Richard Somers Day at
- Somers Point,
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.
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
Captain and General corresponded with each other throughout the war, the most memorable dispatch being one of Barry's to
during the Washington Valley Forge winter. After Barry captured
three British ships off
in the Reedy Island , he sent Delaware
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
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
, a twin sister of the Constitution.
Once she was launched, the commodore required junior officers. United
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
was both a tight and happy ship. She
was, in fact, a floating naval academy. United
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
than from any other ship during the Quasi-War, the naval conflict fought
between United States
under the administration of John Adams. France
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
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. Decatur
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,
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. Decatur
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
. 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
captured a fistful of French ships, and sailed through several severe storms.
On one diplomatic visit to United States ,
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. Portugal
Somers participated in two incidents with his captain during the Quasi-War that he later wrote of in detail. While the
was being refitted in United
word reached Barry from Philadelphia
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." Newcastle
At the end of the Quasi-War, Barry was ordered to sail the
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 Washington
"whenever it was agreeable." The Philadelphia 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. United
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
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. Boston
Somers was in
in early 1803 when a terminally ill Barry declined the offer to command the
American squadron fighting the Philadelphia 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
his brother-in-law, William Jonas Keen, wrote Somers that Barry was "now
thought to be on his last tack." Barry died on Boston 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
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.