Above Image: Statue of Richard Somers erected in Somers Point, NJ in 2013. And identical statue was previously erected in Somers, New York. Bot monuments were created by sculptor Luigi Badia.
First written and produced by LJ Severt in 2013. Later modified with the help of Seth Grossman and performed again in 2022. Updated again for performance on September 4, 2023.
© 2022, Linda J Severt and 2023, Linda J. Severt and Seth Grossman
RICHARD SOMERS, 16 thru 27 years, full of youth and enthusiasm
NARRATOR, a historian
COMMODORE JOHN BARRY
PRESIDENT THOMAS JEFFERSON
CAPTAIN EDWARD PREBLE
Above Image: Bryan Fitzherbert reads part of Richard Somers on September 4, 2022.
I’m Richard Somers. I was born here in Somers Point on September 15, 1778. A bronze sign a few blocks north of here marks where my dad’s house and tavern once stood. That old brick house on the hill a few blocks south was built by my great-grandfather John Somers.
I often came to that house every summer. There, I could feel the ocean breezes as I looked out at where the Great Egg Harbor River met the Atlantic Ocean. Tall wooden ships sailing between New York and Philadelphia often cut into that inlet to buy fresh eggs, fruit, and produce from local farmers along the way. I understand why the old man built such a big and sturdy house at the top of that hill.
I plan to leave that house to my sons.
And our daughters…
Yes, Mother, to our sons and daughters and their children and grandchildren. Many of them will have our Somers name. Some will have the names of our Quaker neighbors, like Smith, Risley, Scull, Steelman, Conover and Leeds.
(Points towards Beesleys Point)
That’s Job’s Point, named after my Great Uncle, Job. He ran the Somers’s Ferry that ran back and forth across the River to and from Beesley’s Point on the other side. Folks would come here from New York, take that ferry, and then go to the Stagecoach Road that led all the way to the Cape they named after Captain May. If you close your eyes, you can see it just like I remember it – a flat boat with a tiller and oars, loaded with passengers, wagons, coaches, and barrels and boxes of goods…And it only cost 12 pence a crossing!
Many a hot July night my older brother Constant and sister Sarah and I would cool off on a round-trip ride. Oh, it was a grand time to be a boy down shore in the summertime.
But today you see me standing here in spirit, a grown man of twenty-four with the heart of a boy, wanting to run down the hill to the bay for a swim, then run over the old tavern built by my father, Captain Richard Somers. It’s just a half mile away off the old New York Road. There I could dry off and share a pint of ale with some old salts.
Richard, are you having lunch with us?
I would love to Grandmother, but, well, this is my last day and I thought I’d run down to my Dad’s old tavern and have a farewell toast with some of the old salts I’ve been wetting my whistle with all summer…
Wetting your whistle? What ‘s this whistle-wetting nonsense?
Say, Boy, I dare say I would like to join you in a bit of that.
You will not! Summer is over and this is our last family day with all of us together.
Now, Mother– that’s what those old sailors call having a harmless pint of ale.
Back then, most 16 year old American boys like me had finished school knowing more than most college grads today. By that age, most of us had also mastered trades and were on our own and supporting ourselves. Benjamin Franklin was a printer running a newspaper, and George Washington was doing surveys hundreds of miles into unsettled woods. When I was 17, I was the skipper of ships sailing between New York and Philadelphia. Of course I was old enough to have a pint of ale in my Dad’s old tavern with the other sailors.
Just be sure you two are home for supper. I made all of Richard’s favorites.
You see. my parents died when I was three, so I spent most of my time with my married sister in Philadelphia. What grieves my grandmother is that tomorrow I will ride to meet Commodore John Barry in Philadelphia. There, he will give me orders putting me in command of my own warship.
COMMODORE JOHN BARRY
I am John Barry. I commanded warships at sea and soldiers on land during all eight years of America’s War for Independence. When the war was over, we disbanded most of our army, and scrapped our entire navy. I again worked as the skipper of merchant ships.
Scrapping our whole navy was a big mistake. As soon as we did it, our fishing boats and merchant ships were attacked all over the world. The Turks in North Africa attacked any of our ships they could find anywhere near North Africa. French pirates attacked our ships in the Caribbean. Then even the British stopped our ships and kidnapped our sailors for their navy.
By 1798, we had enough. People all across America were saying, “Millions for defense. Not one cent for tribute”. Congress finally spent money for new warships. President George Washington asked me to come back to rebuild our navy.
While our new warships were being built, I invited the best sailors in America to sail on my flagship and train to be navy officers. My favorites were three boys I knew from Abercrombie’s Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. They were Stephen Decatur, from Maryland, Charles Stewart from Philadelphia, and Richard Somers from South Jersey. They were all nineteen years old. Each had a love and a gift for sailing.
