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Twelve Naval Captains - Molly E. Seawell

Richard Somers

Richard Somers

The name and fame of Richard Somers will always be of tender and regretful interest. His gentle and lovable character, his quiet, undaunted courage, the daring enterprise in which he lost his life at the early age of twenty-four, all unite in making him one of those young heroes who are never forgotten. As he died young, so must he ever remain, a figure of heroic youth, untouched by age or time, illumined by a melancholy glory. Few circumstances of Somers's early life are known. Of a singularly modest and reserved nature, he seldom spoke of himself, and beyond the bare facts of his boyhood and young manhood, little has been gleaned by his various biographers. His father was a man of standing and importance, and represented his district in New Jersey in the Colonial Congress. Somers Point, opposite Capp, May, was the family property. Richard Somers, the youngest of his father's children, was born in Philadelphia in 1779, whither his family had removed. It is said that his father was a firm friend and supporter of General Washington from the beginning of his command of the Continental army, and that Washington bestowed much kindly notice upon the lad, Richard Somers. Among Somers's possessions was a ring, which he valued highly, containing the hair of Washington.

The boy went to a "dame's school" in Philadelphia with Stephen Decatur; and there began that devoted friendship which lasted through Somers's brief life. No two natures were ever more contrasted than Somers and Decatur. Somers was mild in the extreme, of the gentlest manners, silent, and somewhat reserved. Decatur was a young volcano in energy, and pursued all his objects in life with a fire and impetuosity almost inconceivable. The affection between the two seemed to be something deeper and stronger than brotherhood, and joined with it was a professional rivalry that only such an affection could have prevented from becoming enmity.

Somers was left an orphan when a lad not more than twelve years old. He had, however, an uncle who was a second father to him, and he inherited a respectable property. There is no record of Somers having gone to sea before he received his appointment as midshipman, of the same date as Decatur's, 1798. But a number of circumstances indicate that he was already a capable seaman when he got his midshipman's warrant to the United States, frigate of forty-four guns. He was made master's mate of the hold almost immediately on joining the ship, a place given the steadiest and readiest of the midshipmen, and it is assumed that he would not have been selected had he not known something of his profession.

The United States, which wore the broad pennant of Commodore Barry, was engaged in active cruising in the West Indies during the hostilities with France in 1799-1801, but never came to close quarters with a ship of her own size during the cruise. Somers seems to have won the good-will of every one on board, including Commodore Barry and the future Commodore Stewart, who was the first lieutenant. Somers's mildness seems to have been misunderstood for weakness, and on hearing of some aspersions upon him, Somers determined, in his cool and deliberate manner, to show the stuff that was in him. Dueling was then a common practice among officers of the army and navy, as well as among all those who classed themselves as gentlemen. Somers therefore challenged three of his tormentors among the midshipmen, and arranged that the three duels should be fought one immediately after another. Decatur was to be his second in all these affairs, and it is a grotesque circumstance that the origin of the reflections cast on Somers was from the unrelenting way with which he put up with Decatur's chaff.

In the first two duels Somers received two slight wounds which prevented him from standing up. Decatur eagerly insisted upon being allowed to take Somers's place after the first hurt received by Somers; but Somers refused, and exchanged shots for the third time, sitting on the ground and held up in the arms of Decatur. It was the first and last time that his courage was ever doubted, and his peace-loving and gentle nature was esteemed at its true value ever afterward.

In 1801 the United States returned home, and Somers's next orders were to the Boston, of twenty-eight guns, in which, at the age of twenty-two, he found himself in the responsible situation of first lieutenant. The Boston was commanded by Captain Daniel McNeill, an old Revolutionary captain, who was one of the characters of the old navy. He was a fine seaman and a man of resolution and integrity, but not very amenable to authority. The Boston was ordered to proceed to Europe with Chancellor Livingston, who was to arrange terms of peace with France. They encountered heavy weather, and Captain McNeill carried sail in such a way as to astonish his young officers; but he had in his first lieutenant a man almost as well versed in seamanship as himself.

