Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The General - William Eaton

On 10/2/08 I posted here on Stephen Decatur, an early American naval hero who I thought was lacking in proper notoriety. Decatur fame flamed on in the Barbary Wars in the early 1800s. He lived until 1820, dying after a duel with another Barbary War figure. A sad ending for a remarkable man. If you haven’t read the Decatur post, take a look at it first as it will provide some background to the war we discuss here.

A sadder ending still was had by today’s topic. William Eaton was even more remarkable than Decatur, if not almost cartoonish in his abilities, but squandered his hard won lionization in the end with torrid drinking, whoring and public spectacles only a few years after his greatest accomplishments.

If Decatur was D’Artagnan with his sword fighting and derring-do, Eaton was Captain Richard Burton merged with Lawrence of Arabia. He was a self taught linguist, diplomat and general who could reputedly hit a target with his knife at 80 feet, wield a scimitar better than a Bedouin warrior, stare down and lecture Islamic pashas, all as if he was born to it. He successfully led America’s first significant land battle after the Revolutionary War, and saw his success rendered null by politics, which likely ultimately led to his early demise.

Born in 1764, he served in the Revolutionary War as a teenager, and, although he never saw action, came home a teenage sergeant major. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1790 with honors in the classics and then moved to the nation of Vermont, for it then was an independent country (although there were claims to the contrary by New York and New Hampshire), showing up clad in the green of Vermont’s Green Mountains, and by impressing a prominent citizen, had himself appointed Clerk of the House of Delegates where he served until Vermont became a state the next year.

The same prominent citizen, now a U.S. Senator, secured Eaton a commission in the United States army as a captain and it was not long before he was headed out West where he served under “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the flamboyant Revolutionary War cavalry officer. He soon earned his tough but fair reputation as a captain, but also as an adept fighter in mock battles during America’s first basic training exercises. More remarkably, and as a taste of what was to come, tutored only a few nights a week, he picked up the language of the Indian tribe they would be fighting (the Miami’s were not a Florida tribe) in a matter of months. This might give some proof to the claim in his autobiography, published anonymously after his death, that he had memorized Milton’s Paradise Lost at the age of 6, although cynical me has some doubts.

While training in Massachusetts he got hitched to a much older woman with teenage children, who was such a known shrew, and treated him so badly, that the marriage itself was a wonder. He managed to spend only a few intermittent weeks with her the rest of his adventurous life until he sickened, although his stepson, Eli Danielson, became his padawan (to steal a word from Star Wars) and probably his best friend for the rest of his life.

Eaton proved himself quite the soldier. Future president William Henry Harrison was Wayne’s aide-de-camp. He detailed the close friendship between the two of them and was puzzled by their constant practice of the Miami tongue. Wayne often asked his other officers to emulate the seemingly perfect Eaton, irritating them. It no doubt irritated Jaime Wilkinson, a fascinating and traitorous American military figure who I know I will one day write about, who was quite jealous of Eaton. He actively, and without result, sought to belittle Eaton and turn Wayne against him.

Once they were out West (i.e., Ohio, which was the west of its time), Eaton hectored Wayne until he let him go out alone to scout the enemy. Two month later Eaton returned dressed and coiffed as an Indian, with valuable information. Eaton never really wrote about what he did during the time, but, he must have taken up with the tribe itself, as his information was not only extremely detailed but was later confirmed by other scouts.

Writing to headquarters to commend Eaton, Wayne then disappointed him by leaving him in charge of the fort while he was away fighting the Indians. Fortunately for our hero, the Indians attacked the undermanned fort and Eaton was more than heroic protecting the small wooden fort which the Miami’s stormed 3 times and tried to set on fire. Only one American died overall while over a hundred Miamis were killed in their last charge alone. Wayne, delighted with Eaton, sent more commendations about him and made him the commander of the fort.

When Wayne had destroyed the Miami’s power, Eaton got leave to visit the capital, Philadelphia at that time, and made the acquaintance of any number of officials, including the state department officials and the secretary of state, William Pickering. Around that time, 1795, he decided to learn Arabic and began to desire to visit Turkey or North Africa. Why cannot be imagined, as the burgeoning trouble with the Barbary Coast was just beginning and almost certainly unknown to him.

