Saturday, December 8, 2012

Tim McGrath on Richard Somers & John Barry

Richard Somers Day at Somers Point, NJ - September 9, 2012
Speaker: Tim McGrath
Author of John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail

It's an honor to be here with you all today.

George Washington's decision to ask John Barry to serve as senior officer of the United States Navy in 1794 was an easy one for the president to make. Washington had known Barry for 18 years, and was well aware of the Irishman's skills as a sailor and courage as a warrior. During the dark days of December, 1776, Barry led his crew into the Continental Army where they saw action at the Battle of Princeton.

Captain and General corresponded with each other throughout the war, the most memorable dispatch being one of Barry's to Washington during the Valley Forge winter. After Barry captured three British ships off Reedy Island in the Delaware, he sent Washington a list of the engineering tools and other goods taken from the ship's hold, sending his letter by courier along with two other items of plunder: a large cheese and a "jar of Pickled oysters which crave the general's acceptance."

After Barry agreed to serve as first among the navy's captains he spent three long years overseeing the construction of the first frigates, including his flagship, the United States, a twin sister of the Constitution. Once she was launched, the commodore required junior officers.

For two of these positions he didn't have to look far, enlisting his friend Stephen Decatur's son, Stephen Junior, and that youngster's best friend from Episcopal Academy, Richard Somers, who also happened to be related to Barry's wife, Sarah.

Sadly, the John Barry of 1798 was no longer the dashing hero of the American Revolution. He was plagued with chronic asthma and also suffered from the gout. But he made sure that the United States was both a tight and happy ship. She was, in fact, a floating naval academy.

Under Barry's watchful eye, young Somers and Decatur, along with James Barron, Charles Stewart, and others, learned navigation, mathematics, and gunnery skills. And he set for them a visible example of how a commanding officer carried himself and treated his men. More officers were promoted up the ranks from the United States than from any other ship during the Quasi-War, the naval conflict fought between America and France under the administration of John Adams.

Below decks, "Barry's boys" were obsessed with the code duello - the practice of fighting duels over the slightest offense. Most of you are familiar with the story of how Somers and Decatur engaged in playful banter while Decatur was dressing for shore leave. With three other midshipmen present, Somers kidded Decatur over his foppish dress, while Decatur called Somers a fool. Afterwards, when Somers asked his colleagues to partake in a bottle of wine, they refused. In letting Decatur call him a fool, Somers was in their eyes a coward, and they refused his wine. Upon returning to ship, Decatur called their accusation ridiculous, but only an apology to Somers would mollify them. Somers might be Decatur's best friend, but he wasn't about to lose face - or honor - by apologizing. Accordingly, Somers challenged all three to a duel, just like D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers - except their weapons would be pistols, not rapiers. Of course, Decatur served as his second.

The next morning they were rowed ashore, where Somers faced each boy at twenty paces. The first, shot him in the arm; the second, wounded him so severely in the hip that he could not stand to face his third accuser. Instead, Decatur knelt beside him, holding Somers' right arm steady enough to graze his last opponent. His courage more than proven, they were rowed back to ship. Hopefully they drank that wine.

I mention this affair because Barry had to know about it, either before or afterwards. Barry's wife, Sarah - a remarkable woman in her own right - was devoted to both her husband and her extended family. Her letters to John, while always loving, are at times an 18th century version of "you never write, you never call…" One can only imagine the letter Barry would have received from her if her relative had been more seriously hurt.

Over the next three years Somers sailed aboard the United States. She flew the broad blue pennant Barry's rank entitled him to as senior commander. Richard Somers saw more than his share of action, as the United States captured a fistful of French ships, and sailed through several severe storms. On one diplomatic visit to Portugal, the officers hiked up a high hill to enjoy the splendid view the crest provided, only to watch in horror as Barry was stricken with a debilitating asthma attack that left them all wondering if he was dying.

Somers participated in two incidents with his captain during the Quasi-War that he later wrote of in detail. While the United States was being refitted in Philadelphia, word reached Barry from Newcastle that several sailors were confined in irons after being accused of mutiny. He sent Lieutenant Somers downriver to investigate. Somers, convinced of their innocence, went back to Barry and wisely suggested that he personally obtain their release. The commodore accompanied Somers back to Newcastle where, as Somers reported, Barry "ordered them out of Irons, who had been confined for 6 weeks, the poor fellows on their being relieved and seeing the Commodore gave him three Cheers."

At the end of the Quasi-War, Barry was ordered to sail the United States to Washington with a skeleton crew. She was to be "laid up." He took Somers as his senior officer. Once docked, Barry made his report to the Secretary of the Navy, Samuel Smith, who informed Barry he could return to Philadelphia "whenever it was agreeable." The United States could be placed in Somers' capable hands. Tired and careworn, that very hour was agreeable to Barry. He returned to his cabin, packed his belongings, and came on deck. Somers had the bosun pipe all hands and then ordered Barry's pennant lowered for the last time. Barry never went to sea again.

For the last two years of the commodore's life it was mainly Richard Somers who kept Barry informed on naval affairs. When a second-in-command position became available upon the frigate Boston, Barry happily recommended Somers for the post to her captain, his old friend Daniel MacNeill, who gratefully told Barry that, as Somers "has served under your command & to your satisfaction" the position was his.

Somers was in Philadelphia in early 1803 when a terminally ill Barry declined the offer to command the American squadron fighting the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean.

He was one of the witnesses to Barry's last will and testament. Later that year, while serving aboard the Boston, his brother-in-law, William Jonas Keen, wrote Somers that Barry was "now thought to be on his last tack." Barry died on September 13, 1803, leaving behind an exemplary record of service and accomplishment. Tragically, Somers died less than a year later, his death at so young an age presaging the countless other American heroes who to this day are taken from home and family far too young in life for us to ever fully comprehend.

What we can do is what we are doing here today: remembering a true hero and patriot, and taking time each day to say a prayer that those servicemen and women who chose to follow Richard Somers' example come home to us safe and sound in heart and mind, body and soul. Thank you.

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