Final Burial Place of First USS Intrepid Crew
A Source Study
November 28, 2011
"All reliable sources point to Tripoli's Old Protestant Cemetery - and none say otherwise."
Although mystery continues to surround the exact circumstances of how and why the first USS Intrepid exploded and sank September 4, 1804 in Tripoli, Libya, there is no mystery as to where the 13 men who sailed into glory that night now lay. Every available source - American, Libyan, Italian, Swedish and Danish - points to one place, the Old Protestant Cemetery, as the final resting place of Master Commandant Richard Somers and his men.
Just as important: there is no evidence that Somers and his men are buried in any other place.
WHAT WE KNOW
On September 4, 1804, Master Commandant Richard Somers, Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth and Midshipman Joseph Israel boarded the ketch USS Intrepid with 10 enlisted men and sailed into Tripoli Harbor. Their mission was to use the Intrepid as a floating bomb to destroy the pirate fleet at anchor in the harbor. The vessel exploded prematurely, killing all on board. The bodies of the men floated ashore and over the next two days they were dragged through the streets of Tripoli and fed to wild dogs. Local troops picked up the body parts, which a group of American prisoners at gunpoint, led by Surgeon's Mate Jonathan Cowdery and Captain William Bainbridge, buried in two spots.
The three officers received their own graves while the prisoners put the enlisted men into a mass grave. The prisoners buried the officers on small escarpment overlooking the beach; the enlisted men's grave was on the beach.
The graves remained, relatively undisturbed, until 1830, when diplomats from the United States, England, France, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland built a cemetery around the officers' graves for deceased members of the diplomatic community. Over time, the small, walled graveyard came to hold more than 70 bodies.
The Old Protestant Cemetery remained a small, isolated graveyard until the 1920s, when the Italians held power in Libya. During a road construction project, Italian workers unearthed the beach grave of the enlisted men. With the help of Libyan authorities, the Italians identified the remains as that of the Intrepid crew and put the remains in two, possibly three, empty stone coffins in the Old Protestant Cemetery next to the graves of the American officers.
In 1949, the United States Navy accepted the Old Protestant Cemetery and the five coffins as the final resting place of the Intrepid crew, placing headstones on five graves the local authorities, with help from US diplomats, identified as the graves of the Intrepid crew. In 1953, the wives of airmen stationed at Wheelus Air Force Base cleaned up the graves and placed a plaque in the cemetery.
Since then, no one visited or attempted to maintain the cemetery until 2009 when the Libyans spent approximately $50,000 on rebuilding parts of the outer walls. That worked stopped after the US State Department lodged a formal complaint with the Libyan government. Photos of the cemetery taken in 2010 show the southeastern wall continues to crumble while the sandstone outcrop on which the cemetery rests continues to erode (see cover photo).
HOW WE KNOW IT
Three primary sources confirm the finding of the bodies of the crew of the USS Intrepid - Surgeon's Mate Jonathan Cowdery, Captain William Bainbridge and Dutch Consul Antoine Zuchet. Bainbridge provided the most complete description of the burial spots of the officers and men - a description James Fenimore Cooper used in both his two-volume "History of the Navy of the United States" (New York: Stinger and Townsend, 1856) and his two-volume "Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers" (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846). Bainbridge's account makes it very clear that American prisoners buried the three officers apart from the enlisted men. Cowdery describes the burial in his "American Captives in Tripoli" (Boston: Belcher & Armstrong, 1806) as "By permission, I took our boatswain and a gang of men and buried these bodies, a little east of the wall of the town." Bainbridge's description is far more complete. "The ten seamen were buried on the beach, outside the town and near the walls: while the three officers were interred in the same grave, on the plain beyond, or a cable's length southward and eastward of the castle."1
This second description of the burial clearly specifies two burial locations - one for the enlisted men close to the water and one for the officers. Maps of Tripoli from 1804 show there is only one spot at the distance Bainbridge describes for the officers' graves - the current Old Protestant Cemetery.
U.S. diplomat William Eaton, who led the coup attempt to unseat Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli in 1805, corroborated the burial site. In a letter to Commodore Edward Preble, Eaton described an interview he had with an "Arnaut Turk" who was a soldier in the employ of Karamanli. According to Eaton, the Turkish officer "confirmed the account of the fire ship."2
The burial sites passed out of history - at least written history - until 1830, when the diplomatic community in Tripoli decided to build a non-Muslim cemetery for its personnel. According to the official Libyan history of the cemetery, "Secrets of the Old Protestant Cemetery" (Tripoli, Libya: Libyan Center for Historical Studies, 2008), the diplomats chose the spot of the graves of the three officers of the Intrepid for the foundation of the cemetery because of the presence of the three bodies (or their remains).3
The Libyan history is the definitive narrative of the Old Protestant Cemetery. It documents every person - male and female - buried in the cemetery, including a brief biography of each person. The history lists the name and disposition of each of the 75 people buried in the cemetery from 1830, when it was built, to 1890, when use of the cemetery ceased because there was no longer any space. It also specifies which bodies (or remains) are still in the cemetery and which bodies (or remains) various governments or families removed over time.4
Attempts to cast doubt over the accuracy of the Libyan history are spurious at best. The Libyan historians went to great lengths to source everything in the cemetery history, including American historians, when they wrote about the crew of the Intrepid and the Philadelphia.
"Secrets" also makes great use of archival and modern-day maps, showing the city of Tripoli as it was in 1804, 1830, 1890, 1911, 1920, 1950 and the present day. In each case, the history uses these maps to detail changes to the topography of the city - mostly from landfill projects that allowed the construction of two multi-lane highways. The maps also show the increasingly precarious nature of the location of the cemetery. It currently sits on a small sandstone outcrop next to the Al-Fatah Highway and is increasingly in danger of collapsing onto the road and into the Mediterranean.
