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Richard Somers and the Barbary Pirates

William E. Kelly

As the scion of the merchant seafaring family that settled along the South Jersey shore, Richard Somers was the great-grandson of John Somers, the family patriarch. He was born during the American Revolution, on Sept. 15, 1778, at his father’s home and tavern at the corner of Bethel and Shore Roads. A small historical stone marks the place today. Other monuments honor him at the old schoolyard in Somers Point as well as at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Richard Somers isn’t buried in the Somers family graveyard adjacent to the Greate Bay Country Club, but rather, he rests with twelve of his men, volunteers all, buried in an unkempt grave, overgrown with weeds in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Tripoli, Libya, not far from where he died. His body washed ashore on the banks of Tripoli Harbor and his courageous deeds are immortalized in the words of the US Marine Corps song,”From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”

Somers first learned to sail as a boy on Great Egg Bay and was sent away to a boarding school, where he met his life-long friend and cohort, Stephen Decatur. Somers and Decatur joined the U.S. Navy at a peculiar time in U.S. history. Thomas Jefferson, one of the chief architects of the nation, was president. Although known as a popular pacifist, he proclaimed, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal vigilance against the tyranny of man.”

In 1804 the most prominent tyrant and chief thorn in Jefferson’s side was Libya’s Bashaw, Yusuf Karamanli, the Arabian gadfly of his day.Since the U.S. had won its independence from England, the efficient warships that displayed the well-respected Union Jack no longer protected American merchant ships. The Stars-and-Stripes that flew over U.S. merchant vessels only served as a welcome mat for marauding pirates that roamed the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean seas. The Tripolitians had captured over a dozen American merchantmen. The United States and other countries had previously paid money, which was called “tribute,” to the various Arab monarchs of the North African Barbary Coast to keep them from intercepting the unarmed merchant ships. But when the tributes stopped, the piracy continued, often without much public interest.

Then an American merchant seaman survived the ordeal of capture and enslavement and wrote about it, forcing Congress to order a new fleet to protect our ships at sea “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute,” was the slogan that began the tradition that the U.S. military is built upon today. The Navy commissioned a number of small, quick schooners that could match the pirates’ corsairs in both speed and firepower, while the people of Philadelphia contributed a large frigate, the Philadelphia.

Young Richard Somers, after serving as a midshipman with Decatur aboard the frigate U.S.S. United States, made the grade of Lieutenant, and was given command of one of the new schooners, the Nautilus. His first assignment was to the Mediterranean with dispatches to recall the existing fleet commander. The Nautilus, and the rest of the Mediterranean squadron now were under the command of Commodore Edward Preble, the oldest Captain and lowest ranking fleet commander in the U.S. Navy.

Preble quickly made his presence in the Mediterranean known. He sailed into the harbor of Algiers, the first Arab capital city he came to and paid his respects to the sultan. Although less radical than his Libyan counterpart, the Moroccan Sultan Muley Soliman was hesitant about renewing a neutrality treaty with the United States when other, less powerful countries like Libya, were easily appropriating American ships and their valuable cargo. Preble had his fleet, including the Nautilus, aim their guns at the Sultan’s castle, then went ashore with Tobias Lear, the new Counsel General to Algiers. Preble refused to surrender his sidearm or kneel before the Arab prince, who threatened to hold him hostage. Preble responded, “If you presume to do so my squadron, in full view, will lay your batteries, your castle and your city, in ruins.” The sultan capitulated and reaffirmed a treaty that offered no payments of tribute and left the merchantmen unmolested.

Preble also served as a role model for a new generation of young officers, like Somers and Decatur, who in their late teens and early twenties were bound for glory in the war against the pirates and later, the War of 1812. At first they resented the staunch disciplinarian, but later came to admire and imitate his proud, arrogant style and became known as “Preble’s Boys”. Besides Richard Somers and Steven Decatur, there was Charles MacDonough, who thwarted a British invasion of Canada; Charles Morris, who became known as the Statesman of the U.S. Navy; and James Lawrence, who uttered the immortal words, “Don’t give up the ship.”

Preble had sent the frigate Philadelphia ahead of the rest of the fleet to establish the blockade of Tripoli Harbor, but, before he could relieve his battleship, disaster struck. The Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef while chasing a Tripolitian corsair making for the safe haven of the harbor. Although the 300-man crew had thrown all the cannons overboard and tried to scuttle their ship, they were surrounded and were taken prisoner. The pirates had captured a vessel equal in size and firepower to Preble’s own flagship. While politicians began negotiating for the release of the 300 sailors who were being held in the dungeons of the Tripolitian castle, Preble prepared for action with the rest of the fleet.

Enroute to Libya Lieut. Stephen Decatur, skipper of the schooner Enterprise, captured the lateen-rigged pirate ship, Mastico. Built by the French for Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition and given to the Libyans as tribute. A U.S. navy officer’s sword from the Philadelphia was found aboard. Rechristened the USS Intrepid, she sailed into one of the most extraordinary and daring raids ever attempted by the United States Navy. Decatur first laid out his plan on the chart table in the stateroom of Captain Preble’s flagship at Malta. Then with Preble’s approval and a call for volunteers, he put it to action. After sailing ahead of the fleet for two days in stormy weather they arrived at Tripoli at night. Under the full moon of February 16, 1804, the Intrepid sailed into Tripoli Harbor with a full complement of crew, nine officers, fifty blue-jacketed sailors, eight marines and an experienced Sicilian pilot, Salvatore Catalino. As an American spy, Catalino had already been into the harbor, so he knew the position of the Philadelphia and the deployment of the enemy forces.

