WASHINGTON – There is a monument to Lt. Henry Wadsworth in Portland’s historic Eastern Cemetery, but the remains of the uncle of the famous poet are thousands of miles away, in an unmarked grave in Tripoli.

As the United States again finds itself in armed conflict in Libya, an effort is being made privately and in Congress to repatriate the remains of Wadsworth and 12 other sailors who were killed in 1804 during what is known as the First Barbary War.

The cause has been championed for years by a nonprofit group called the Intrepid Project, named for a ship the United States used in the Mediterranean to combat Tripoli’s pirate ships, which were attacking U.S. merchant vessels during the First Barbary War.

The cause was taken up in Congress by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who learned of the remains of the Intrepid’s sailors in 2004, during a visit to Libya.

Legislation by Rogers calling for the United States to repatriate the remains — after the current conflict with Libya is over — was passed by the House earlier this year as part of a broader defense bill.

When the bill reaches the Senate floor later this year, Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine is among the senators considering taking up the Intrepid repatriation cause.

“Our fallen heroes deserve our utmost respect and gratitude for making the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our nation,” Snowe said last week. “Working to respect the wishes of these men’s families, we must ensure their final resting place is a fitting tribute to their service.”

The Intrepid Project and the American Legion, which backs the repatriation effort, are lobbying senators from other places that were home to the Intrepid’s sailors, including New Jersey and New York, to introduce or support repatriation legislation in the Senate.

The Intrepid Project is run by Michael Caputo, a public relations executive who learned of the campaign from the family of the Intrepid’s commander, Richard Somers, and others in Somers Point, N.J.

Wadsworth was killed in 1804, while he was second-in-command on the Intrepid.

His sister was Zilpah Longfellow, the mother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poet, a Portland native whose family’s home is now a museum on Congress Street managed by the Maine Historical Society, was named after his uncle.

The Intrepid tried to sneak into Tripoli’s harbor on Sept. 4, 1804, and blow up pirate ships, but all 13 aboard were killed and washed ashore. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and fed to wild dogs, then buried in unmarked graves.

Five of the enlisted men’s remains are in a dilapidated cemetery in Tripoli. Wadsworth, Somers and one other officer from the ship, along with the other enlisted men, are in an unmarked grave beneath what is known as Green Square, where strongman Moammar Gadhafi and his supporters have held anti-American rallies, Caputo said.

“The loss of the Intrepid played a dramatic role in the first international test of the American Navy and it was a major blow for the Wadsworth and Longfellow families,” said Richard D’Abate, executive director of the Maine Historical Society.

D’Abate said there are many unknowns in the effort to repatriate Wadsworth’s remains, including whether they can be accurately identified and whether permission can be gained to bury them in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery.

“If Henry Wadsworth could be identified and brought back to Portland, that would be a fine thing,” D’Abate said.

Proponents of the legislation say they believe DNA testing could be used to identify the remains. They hope to get permission to use the DNA of a living Wadsworth descendant for that purpose.

Joe Dumais, parks and cemeteries coordinator for the Portland Public Services Department, said the city can’t give definitive permission to bury Wadsworth’s remains, if they are identified and brought back, until more research is done, but the prospect is “exciting and a great idea.”

Caputo said he plans to take the repatriation campaign to Maine this summer to continue drumming up support among Maine lawmakers, history buffs and perhaps Wadsworth’s descendants.

Caputo said he got the “fever” for repatriating the Intrepid sailors’ remains when he was living and working on a project in Somers Point, a town named for the Somers family, and learned of the story during the annual commemoration of Richard Somers.

Caputo said he served in the Army from 1980 to 1983 and that leaving the remains where they are, even after more than 200 years, “is a despicable way to dispose of the remains of bona fide war heroes.”

He said that in 2006, during negotiations with the Gadhafi family initiated by his project and the Somers family, remains were unearthed that revealed “brass buttons and bones,” before being re-covered.

Rep. Rogers said by email that the Navy wants to leave the remains where they are, and considers the graves in Tripoli a final resting place, but he disagrees.

He said that, under his legislation, the repatriation couldn’t happen until the conflict in Libya is over. It would be paid for with Defense Department funds and carried out by an agency that locates and identifies veterans of wars such as World War II and Vietnam.

It would be an opportunity to establish relations with a new Libyan government, Rogers said, but most of all, “As a former member of the U.S. Army, I believe that our country should never leave a fellow American in uniform behind.”

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

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