William Eaton (soldier)

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William Eaton
Eaton c. 1807
BornFebruary 23, 1764
Woodstock, Connecticut
DiedJune 1, 1811(1811-06-01) (aged 47)
Brimfield, Massachusetts
AllegianceUnited States
Service/branchContinental Army
United States Army
Years of service1780–1783
1799–1803 (Consul to Tunis)
RankConsul General
Battles/warsFirst Barbary War (1801-1805)

William Eaton (23 February 1764[1] – 1 June 1811[2]) was a United States Army officer and the diplomatic officer Consul General to Tunis (1797–1803). He played an important diplomatic and military role in the First Barbary War between the United States and Tripoli (1801–1805). He led the first foreign United States military victory at the Battle of Derne by capturing the Tripoli subject city of Derne in support of the restoration of the pasha (local monarch), Hamet Caramelli.[3] William Eaton also gave testimony at the treason trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr.[4] He served one term in the General Court of Massachusetts (state legislature). Eaton died on June 1, 1811, at the age of forty-seven.

Early life[edit]

William Eaton was born in Woodstock, Connecticut. He was one of thirteen children of Nathaniel and Sarah (née Johnson) Eaton. His father was a middle class farmer, who worked as a school teacher in the winter, "an employment for which he is represented as having been well qualified by more than ordinary means for a farmer".[5] When he was ten years old, William's family moved to Mansfield, Connecticut. He ran away at the age of sixteen to enlist in the army.[6] He joined the Continental Army in 1780 and served until 1783, attaining the rank of sergeant at the age of 19.[7] He earned money for college working as a school teacher in Windsor, Vermont. In 1790, he graduated from Dartmouth College. He and a classmate presented a poetic dialogue at the commencement.[5] Between 1791 and 1792, he worked as a clerk in the lower house of the Vermont legislature[5][7]

In 1792, Eaton accepted a captain's commission in the Legion of the United States and began training at Legionville (Baden, Pennsylvania). He also married Eliza, the widow of General Timothy Danielson. In 1795, Eaton faced court-martial for charges resulting in a "misunderstanding" between himself and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Gaither.[8] For the charges, which included those of profiteering and "liberating from confinement"[9] a murder suspect, Eaton was sentenced to two months' suspended commission. Despite the conviction, Eaton held his commission until July 11, 1797, when he was appointed U.S. Consul at Tunis.[10] He served at that post until war with Tripoli broke out in 1801.[3] Other sources say he left the consul post in 1803.[11]

Tunis (1799–1803)[edit]

William Eaton, from Naval Documents[12]

Eaton's main task in Tunis was to negotiate peace and trade agreements with the bey (governor).[3] During the nineteenth century, European and American merchant ships were under threat by pirates from what was called "The Barbary Coast". The Barbary Coast was made up of several Muslim states, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, that bordered the Mediterranean Sea in Northern Africa. They acquired revenue from raiding merchant vessels of their cargo, ransoming their crews or selling them into slavery. The European nations opted to pay tribute to the Barbary states to prevent such raids. After the American Revolution, the United States was left without Britain's protection in Mediterranean, thus the Washington and Adams administrations chose paying tribute to the Barbary states as a cost-effective alternative to military action.[13]

By 1796, the United States was behind in payments to the dey of Algiers. In 1797, Joel Barlow, United States Consul to Algiers, negotiated with the dey and promised him a frigate, at the cost of nearly one million dollars. He then sent a French merchant, Joseph Stephen Famin, to negotiate with the bey of Tunis. An agreement was reached, but Congress would not ratify it. United States President John Adams appointed William Eaton as Consult to Tunis to negotiate more agreeable terms.[5][14][15] It took two years to accomplish the task. In that time, as the demands of Algiers and Tripoli increased, Eaton had come to believe that it was better to use military force to secure trade in the region, than to continually pay tribute. He wrote an impassioned letter to the Secretary of State, James Madison, voicing the opinion that, "The more you give the more the Turks will ask for."[15]

Jack Kelly, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote in the a 2009 article, Kill The Pirates, that Thomas Jefferson favored an international military intervention to the payment of tribute. Kelly said that Jefferson was unable to convince Europe to take such a course. When he became president of the United States, in 1801, he refused to pay tribute to Tripoli.[13] The Atlantic Monthly (1860), called the belief that the United States was the first to refuse tribute to the Barbary pirates a "patriotic delusion".[15] The article, flouting what it called "the popular view"[15] of events said, "The money question between the President and the pasha was simply one of amount".[15] It went on to say that Jefferson was motivated in his actions toward Tripoli by pressure from powerful merchants.[15] The pasha of Tripoli, Yusef Caramelli (sometimes referred to as Caramelli or Karamanli),[11] responded to the lack of payment by declaring war on the United States.[13][15]