With Decatur and Catalino on deck dressed as Moorish traders, they sailed within a hundred yards of the Philadelphia before the pirates hailed the Intrepid to stay clear. Catalino said he had lost his anchor in a storm and requested permission to moor alongside the Philadelphia until morning. Permission granted, lines were passed to the Tripoli guards and the Intrepid moved in. An alert guard, however, saw an anchor on the Intrepid’s deck and realized it was a trick.

A call of alarm was quickly followed by an American cheer as the boarders swarmed over the side of the frigate’s deck. No guns were fired, some 20 Tripolians were cut down with swords and daggers and the remainder of her crew leaped overside into the harbor waters.The Americans scattered combustibles, set the torch, and then made for their ketch as flames from the Philadelphia’s gun ports began to scorch their uniforms. Using stealth and cutlass, and without firing a shot, they accomplished their mission without any casualties. As they sailed away, cannons hot from the castle, winged a hole in the mainsail. England’s Lord Admiral Nelson called it, “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

With the Philadelphia destroyed they still had the rest of the Tripolitians fleet to contend with. The Tripolitian navy, led by Irish-American turncoat Peter Lisle, were known as fierce fighters, at their best when the battle got down to a hand-to-hand knife and saber fight. The Americans took advantage of their firepower and sailing ability. Preble had his frigate, the USS Constitution, four brigs, the Argus, Siren, Vixen and Scourge, eight gunboats and mortar ketches, and the schooners Nautilus and Enterprise, commanded by Somers and Decatur.On August 3, 1804, while the larger ships engaged the shore batteries, Decatur and Somers each led flotillas of gunboats against the Tripolitian vessels. Decatur went up against five enemy vessels, boarded them against odds of two-to-one, and won the battle in 10 minutes.

Somers went up against another five enemy ships. Col. R. Dupuy and Major General William Baumer recounted the battle: “With round shot and grape from his one 24-pounder, Somers halted them. They wove their ship back and forth to escape under the protection of the shore batteries, and the amazing Somers actually chased all five of them back behind the reef line. Meanwhile, Lieutenant James Decatur of Somers’ division came down to join his brother’s battle and delivered into one of the Tripolitians a fire so fierce that she hauled down her flag. He swept alongside to take possession; just as he mounted the rail, the Tripolitian captain produced a pistol and shot him through the head.” Preble then agreed to another covert action for the Intrepid, this time with Somers in command, which if successful, would have destroyed the remaining ships of the Libyan fleet.

In retrospect, it seemed ill advised, but if it had succeeded it would be considered another bold and heroic action. Somers and his volunteers rechristened the Intrepid the Inferno, and were to sail her back into Tripoli Harbor, only this time it would be converted into a fire ship, packed to the brim with explosives. Set under sail in the direction of the anchored enemy fleet, they were to light a 15 minute fuse and escape the Inferno in two rowboats. Before leaving on his mission Somers took off a gold and black ring, cut it in thirds and gave his former schoolmates, Decatur and Charles Stewart each a third.

Preble, Decatur, and the rest of the fleet then watched as the Intrepid sailed off with Somers and his men, 11 volunteers and a stow-a-way sailor, who became the unlucky thirteenth crewman. They sailed off, into the night, never to return again. The war history reads: “They waited for more than one hour. Then the black harbor mouth was split wide in a blinding flash, and the roar of a great explosion rumbled out. What had happened? No one knows for sure. Perhaps the premature explosion was an accident. More probable -- and this was the opinion of Preble -- the Intrepid was assailed by Tripolitian guard boats and Somers, as he had declared he would do, simply hurled a lighted lantern into his magazine and blew his ship up.” The next morning 13 bodies washed ashore. Prisoners from the Philadelphia buried them at the Old Protestant cemetery near Tripoli Harbor.

Preble’s boys won the battles against the pirates, and were about to take Tripoli when the prisoners of the Philadelphia were freed through a negotiated truce. Stephen Decatur later assumed command of the Mediterranean squadron, won the war, returned home a hero, and was picked to win the presidency, but was killed in a pistol duel over a point of honor. *

The U.S. Navy has always memorialized Somers. There have been at least six naval warships named after him and there is the Somers Monument at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. There is a tradition that whoever is the first to the top of the Somers monument after graduation will be the first member of that class to make the rank of Admiral. There is also a monument to Richard Somers at the New York Avenue School and a picture display in the Somers Point Council Chambers.

There have been periodic, though unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a treaty with Libya to have the bodies of Lt. Richard Somers and his men repatriated home for reinterment.

* Note: Decatur, Somers, and Charles Stewart, all (Episcopal) academy schoolmates were fond of fist fighting daily in the old Quaker cemetery near their school. Later, as Midshipman, Decatur won a duel with a French officer, and Somers, it is said, engaged six fellow officers of an alleged insult. Duels were scheduled every hour beginning at noon. Somers was wounded in the first three duels, and shot the fourth challenger while kneeling on the ground. The other two conceded Somers’ courage and declined to duel.