Richard Somers: An American Hero in Our Backyard
By Seth Grossman, Political Columnist
??? At 9 P.M. on the night of September 4, 1804, the small sailing ship Intrepid, packed with 100 barrels of explosives, sailed into the harbor of Tripoli in what is now Libya.?? On board were its commander, Richard Somers of Somers Point, New Jersey and 13 volunteers, including Henry Wadsworth, uncle of the not yet born poet to be given his name.
??? They planned to approach warships manned by hundreds of Libyan pirates, light the fuses, and escape by rowboat.?? It was a dangerous and desperate mission.
??? But in September of 1804, Richard Somers and his men knew that Congress was losing interest in the War on Piracy, and that President Thomas Jefferson was distracted by his re-election campaign and the costly purchase of Louisiana.?? They were afraid that if they didn’t win the war before Congress went back into session, Congress would bring them home before their job was done.
??? America was fighting the war alone.?? Although Muslim pirates had Attacked ships of all Christian nations for nearly a thousand years, in the 1700’s, England, France, Spain and the Italian states agreed to pay off the pirates, rather than fight them.?? Until 1783, the pirates treated American ships as English, and left them alone.?? But when they learned the United State was independent, they attacked us.?? Thomas Jefferson, then Ambassador to France, urged the Europeans to help us fight to free our hostages.?? But Europe refused.?? George Washington was against fighting an overseas war by ourselves.?? So America paid tribute to the pirates like everyone else.?? But the more we paid, the more the pirates demanded.?? By 1798, these pirates were taking 20% of the federal budget.
??? In 1798, French pirates attacked American ships in the Caribbean.?? We asked French government officials for help, but they too demanded payoffs.?? Americans were outraged, and adopted the slogan: “Millions for defense!? Not one cent for tribute!”
??? Congress agreed.?? It raised millions in taxes to build dozens of new warships, recruit thousands of sailors, and build an academy in Annapolis to train naval officers.
??? At age 20, Richard Somers and his college roommate, Stephen Decatur, were among its first cadets.?? One year later, they sailed to the Caribbean with our new navy and crushed the French pirates.
??? In 1801, the Muslim kingdoms of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli (now Libya) demanded a big cost of living hike to their tribute money.?? But newly elected President Thomas Jefferson got Congress to let him send the navy instead.
??? Our navy was ridiculed at first.?? Richard Somers, like most ship commanders was only 23 years old.?? Most sailors and junior officers were even younger.?? Even 42 year old fleet commander Edward Preble complained that Congress had sent him to fight the most experienced, feared, fanatic, and best equipped fighters at sea in the world with “a pack of boys”.
??? But those American “boys” showed such personal bravery, innovation, technical, and leadership skills, that in just three years, they crushed the fleets of all four North African pirate kingdoms.?? Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia quickly begged for peace, and agreed to leave American ships alone.?? But the king of Tripoli (now Libya) held out.?? After losing several battles, he brought his ships back to their safe harbor, and waited for the Americans to lose interest and go home.
??? At 9:00 P.M. on September 4, 2004, Richard Somers and his crew waved goodbye to their comrades, and disappeared into the fog that hid the Tripoli harbor.?? Forty-five minutes later, Americans in their ships offshore heard a huge explosion and saw a fireball light up the shore.?? For hours until daylight, they looked for rowboats bringing Richard Somers and his crew back to Safety—but they never arrived.?? Later, they learned that the Intrepid had exploded before reaching its destination.?? Richards Somers and all 13 crewmembers were dead.
??? But Richard Somers and is brave crew did not die in vain.?? The Americans were so inspired by this courage that they inspired to make another daring attack which brought marines to the shores of Tripoli and inside the walls of a key fortress.?? The Libyans quickly made peace with these “strange” Americans who valued justice and liberty more than life itself.?? America shamed the Europeans into joining us in the effort to end piracy on the Mediterranean – Europe joined as soon as they defeated Napoleon – until the 1970’s.
??? Liberty and Prosperity has joined with Sally Hastings of the Somers Point Historical Society to remember Richard Somers with a brief ceremony at 5:30 P.M. on Thursday, September 4, at the Somers Mansion by the Circle in Somers Point.?? Admission is free.?? At 6:00 P.M. following that ceremony, Liberty and Prosperity will host a reception at Caroline’s Restaurant to recover expenses.?? We invite you to join us.?? Tickets are $15 for one and $25 for two, with buffet and cash bar.?? For details, contact 609-927-7333, www.libertyandprosperity.org or email@example.com.