enemy and chief fortress at Tripoli. To do this, General William Eaton, U.S. Navy agent in charge of the region, asked for 100 Marines from a nearby U.S. squadron. In answer to his request, a young Virginian, Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon and seven enlisted Marines were placed at Eaton’s disposal. O’Bannon was given an odd assortment of men to form a task force formidable enough to seek the surrender of Jussup – the reigning Bey of Tripoli. His handful of Marines, a few Greek mercenaries, and a motley crew of cut-throats and sheiks loyal to Hamet Karamanli, the disgruntled brother of the Tripolitan ruler, started from Egypt on the 600-mile trek across the desert of Barca.
Along the way, every obstacle known to the East beset Eaton and O’Bannon. Instead of the usual two weeks, the trip covered 45 days. O’Bannon was called upon to prevent the Moslem’s plundering of the Christians. It was he who brought the numerous revolts of the camel drivers to a halt. He constantly prodded the Arab chiefs who repeatedly refused to proceed. And all these delays prolonged the journey, stretched food rations, and at times, exhausted water supplies.
On the 25th day of April, the forces under Eaton and O’Bannon reached Derne and terms of surrender were offered to the enemy. The flag of truce was immediately returned. “My head or yours,” came the reply from the Government’s stronghold. O’Bannon then swung into action. With the support of naval gunfire from American ships in the harbor and accompanied by his seven Marines, he spearheaded a bayonet charge which resulted in the capture of the fort on 27 April, 1805. O’Bannon personally lowered the Tripolitian flag and hoisted the Stars and Stripes for the first time on foreign soil, securing the War with Tripoli.
Hamet Karamanli promptly took as ruler of Tripoli and presented the Marine lieutenant with his personal jeweled sword, the same type used by his Mameluke tribesmen. Today, Marine officers still carry this type of sword, commemorating the Corps’ service during the Tripolitian War, 1801 – 05.
Appropriately, the actions of O’Bannon and his small group of Marines are commemorated in the second line of the Marines’ Hymn with the words, “To the Shores of Tripoli”. These same words were also inscribed across the top of the Marine Corps’ first standard, adopted around 1800.
Upon his return to this country O’Bannon was given a welcome by the people of Philadelphia and was acclaimed “The Hero of Derne.” After his separation from service, O’Bannon went to Kentucky, where his brother, Major John O’Bannon, a Revolutionary War figure, was living. Shortly after his arrival he was elected by the people of Logan County to represent them in the state legislature. He served from 1812 through 1820.
Presley O’Bannon died on September 12, 1850, and was buried in Henry County, Kentucky. In 1919, through the efforts of the Susannah Hart Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, O’Bannon’s body was moved to the Frankfort Cemetery. Today, many people still stop by to pay their respects to the man who, by his gallant actions, helped to “set the best traditions of the Corps”.
If you are ever in Frankfort, Kentucky, stop by and visit Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon, “The Hero of Derne.”
Reproduced from Marine Corps Gazette, November 1954, article by Major John H. Magruder, USMCR. Source: Marine Corps Historical Center, HQMC.