Perhaps no young officer in the navy of that day was so well adapted, by his conciliatory and amiable manners, to be the first lieutenant of such a man as Captain McNeill. The Boston had been ordered to report to Commodore Richard Dale, who was Captain McNeill's senior in rank, although much his junior in age. But Captain McNeill seems to have had no notion of putting himself under the orders of a man so much younger than himself, and although he cruised for nearly two years in the Mediterranean, ostensibly hunting for the flagship, he managed by the greatest adroitness never to set eyes on her. He was meanwhile very actively engaged in his duty, and gave convoy to American vessels, frightened off the piratical vessels of the Barbary powers, and even blockaded Tripoli for a time; but he was always just a little too late or a trifle too early to join the flagship. The cruise afforded a multitude of amusing anecdotes about this doughty but eccentric captain, whose character and attainments commanded respect, in spite of his oddities. Once, at Malaga, at a grand dinner given to Captain McNeill and his officers, as also to some Swedish officers of high rank, the American captain was seated between two Swedish admirals. At nine o'clock a midshipman entered the room, according to orders, and reported to Captain McNeill that his boat waited. "what did you say?" asked the captain. The midshipman repeated his announcement, Somers and the other American officers present waiting in agony for what Captain McNeill would say or do next. The captain again asked the midshipman what he said, bawling out, "These bloody Swedes keep up such a chattering I can't hear what you say!"

Another one of Captain McNeill's adventures was when, lying in a French port, he wished to test how quickly his ship could be got under way. Three of his own officers were on shore, but three French naval officers happened to be on board; so, coolly remarking that he would hold on to the French officers to keep up his complement, he put to sea. It was several months before the Frenchmen could return to France, and meanwhile they had been published as deserters.

At another time, taking a fancy to a regimental band which came aboard the Boston in an Italian port, he sailed for America with the musicians, and it was several years before they were all returned to Italy.

The Boston soon after this returned to the United States, and the administration of the navy winked at Captain McNeill's peccadilloes, in view of the actual service he had done during his memorable cruise.

It was at this time that the government determined to send a force out, under Commodore Preble, to crush Tripoli. Somers got the command of the Nautilus, one of the four small vessels that were built and sent out, Stewart getting another, and Decatur a third. Somers was now in his twenty-fifth year, handsome, well made, and his naturally dark skin still darker from wind and sun. His manners were polished, and he was as prepossessing, in his quiet way, as the dashing Decatur. Somers's black eyes were noticeably melancholy, and after his untimely death those who loved him fancied they had always seen in his countenance some premonition of his doom.

The officers who were to command these little vessels superintended their building, as there were then no regular navy-yards in the country. The Nautilus, under Somers's command, was the first to sail, and the first to arrive at Gibraltar, in July, 1803. She was a beautiful little schooner, of twelve guns, with a crew of nearly a hundred men. She was, however, very small to cross the Atlantic, and several times during the voyage Somers was hailed and offered assistance by friendly shipmasters, who thought the gallant little vessel must have been blown out of her course.

Somers was one of the boy captains whose youth so disgusted Commodore Preble when he met them first on their arrival at Gibraltar. But the commodore found in Somers, as early as with any, the stuff of which these young officers were made. Somers was very actively engaged in the labors and cruises which occupied the winter of 1803-04, preparing to attack Tripoli in the summer. He sympathized ardently with Decatur in the splendid exploit of the destruction of the Philadelphia. He was anxious to assist him with the Nautilus, but Stewart's superior rank and larger command entitled him to support Decatur, which he did in the Siren. Decatur's success inspired every young captain in the squadron with a noble desire to equal it, and none more than the quiet and self-contained Somers.

The preparations for the bombardment of Tripoli continued, and on the 3rd of August the first attack took place. Commodore Preble gave the command of the right division of gun-vessels to Somers, and the left to Decatur. Somers was supposed to be Decatur's senior at the time, but the post-captain's commission which the Congress had given Decatur as a reward for the destruction of the Philadelphia  was then on its way, and arrived a few days after; while the same ship brought Somers's promotion to a master commandant.

