Thursday, February 10, 2011
Annapolis News Report on Tripoli Graves
Annapolis News Report on Tripoli Graves
Local writer delves into Tripoli battle
Intrepid crew died 206 years ago today defending America abroad
Earl Kelly, Staff Writer
The Capital HometownAnnapolis.com
A local man hopes a book he's writing will spark public interest in recovering from Libya the remains of 13 Navy officers and seamen - some of them from Annapolis - who died 206 years ago today.
The officers and men were killed when the Intrepid, an explosives-laden ship they were trying to sneak into Tripoli's harbor, exploded prematurely. The mission had been aimed at getting the fire ship, called an "infernal," close enough to blow up a fort and artillery belonging to the Barbary pirates.
This action was part of the First Barbary War, which lasted from 1801 to 1805; the United States was fighting to defend American shipping from pirates operating out of the four North African states on the Barbary Coast: Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco and Algiers.
Chipp Reid, a former journalist who lives in Eastport and now works for the federal government, said five of the Intrepid's crew, though unidentified, are buried in individual graves in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Tripoli.
The other eight, also unidentified, are buried in a mass grave in what is now a park in front of Tripoli Castle in Libya.
"They (the eight) are buried in front of the castle where (Libyan ruler Muammar al-) Gaddafi holds his I-hate-America rallies. The Libyans are, quite literally, dancing on American bodies," Reid said.
The three officers and eight seamen died on the night of Sept. 4, 1804. Master Commandant Richard Somers and his volunteer crew were trying to slip Intrepid into Tripoli's crescent-shaped harbor, where they planned to light fuses, then make their escape on a small cutter.
"The goal was to cause as much damage and as many casualties as they could to that city-state, so that Tripoli would never threaten American shipping again," Reid said.
It has never been determined whether the ship was hit by artillery fire, or if the crew blew the ship up to keep the enemy from capturing the vessel loaded with ordnance that could have been used against the Americans. Another possibility, though remote, given how well the mission had been planned, was that a crew member may have ignited the explosives accidentally.
The crew aboard the flagship USS Constitution recorded Intrepid's fate.
"At 9:59 p.m., per Constitution's log book, there was cannon fire (from the shore), and 10 seconds later the whole harbor lit up," Reid said. "Nobody knows what happened, and the shore battery may have fired red-hot shot" into the ship.
Somers, who commanded the mission, was from Somers, N.J., which celebrates Richard Somers Day every year.
"We have been trying so hard to bring his remains back to the States," the town's mayor, Jack Glasser, said in a phone interview.
"What Somers did that day took a lot of guts. That is major, major heroism. ... If he did it today, he would be up for the Medal of Honor," said Glasser, a retired police officer and retired Air National Guard master sergeant.
One man who died, Midshipman Joseph Israel, was definitely from Annapolis, Reid said, and two others, Gunner's Mate James Simms and Quartermaster William Keith, enlisted in Annapolis and probably were from the surrounding area.
Reid has determined that Israel was 14 when he joined the Navy and 18 when he died.
Also, the Tripoli Memorial is located at the Naval Academy.
The memorial, financed by Navy officers, was carved in Italy and installed in 1808 at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Then it was moved to the West Terrace of the U.S. Capitol around 1835, before being moved to the academy in 1860.
"Every time it was moved, it increased knowledge of the monument and the heroes," said James W. Cheevers, associate director of the Naval Academy Museum. "In 1835, on the West Terrace of the Capitol, that was much more exposure than it had in the Navy Yard. And then it was moved here to influence our future leaders at the Naval Academy."
In all, 35 people died fighting in Tripoli in August and September 1804, according to various historians. Of those, 22 died in other explosions, and their remains were never found.
As for Intrepid's crew, they didn't fare much better, said Michael J. Crawford, senior historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C.
"They were in a most mangled and burnt condition," Crawford said, "and it was impossible to identify people or to even tell the officers from the seamen."
Some remains were believed to be those of officers because their hands weren't very calloused, Crawford said.
Adding to the confusion, Crawford said, is that some of the remains were moved and reburied once, and may have gotten mixed up with the remains of other people.
"There have been attempts over the years by descendents of some of the officers to get the bones repatriated, but given the murkiness of the history of the bones, it is questionable whether we can identify the remains," Crawford said.
Another historian said that leaving the remains where they are may actually be a sign of respect, since it was commonplace in the 19th century to bury soldiers near where they fell, and to bury sailors at sea.
"Burial at sea was common in the 18th and 19th centuries after any battle," said Craig L. Symonds, a retired Naval Academy history professor and a nationally acclaimed author and scholar. "The bodies would be laid out on the deck, there would be a service, and then they would be committed to the deep."
"The Early National Period was not as obsessed with leaving no one behind as we are today," he added.
Whether the remains are ever returned to the United States, Reid said he hopes his book, which is at a literary agent's office now, will shed light on one of the forgotten chapters in American history.
"That era is so poorly covered," Reid said. "In school, they go straight from the Revolution to the Civil War, and don't give the Early National Period the attention it deserves. ... And these men have been forgotten."