I gave them all on-the-job training fighting the French navy and whipping them in an undeclared war in the Caribbean in 1798. Decatur, Somers and Stewart showed outstanding leadership, bravery, and skill.
It is now 1803 and I’m 58 years old. I’ve been sick for months and I won’t be around much more. One of my last orders is for Richard Somers to fit out and take command of a new ship we just launched in Baltimore. It is the 87 foot Nautilus, with 6 cannons and a crew of 103 men. I also ordered Somers to sail the Nautilus to Spain and buy supplies there. Then he will join Ed Preble and the rest of our fleet off the coast of North Africa. There, they will continue our fight against the Turks.
Oh, but Richard, why are we fighting people so far away?
It’s a long story, Grandmother. A story that goes back a thousand years!
Yes, for a thousand years, there were constant wars between Muslims from North Africa and Christians in Europe. Muslim warships attacked Christian ships and coastal villages as far north as Iceland. They took away everything of value that would fit in their ships. They also captured as many people as they could and sold them as slaves. I met some sailors who were captured, but who were lucky enough to be ransomed and set free. They told me the many slaves were chained next to the oars that moved the Turkish ships when there was not enough wind. Those galley slaves were usually dead in just a few months. Your history books today rarely mention any of this.
Our newspapers called the people who did this Barbary Pirates. Most old salts called them Turks. Their Caliph, the head of their religion, was also the Sultan of the Turkish or Ottoman Empire. He gave them permission to do what they did.
Before we won our independence, those Turks or Barbary Pirates never bothered us. We were protected by the British navy.
Aye, and also by tribute, or bribes paid by the British to be left alone.
I am Thomas Jefferson. Before I was President, I was the American ambassador to France. John Adams was our Ambassador to England. When we made peace with England in 1783, our next big job was to make a deal with the Turks. They attacked our ships and robbed and captured our people as soon as they found out we were no longer part of the British Empire.
We had no idea why they were doing this. We were a new nation 5,000 miles away. We had never done them any harm.
After three years, we finally met their ambassador. He was Sidi Haji Abdrahaman from Tripoli. He was well-educated and spoke perfect English. Yet what he said shocked us in this modern Age of Enlightenment.
He said “We believe in the Prophet Mohammad. It is written in our Koran that all nations which do not acknowledge our Prophet are sinners. It is therefore the right and duty of every faithful Muslim to plunder and enslave non-believers. Every Muslim killed in this warfare is sure to go to paradise.”
He told us that to keep our ships and people safe, we had to pay each of the four Barbary Kingdoms large bribes, or tribute every year.
So what did you do?
John Adams and I wrote a letter to Congress. We urged them to build a navy and send warships to protect Americans.
However, we knew that would not happen. At that time, America was a collection of thirteen independent states. Our national government had no Constitution, no President, no navy, and very little money. We were told to make the best deals we could with the little money Congress could afford. That’s what we did. For the next 15 years, our national government paid ten percent of its budgets for bribes and tribute to those four Barbary kingdoms.
Everything changed ten years later after John Adams and I came back to America. We got a Constitution and our first President, George Washington in 1789. John Adams became President in 1797 and built a new navy. I became President in 1801 and sent that navy to protect Americans overseas.
Above Image: The USS Nautilus during the August, 1804 Battle of the Gunboats. It carried 6 heavy cannons and a crew of 103 men. It was launched in Baltimore the year before and put under the command of Richard Somers, then 24 years old.
When I took the Nautilus overseas, I talked to a lot of British, French, and Spanish navy officers. They didn’t think much of us Americans. They couldn’t believe how young we were. They had been fighting the Turks for years before we got there. Even Edward Preble, my commander, called us a “pack of boys”. But we had something no other navy in the world had — Americans. We picked and promoted our officers based on talent and achievement, not political or social connections. We Americans grew up learning to think for ourselves. We did not blindly follow orders that made no sense. We Americans were better fed, taller, and stronger than most Europeans. We Americans used new designs and methods to build our warships. They were the fastest and most agile in the world. Our Commander, Edward Preble, knew how to bring out the best in us.
In one short year, we won battle after battle against the Turks. Pope Pius VII wrote that “The United States, though in their infancy, did more to defend Christendom from the barbarians of the African coast than all the European powers.”.
By September of 1804, all of the Barbary Kingdoms had made peace with America except one – the Barbary Kingdom of Tripoli.
In August of 1804, our entire fleet attacked Tripoli. My flagship came in close and its cannons did heavy damage to the castle and forts guarding the city.
Meanwhile, a fleet of small gunboats led by Richard Somers and his boyhood friend Stephen Decatur destroyed or captured a half dozen enemy ships at the harbor entrance. The ruler of Tripoli ordered the rest of his fleet to retreat to the safety of his inner harbor. His plan was to keep it there until we got tired of the war and went home.
