Richard Somers and the Barbary Pirates
By William Kelly
[From Three Hundred Years at the Point – A History of Somers Point, N.J. 1994]
As the scion of the merchant sea faring family that settled along the South Jersey shore, Richard Somers was the great-grandson of John Somers, the family patriarch.
He was born during the American Revolution, on September 15, 1778 at his father’s home and tavern at the corner of Bethel and Shore Roads (which is now an office building). A small historical stone marks the place today. Other monuments honor him at the old schoolyard in Somers Point as well as the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.
Richard Somers isn’t buried in the Somers family graveyard adjacent to the Greate Bay Golf Club, but rather he rests with twelve of his men, volunteers all, buried in an unkept grave over grown with weeds in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Tripoli, Libya, not far from where he died.
His body washed ashore on the banks of Tripoli Harbor, and his courageous deeds are immortalized in the words of the U.S. Marine Corps song, "…from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli."
Somers first learned to sail as a boy on Great Egg Bay and was sent away to a boarding school where he met his lifelong friend and cohort, Stephen Decatur. Somers and Decatur joined the U.S. Navy at a peculiar time in history.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the chief architects of the nation, was President. Although known as a popular pacifist, Jefferson proclaimed, "I have sworn upon the alter of God, eternal vigilance against the tyranny of man."
In 1804, the most prominent tyrant and chief thorn in Jefferson’s side was Libya’s Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli, the Arabian gadfly of his day.
Since the U.S. had won its independence from England, American merchant ships were no longer protected by the efficient warships that displayed the well-respected Union Jack. The Stars and Stripes that flew over U.S. vessels served as a welcome mat for marauding pirates that roamed the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The Tripolitians had captured over a dozen American merchantmen. The United States and other countries had previously paid money, called "tribute," to the various Arab monarchs of the North African Barbary Coast to keep them from intercepting the unarmed merchant ships. But when the tributes stopped, the piracy continued, often without much public interest.
Then an American merchant seaman survived the ordeal of capture and enslavement and wrote about it, forcing Congress to order a new fleet to protect our ships at sea. "Millions for defense, not once cent for tribute," was the slogan that began the tradition that the U.S. military is built upon today. The Navy missioned a number of small schooners that could match the pirates corsairs in both speed and firepower, while the people of Philadelphia contributed a large frigate, the Philadelphia.
Young Richard Somers, after serving as a midshipman with Decatur aboard the frigate U.S.S. United States (also built at Philadelphia), made the grade of lieutenant, and was given command of one of the Navy’s new schooners, the Nautilus.
His first assignment was to the Mediterranean with dispatches recalling the existing fleet commander. The Nautilus and the rest of the Mediterranean squadron were now under the command of Commodore Edward Preble, the oldest Captain and lowest ranking fleet commander in the U.S. Navy.
Preble served as a role model for a new generation of young officers who, like Somers and Decatur, were in their late teens and early twenties and bound for glory in the war against the pirates and in the War of 1812. At first they resented the staunch disciplinarian, but later came to admire and imitate his proud, arrogant style and became known as "Preble’s Boys." Besides Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur, there were Charles MacDaonough, who thwarted a British invasion of Canada, Charles Morris, who became known as the Statesman of the U.S. Navy; and James Lawrence, who uttered the immortal words, "Don’t give up the ship."
Preble had sent the frigate Philadelphia ahead of the rest of the fleet to establish the blockade of Tripoli Harbor, but before he could relieve his battleship, disaster struck. The Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef while chasing a Tripolitian’s corsair making for the safe haven of the harbor. Although the 300 man crew had thrown all the cannons overboard and tried to scuttle their ship, they were surrounded and taken prisoner. The pirates had captured a vessel equal in size and firepower to Preble’s own flagship. While politicians began negotiating the release of the 300 sailors who were being held in the dungeons of the Tripolitian castle, Preble prepared for action with the rest of the fleet.
En route to Tripoli, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, skipper of the schooner Enterprise, captured the lateen-rigged pirate ship Mastico, built by the French for Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition and given to Tripoli as a tribute. A U.S. Navy officer’s sword from the Philadelphia was found aboard. Rechristened the U.S.S. Intrepid, she sailed into one of the most extraordinary and daring raids ever attempted by the United States Navy.
Decatur first laid out his plan on the chart table in the state room of Captain Preble’s flagship, the U.S.S. Constitution, at Malta. Then with Preble’s approval and a call for volunteers, he put it to action. After sailing ahead of the fleet for two days in stormy weather they arrived at Tripoli at night. Under the full moon of February 16, 1804, the Intrepid sailed into Tripoli Harbor with a full compliment of crew – nine officers, fifty blue-jacketed sailors, eight marines and an experienced Sicilian pilot, Salvatore Catalino.