Tunis was the closest neighbor to Tripoli and the deposed pasha of Tripoli, Hamet Caramelli, was exiled there. He was, in fact, the elder brother of the reigning pasha, Yusuf Caramelli. William Eaton devised a plan in which the United States would support the restoration of Hamet Caramelli as pasha thereby creating fear of the U.S. within the rest of the Muslim world.[3] He borrowed $22,000 to support the plan, but at this point did not receive the backing of the U.S. government. While the demands for tribute from the bey of Tunis continued, Eaton refused to convey the demands to the United States. He requested that he be recalled, as he felt he could no longer negotiate with the bey. In addition, a U.S. fleet, under the command of Commodore Richard Morris, had recently captured a Tunisian vessel that was headed for Tripoli. Morris came ashore in Tunis to visit Eaton and was arrested for Eaton's debt of $22,000. Eaton borrowed the money to pay the debt from the French Consul-General. At that point the bey ordered him to leave Tunis, which he did in the company of Morris.[15] Hamet Caramelli, having failed at his attempt to regain Tripoli, fled to Egypt.[11]

The war with Tripoli and the Battle of Derne[edit]

Eaton returned to the Barbary region in 1804, this time on a military mission. It had taken months for word of Tripoli's declaration of war on the United States to reach President Jefferson, but he had already sent naval forces to the Barbary Coast because William Eaton had informed him that the situation in Tripoli was "nearing a breaking point."[16] Among the vessels that were sent was the USS Philadelphia which, in October, 1803, under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, was sent to blockade Tripoli. The frigate ran aground off the coast of Tripoli and was captured along with its crew of 306 men.[16][17] Bainbridge had failed to scuttle the ship before being captured, but Stephen Decatur, commander of the USS Intrepid, in a covert mission, destroyed the Philadelphia by burning it, to prevent Tripoli from using it.[16]

In May 1804, Eaton was given the commission of a navy lieutenant and sent back to the Barbary regencies, under the supervision of Commodore James Barron, to find Hamet Caramelli and enlist his cooperation in the war.[14] Eaton found Caramelli in Alexandria and signed an agreement with him,[16] although it is unclear if he had the authority to do so.[14] This contract, which was forwarded to Secretary of State Madison, specified that the United States would provide cash, ammunition and provisions for Ahmed Caramelli's re-installation as pasha.[18] It also designated William Eaton as "General and Commander in Chief" of the land forces that were to be used to carry out the operation.[18] The agreement defined the relationship between Caramelli and Eaton as well as their mission, but was never ratified by the United States Senate.[18]

The Americans included eight marines and two navy midshipmen. It was with that force that Eaton and Caramelli made the 600 mile trek from Alexandria to Derne, a coastal city within the realm of Tripoli. By the time the band had reached the Gulf of Bomba, they had eaten their last rations and the Arab factions were on the verge of mutiny. Eaton had written to Captain Isaac Hull of the USS Argus requesting that the ship meet them there with supplies, but when they arrived on April 15, there was no ship to be seen. The next day, however, the Argus appeared as Hull had seen the smoke from their fires. After resupplying, they continued their journey, and on April 27, 1805, Eaton's forces attacked and took control of Derne.[11][15] "Captain Presley O'Bannon of the U.S. Marine Corps raised the American flag for the first time over a conquered foreign city."[16] At the Battle of Derne, one marine was killed and two were wounded. Eaton was wounded in the left wrist.[18]

Twice Yusef Caramelli's forces tried and failed to take back the city. With the bey of Derne on the run and Hamet Caramelli reestablished in Derne, Eaton thought to march toward Tripoli. He requested reinforcements from Barron but instead received word that US Consul-General Tobias Lear was negotiating peace with Yusef Caramelli. Then he received word from Lear himself that he was to surrender Derne as peace had been reached on June 4.[18] The terms of the treaty required the US to pay $60,000 for the release of the crew of the Philadelphia. Hamet Caramelli and his entourage of about 30 were allowed to leave, but his wife and family were held captive until 1807, as provided in the treaty.[15]


Although Eaton returned to the United States to a hero's welcome, he was disappointed and embittered by the treaty and outraged that ransom had to be paid for the freeing of the hostages. He had been denied victory in Tripoli and his agreement with Hamet Caramelli was left unkept. Furthermore, the government owed him money that he had fronted for the expedition. He complained loudly that the government was guilty of duplicity in regard to Hamet Caramelli. His complaints drew the attention of Jefferson's enemies in the Federalist party.[18]

