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First Name: William

Last Name: Eaton

Birthplace: Woodstock, CT, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Date of Birth: 23 February 1764

Date of Death: 01 June 1811

Rank: General

Years Served:
William Eaton

•  Revolutionary War (1775 - 1783)
•  1st Barbary War (1801 - 1805)


William Eaton
General, U.S. Army

William Eaton was born on 23 February 1764 in Woodstock, CT, 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." When he was ten years old, William's family moved to Mansfield, CT. He ran away at the age of sixteen to enlist in the army. He joined the Continental Army in 1780 and served until 1783, attaining the rank of Sergeant at the age of 19. He earned money for college working as a school teacher in Windsor, VT. In 1790, he graduated from Dartmouth College. He and a classmate presented a poetic dialogue at the commencement. Between 1791-92, he worked as a clerk in the Lower House of the Vermont Legislature.

In 1792, Eaton accepted a Captain's commission in the Legion of the U.S. and 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. For the charges, which included those of profiteering and "allowing liberty" to a murder suspect, Eaton was sentenced to two months suspended commission. Despite the conviction, Eaton held his commission until 11 July 1797, when he was appointed U.S. Consul at Tunis. He served at that post until war with Tripoli broke out in 1801. Other sources say he left the Consul post in 1803.

Tunis (1799-1803)

Eaton's main task in Tunis was to negotiate peace and trade agreements with the Bey (Governor). 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 U.S. 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.

By 1796, the U.S. was behind in payments to the Dey of Algiers. In 1797, Joel Barlow, U.S. 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. U.S. President John Adams appointed William Eaton as Consult to Tunis to negotiate more agreeable terms. 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."

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 U.S. in 1801, he refused to pay tribute to Tripoli. The Atlantic Monthly (1860), called the belief that the U.S. was the first to refuse tribute to the Barbary pirates a "patriotic delusion." The article, flouting what it called "the popular view" of events said, "The money question between the President and the pasha was simply one of amount." It went on to say that Jefferson was motivated in his actions toward Tripoli by pressure from powerful merchants. The Pasha of Tripoli, Yusef Caramelli (sometimes referred to as Caramelli or Karamanli), responded to the lack of payment by declaring war on the U.S..

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 U.S. would support the restoration of Hamet Caramelli as Pasha thereby creating fear of the U.S. within the rest of the Muslim world. 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 U.S. 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. Hamet Caramelli, having failed at his attempt to regain Tripoli, fled to Egypt.

The War with Tripoli and the Battle of Derne

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 U.S. 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." 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. 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.

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. Eaton found Caramelli in Alexandria and signed an agreement with him, although it is unclear if he had the authority to do so. This contract, which was forwarded to Secretary of State Madison, specified that the U.S. would provide cash, ammunition and provisions for Hamet Caramelli's re-installation as Pasha. 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. The agreement defined the relationship between Caramelli and Eaton as well as their mission, but was never ratified by the United States Senate.

Sources do not always agree on the makeup of Eaton's forces, but Spencer Tucker, biographer of Stephen Decatur, said that he had with him "ten Americans, three hundred Arab horsemen, seventy Christian mercenaries, and one thousand camels." 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 15 April, 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 27 April 1805, Eaton's forces attacked and took control of Derne. "Captain Presley O'Bannon of the U.S. Marine Corps raised the American flag for the first time over a conquered foreign city." At the Battle of Derne, one marine was killed and two were wounded. Eaton was wounded in the left wrist.

Twice, Yusef Caramelli's forces tried and failed to take back the city. With the Bey of Derne on the run and Hamet Caramelli re-established in Derne, Eaton thought to march toward Tripoli. He requested reinforcements from Barron but instead received word that U.S. 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 4 June. The terms of the treaty required the U.S. 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.


Although Eaton returned to the U.S. to a hero's welcome, he was disappointed and embittered by the treaty and outraged that ransom had to be paid for the freeing on the hostages. He had been denied victory in Tripoli and his agreement with Hamet Caramelli was left un-kept. 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.

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. Nevertheless, despite the Federalist opposition, the treaty with Tripoli was ratified by the Senate in April 1806, and the U.S. entered into an agreement with a Barbary state that, for the first time, did not include the payment of tribute.

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." He did however, receive 10,000 acres from Massachusetts in present day Maine.

The Trial of Aaron Burr

William Eaton was a principal witness in the 1807 treason trial of former U.S. Vice-President Aaron Burr. Burr was Vice-President during President Thomas Jefferson's first term (1801-05). 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. 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. 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. On 26 January 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 U.S. government. He further stated that Burr offered him the rank of General in his army. 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."

Burr's treason trial in Richmond, VA, 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). Historians are divided on the status of Eaton's testimony. While one states that it was wildly exaggerated, another counters that "Burr apologists" are responsible for that point of view. 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. 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.

After peace with Tripoli was made, William Eaton returned to Brimfield, MA, 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.

Eaton suffered from rheumatism and gout, and by all accounts he had taken to drinking heavily. He was also in debt from gambling. To his brother Ebenezer, he wrote on 2 January 1809, that he was a broken and desolate man, crippled in health and fortune by "Burr and Jefferson."

On 1 June 1811, Eaton died, old at forty-seven, and worn out by a unequal struggle against Fate. The Columbian Sentinel, on 12 June, thought the funeral worth one sentence: "Gen. Eaton, the hero of Derne and the victim of sensibility, was entombed at Brimfield on Wednesday last." Even that sentence was carelessly incorrect; he had been buried on Tuesday.


On 20 September 1942, the U.S. Navy Destroyer USS Eaton (DD-510) was launched. Named after General William Eaton, it was sponsored by Mrs. Mary Eaton Phillips, his great-great-granddaughter. After a long, distinguished service in World War II, during which Eaton received eleven battle stars. The ship was placed out of commission in reserve, in June 1946.

Eaton was re-commissioned in December 1951, after it was reclassified DDE-510, and joined Escort Division 22 at Norfolk, VA, in May 1952. She sailed for NATO exercises and participated in a good will tour of ports in Germany, Belgium, Denmark, England, and France before joining the 6th Fleet for exercises in the Mediterranean. On her return passage, Eaton rescued four survivors from SS Mornackite.

Death and Burial

William Eaton died in Brimfield on 1 June 1811. He is buried at Brimfield Cemetery in Brimfield, MA.

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.

Honoree ID: 2455   Created by: MHOH




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