Saturday, April 16, 2011

Master Commandant Richard Somers

Master Commandant Richard Somers - Basic Background

(Born Somers Point, N.J. September 15, 1778 - RIP Tripoli, Libya, September 4, 1804)

Richard Somers was born in Somers Point, New Jersey, on September 15, 1778. He was the great-grandson of John Somers, a large landowner, and son of Colonel Richard Somers, who served as a privateer in the American Revolution and Colonel in the NJ militia who fought at the Battle of Chestnut Neck.

Richard was educated in Burlington, New Jersey and at the Abercrombie School (the Free Academy - now Episcopal Academy), where he was schoolmates with Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart, all three of whom would be, in 1798, selected as the first midshipmen in the reconstituted US Navy under Captain John Barry (frigate USS United States).

Richard Somers was described by contemporaries as having dark hair and eyes, an aquiline nose, and a face that bore marks of the cross of English and French blood in his veins. He was mild, amiable, affectionate and singularly chivalrous in notions of duty and honor.

After serving under Barry on the USS United States and other US warships, Somers was promoted to Lieutenant and on May 5, 1803 given command of the schooner USS Nautilus and assigned to the Mediterranean squadron under Captain Edward Preble.

After accompaning Preble to Algiers, Somers engaged the pirates at Tripoli, commanding a gun boat task force that twice attacked the pirate fleet with much success.

Following the success of Lt. Stephen Decatur's sinking of the captured frigate USS Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor, using the former pirate ship rechristened USS Intrepid, Somers sailed the Intrepid back into Tripoli harbor as a fire ship, designed to explode among the anchored pirate fleet.

During the night of September 4, 1804, the Intrepid prematurely exploded in Tripoli harbor, killing Somers and the twelve man crew, which also included Lt. Joseph Israel and Lt. Henry Wadsworth (Longfellow's uncle).

The next day the bodies washed ashore, and were buried outside the walls of the old castle fort by the American prisoners from the Philadelphia.

In the 1930s, an Italian army road crew uncovered five of the remains of the men of the Intrepid and reburied them at the Old Protestant Cemetery, about a mile away east along the coastal road.

In 1949, an official US Navy ceremony was held at the cemetery site.

In 1977 an article about the sad state of the cemetery site in the American Legion Magazine sparked a movement to repatriate the remains of the men of the Intrepid in Tripoli.

In 1988 the US Congress passed a resolution reserving space for the remains of the men of the Intrepid at Arlington National Cemetery.

In 2004, the New Jersey State Legislature passed a resolution calling for the repatriation of the remains of Master Commandant Richard Somers and the men of the USS Intrepid.

In 2011, Rep. Mike Rogers (R. Mich) introduced a bill in the Congress "to direct the Secretary of Defense to take whatever steps that may be necessary to exhume and transfer the remains of certain deceased members of the Armed Forces buried in Tripoli, Libya, and for other purposes."

[Thanks to Sally Hastings, President of the Somers Point Historical Socity for some of the facts used here]

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