John Barry and Richard Somers
Father and Son of the Navy
– By William Kelly
This year the Somers Point Historical Society is celebrating Richard Somers Day on Sunday, September 13, with a gathering at 3pm at the Somers Mansion.
The New Jersey Assembly passed a resolution officially naming September 4, the day he died in Tripoli as Richard Somers Day, but since that day usually falls on Labor Day weekend, few people recognized it. So this year, it will be celebrated on Sunday, September 13, which also happens to be known as John Barry Day, as officially proclaimed by Presidents Reagan and Clinton.
Richard Somers and John Barry were close friends and neighbors in center city Philadelphia. When his father died, Richard moved in with his sister Sarah and her husband William Keen, who was related to Barry’s wife Sarah Kean Austin, and John Barry became a surrogate father to young Somers.
Although both presidential proclamations expound on Barry’s revolutionary war exploits, they fail to mention the one fact that firmly establishes him as the “Father of the US Navy” - the recruitment and training of the first class of Midshipmen and young officers.
When the new Navy was being constituted and John Barry was named the first flag officer, President Washington instructed Barry to recruit young officers to serve with him. On June 17, 1794, he sent for the popular naval hero and told Barry “to form and train a class of midshipmen, who would then be given command as Ensigns, and form the nucleus of a new American navy.”
Barry didn’t have to look far, for the Rev. White who married him had started a school for young men, some of whom were already known to him. Barry knew Richard Somers’s and Stephen Decatur’s fathers as privateers during the revolution and he sailed a commercial ship for Stewart’s family, so he knew all three while they were still school mates.
Richard Somers’ biographer Barbara E. Koedel wrote “… Somers, Charles Stewart and Stephen Decatur attended the Episcopal Academy ‘where the discipline is strict,…they lived much out of doors, boating, swimming, fishing. Somers was the strongest...All were high spirited as eagles, and they were involved in not a few fisticuff ‘duels’ settled in the old Quaker burying-ground.”
So it was no coincidence that when Richard Somers, Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart enlisted in the Navy, they were selected by Barry to be the first Midshipmen and officers on his flagship the USS United States. On April 20, 1798 Richard Somers received his appointment as Midshipman of the United States Navy, Charles Stewart received his the day before, and Stephen Decatur the following day. Somers accepted the commission on May 1 and a week later he swore on the bible that:
“I Richard Somers, appointed a Midshipman on board the Frigate United States do solemnly swear to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whomsoever; and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, and in all things to conform myself, to the rules and regulations which now are and hereafter may be directed, and to the articles of war which may be enacted by Congress, for the better government of the navy of the United States – and I will support the constitution of the United States…So help me God Richard Somers. Sworn by me by May 8 1798 Richard Peters Judge of the Pennsylvania District of the United States.”
In writing Stewart’s biography, Claude Berbe and John Rodgaard wrote, “In the midshipman’s berth on the United States were two future standouts of the young navy: Charles’ friends Mid. Stephen Decatur and Mid. Richard Somers. With the three childhood friends together again, one could imagine that all three thought that the USS United States was an extension of their childhood days at…Episcopal Academy...Under Barry’s watchful eye, the four junior officers worked the United States through the rest of her fitting out work. When the frigate was ready for sea, Captain Barry set sail for the West Indies.”
Before long Stewart, Decatur and Somers were made officers and given command of their own ships. While Captain Barry was nominated to be the Commodore of the Mediterranean Fleet to fight the Barbary Pirates, he was too sick and unable to assume that command. Somers frequently visited Barry at Strawberry Hill, Barry’s home on the Delaware, four miles north of center city Philadelphia and along with his sister’s husband, William Keen, was a witness to Barry’s last will and testament.
Then Somers, now a Lieutenant, sailed the USS Nautilus to the Mediterranean to join in the fight against the Barbary Pirates, and has yet to return home.
John Barry died on September 13, 1803, the date of his death is now officially known as John Barry Day, two days before Somers’ birthday, September 15 (1776), and less than a year before Somers would die at Tripoli.
John Barry is recognized as the “Father of the US Navy” and Richard Somers is the Native Son of Somers Point, and it is fitting that we should celebrate them together on this day. The two men are tied together in death as in life, the father and son of the US Navy.
Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, recently said that, "Our Navy will never give up looking for a shipmate, regardless of how long or how difficult that search may be." Well 205 years is a long time, but it is now the duty of the US Navy to return the remains of their son, and our Native son, so they can, as James F. Cooper said long ago, “be finally incorporated with the dust of their native land 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.”
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