American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SOMERS. A naval brig of 266 tons, named after naval hero Richard Somers, the U.S.S. Somers (built 1842) was the site of an important mutiny* in 1842, the consequences of which were that three Americans were hanged from her yardarm by command of Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie.* On 26 November 1842, the Somers was returning from her second cruise, a training mission of naval apprentices, when Mackenzie was informed by his first lieutenant Guert Gansevoort (Herman Melville’s* first cousin) that there was apparently a plot by a small group of men to take over the vessel and turn her into a pirate.* The ringleader of the alleged conspiracy was eighteen-year-old acting midshipman Philip Spencer, the son of John C. Spencer, President Tyler’s secretary of war. Although he at first treated the story with ridicule, Mackenzie arrested Spencer later that same day. When confronted, Spencer admitted to speaking of taking over the ship but claimed it was in jest. Over the next two days some suspicious incidents on board, including a mysterious rush aft and gatherings of men speaking in low tones, convinced Mackenzie that a full-blown mutiny was indeed evolving and that immediate action needed to be taken. On 1 December 1842, Mackenzie executed Spencer along with boatswain’s mate Samuel Cromwell and seaman Elisha Small.

The Somers arrived in New York two weeks later, and the hangings became the subject of intense national discussion. Amid wildly conflicting reports, Mackenzie was praised or condemned with equal vigor by newspapers in New York, Boston, and Washington. His critics, among them Spencer’s father and James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, were outraged that Mackenzie had engaged in such extreme action when, in fact, no overt act of mutiny ever occurred, no trial was held to determine the validity of the accusation, and no chance was given the three accused men to refute the charges against them. According to some, young Philip Spencer might have been engaged in an elaborate role-playing game. Mackenzie’s supporters, who included sailor-lawyer Richard Henry Dana Jr.,* Horace Greeley of the New York Daily Tribune, and other members of the Whig press who supported a strong navy to combat piracy,* commended Mackenzie for acting swiftly and even heroically. A naval court-martial trial was convened in New York the following February, during which Mackenzie stood accused of murder, oppression, conduct unbecoming an officer, and other specifications. Witnesses were heard, and Mackenzie submitted his own written version of events. He was eventually acquitted on all counts.

The verdict did not put the matter to rest. The trial transcript, Proceedings of the Naval Court Martial in the Case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, was printed in 1844 with an eighty-page review by James Fenimore Cooper.* Cooper, once a navy man himself and at that time a naval historian as well as renowned author of the sea and the American frontier, concluded that Mackenzie acted with needless haste and panic and had been taken in by dubious impressions rather than the solid, verifiable facts. The Somers incident eventually made its way into some of America’s enduring literature. Herman Melville, who felt a warm family loyalty toward his cousin Gansevoort, refers to the Somers affair in White-Jacket* (1850), Billy Budd* (1924), and his poem “Bridegroom Dick” (1888). The Somers continued her service in the navy until 1846, when, in a squall off the coast of Veracruz during the Mexican War, she sank, losing thirty-nine men.

FURTHER READING: Egan, Hugh. “Introduction,” Proceedings of the Naval Court Martial in the Case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie. Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1992; Hayford, Harrison, ed. The Somers Mutiny Affair. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1959; McFarland, Philip. Sea Dangers: The Affair of the Somers. New York: Schocken, 1985.

Hugh Egan