PRESIDENT THOMAS JEFFERSON
The ruler of Tripoli knew what he was doing. Congress and the rest of America were tired of our foreign war. We had bigger problems here at home. Napoleon made himself a dictator in France and was fighting a world war against England. Somehow France took a big chunk of North America away from Spain. Now France controlled Louisiana and everything on the other side of the Mississippi River. Every farmer west of the Appalachian Mountains needed French permission to use the river to market their goods. I sent ambassadors to France to make a deal. Then, in 1803, we got a pleasant surprise. Napoleon had some setbacks and suddenly needed lots of cash. He offered to sell us all Louisiana and all of French North America for just $15 million. It was a bargain we couldn’t refuse. However, we could not afford it if we were bogged down in an expensive foreign war.
Although we were winning every battle, everyone on our ships knew that time was working against us. If we were ordered to end the war before we defeated Tripoli, the other Barbary Kingdoms would break their treaties and attack our ships again. All the fighting and dying we had done for the past three years would be for nothing.
Eight months before, my friend Stephen Decatur captured a small Turkish sailing ship called a ketch. We cleaned it and renamed it the Intrepid. Six months earlier, we used it to sneak into Tripoli Harbor and destroy the Philadelphia. That was a big American warship that the Turks had captured and were about to use against us. I proposed using the Intrepid again. My plan was to pack the Intrepid with explosives, sneak it into Tripoli harbor again, and sail it close to the enemy fleet. We would light the fuse at the last minute, and escape on rowboats. After the explosion, the rest of our fleet would sail into the harbor, seize the castle controlling the city, free American prisoners there, and end the war.
CAPTAIN EDWARD PREBLE
This was not a new plan. Many of us had talked about doing this for months. However, Richard Somers worked the plan down to every detail. He also volunteered to lead the mission. At the end of August, I let him go forward with it.
For days, we stuffed the Intrepid with every explosive we had on hand. We made the ship a floating volcano. Once ignited, it would destroy everything around it. We all t knew how dangerous this mission would be. Yet dozens volunteered. I chose 12 of them. On September 4, 1804, we sailed the Intrepid into Tripoli Harbor as soon as it got dark.
Forty-five minutes later, there was a thunderous series of explosions that lasted for a full minute. Everyone knew that the ship had exploded far too soon. The mission had failed.
When the pieces of our bodies washed ashore the next morning, the ruler of Tripoli let his dogs loose on us. I and Lieutenant Wadsworth, my second in command, were identified as the two officers by the buttons and bits of our uniforms that clung to our bodies, and by the smoothness of our hands. The graves for us and our crew were dug outside the fortress walls by captured American prisoners. Years later, our bodies were moved to a nearby Protestant cemetery.
One week later, two warships from the United States arrived. One of them carried a new Commodore who was there to take my place. He had lots of ransom and tribute money. He had orders to use it to make a treaty, end the war, and bring everybody home. Every officer and sailor on our ships was angry and ashamed. We were afraid that everything we had done for the past three years had been in vain. But we were wrong.
Nobody seems to know the details. However, not all of the ransom money was used by the new Commodore to pay ransom. Some was used to hire a small army of Christian Greek soldiers in Egypt. They were led by Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and six of the first U.S. Marines. Six months later, they marched 500 miles and captured the port city of Derna, halfway to Tripoli. Then they marched to the Shores of Tripoli itself and threatened to storm the city and overthrow its ruler. That led to a peace treaty with Tripoli on honorable terms. Ten years later, in 1815, Stephen Decatur, now a Commodore of his own fleet, returned to the Mediterranean. There Decatur, with help from other European powers, broke the power of all four Barbary Kingdoms.
The bravery, skills, and perseverance of the young Americans who fought and died with me became known throughout the entire Islamic world. The fear and respect we earned for America saved countless American lives around the world for the next 175 years.
When you remember me, please also remember the names of the twelve others who died with me on the Intrepid, on the night of September 4, 1804.
(As death bell knells)
Above Image: The original monument built in the 1800s to remember Richard Somers. It stands in Somers Point near the old elementary school by New York Avenue and the Bike Path.
Acting Lt. Midshipman Henry Wadsworth from Portland Maine. His nephew, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was born after his death and named after him. Acting Lt. Midshipman Joseph Israel from Annapolis Maryland, Quartermaster James Harris from Baltimore Maryland, Gunner’s Mate James Simms, Boatswain’s Mate William Keith, enlisted from Annapolis Maryland, Able Seaman Thomas Tompkins from Norfolk Virginia, Seaman William Harrison, enlisted from Boston, Able Seaman Isaac W Downs, Able Seaman Hugh McCormick, Seaman Robert Clark, Seaman Peter Penner, and Seaman Jacob Williams, all enlisted from the Port of New York
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