FIRST LIEUTENANT PRESLEY NEVILLE O'BANNON, USMCPresley Neville O'Bannon later known as the "Hero of Derne," was born in 1776, in Fauquier County, Virginia. He was appointed a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, 18 January 1801, and was promoted to first lieutenant on 15 October 1802. After serving at various stations in the United States, O'Bannon was assigned to duty on board the USS Adams early in 1802, and sailed for the Mediterranean in June of that year. He returned to the U.S. in November 1803, and was assigned duty at the Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. He again sailed for the Mediterranean on the USS President on 25 May 1804, arriving at Gibraltar, 13 August 1804. He was transferred to the USS Constitution on 22 October 1804, and to the USS Argus on 26 October 1804. While serving as Marine officer in the latter vessel he was selected for a special mission, which was destined to be commemorated on the colors of the Marine Corps and forever recorded in the Marines' Hymn in the words "To the Shores of Tripoli."
For many years the United States had maintained peace with the Barbary States (Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli) by "buying" treaties and paying tribute to the reigning pasha. Although Algiers, Morocco and Tunis were not entirely satisfied, they were more or less complacent, whereas Tripoli continued to make threats against the United States while demanding larger and more frequent "payments." Finally, on 14 May 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusut Karamanli, indicated his extreme dissatisfaction with our "tribute" by having the flagstaff cut down in front of the U.S. Consulate. This act led to a declaration of war against Tripoli and the sending of more U.S. war vessels to the Mediterranean. During a storm one of the ships, the USS Philadelphia, crashed on to the rocks off Tripoli and her crew was captured and imprisoned at Derne. After a bombardment of Tripoli by U.S. vessels and the offer of $100,000 ransom for the crew of the Philadelphia had failed to move the Pasha, William Eaton, "Navy Agent for the several Barbary Regencies," suggested forming an alliance with Hamet, elder brother of the reigning sovereign of Tripoli. The plan was approved by the U.S. Government and Eaton commenced putting his plan into execution.
On 29 November 1804, Eaton, First Lieutenant O'Bannon, Midshipmen George Mann, U.S. Navy, and seven Marines landed at Alexandria, Egypt, from the USS Argus, and a few days later proceeded to Cairo. The party arrived at Cairo on 8 January 1805, where they learned that Hamet and a few Tripolitans had joined a band of rebellious Mamelukes who were defying the rule of the Turkish viceroy. Eaton then pushed on to Fiaum where he communicated with Hamet and made arrangements with him for his cooperation with the expedition against Derne, Tripoli. On 8 March, Eaton and his motley army of about 500 men, 100 camels and a few mules started the long march across the Libyan desert. He arrived at Derne the night of 25 March, and the next day, under a flag of truce, offered terms of amity to the Governor of Derne on condition of allegiance and fidelity to Hamet. The reply to this offer was "My head or yours." Shortly thereafter, the USS Nautilus arrived in the harbor of Derne, and the next day the USS Argus and Hornet dropped anchor nearby. When the combined land-sea attack commenced on 27 March, Lieutenant O'Bannon, with his Marines, a few Greeks, and as many of the cannoniers as could be spared from the field piece, passed through a shower of enemy musketry, took possession of one of the enemy's batteries, planted the United States flag upon its ramparts and turned the guns upon the enemy. After two hours of hand-to-hand fighting, the stronghold was occupied and for the first time in history the flag of the United States flew over a fortress of the old world.
The Tripolitans counterattacked the fortress a number of times, but were repulsed with heavy losses. Finally, on 28 May, Eaton's forces launched a spirited bayonet charge which drove the enemy from the vicinity of Derne. For many years, memories of the dauntless Americans lingered in the songs of the women of Derne, one of which featured these words: "Din din Mohamed U Ryas Melekan manhandi," which means "Mohamed for religion and the Americans for stubbornness."
Before they parted, Hamet gave O'Bannon a jeweled sword with a Mameluke hilt which he had carried while with the Mamelukes in Egypt. Upon his return to the United States the state of Virginia presented O'Bannon a sword modeled after the original Mameluke blade given him by Hamet. The sword bore on one side of the blade the inscription: "Presented by the State of Virginia to her gallant son Priestly (sic) N. O'Bannon." On the reverse side was inscribed: "Assault the conquest of the City of Derne in Africa, 27 April 1805." Underneath the eagle's head on the hilt is a gold plate depicting Lieutenant O'Bannon holding in one hand the National Colors of the United States and in the other a sword. He is standing on the walls of the fortress of Derne with the city of Derne in the background. The blade of this sword, a true scimitar, has more curve than the modified blade adopted for the U.S. Marine Corps officers' swords, which continues to be a part of their uniform although now worn only on special occasions.
O'Bannon resigned from the Marine Corps, 6 March 1807, and went to Kentucky to live his remaining days. When he died on 12 September 1850, at the age of 74, his remains were interred in a small cemetery north of Pleasureville, Kentucky. On 14 June 1920, the Daughters of the American Revolution removed his remains to Frankfort, Kentucky, where a memorial was erected to his memory. His heroic service on the "the shores of Tripoli" is commemorated in the Mameluke sword worn by U.S. Marine Corps officers, a sword patterned after the famed blade of Damascus presented to O'Bannon by Hamet in appreciation for services rendered on "the shores of Tripoli."