As an American spy, Catalino had already been into the harbor, so he knew the position of the Philadelphia and the deployment of the enemy forces.
With Decatur and Catalino on deck dressed as Moorish traders, they sailed within a hundred yards of the Philadelphia before the pirates hailed the Intrepid to stay clear. Catalino said he had lost his anchor in a storm and requested permission to moor alongside the Philadelphia until morning. Permission granted, lines were passed to the Tripoli guards and the Intrepid moved in. An alert guard however, saw an anchor on the Intrepid’s deck and realized it was a trick.
A call of alarm was quickly followed by an American cheer as the boarders swarmed over the side of the frigate’s deck. No guns were fired, some 20 Tripolitians were cut down with swords and daggers, and the remainder of her crew leaped overside into the harbor waters. The Americans scattered combustibles, set the torch and then made for their ketch as flames from the Philadelphia’s gun ports began to scorch their uniforms.
Using stealth and cutlass and without firing a shot, they accomplished their mission without any casualties. As they sailed away, a cannon shot from the castle winged a hole in the mainsail. England’s Lord Admiral Nelson called it "the most bold and daring act of an age."
With the Philadelphia destroyed, they still had the rest of the Tripolitians’ fleet to contend with. The Tripolitians’ navy, led by Irish-American turncoat Peter Lisle, were known as fierce fighters, at their best when when the battle got down to hand-to-hand knife and saber fight. The Americans took advantage of their firepower and sailing abilities.
Preble had his frigate, the U.S.S. Constitution, four brigs, the Argus, Siren, Vixen and Scourge, eight gunboats and mortar ketches, and the schooners Nautilus and Enterprise, commanded by Somers and Decatur.
On August 3, 1804, while the larger ships engaged the shore batteries, Decatur and Somers each led flotillas of gunboats against the Tripolitians’ vessels. Decatur went up against five enemy vessels, boarded them against odds of two-to-one, and won the battle in ten minutes.
Somers went up against five enemy ships. Colonel R. Dupuy and Maj. Gen. William Baumer recounted the battle: "With round shot and grape from his one 24-pounder, Somers halted them. They wove ship to escape under the protection of the shore batteries, and the amazing Somers actually chased all five of them back behind the reefline."
Preble then agreed to another covert action for the Intrepid, this time with Somers in command, which, if successful, would have destroyed the remaining ships in the pirate fleet.
In retrospect, it seemed ill-advised, but if it had succeeded, it would be considered another bold and heroic action. Somers and his volunteers rechristened the Intrepid the Inferno, and were to sail her back into Tripoli Harbor, only this time it would be a fireship, packed to the brim with explosives.
Set under sail in the direction of the anchored enemy fleet, they were to light a 15 minute fuse and escape the Inferno in two rowboats.
Before leaving on his mission, Somers took off a gold and black ring, cut it in thirds and gave his former schoolmates, Decatur and Charles Stewart, each a third.
Preble, Decatur and the rest of the fleet then watched as the Intrepid sailed off with Somers and his men, 11 volunteers and a stowaway sailor, who became the unlucky thirteenth sailor. They sailed off into the night, never to return again. The war history reads: "They waited for more than one hour. Then the black harbor mouth was split wide in a blinding flash, and the roar of a great explosion rumbled out. What had happened? No one knows for sure. Perhaps the premature explosion was an accident. More probable – the Intrepid was assailed by Tripolitian guard boats and Somers, as he had declared he would do, simply hurled a lighted lantern into his magazine and blew up his ship."
The next morning thirteen bodies washed ashore. Prisoners from the Philadelphia buried them at the Old Protestant Cemetery near Tripoli Harbor. (Sic. They were buried 200 yards from the old castle fort. In the 1930s, Italian soldiers reburied the remains of five of them at the cemetery. BK)
Preble’s boys won the battles against the pirates and were about to take Tripoli when the prisoners of the Philadelphia were freed through a negotiated truce.
Stephen Decatur later assumed command of the Mediterranean squadron, won the war, returned home a hero, and was picked to win the presidency, but was killed in a pistol duel over a point of honor.
Somers has always been memorialized by the U.S Navy. There have been at least six naval warships named after him, and there is a Somers Monument at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. There is a tradition that whoever is the first to the top of the Somers monument after graduation will be the first member of the class to make the rank of Admiral. There is also a monument to Richard Somers at the New York Avenue School, and at the municipal court in Somers Point, where the walls are also decorated with photos of ships named after Somers.
There have been periodic, though unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a treaty with Libya to have the bodies of Lieutenant Richard Somers and his men repatriated home.
ANNAPOLIS CELEBRATES BICENTENNIAL OF TRIPOLI MONUMENT -