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The Freelance Star 
September 9, 2000

U.S. Seaman sails away with honors

 

Robert Emil Sommers was a seafaring man.  A Prussian by birth, he fought on the side of the Union Navy during the Civil War and his heroics earned him the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of honor.  (Note:  Mr. Sommers last name has been alternately spelled Summers, Somers and Soemers.  Sommers is the family's preferred spelling.)

Sommers, the great-grandfather of James G. O’Neill III of Stafford county, had a long and distinguished career.  Born Dec. 17, 1837, at Magdeburg, Germany, he served on German and American merchant ships starting in 1854.  His travels took him to such distant places as South America, the West Indies and East Indies and the China Sea.

Sommers enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a seaman on April 17, 1861.  During his service, he participated in naval blockades in such places as the mouth of the Mississippi, Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.  His ships attacked Fort Wagner, St. John’s bluff and fort McAllister.

His finest moment during the war came while serving on the USS Ticonderoga in the relentless January 1865 bombardment of Fort Fisher, N.C., for which he won the Medal of Honor.  The citation is given by Congress for risk of life in combat beyond the call of duty.

According to official records: “Although several of the enemy’s shots fell over and around the vessel, the Ticonderoga fought her guns gallantly throughout three consecutive days of battle until the flag was planted on one of the strongest fortifications possessed by the rebels.”

After the war, Sommers continued to serve on various naval ships, Including the USS Sabine, USS Gettysburg, USS Portsmouth, USS Saratoga and USS Dictator.

In 1870 until his retirement in 1899, Sommers served with the U>S> Naval Academy Ordnance Department, and took part in cruises in the North Atlantic and Pacific.  He retired with the rank of lieutenant.

From 1900 to 1907, he worked in the pay office and general storekeeper’s department at the academy.  He and his wife, Arvilla Wells, who were married in 1878, had five children: Mary Elizabeth, Ruby, Emma Arvilla, Louisa Ann and Arvilla Lenora Sommers.

Sommers died Dec. 1, 1919 at the age of 81, and is buried at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md.

The naval tradition continued in his family.  Sommers’ son-in-law, Owen Hill (Mary Elizabeth’s husband), was skipper of the first commissioned submarine, USS Holland.  Sommers great-grandson, James G. O’Neill III, is a retired commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve.  He also is a retired engineer who does some consulting work.

  Article Contributed by:  James G. O’Neill, III, Mr. Sommer's great-grandson 

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