Thursday, April 3, 2008

At the Grave of Richard Somers in Tripoli



200 years and thousands of miles away, Richard Somers is now closer to home than ever before.

Richard is not buried in the Somers family grave adjacent to Greate Bay Golf Club in Somers Point, New Jersey, where his father, grandfather, sister and cousins are entombed. Instead, the remains of Lt. Richard Somers and the 12 man crew of the USS Intrepid are buried in a small park near Tripoli harbor where they died on September 4, 1804.


The location of the graves is no secret, and only a mystery to the Libyans, who recently told a visiting Congressional delegation that they assembled a team of students who conducted a “very expensive” search, yet they failed to find Somers’ grave.


The record is very clear and the location of the graves is well known, as Americans have visited the it on many occasions, most recently on March 6th, 2004 when a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer located the small park, overgrown with weeds and in a state of disrepair. The Libyans refused to permit him to take a photo.

Beginning with accounts of the time, according to the journal from September, 1804 of a seaman in the squadron, “….the Ketch Intrepid got under way and was sent into Tripoli as a fire ship. Commanded by Capt. Somers, he had our green cutter to make their escape from her. At ¾ past 9 she blew up in which unfortunately perished Capt. Somers, Mr. Wadsworth, Mr. Israel, Midshipman and 10 Men. It is supposed that she took fire in the magazine sooner than was intended or that they were attempted to be boarded by the Tripolitians and blew her up sooner than suffer her and themselves to fall into the hands of the Tripoleens, as she had 100 barrels of powder on board…The loss of those brave officers and men are much to be regretted by their country and friends. Capt. Somers was as brave and enterprising an officer as ever stepped the Deck of a ship possessing every Virtue that the human heart is susceptible of…”


According to Garden W. Allen (in Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs [Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, & Co. p. 209-210], “…All of the thirteen bodies were recovered, two days later, by the Tripolitians. Two were found in the bottom of the ketch, which grounded on the rocks at the north side of the western entrance, one was in the six-oared boat, which drifted ashore to the westward, four were floating in the harbor, and six were picked up on the beach southeast of town…..Dr. Cowdery (of the captured USS Philadelphia), distinctly states in his journal that he ….was able to pick out three of them as officers, although of course it was not known in Tripoli how many officers were in the party, or how many in all. His opinion was based on the softness of their hands and a few fragments of clothing…The bodies were buried south of the town, the three supposed officers by themselves


Another report states, “(Captain) Bainbridge (of the Philadelphia) and his men buried them on the beach and erected…a fieldstone above them….to protect against the ravages of wild dogs that took the place of scavengers and street cleaners in Tripoli. The little wooden crosses they set up were knocked down by the populace as abhorment to their faith.”


James Fenimore Cooper, in Graham’s Magazine (Vol. XXI, No. 4) wrote a profile of Richard Somers in which he authoritatively reported, “…The ten seamen were buried on the beach outside the town near the walls; while the three officers were interred in the same grave, on the plain beyond, or cable’s length [200 yards] to the southward and eastward of the earth. Small stones were placed at the four corners of the last grave, to mark its site; but they were shortly after removed by the Turks, who refused to let what they conceived to be a Christian monument, disfigure their land.”


“Here, then, lie the remains of Somers, and his two gallant friends; and it might be well to instruct the commander of some national cruiser to search for their bones, that they might be finally incorporated with the dust of their native land. Their identity would at once be established by the number of the skeletons ,and the friends of the deceased might find a melancholy consolation in being permitted to drop a tear over the spot in which they would be finally entombed.”


In her excellent biography of the Naval career of Master Commandant Richard Somers, Glory at Last, Barbara Koedel wrote, “In 1949, as a result of research by Mustafa Burchis, harbor master of Tripoli, and the United States Counsul Orray Taft, Jr., the graves of five men killed from the explosion of the Intrepid on 4 September 1804 were found in the Protestant Cemetery there. On April 2, 199, the U.S.S. Spokane put in at Tripoli. In a short address, Rear Admiral Cruzen spoke of the exploits in the Barbary War; Captain W. J. Marshall narrated the Intrepid mission; and Consul Taft told of the research to identify the graves and unveiled a plaque: “In honored memory of five unknown American seamen buried here who died in the explosion of the USS Intrepid, Tripoli Harbor, 1804.’ Captain Lt. E. J. Sheridan read a short paper; an honor guard of Marines fired several volleys over the graves and played taps.” A photo of the graves, with U.S. Counsel Orray Taft, Jr., Rear Admiral Richard Cruzen, Capt. W. J. Marshall and Prince Taher Bay Karamanli standing above it is posted on the internet [ ] and available from the Navy Archives.