The Old Protestant Cemetery remained a dusty, near-forgotten spot some two miles from the medina or old town of Tripoli until the 1920s when Italian road engineers came across the mass grave of the enlisted men of the Intrepid. According to Italian maps and accounts contained in "Secrets," the engineers found the bodies close to the water while they worked on constructing a landfill for the future Al-Fatah Highway. With help from the Libyans, who knew the general location of the Intrepid enlisted men's mass grave, the Italians exhumed the remains they found, identified them as American using bits of uniform and buttons, and interred the remains in a pair of empty Cemetery coffins.5
The United States Navy subsequently confirmed these graves as being those of the crew of the Intrepid when, in 1949, Captain William Marshall, commander of the USS Spokane, Rear Admiral Richard H. Cruzen, Commander Cruiser Division Two, Prince Taher Bey Karamanli of Libya installed plaques marking the graves. Marshall and Cruzen were the last senior US military officers to visit the Intrepid graves.
In 2006, at the request of Master Commandant Richard Somers family, which was in contact with the Gadhaffi regime, the Libyan Ministry of Antiquities opened the graves and confirmed the continued presence of remains. At the same time, the Libyans embarked on their own twoyear project to fully document all of the dead in the Old Protestant Cemetery. In so doing, the Libyans identified what they believe is a sixth grave containing Intrepid crew remains.
According to "Secrets," nearly a third of the international deceased originally buried in the cemetery have since been repatriated to their home countries.6
In 2010, U.S. Navy Captain Gregory H. Miller toured the cemetery, reporting its general state of disrepair and confirming the Libyan attempt to renovate the walls, which the US State Department halted. Capt. Miller obtained a copy of "Secrets" and brought it back to the United States, offering it to the Navy for translation. The Navy rejected his offer. Currently, the Old Protestant Cemetery contains the remains of the 13 Americans from the Intrepid, several Danes, French, Swedish, Russian, Swiss, English, and Canadian deceased. In all, according to "Secrets," the cemetery currently the holds the remains of 58 people from the international community. As such, it would be impossible to make the Old Protestant Cemetery solely an American cemetery. Anders Jorle, acting chief media officer of the Swedish Foreign Ministry, confirmed the presence of Swedish remains in the cemetery, although he was unaware of how many Swedes are interred there or how long they have been there.7
Based on the evidence, there is only one conclusion - most if not all of the Intrepid crew of is buried in the Old Protestant Cemetery, roughly 1500 meters from the Red Castle on the shoreline of the port of Tripoli. Every available source confirms this. The strongest confirmation of the officers' graves being the foundation of the OPC is not Libyan, but the foremost US naval historian of his time, Gardner W. Allen.
In his "Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs" (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1905), Allen
conducts an in-depth look at the reports of both Turkish and American sources and rightfully concluded that, "The bodies were buried south of the town, the three supposed officers by themselves."8
Since every source points to the Old Protestant Cemetery and no source gainsays this location there can only be one, unmistakable conclusion: the crew of the first USS Intrepid remains buried in the Old Protestant Cemetery, a graveyard that is crumbling, contains international remains and is wholly unsuitable as any sort of lasting monument to their heroism. There is only one recourse: we must recover and return the remains of Master Commandant Richard Somers and his men and give them a proper military burial in the United States.
James Fenimore Cooper, Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846), Vol. 1, p. 112.
William Eaton to Edward Preble, Jan. 25, 1805, The life of the late Gen. William Eaton : several years an officer in the United States' army, consul at the regency of Tunis on the coast of Barbary, and commander of the Christian and other forces that marched from Egypt through the Desert of Barca, in 1805. Brookfield, Mass.: E. Merriam and Co., 1813, pp. 286-88.
Abdu Hakim AlYTawil, Secrets of the Old Protestant Cemetery (Tripoli, Libya: Libyan Center for Historical Studies, 2008), pp. 71-76. (Tranlsation by Prof. of Arabic Studies Hezi Brosh, United States Naval Academy)
Ibid., pp. 80-81.
Ibid., pp. 122-136
Ibid., pp. 331-336.
Interview with Anders Jorle, November 21, 2011.
Gardner W. Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1905), pp. 209-210.
Final Burial Place of First USS Intrepid Crew
Allen, Gardner W., Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1905.
Al-Tawil, Abdu Hakim. Secrets of the Old Protestant Cemetery. Tripoli, Libya: Libyan Center for Historical Studies, 2008.
Clark, Thomas. Naval History of the United States. Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1814. 1 Vol.
Cooper, James Fenimore, History of the Navy of the United States. New York: Stinger and Townsend, 1856. 2 Volumes.
________________. Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846. 2 Volumes.
Eaton, William. Interesting detail of the operations of the American fleet in the Mediterranean communicated in a letter from W. E., to his friend in the county of Hampshire. Springfield, Mass., Bliss & Brewer Printers, 1805.
__________. The life of the late Gen. William Eaton : several years an officer in the United States' army, consul at the regency of Tunis on the coast of Barbary, and commander of the Christian and other forces that marched from Egypt through the Desert of Barca, in 1805. Brookfield, Mass.: E. Merriam and Co., 1813.
Harris, Thomas. The Life and Services of Commodore William Bainbridge. Philadephia: Carey Lea & Blanchard, 1837.
Pratt, Fletcher. Preble's Boys. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950.
Somers, J.B. Life of Richard Somers, A Master Commandant in the U.S. Navy. Philadelphia: Collins Printer, 1886.
Whipple, A.B.C., To the Shores of Tripoli: The Birth of the U.S. Navy and Marines. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991.
Zuchet, Antoine, Journals, quoted in Zacks, Richard, The Pirate Coast. New York: Hyperion Books, 2005.