In January 1806, Congress was presented with a petition from Hamet Caramelli for money and the release of his family from his brother's custody. The issue became partisan with the Federalists supporting Caramelli's and Eaton's claims that the government had rescinded its agreement to re-establish Caramelli as Tripolitan pasha. Jefferson, and his supporters, on the other hand, denied that administration ever intended the arrangement, contending that Eaton had lacked the authority to broker the deal.[18] Nevertheless, despite the Federalist opposition, the treaty with Tripoli was ratified by the Senate in April 1806, and the United States entered into an agreement with a Barbary state that, for the first time, did not include the payment of tribute.[18]

Initially, Eaton's victory in Derne was viewed by both parties as the motivating factor for Tripoli in the settlement of the war. However, his willingness to become involved in the partisan bickering cost Eaton official recognition for his accomplishment. It had been proposed that Congress present Eaton with a sword, but Federalists argued that he be given a gold medal. The debate was never resolved thus he did not receive "a sword, a medal, a tract of public land or simply a resolution of thanks".[18] He did however, receive 10,000 acres (40 km2) from Massachusetts in present-day Maine.[2]

The trial of Aaron Burr[edit]

William Eaton was a principal witness in the 1807 treason trial of former United States Vice-President Aaron Burr.[4] Burr was Vice-President during President Thomas Jefferson's first term (1801-1805). Avoiding murder charges resulting from the death of his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel (1804), Burr traveled throughout the west. During this time, he met with many military men who were disgruntled with the government, including Eaton and General James Wilkinson. According to Eaton's later testimony, he and Burr met several times, and Eaton came to believe that Burr was planning to raise an army to invade Spanish territory in the southwest and to establish an independent state, with himself as sovereign. Eaton then met with Jefferson to suggest that Burr be given an overseas post, warning that if he was not sent out of the country he would stage an insurrection within eighteen months. The President responded that he felt secure enough in the unity of the American people not to feel threatened by such an insurrection.[2] Eaton again warned of Burr's plans, in the fall of 1806, when he forwarded to the State Department a letter that he had received from his stepson, Timothy Danielson, Jr., sent to him by a friend in Ohio, Morris Belknap. The letter said that Burr had been purchasing boats in Ohio, and offering young men army posts.[2] Finally, Wilkinson sent Jefferson a letter including what he claimed was a decryption of ciphered treasonous correspondence received from Burr.

In 1807, Burr was arrested for treason. Although Jefferson privately confided to Senator William Plumber of New Hampshire that he did not think there was enough evidence to convict Burr of treason, his public condemnation of Burr, along with Wilkinson's letter and the deposition of William Eaton, insured an indictment.[4] On January 26, 1807, Eaton gave a deposition regarding his conversations with Burr. The affidavit stated that, as he listened to Burr's ambitions, Eaton came to believe that Burr was planning the overthrow of the United States government. He further stated that Burr offered him the rank of General in his army.[2][4] Eaton continued to say,

"He [Burr] said, if he could gain over the marine corps, and secure the naval commanders, Truxton, Preble, Decatur, and others, he would turn Congress neck and heels out of doors; assassinate the President; seize on the treasury and navy; and declare himself the protector of an energetic government."[5]

Burr's treason trial in Richmond, Virginia, began in August, 1807 with Eaton as the first prosecution witness. Eaton reiterated what he had said in his deposition. To discredit Eaton, the defense questioned Eaton about $10,000 he had received from the federal government since giving his deposition, implying that the administration had paid him for his testimony. Eaton countered that the $10,000 was, in fact, reimbursement for money he spent in the Barbary War (which one source contends was less than what he was owed).[2] Historians are divided on the status of Eaton's testimony. While one states that it was wildly exaggerated,[19] another counters that "Burr apologists" are responsible for that point of view.[2] Whatever the case, presiding judge John Marshall and the jury were unconvinced, and Burr was acquitted.

Eaton was subpoenaed again for another trial, in Ohio. This time the defense sought to discredit Eaton's testimony by bringing up the court-martial brought against him while he was a captain.[5] By this time the records of the court-martial had been destroyed in a fire. It scarcely mattered anyway, as the trial itself never took place.[2]

Final days[edit]

After peace with Tripoli was made, William Eaton returned to Brimfield, Massachusetts, the place he had called home for most of his life. He was elected to the state legislature, but only served one term. Burr's trial had proved to be a partisan issue, dividing the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans. After the trial Eaton was verbal about the treatment that he had received from the Federalists, notably Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. Having lost the Federalist vote in Brimfield because of his outspokenness, Eaton failed at his bid for re-election.[2][5]

Eaton suffered from rheumatism and gout,[5] and by all accounts he had taken to drinking heavily.[2][5][15] He was also in debt from gambling. He died in Brimfield, June 1, 1811. Eaton predeceased his wife Eliza (née Sikes) Danielson, his stepson, Timothy Danielson and a stepdaughter, and five other children-three daughters; Eliza (married Goodwin), Charlotte (married Sprague) and Almira (married Hayden) and two sons; William Sikes and Nathaniel Johnson. Both of his sons graduated from West Point.[20]


The Navy destroyer, the USS Eaton, named after General William Eaton

William Eaton is the namesake of Eatonton, Georgia; Eaton, New York; and Eaton, Ohio.[21] He was also the namesake of the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Eaton.

