Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Somers and Decatur

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Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur board the frigate USS United States as Midshipmen

On Memorial Day, President Obama honored two US Marines, Lt. Travis Manion and Lt. Brendan Looney, who were roommates at Annapolis, became best friends, Marines, SEALS, died in combat and are now buried together at Arlington National Cemetery. Manion's body was exhumed and reburied next to his friend.

Their story is reminiscent of two other young men – Richard Somers and Stephen Decatur, who were best friends, schoolmates, enlisted in the Navy together and fought beside each other in battles against the Barbary pirates.

Like Manion, of Doylestown Pa. and Looney from Maryland, Somers and Decatur were from local military families, both sons of Revolutionary war privateers, and went to school together at the Philadelphia Free Academy with Charles Stewart.

As young students Somers and Decatur were said to have often engaged in fist fighting in the cemetery behind Independence Hall, where Commodore John Barry is now buried.

When President Washington commissioned John Barry the first officer of the new, reconstituted US Navy, he ordered him to select young men to train as officers, and the Irish born Barry, "Father of the US Navy," selected Stewart his first officer and Somers and Decatur as Midshipmen. In effect, they were the first class of midshipmen in the US Navy.

Because they were so close, Somers and Decatur often derided each other, which caused five other young officers to question their character, and Somers was challenged to a duel with all five. After Somers wounded three of them, and taking a shot in the arm, Decatur is said to have held up Somers arm so he could shoot, and the others backed off. Honor sustained.

After serving with Barry aboard the frigate USS United States, built at the South Philadelphia Navy Yard, all three men were given command of their own ships and sent off to fight the Barbary Pirates.

Somers in the schooner USS Nautilus and Decatur taking command of the schooner Enterprise, quickly engaged pirate ships in action, Decatur capturing a ketch he took as a prize and rechristened the USS Intrepid.

Unfortunately, while chasing a pirate corsair into Tripoli harbor, Capt. Bainbridge ran the frigate USS Philadelphia aground, and surrendered his ship and 300 man crew were taken prisoner and held for a million dollars ransom by the tyrant of Tripoli Bashaw Youseff Karmanli.

In a daring nighttime raid, Decatur sailed the Intrepid, disguised as a pirate ship, into the harbor, recaptured the Philadelphia and set her ablaze and escaped without any casualties.

During two separate battles of Tripoli, Somers and Decatur each led flotillas of gunboats against the pirate fleet with much success, though Stephen Decatur's younger brother James was killed.

Then Richard Somers was given command of the Intrepid, and they outfitted it with explosives as a fire ship, with the intention of sailing it into Tripoli harbor at night, aiming it for the anchored pirate fleet, lighting a fuse and escaping in row boats, but something went terribly wrong and the ship exploded prematurely killing all aboard.

The remains of Somers and his men washed ashore the next day and they were buried by prisoners of the Philadelphia, and the remains of Somers and the officers and five men are still buried at Green Square (Martyr's Square), which is the center of the Libyan revolt.

Decatur helped defeat the pirates and persuade Karamanli to agree to a treaty, which was broken a few years later. Decatur then played a major role in the Second Barbary War, and the War of 1812. Decatur was very popular for his military victories and helping to establish the style and traditions of the US Navy. He was considered presidential material and was being drafted to run for president.

When John Barron surrendered the frigate Chesapeake, Decatur had called him a coward, and for years, almost a decade, the two men quarreled, until finally Barron challenged Decatur to a duel.

They met at the old dueling spot in Maryland, just beyond the District of Columbia border, and both men were wounded, but Decatur died the following day. He was buried in Philadelphia, while his wife continued to live in their home, the Decatur House, just around the corner from the White House that is still there.

When Decatur's widow died she was buried in Washington, on grounds that was to be used for a University expansion, so in the 1980s she was exhumed and reburied in Philadelphia next to her husband.

Somers and Decatur were so close that when a book was written about gays in the military, a chapter on Somers and Decatur implied they were lovers, but Somers had a girlfriend and Decatur was married, so their relationship was certainly not sexual as the book falsely intimated.

But rather, they were best of friends, schoolmates and warriors together, just like Lieutenants Travis Manion and Brendan Looney.

A book that is said to be required reading at Annapolis is called "Somers and Decatur," and written by Molly Elliot Seawell in an entertaining style that has inspired and encouraged other young men to enlist in the Navy, see the world and fight pirates.

Somers and Decatur were well known heroes in their day, and many city streets and Navy ships have been named after them. Six Navy ships have been named after Somers, including the USS Somers that was used to train Midshipmen at sea until three young men were hanged for suspected mutiny and the US Naval Academy was founded at Annapolis in the wake of that scandal. The cities of Decatur, Georgia was named after Stephen Decatur and Somers, New York was named after Richard Somers.

And now, just as Decatur's widow and Lt. Manion were exhumed from their graves and reburied next to their husband and friend, the remains of Somers should be repatriated home from Martyr's Square in Tripoli and reburied among his family and friends in Somers Point.

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