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The Remains of the H.M.S. Somerset
By David Trubey, BUAR
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When most of us think about the ocean landscape, we imagine sandy beaches, dunes, squawking gulls, and perhaps a rustic fishing shanty. Typically, shipwrecks are a part of the coastal landscape that remail hidden—underwater mysteries, seen by the occasional scuba diver. But sometimes Mother Nature chooses to offer us a peak at these mysterious remnants of another time and place...
In January of 2008, Wellfleet residents and visitors were intrigued by the appearance of shipwreck remains on the Cape Cod National Seashore following a powerful coastal storm. Although certainly not an everyday site, shipwrecks appear and disappear along Massachusetts beaches on a fairly regular basis, particularly in the winter months in high energy zones such as outer Cape Cod and Plum Island to the north. While some wrecks are pushed ashore from deeper waters, others are carved out of the beaches by extreme tides and wave action. Most of these wrecks can be attributed only to a certain time period, but few are identifiable by name. Fortunately, for purveyors of nautical history and shipwreck enthusiasts alike, this particular wrecked vessel was one of the few with a known identity: the H.M.S. Somerset.
Launched in 1748 at H.M. Dockyard, Chatham, England, the Somerset was fitted out as a guard ship. At 160 feet in length and 42.5 feet in breadth, this three-masted wooden sailing ship was equipped with 64 guns and considered to be a third-rate man-of-war ship (i.e., it was equipped to fight, but not to the extent of a first- or second-rate man-of-war ship). Somerset spent its service career in England until 1774, when it left for the North American station. Once in New England, Somerset spent its time in Boston Harbor asserting the presence of the Royal Navy and keeping a watchful eye on any vessel believed to be assisting the rebel cause. The vessel is perhaps best known for its activity following the Battle of Lexington and Concord and in the Battle of Bunker Hill. According to British reports, it was the Somerset, anchored in the ferry channel between Boston and Charlestown, that provided the only protection for the British soldiers returning to British-occupied Boston after their loss in Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Ironically, Paul Revere rowed past the Somerset before his famous ride through the Middlesex countryside. In fact, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describes the vessel in eerie detail in his poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride:”
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
In the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, the Somerset fired its guns toward the American’s newly constructed fortification; however their effectiveness is a matter of debate. Many accounts suggest that despite their tremendous power, the vessel’s cannons could not be elevated high enough to reach the hilltop ramparts and proved little more than a loud nuisance to the Americans preparing for battle.
In the three years that followed the Battle of Bunker Hill, Somerset’s crew turned their attention toward forcing the French fleet from the northeast coast. To that end, Somerset was reportedly chasing a French vessel, which was making its way toward Boston, when it was driven onto the shores of Cape Cod near Truro on November 2, 1778. In his 1887 work entitled, “The Wreck of the ‘Somerset,’ British Man-of-War,” E.A. Grozier describes the scene colorfully:
The Somerset found herself on a lee-shore, in more danger than she had ever been from the guns of her enemies. She struggled to weather the Cape. . . . The merciless wind beat upon her and wrought havoc with her sails. The billows broke over her. The incoming current of the tide seized her. She drifted helplessly in the trough and struck upon the outer bar. . . . For hours the Somerset pounded upon the bar, and the blinding seas broke over her. Her boats were washed away, crushed like egg-shells and tossed in fragments on the shore. . . . Gun after gun was run through the ports and magazines of solid shot thrown overboard to lighten the ship. Finally at high tide, a succession of great waves lifted the frigate from the bar, bore her over the intervening shoals and landed her, a dismantled wreck, high upon the beach.
Although at least 21 sailors perished attempting to escape the foundering ship via long boat, much of the crew survived the violent grounding. As the sky cleared the following day, a detachment of militia marched to the site and under the command of Captain Enoch Hallett, the survivors of Somerset were taken as prisoners of war. Together with their American guards, some 480 men marched through the November cold from Truro to Boston, a trip of more than 100 miles on today’s roadways! In the meantime, the remains of the vessel were put under the charge of Colonel Doane. According to some accounts, the soldiers at the site had their hands full in controlling the riotous groups from Provincetown and Truro, which had each laid claim to the shipwreck spoils, including various artillery, supplies, and the personal effects of the officers and crew. It was the fledgling American government, however, that determined the division of the man-of-war’s remains. Naturally, Somerset’s guns were the first items to be salvaged. The larger pieces of artillery were taken away to help fortify Castle Island in Boston Harbor and ramparts in Gloucester and on the coast of Maine. Once the government finished with its salvage effort, Somerset was turned over to the local residents who reportedly removed anything else of value, including iron bolts, chain plates, and even deck planking for firewood. The large hull timbers that remained were eventually buried by the shifting sands of Dead Men’s Hollow, but they have been uncovered on at least two other occasions over the last 230 years by storms—once in 1886 when some 60 feet of hull timbers were visible, and most recently in 1973 on the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Although the remains of the infamous Somerset have not been seen for three decades, they are a part of the Cape Cod seashore and will one day appear again and another generation can ponder the history and the mystery behind the skeletal remains.
Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service