The story of those splendid attacks has been told in the biographies of Preble and Decatur's On the memorable 3rd of August, when the captives of the Philadelphia  in the Bashaw's dungeons first heard from the guns of the squadron the thundering demand for the release of the prisoners, Somers, like Decatur, performed prodigies of valor. The harbor of Tripoli is crossed by a great reef, above the water, and on which forts and batteries were mounted. At the western end is a narrow opening of about two hundred yards, while within the reef the rocks and shoals were so numerous and so difficult that the best seaman-ship and the greatest courage were necessary for an attacking enemy. The guns from the forts and ships nearer the town, too, could be concentrated on any small craft which passed through this western passage. These desperate risks did not deter Somers and Decatur, who went inside and fell upon the Tripolitan gun-vessels with the fury of fiends. On the 3rd of August, while Decatur was engaged in his terrible encounter with the Tripolitan, Somers in a single small gun-vessel held at bay five gun-vessels, each larger than his own, and fought with savage determination. The wind was driving him straight on the rocks, and he had to keep backing his sweeps to save himself from destruction, while fighting like a lion. The Constitution, seeing his critical position, came to his support, and, opening her batteries on the Tripolitans, succeeded in driving them still farther within the reefs, while Somers brought his gallant little gun-vessel out in triumph.

Four of these dashing attacks were made, in every one of which Somers and Decatur commanded the two boat divisions. Both had many narrow escapes. Once, while Somers was leaning against the flagstaff of his little vessel, as she was on her way to attack, he saw a round shot coming. He jumped aside, and the next moment the flagstaff was shattered just at the point where his head had rested. His knowledge of the interior of the harbor, where the Tripolitans had a large number of vessels at anchor, inspired him with the design of leading a forlorn hope,—to strike one great blow, and, if necessary, to die for his country the next moment. At last he got Commodore Preble's permission to carry out the daring attempt, which, heroic in its conception, yet makes one of the saddest pages in the history of the American navy.

The plan was to fit up as a fire-ship, or "infernal," the ketch Intrepid, in which Decatur had won immortality in the same harbor, take it in, and explode it among the Tripolitan fleet. Somers earnestly begged Commodore Preble for the honor of leading this desperate expedition, and the commodore at last agreed. It would be necessary to pour one hundred barrels of gun-powder into the hold of the ketch in order to make it effective as a fire-ship, and before consenting to this, the Commodore warned Somers that so much powder must not be allowed to fall into the hands of the Tripolitans. It was during the Napoleonic wars, powder was in great demand, and the Tripolitans were supposed to be short of it. After this interview Somers expressed the determination to be blown up rather than to be captured.

The details of the attack were worked out most carefully. Besides the powder, the Intrepid  was to carry a large stock of splintered wood; and about two hundred shells, with their fuses prepared, were laid on her decks, to add their horrors to the explosion. The brave adventurers had two chances for their lives, in having two boats in which to escape from the ketch. One of them was a very fast four-oared boat from Somers's own vessel, the Nautilus, and the other was a six-oared cutter from the Constitution. Somers was to be in his own boat, while Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth 1 commanded the Constitution's  cutter. Ten sailors were to be taken along, making twelve persons in all; but the number was increased to thirteen by a little midshipman, Joseph Israel, who smuggled himself into the Constitution's  boat.

Somers had consulted at every step his bosom friend Decatur, and Charles Stewart, with whom he had begun his naval life in "Old Wagoner." Decatur, in his own vessel, the Argus, and Lieutenant-Commandant Smith, of the Vixen, and Somers's vessel, the Nautilus, under the command of his first lieutenant, Washington Reed, were to support the dauntless party in the boats as far as possible.

Everything being ready, on the day after the desperate boat attack of the 8d of September, in the afternoon, Somers appeared on the deck of his vessel, and, having the crew piped up, addressed them, telling frankly the hazardous nature of the attempt he was to make, and calling for four volunteers who would go with him to advance one step ahead of the line. For answer, every man and boy on the Nautilus advanced two steps. This brave spirit was deeply gratifying to Somers, and he was forced to make a selection. He chose four of his best seamen,—-James Simms, Thomas Tompline, James Harris, and William Keith.