Reassigned to Creek territory in Georgia, Eaton repeated his success. He went into the wilderness, met some Creeks with his knowledge of the Miami tongue, learned their language, became a blood brother, took an Indian wife for a year, and possibly, it can’t be said for certain, kept peace in a very volatile area all by himself. Not to many years later, after he was gone, the Creeks revolted at the American domination of them before they were destroyed by Andrew Jackson and his troops.

While in Georgia he also managed to make a fortune in land speculation. At the same time, his commanding officer went bankrupt trying to make his own fortune. Furious, he charged Eaton with malfeasance and court-martialed him. After an interminable time, Eaton was exonerated and the complaining Colonel rebuked. Nevertheless, Eaton resigned his commission at the end of 1796. Whenever Eaton came across a political enemy in his short life, even powerful ones, he was invariably vindicated.

Back East and while waiting for his termination to kick in (it took six months) Secretary of State Pickering, who Eaton had thrilled by naming a mud fort after him, sent him on a fascinating mission. A New York physician was suspected of working with both France and England against the States. Eaton was put to work as a counter spy and concocted his own plan. He went without disguise, but told the physician, Dr. Nicholas Romayne, that he was dismissed from the army and even showed him the findings of the original court martial. He offered to provide border security information for pay if the doctor knew anyone. The doctor did not give away anything, but paid for Eaton to be put up for a few weeks. In the meantime, Eaton asked Pickering to have it put about that he had been dismissed from the army. When a British diplomat inquired soon after about him in the capital, he was told precisely that.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Romayne called Eaton in and offered him one hundred dollars for valuable secret information about American borders. Feigning anger, Eaton claimed he could get $1000 from the Spanish. The doctor agreed to match it. Eaton pulled a pistol, searched the office and found incriminating documents. Not taking any chances, he brought the doctor with him to a local army base, picked up some guards and traveled with his prisoner to the capital where he turned him in.

John Adams, the newly elected president, immediately turned to Eaton with a similar problem. Adams feared that the Spanish, situated on American’s southern border, might cause problems. Eaton again made his own plan. This time he arranged to meet with the deputy minister of the Spanish legation, Don Diego de Rivera-Sanchez, and made friends with him, and laid upon him a different tale of woe. Without revealing his own wealth, he declared that he had no future plans and feared for his family’s future.

A few days later, the Spaniard told Eaton that if he would reveal America’s border forts to him, he could arrange employment in New Orleans, then still Spanish, for him. Eaton told him all he knew, but significantly embellished the army bases and troops in the south. By the time he was through, it did not look safe for Spain to make a move in America’s south. Eaton turned down the job and any payment, claiming he did what he did for America’s sake and did not want to be a paid spy. He reported back to Adams that his mission was accomplished. Not long after, Spain approached America with a friendship treaty (although, certainly once Napoleon came to power, it did not matter much).

As far as Adams was concerned, Eaton could now pick his profession. He did so in a way that could not but have baffled the president. He asked to be made the U.S.’s consular agent in Tunis.

I can’t go through Eaton’s entire career in Africa which lasted about 7 years, but he took to diplomacy with the same intensity he did everything else. He was never intimidated by the Pashas and Bey’s he dealt with although they were brutal rulers who would kill a man for little reason. He thought nothing of horsewhipping one of the Bey of Tunis’s men in public when he threatened an American and would ferociously argue with the vicious rulers themselves when he thought it necessary, risking his own life. While the consular agent to Tripoli, James Cathcart, was terrorized into thinking he would be enslaved and needed to be protected, Eaton sneered at threats as if he was contemplating a Hollywood movie about himself and successfully took to Cathcart’s defense.

The three North African rulers were endless in their demands for blackmail, usually called by the politer name, tribute. What one got the other two demanded. The fact that the European countries were also paying was no comfort to the Americans. Finally, the Americans sent a fleet over, but, as can be seen in the Decatur post, they intimidated, but did not quite beat down the African rulers. And, as covered in that post, the rulers eventually took American hostages as slaves.

