Friday, October 2, 2009

When We Were Pirates

When We Were Pirates

When Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur enlisted in the U.S. Navy, they did so with the intention of fighting pirates.

I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on them that both young men were the sons of American sea captains who were issued special papers by the government that permitted them to seize British ships, with warships being turned over to the Revolutionary navy and merchant ships and their contents sold at auction.

These civilian militias, known as “privateers,” marauded the British commercial shipping up and down the East Coast.

Richard Somers, Sr., of Somers Point, New Jersey, was a Colonel in the New Jersey Revolutionary militia, commander of the Third Battalion of the Gloucester Militia, and the son of sea captain.

When a privateer captured a British ship, the officers, sailors and soldiers were taken prisoner, to be exchanged for American prisoners, while the cargo was taken to Chestnut Neck, a small Jersey Shore town on the bay where the Mullica river meets the sea.

The town of Chestnut Neck only consisted of a dozen or so buildings, but its position was strategic, as it was difficult to get to overland, and was a convenient port for the privateers, who took their prizes to this small town to auction them and their contents.

They were so brazen about it, they took advertisements in the Philadelphia and New York news papers promoting the sale of goods from a British ship that had been captured.

Up the Mullica river from Chestnut Neck was Batsto, an industrial down with mills along the river that manufactured cannons, cannon balls and musket balls for the revolutionary army.

Needless to say, the British didn’t like the fact that they were such easy prey to what they called a "nest of rebel pirates," though there wasn’t much they could do about it, even with armies in Philadelphia and New York and the most powerful navy in the world.

Eventually they had to do something about it, so they mounted what was to become known in annals of British military history as "The Little Egg Harbor Expedition of 1778." With a regiment of some 500 British Army regulars and tories, they put a fleet together out of New York in late September,`1778. With a dozen or so ships and gunboats they were set to attack Chestnut Neck, but got caught in a storm. By the time they arrived, on October 6, 1778, intelligence had reported they were coming. Though not catching them by surprise, as the rebel ships had left, along with most of the people of the town, there were some 20 captured prize ships, which shows you how prolific they were.

One hundred and fifty men of Col. Somers’ militia manned a small fort, but the cannons Washington had promised had yet to arrive. After a bombardment from the British ships, when the British regiment came ashore, the outnumbered Americans retreated up the river, and the British chased them. When the river got narrow and shallow, their boats ran around. More than one British ship ran aground and the flagship had to be abandoned and sunk.

The American rebels, on their home turf, knew the river well and fought back, in commando style, using hit and run tactics.

Three weeks earlier Colonel Richard Somers' son, Richard, Jr., was born - on September 15, 1778, and it would be this Somers who would distinguish himself as pirate fighter and a hero of Tripoli.

There is a story of local lore, that one of the British soldiers who invaded Chestnut Neck, with orders to kill all the “pirates” and burn their homes, came upon a young girl in hiding, but let her go, and came back after the war to marry her.

Although there is little there today other than a boatyard and a park, a monument was erected in memory of those who fought in the battle of Chestnut Neck, and ceremonies are periodically held there.

For more on the Battle of Chestnut Neck, and photographs, see the Richard Somers Chapter SAR report: Battle of Chestnut Neck 2008 SAR.pdf

One of the best books about the battle of Chestnut Neck is "Nest of Rebel Pirates" by Frankin W. Kemp, a Linwood, New Jersey historian who also wrote an unpublished manuscript on the life and death of Richard Somers, Jr., the naval hero of Tripoli.

Unfortunately, when Kemp took his manuscript to the Atlantic County Historical Society, they had already decided to publish another writer’s biography of Richard Somers, and Kemp’s manuscript was never published. Compounding the problem, Kemp’s wife was unable to locate the manuscript from among Kemp’s papers, and they have yet to be donated to a library and properly archived.

Those who knew Kemp however, relate a story that he told them. Kemp said that he had located an Italian soldier who was stationed in Tripoli in the 1930s, and corresponded with him. This Italian soldier claimed to have participated in the building of a road in Tripoli, and uncovering the remains of five of the men from the Intrepid, which were reburied at the Old Protestant Cemetery. These letters could provide details concerning the location of the original grave site and the circumstances of the reburial.

While these letters may be “lost to history,” the location of the original grave site is not, and it should be easy enough to locate for anyone is there on the scene.

The remains of one of these men is Richard Somers, the pirate fighting son of a pirate from Somers Point, New Jersey.

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