On the Constitution  the same spirit was shown, and Lieutenant Wadsworth selected the six men he needed from the hundreds who were eager to go. The Constitution's  sailors were William Harrison, Robert Clark, Hugh McCormick, Jacob Williams, Peter Renner, and Isaac Downes. The names of these humble men deserve to be recorded, for each one was worthy to do, to dare, and to die with his officers,—Somers, Wadsworth, and Israel.

When the last preparations were made, on the afternoon of September 4, 1804, and the men were assembled on the Nautilus's deck, with the boats lowered, Somers addressed the ten sailors. He told them that he wanted no man with him who would not rather be blown up than surrender to the Tripolitans. The men responded with a cheer; and it was found that each one had privately asked Somers for the dangerous honor of applying the match when the time for the explosion came. They then said good-bye to their shipmates, and indicated what they wished done with their belongings if they should never return. Somers was accompanied to the Intrepid  by Decatur and Stewart, who remained with him until the dusk of the September evening warned them that the solemn hour had come. On parting from them, Somers, who was as tranquil as ever, took a ring from his finger, and, breaking it in three parts, gave one piece to Decatur, one to Stewart, and kept the third. The last man over the Intrepid's  side was Lieutenant Reed, who, as Somers's first lieutenant, was to command the Nautilus.

The night had fallen when the Constitution's  boat joined the ketch, and in it was found the little fifteen-year-old midshipman, Israel, who had pleaded to go, and, being refused, had smuggled himself into the boat. There was then no way of getting rid of him, and, admiring his bold determination, Somers welcomed him on the ketch. There was a light blue haze on the water, and the night was murky as the "infernal "stole upon her way. She entered the harbor silently, while outside, in the offing, the Nautilus, the Argus, and the Vixen  stood in as close as they dared. Presently, in the darkness, the Siren was observed to flit past them. Stewart, in his anxiety for Somers, had implored Commodore Preble to let him be near the scene of action, and the commodore had consented.

The Siren ventured farther into the offing than the other vessels, and Stewart and his officers, like every officer and man on all of the ships, was intent upon the black shadow of the fire-ship, as she crept in among the rocks. She was soon discovered, in spite of the darkness, and a few grape-shot were thrown at her. Stewart was standing in the Siren's gangway, with one of his lieutenants, anxiously watching through his night-glass the progress of the Intrepid, when the officer cried, "Look! see the light!" A light, like a lantern, was seen to flash across the Intrepid's  deck. The next moment a roar as if worlds were crashing together shook the castle and forts, and rocked the ships in the offing; a red glare hideously illumined the sea and sky; the masts and sails of the ketch rose up in the burning air for a moment, then fell into the fire-lit waves, and all was over. A frightful and unearthly silence and darkness succeeded. The brigs and schooners cruised about, their officers and men in anguish over the fate of their brave companions. The Constitution  fired minute-guns all night, so that if any survived that awful explosion they might know they were not forgotten. When sunrise came, thirteen blackened bodies floated ashore at Tripoli. They were so disfigured that the officers could only be told from the men by the softness of their hands. Bainbridge and his officers were taken from their captivity to identify the remains of the thirteen brave souls who had given life itself to hasten the release of the Philadelphia's  gallant company. Not the slightest damage was done to the Tripolitan ships or forts, or to the town itself.

The ten sailors were buried together near the beach, while the three officers were laid in the same grave on a plain a little southward of the castle. Whether Somers blew the ketch up, in his conception of his duty, or whether the powder was accidentally ignited, can never be ascertained. All that is known, however, is that he did his duty, as did every officer and man lost in that perilous attempt. Of each of them may be said as is written after the name of the little midshipman, Israel, in the records of the navy, "Died, with honor, in the service, September 4, 1804."

His country honored Somers by naming for him a beautiful little brig; but like him it was doomed to misfortune. One of the most terrible tragedies that ever occurred in the American navy took place upon the deck of the Somers, and it was afterward lost at sea, going down, as Somers did, in the darkness and silence of an unfathomed mystery.