A few years went by.  Eaton was convinced that the only way to make peace was by defeating the enemy and then negotiating with them from a position of complete dominance. He came upon a plan, under the guise of leadership by the craven brother of the Tripoli’s ruler, to assault a major city with ground troops backed by naval fire and to then march on the Pasha himself, albeit that was even further away. It was hoped that the taking of Derna, the other city, would be enough to cause capitulation.

Returning to America and dealing directly with President Jefferson and his Secretary of State, Madison, he had himself appointed naval agent (whatever that meant – no one knew) and returned to the theater with vague orders to do what was necessary to free the American prisoners held by the Pasha of Tripoli (see the Decatur article). Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one. Tobias Lear, a State Department diplomat, was also sent to negotiate a peace with the Pasha, apparently with his own secret orders.

As soon as he could, and with the Navy’s agreement to participate, Eaton was to go to Egypt, pick up the Pasha's brother, Hamet Karamalani, give him guns and money and persuade him to march across the desert and take the town of Derna with the help of the Navy. That was exactly what Eaton intended to do with one exception. He was well aware that Hamet would only be the figure head, being a useless, cowardly man, who had been in exile for quite a while. Eaton recognized that either he himself would lead the army or it would be a failure.

Off they started to find Hamet. Lieutenant Isaac Hull (later a hero during the War of 1812) and a number of sailors escorted Eaton along with 1000 guns and silver coins for Hamet. This adventure would be the highlight of Eaton’s life. Arriving in Cairo, Eaton visited the Turkish viceroy and stunned him by debating with him in Arabic the virtues of Christianity as opposed to Islam. By this time Eaton had mastered several coastal languages and was fluent in each of them.

While in Cairo, Eaton donned Arab robes, a pair of pistols and a scimitar, with which he had practiced to the point of great expertise. Cairo was a very dangerous place and his large guard, watching the daily riots, were nervous. Eaton who was acting out his greatest fantasies, was not so fearful. One day, while out, they came across a man who claimed to be an American and who was being accosted. Eaton whipped out his scimitar and rescued him. The man, Leitensdorfer, also claimed to be a military engineer, and became an important part of Eaton’s team.

His men were an exceedingly eccentric, comprised of Greek cavalry and other European adventurers, American marines, his step-son, Leitensdorfer and a host of other interesting characters and mercenaries. That is, of course, in addition to hundreds of Arabs and Bedouins. Before they even started out for Derna, they were imprisoned in a Turkish garrison. It took little time for Eaton to shock them with his Arabic, and in no time, the commander was his friend, and freed them.

They met up with Hamet finally and Eaton convinced him to go along on his trek across the desert. By the end there were up to a thousand men under him. Eaton got Hamet, one of the most disreputable characters you can imagine, to sign a treaty which was highly favorable to America if they were successful.

The entire adventure was out of A Thousand and One Nights. There was an argument with a sheikh over the price of camels, shots were repeatedly fired at them from the hills, Bedouins charged at them over the desert, a mutiny, the cowardly Hamet attempted to escape, and so on, not to mention an amazing trek of some 6-800 miles of desert, led by a man who had only been a paper officer in the Revolutionary War over 20 years before, but whom everyone now called “General.” At one point, when nomads were taking pot shots at his men from a distance, Eaton led a wild charge into the face of the bullets, emerged unharmed and personally killed several armed attackers with his scimitar before his own men caught up to him. If it sounds like a movie script, his exploits were to a great extent recorded by others.

Aside from being a natural leader and fearless, Eaton had another talent which I’ve read of about a few gifted frontiersman in America when they were exploring the country – the uncanny ability to find water when no one else could, even the natives in the country. It made a difference not only in survival, but in the ability to persuade men, who were about as unreliable as troops as American troops often found their native born allies, to follow him.

At one point, the Arabs had divided into three or four factions. It led to the stabbing death of one of them, and he died refusing to state who had killed him. Afraid of a blood feud, Eaton let it be known that either the killers come forward or he would execute two men from each group. It turned out that his knowledge of the East came in handy. The Arabs found this fair and gave up the killers. Eaton had them shot by Europeans so that no blood feud occurred among the tribes.