In the 1960s, Major Jack Templeton of San Diego, visited the graves while stationed at Wheeler Air Force base. He wrote that, “As a USAF pilot stationed in Libya for three years, living in Tripoli, I can attest to a simple grave site in the center of town (100 yards from the shore) with the names of five U.S. Marine who lost their lives there, ‘On the shores of Tripoli.’”


The marker is incorrect as to the number of men buried there, though it is most certainly the site of the graves of the men of the Intrepid. Besides Lt. Somers, the Captain of the Intrepid, and the two midshipmen Henry Wadsworth (uncle of Longfellow) and Joseph Israel, there were six men from the USS Constitution – William Harrison, Robert Clark, Hugh McCormick, Jacob Williams, Peter Renner and Issac Downes, and four from the USS Nautilus – James Simms, Thomas Tompline, James Harris and William Keith. Five were said to be sailors and five marines.


More recently, sometime in the 1980s, two tourists from New Jersey, Patricia Dougherty, a member of the Leonia Borough Council, and her friend, Melba Edmunds, “…discovered the cemetery, all but hidden in weeds, while vacationing,…They found markers placed on the graves in Tripoli and commemorated by the Navy in ceremonies in 1949.” There article about the graves in American Legion magazine sparked another attempt to repatriate them, though an act of Congress was passed to make room for the return of the men for reburial at Arlington.


Most recently, while in Tripoli covering the recent visit of a Congressional delegation led by Philadelphia Congressman Rep. Curt Weldon, a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sudarsan Krafrica easily found the grave site and reported [in an email], “…I visited the cemetery, but the Libyans wouldn’t let me take a picture. I’m trying to change their minds…” He later said that the cemetery is in a sad state and not surprisingly, hasn’t been cared for at all.


In a report to Rep. Curt Weldon (Rep. Pa.) and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (Rep. N.J. 2nd), the Libyans responded that a group of students were unable to locate the graves after an “expensive” search, and then it was said that the Italians, who occupied Libya until 1951, moved the graves, though that is generally believed to be an attempt by the Libyans to disclaim responsibility for them.


The location and state of the graves is well known to anyone interested, and maybe it’s best the Libyans leave it alone. These men should be treated like any other US military servicemen who die behind the lines in enemy territory, and honorably repatriated. Unlike the Koreans, who delivered the remains of 50 US servicemen in a single box of bones, there is a proper procedure for securing the remains, and a Department of Defense unit that specializes in this type of operation.


The remains of Lt. Richard Somers and the crew of the Intrepid will soon be returned home, and they should be treated with the same respect of those who sacrifice their lives today. The U.S. Military has a very good detachment that is responsible for the retrieval of the remains of American military killed in any foreign country, forensic pathologist who can and will properly remove the remains of all the Americans buried there and return them via Dover AFB, where all the dead are processed before being buried with full military honors due them.

Then, as J.F. Cooper so aptly put it over 150 years ago, “…It would be well to instruct the commander of some national cruiser to search for the bones, that they might be finally incorporated with the dust of their native land.”


Bill Kelly can be reached at


Robert Coats said...


I was an Air Force dependent living at Wheelus Field for several years in the 1950's and I recall us visiting this little grave yard a few times, both with my school classes and with my family, where we would pay our respects to those first Americans who gave their lives in defense of American Liberty. Somewhere I have photographs of my family at the gravesite and of the inscriptions (I remember them as being bronze plaques) and I will look through all of the old family albums to see if I can again locate them.

But critically right now, after our recent and still on-going assistance to the Libyans, we should press the Administration, as well as our Senators and Representatives to petition (force) the Libyans to allow us to repatriate those forgotten few and finally bring them home...

Thank you so much for what you do.

Robert M. Coats

A.C.Holder said...


I Lived in Tripoli for fifteenyears and I remember visting the littele grave site as a child and a young teen. it was in a small park over looking the harbor, over grown with weeds and thorny Bougainvillea vines. I also remember bronze plaques, however I do not recall the inscription.


Amena Calhoun-Holder.