The Tripoli Monument, in memory of the first American military casualties overseas in the battle at Derne, was sculpted of Italian marble by artist Giovanni Micali in 1806, and transported to the United States by the frigate USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") and placed at the new national capital of Washington, D.C. at the Washington Navy Yard on the East Branch (now the Anacostia River) of the Potomac River in 1808. Considered the first war monument in the United States, it was unfortunately vandalized by the British during the War of 1812 in August 1814, when they attacked and occupied Washington, burning the public buildings and facilities. Later in 1831, it was relocated to the west front of the United States Capitol, overlooking the National Mall. In 1860, it was relocated to the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, where although moved several more times over the decades, remains there today. In 2001, it underwent repairs and a physical restoration.

In popular culture[edit]

Consul General Eaton and his actions at Derne with other U.S. Naval personnel along with Greek mercenaries, were loosely portrayed in the 1950 historical feature film Tripoli, starring John Payne, Maureen O'Hara, Howard da Silva.


  1. ^ Prentiss, p. 10
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Macleod, Julia H., Wright, Louise B. William Eaton's Relationship with Aaron Burr. The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 31, No. 4. 1945
  3. ^ a b c d Adams, p. 430
  4. ^ a b c d Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson's Vendetta: The Pursuit of Burr and the Judiciary. Carroll and Graf. 2005
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Sparks, Jared. The Library of American Biography, Vol. IX. Hillard Gray and Company. 1838
  6. ^ Prentiss, p. 11
  7. ^ a b Adams, p. 429
  8. ^ Prentiss, p. 22
  9. ^ Prentiss, p. 36
  10. ^ Prentiss, p. 54
  11. ^ a b c d The Encyclopedia Americana. Derne Expedition. 1918
  12. ^ United States. Office of Naval Records and Library. (1939–44). Naval documents related to the United States wars with the Barbary powers ... : naval operations including diplomatic background ... Government Printing Office. OCLC 1014224873.
  13. ^ a b c Kelly, Jack. Kill the Pirates. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 2009. Retrieved on March 31, 2010
  14. ^ a b c Lyman, Theodore. The Diplomacy of the United States, Vol 2. Wells and Lilly. Boston. 1828
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k United States and the Barbary States. Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 6. 1860
  16. ^ a b c d e Tucker, Spencer. Stephen Decatur: A Life Most Bold and Daring. Naval Institute Press. 2005
  17. ^ Adams, p. 138
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars. Hill and Wang. 2005
  19. ^ Parton, James. The Life and Times of Aaron Burr, Vol. 2. Houghton and Mifflin. 1857
  20. ^ Historical Celebration of the Town of Brimfield, Hampden County Massachusetts. Clark W. Bryant Company. 1879
  21. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. pp. 113.

This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.


Further reading[edit]

  • Bow, C. B. "Waging War for the Righteous: William Eaton on Enlightenment, Empire, and Coup d'état in the First Barbary War, 1801–1805." History 101.348 (2016): 692–709. Argues that the First Barbary War was not a 'Holy War' nor the first American war on Islamic terrorism.
  • Edwards, Samuel. Barbary General; the life of William H. Eaton (1968), popular history online
  • London, Joshua E. Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005. ISBN 0-471-44415-4
  • Roberts, Kenneth. Lydia Bailey. New York: Doubleday, 1947. ISBN 978-0-89272-514-4. Eaton appears as a major character in this historical novel.
  • Smethurst, David. Tripoli: The United States' First War on Terror. New York: Presidio Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-89141-859-7
  • Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror, 1801–1805. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003. ISBN 0-7867-1232-5.
  • Wright, Louis B. and Julia H Macleod. The First Americans in North Africa: William Eaton's Struggle for a Vigorous Policy Against the Barbary Pirates, 1799–1805 (Princeton UP, 1945), 227pp
  • Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805. New York: Hyperion, 2005. ISBN 1-4013-0003-0.
  • Toll, Ian W. (March 17, 2008). Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393330328.

External links[edit]