At yet another point the relatively few Europeans quickly lined up in battle formation when it became clear there would be a revolt. Eaton rode up between the two groups and announced he was giving up the fight and going home. For some reason, a number of Arabs quickly changed their mind and soon everyone was begging him not to leave. He agreed to think about it if they immediately recommenced marching, which they did.

When Hamet and the Arabs mutinied, Eaton rode into the middle of them and talked them out of it. Then he called over the two ringleaders and beheaded them himself. This would have been considered insane if he were leading American troops. With the natives, he was only behaving as they expected him too. I can only give the bare essence of the trek hear, but it is an amazing story, and one that would make him quite famous at home when it became known.

Eventually, they reached Derna. Eaton wrote the Governor as follows:

"I want no territory. With me is advancing the legitimate sovereign of your country. Give us passage through your city, and offer us your hand in friendship. For the supplies of which we shall need, you shall receive fair compensation.

No differences of policy or religion induce us to shed the blood of harmless men who think little and do nothing. If you are a man of liberal mind you will not balance on the propositions I offer. Hamet Bashaw pledges himself to me that you shall remain established in your government.

I shall see you tomorrow, in a way of your choosing.”

Naturally, he wrote in Arabic although he mistakenly used the Christian date. This is the reply he got:

“My head or yours.”

Neither lost their head. The Navy showed up only a little late (but late enough almost to cause another mutiny) and Eaton besieging the town quite intelligently. Between the guns of the ships and Eaton’s troops, they took the city. The governor was captured but not killed, as Eaton scrupulously and with good reason obeyed the Arabic custom of sanctuary. The Pasha had sent a relief expedition and it was defeated. During all the fighting though, Eaton was injured, getting shot in the wrist. It would plague him the rest of his life.

Eventually, for a quite a while, with Hamet being useless and living on a Naval ship, Eaton was the de facto governor of the city, and, became quite popular, as he was far more judicious and fair than the local rulers had been. Despite the fears of his men, he continuously walked through the city alone and let anyone who wanted to see him do so.

Although the naval men in the area, aside from Lieutenant Hull, seemed only mildly impressed, one of Eaton’s worst enemies, a Scotsman under the Pasha who Eaton had humiliated, said to a Naval officer who was imprisoned in Tripoli, “If all Americans were like Eaton we would have lost the war long ago.”

Sadly for Eaton, he got a strong taste of politics at this point. Despite the fact that the taking of Derna had shaken the Pasha, as Eaton had predicted, and he immediately began negotiating with the Americans, in particular the State Department's Tobias Lear, in charge of the negotiations, Lear finally agreed to pay $60,000 ransom for the release of the men of the Philadelphia who had been enslaved by the Pasha. In his mind, ransom was different than tribute.

Eaton was livid, and, when he finally returned to the United States he let it out in a torrent of which few could withstand. After he expressed his feelings to Jefferson, Madison and the Congress, Tobias Lear’s career was hurt although it continued unabated under Jefferson and Madison (note: Lear had been present when George Washington died and recorded his last words; he apparently killed himself with a pistol in 1816, possibly on purpose).

Included in Eaton's final report was this tirade:

“What have we gained by the war? What benefit has accrued to the United States by the suffering of the Philadelphia’s officers and men, six of whom died in captivity? What benefit has accrued to the United States by the death of two members of the Marine Corps who accompanied the Bey Hamet on his march to Derna? These dead, and the noble Europeans and Africans who joined hands with us in a noble enterprise – and who lost their lives in that effort – cry out from their shallow graves for justice.”

Ironically, Hamet was of an opposite mind. He had gotten used to exile and did not want to take his little brother’s place anymore. He was quite relieved.

Despite the lukewarm reaction of James Madison, whose man, Lear, had made the settlement, others sounded the victory with the acclaim it deserved. Commodore Preble, who had left the arena before Eaton’s triumph was among the loudest in his praise:

“As one familiar with every aspect of the multitudinous problems you faced in Barbary, I salute you, sir! You have acquired immortal honors and established the fame of your country in the East! It gives me pride to be your compatriot!”

Eaton became an overnight hero, but he was not one to bask in it. At one banquet he made the following speech:

“I don’t want your kind words of welcome, your rich food and your fine wines! I demand justice! Let there be an inquiry into the sorry state of this nation.”

He continued in this vein, which caused some in Congress to delay the gold medal which was to be given to him. But when he returned to Massachusetts he was immediately granted 10,000 acres in Maine (not yet a state).

Not only did he eventually get his medal, but, the nearly five hundred page congressional report lavished praise on him and pretty much agreed with every one of his complaints, excoriating Lear.

Eaton sought to have his general status solidified, by being made a brigadier general or a military attaché to another country, but for non-partisan political reasons it was not feasible just then. Dejected at the end of the war and bored, he declined and died before the War of 1812.

He had one last moment in the light. When Aaron Burr was making (or not) his plans to take over a part of the United States (I won’t argue the issue here – there can be no sure conclusion as to what was intended by Burr and he was acquitted) he made the mistake of confiding in Eaton, who he hoped, with his own feelings of betrayal, would use his talents in his behalf. But, Eaton was pure patriot and reported Burr’s potential treachery to Jefferson.

When Burr was tried, Eaton was one of the key witness. The transcript shows a pompous, angry man more concerned with defending his own honor than Burr's guilt. He did not make much of a witness, though he directly implicated Burr in treason (although unsuccessfully).

Unfortunately, by that time, he had become something of a laughingstock, for his bizarre Eastern dress, his drunkenness (formerly, he had abstained) and even for having sex in public. It got worse when he learned that his beloved step-son, Eli, had died in a duel. It was not that long afterwards that he joined him in death.

I wonder, had Eaton lived to see the war with Britain, would he have, Ulysses Grant like, resurrected himself and become one of our greatest military heroes, as renowned today as Winfield Scott and David Faragutt are, or would he have made a fool of himself like John Fremont did in the Civil War? Such is the stuff of pure speculation.

All I know for sure is this; Eaton was an amazing person, who was, after the founding generation, possibly rivaled only by Decatur in his military prowess. He should be much better known today, more so than so many others who were not half as remarkable as he was. Don't take my word for it. Take the words of one of the Marines who had little respect for Eaton when he suddenly took command, but then followed him across the desert:

“Wherever General Eaton leads, we will follow. If he wants to march us to hell, we’ll gladly go there. Last week we thought we were in hell; we spent almost five days without water. Two days ago, when we were drenched by a cold rain in a gully and thought we would drown, we were certain it was the River Styx. But no matter. General Eaton overcomes every obstacle. He is the great military genius of our era!”.

Even Madison, normally a man of a sang froid disposition, said about him in another field:

"Eaton is a devil's advocate whom I would not like to see opposed to any plan of mine. There are few men in the Congress with his ability to present a case for that in which he believes."

For those of you who are intrigued by this military genius (perhaps genius without qualification is more appropriate) there is little out there about him; even the Wikipedia article is a fragment. The last two biographies were published 40 years ago. One, Barbary General, The Life of William H. Eaton by Samuel Edwards, is one of my sources here (for the rest of them, see the Decatur article, in addition to the transcript of the Aaron Burr trial which is captivating for many reasons of its own). It is time for some accomplished historian to bring him to life in a much more scholarly fashion. Or, if you get me the financing, I volunteer to take on the job. He deserves it.


  1. Anonymous11:07 AM

    Great story. I agree it is worth a book. One English teacher note: in your opening you misuse notoriety. Notoriety means having an evil or disreputable reknown. It does not mean well-known or even famous.

  2. Pas d'accord, mon frere. Notoriety can mean that, may be it is even more often than not, but it is appropriate to use it to just to mean famous. Just in case I was wrong, I double checked. Still, keep proofing for me. I can barely stand to do it.

    Besides, your own blog was so sublime this week, you can say whatever you want.

  3. Right on David !! Enjoyed this tremendously ! Am reading The Pirate Coast by Richard Zacks which traces Eaton's daring journey. It is breathtaking !

    1. Thanks for reading and the tip, Mimi.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .