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Panic Rides The High Seas

July 2024
15min read

A hysterical captain thought he detected mutiny. After a hasty court-martial, three men were hanged—one the son of the Secretary of War. Then the uproar began

Shortly after noon, on December 1, 1842, three hooded, manacled figures were hoisted to the main yardarm of the U.S. brig-of-war Somers . the captain, as was his wont in such an emergency, delivered a pious homily to the remaining 117 men and boys, many of whom were weeping. The Stars and Stripes was raised. Then the crew gave three cheers for the American flag and were piped down to dinner, leaving the bodies of Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell, Seaman Elisha Small, and Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer—the son of the Secretary of War —to swing in the rising wind.

After dinner, under the personal direction of the captain, always a stickler for form, the three bodies were elaborately prepared for burial; at dusk they were ceremoniously lowered into the sea. Thus ended the only recorded mutiny in the United States Navy—if mutiny it was.

Fifteen days later the Somers dropped anchor in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, still carrying eleven prisoners. The story was soon common gossip in New York City, whereupon the captain of the ship, Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, U.S.N., was wildly acclaimed as a hero. Horace Greeley led the applause. “By the prompt and fearless decision of Captain Mackenzie,” he wrote in his New York Tribune , “one of the most bold and daring conspiracies ever formed was frustrated and crushed.”

In his initial report on the trouble to Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur, Mackenzie described conditions aboard the Somers as approaching a state of imminent peril: A plot to seize control of the ship, head her into the Isle of Pines off the coast of Cuba, and turn pirate had been foiled. Philip Spencer was the ringleader; Cromwell and Small his loyal cohorts. Those crew members who wanted to join forces with the mutineers were to have been retained; the rest, including all the officers, were to have been murdered. Only prompt and severe measures by Mackenzie had saved the ship.

The plot had been uncovered on the night of November 25 by (he purser’s steward, James W. Wales, whom Spencer approached to join the conspiracy. Next morning Wales told the purser, who in turn reported to the brig’s lieutenant, Guert Gansevoort. Gansevoort rushed to the Captain with the story. Mackenzie at first ridiculed the possibility of a mutiny, but on second thought he took a graver view. As a precaution, Spencer was put in irons on deck and forbidden to communicate with the crew.

A list written in the Greek alphabet was found in Spencer’s locker, which when translated named those crew members who were surely in the plot; those who might collaborate; and those who would have to be held against their will. Another piece of paper contained the specific assignments of the plotters at the moment of the mutiny. Small was mentioned twice on the lists, Cromwell not at all. Nonetheless, both men were confined on November 27. Tension mounted. The officers stood round-the-clock armed patrol. The crew went sullenly and anxiously about their business.

“During the night [of Tuesday the 29th] seditious words were heard throughout the vessel,” Mackenzie wrote later. “Various intelligence was obtained from time to time of conferences … Several times during the night, there were symptoms of an intention to strike some blow.” (At no point, however, were these words or actions ever specified.)

Further doubts had assailed the Captain: What if other mutineers were at large? Four more of the crew were taken into custody the next morning. By Wednesday several officers had concluded that seven prisoners on deck would impede the operation of the ship—an opinion which forced decision on what to do with the original three.

At this juncture Mackenzie formally asked his officers for their joint counsel, after taking “into deliberate and dispassionate consideration the present condition of the vessel …” The officers formed themselves into a court of inquiry which lasted into the following day. At length, prodded by Mackenzie, they announced that they had come
to a cool, decided and unanimous opinion that they Spencer, Cromwell, and Small] have been guilty of a full and determined intention to commit a mutiny on board of this vessel of an atrocious nature and that the revelation of circumstances having made it necessary to confine’ others with them … we are convinced the safety of the public property, the lives of ourselves and of those committed to our charges require that … they should be put to death, in a manner best calculated … to make a beneficial impression upon the disaffected.

No time was lost in reflection; the sentence was executed within two hours.

Mackenzie certainly believed his command and his crew to be in danger. And had Philip Spencer not been the son of John Canfield Spencer, then President Tyler’s Secretary of War, Mackenzie’s story might well have gone unchallenged. But on December 21, a letter in the New York Tribune (later attributed to the elder Spencer) pointed out that by Mackenzie’s own report, “the men were hanged when everything and person were perfectly quiet after four days of perfect security.” No mutinous act had occurred in that interlude.

This document set in motion a whole new line of inquiry. Many who had at first supported Mackenzie now reversed themselves and found the triple execution to be “a high-handed and unnecessary measure.” When the preliminary naval court of inquiry failed to censure the Captain, such a halloo arose for a grand jury investigation that the Navy, anxious to protect its own, rather reluctantly arranged a court-martial for Mackenzie. He was acquitted, but the story that unfolded there could scarcely evoke the same verdict from history. As the omissions, embellishments, contradictions, and downright lies were sifted, the Somers tragedy emerged as a tale of mass hypnotic terror; of craven weakness on the part of Captain Mackenzie; and of a pathetic, juvenile bravura on the part of a maladjusted eighteen-year-old, Philip Spencer. The discrepancies that so aroused Mackenzie’s contemporaries are even more apparent to anyone who looks at the record today, 119 years later.

Mackenzie and his officers justified their action on the grounds of impending danger. Yet the newly commissioned Somers was no warship; it had been turned into a training vessel for juvenile recruits. Only six of the crew were over nineteen years of age; forty-five were under sixteen; three were only thirteen. The few older hands were expected to teach seamanship to the apprentices.

This floating academy had left New York in September, bound for the African coast, and had returned to Caribbean waters by the time the trouble occurred. It could not have been a pleasant voyage. The Somers was built to accommodate ninety; she carried one hundred and twenty. Floggings were frequent. The smaller boys lived in terror of Boatswain’s Mate Cromwell, a large, burly, bad-tempered man.

As for Captain Mackenzie, it would have been difficult to find a man less equipped to condition young boys to a naval career. Medium-sized, red-haired, mild-mannered, he was at thirty-nine prim, severe, fussy, sanctimonious, humorless, vain, moralistic, vacillating in time of crisis, and above all, vastly inhuman. Many who sailed with him on that voyage were to desert the sea forever.

His real aspirations were literary rather than nautical. Born Alexander Mackenzie Slidell, he reversed his middle and surnames at the behest of a wealthy uncle who wished to perpetuate the Mackenzie line—and thereby inherited enough money to allow him to pursue a literary career on the side. He wrote six books and quantities of tedious, if shorter, discourses; his pen was seldom still. It is worth noting that Mackenzie’s brother was John Slidell, the Confederate envoy to Britain who was snatched from the British steamer Trent by the Union Navy in 1861; his son, Ranald, became one of the most daring and successful Indian fighters in the history of the West ( see “Border Warrior,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , June, 1958).

Due largely to the backing of his friend Washington Irving, Mackenzie’s book, A Year in Spain , was an immediate success in both America and England. At twenty-nine he was mildly famous. His style was florid, but so was the era. The Navy was sufficiently impressed by this unaccustomed talent in its ranks to accord Mackenzie unusual consideration—though he was also a diligent and scrupulous officer. He rose rapidly to independent command, as much on the strength of his literary as his naval accomplishments. And this literary propensity stood him in good stead after the mutiny: during his various trials he wrote four versions of the affair, each longer than the last, and each containing new and fanciful embellishments; like a cuttlefish in danger, he defended himself by emitting blasts of ink.

Philip Spencer came to the Somers with a tarnished reputation. A slouching, sullen boy with a mop of dark hair and a cast in one eye, he had managed thus far in life to make a mess of everything he had attempted. After spending three years as a recalcitrant freshman at Geneva (now Hobart) College, he was thrust into Union College by his outraged, domineering, short-tempered father, a lean, hard man with eyes “fierce and quick-rolling,” and a lace bearing “an unpleasant character of sternness.” Here Spencer remained long enough to help found the Chi Psi fraternity, which still toasts him in its rituals. A further brush with the authorities landed him in the Navy, after a final warning from his father that disinheritance would follow should he fail once more. He was commissioned an acting midshipman in November, 1841, joining a squadron off Brazil. He began to drink heavily and was shipped back to New York in disgrace in July, 1842. Once again he got another chance—his last. Through his father’s intervention he was restored to his rank, boarding the Somers two weeks later.

No one could have appealed less to the prissy, fastidious Mackenzie. Nor did Spencer get on with his fellow officers, most of whom were hand-picked protégés of the Captain. Not unnaturally, this lonely, defiant outcast of eighteen turned to the crew for companionship, and inwardly conjured up grandiose dreams of glory and revenge as a solace to his ego.

Spencer alternately bought and clowned his way to popularity with the crew. He bribed Waltham, the Negro wardroom steward, to steal brandy for him and the bibulous Seaman Small, and went into hock for ten pounds of tobacco and over seven hundred cigars, largely for Cromwell (these despite Mackenzie’s sharp disapproval of tobacco and his conviction that “the drinking of brandy is even more dreadful than malaria”).

Spencer could be seen at odd hours, joking with the men, cutting capers for the boys, throwing coins on the deck like an emperor, and watching the rabble scramble for them. He had a trick of dislocating his jaw and by “contact of the bones” producing tunes “with accuracy and elegance,” which threw his audience into raptures. Spencer’s scarcely concealed contempt for Mackenzie behind his back (although he was careful to be civil face to face) further endeared him to the crew.

Small and Cromwell, his chief cronies, were hardly desirable companions for an unstable boy. Small had lost most of his berths through drink. Cromwell at various times had been both a slaver and a pirate. It is not clear why these two seafaring hobos should have been chosen to train young, inexperienced recruits. (Mackenzie, in a peculiarly macabre gesture, was to delay burial of the three mutineers for an hour to have Cromwell’s head shaved. The scars of violence revealed thereon somehow reassured the Captain of the wisdom of his course.)

No doubt in payment for liquor and cigars, these two men regaled Spencer with tales of a lurid past, real or fancied. Always addicted to blood-and-thunder thrillers, he evidently began to brood on the delicious possibilities of a life of piracy—with its rich treasure, daring forays, beautiful women—and himself, a well-beloved but awe-inspiring hero, in full command. Whether two such seasoned hands as Small and Cromwell ever took him seriously, or whether they simply played up to him for handouts, is not known. There is nothing on the record, in fact, to indicate that Cromwell had even heard of the plot.

The purser’s steward, James Wales, was the first to report that a mutiny was in the making. Yet later inquiry revealed that the plump, sly “Whales” was in bad odor with Mackenzie at that time because of some unspecified shady transaction in Puerto Rico. It took little intelligence to see that Philip Spencer was Mackenzie’s bête noire , and any derogatory information about him might well boost the sagging stock of an informant. Mackenzie did in fact advance Wales to the rank of acting midshipman after Spencer’s death and recommended that the rank be made permanent. No one knows how true Wales’s report of a mutiny was, and no one made the slightest attempt to find out.

From that moment on, the conduct of Mackenzie and his officers seems at best indefensible; despicable is a more accurate term. Instead of making sober inquiry into the facts, they succumbed to unconcealed hysteria. The first and obvious step was to examine Spencer. Yet Spencer was only twice questioned, once casually on the twenty-sixth before his arrest, and again just an hour before his death, at which time the miserable boy admitted that plotting mutinies “had become a mania with him,” a childish sort of game. The noose was strong punishment for this troubled adolescent.

Spencer, having originally been told that he would be taken to New York for trial, bore himself well in confinement. But the sight of him and his fellows lying in fetters apparently did nothing to allay the mounting fears of the officers. A topgallant mast snapped. Mackenzie read dark meaning into this common accident. Seamen swarmed to repair the damage, and he later noted, “All those who were most conspicuously named in the program of Mr. Spencer … mustered at the main topmast head.” Withal, he reports no suspicious act, no hostile word.

Only his fears led Mackenzie to arrest Cromwell. When the new prisoner was brought to where Spencer sat hunched in his double irons, it was Spencer who volunteered the information (as he was to do twice more before the end) that Cromwell was innocent. “I doubt if Cromwell could have been enlisted in any such enterprise, unless there was money aboard,” he said a little bitterly. Guilt by association was the only charge leveled against Cromwell. He was condemned solely on Wales’s surmise that he might have been involved because he was often seen in Spencer’s company, and because Lieutenant Gansevoort later confided, “I don’t like Cromwell’s looks.”

And so it went for five terrible days. Each tiny incident of normal shipboard life was blown up to the bursting point. A midshipman herded a clean-up crew out of the twilight toward the officers’ quarters, ostensibly to man the mast rope in raising a new spar. The overwrought Gansevoort cried, “Halt, I say! I’ll blow out the brains of the first man who steps on the quarter-deck.” The midshipman had to rush to the front of his quivering group and explain himself.

At any point those interested in mutiny might have rushed the officers and freed their comrades, yet no one made the slightest move to help the prisoners. The chances are that no one cared to; even Small was heard to mutter that Spencer was a little crazy.

On the sixth day, the three men were hanged, although no single incident occurred that in any way further incriminated them. As Mackenzie explained later: “The deep sense I had of the solemn obligation I was under to protect and defend the vessel … the officers and the crew—the seas traversed by our peaceful merchantmen and the unarmed of all nations … from the horrors which the conspirators had meditated and, above all, to guard from violation the sanctity of the American flag“—the commander wrapped himself in the national ensign as habitually as he put on his nightshirt—”all impressed on me the absolute necessity of adopting some further measures for the security of the vessel.”

The proceedings were a shabby farce. Mackenzie later admitted that the kangaroo court of officers was assembled after he and Gansevoort had privately made up their minds to execute the prisoners. The court had no chairman, and the notes of its secretary were sketchy at best. The obvious people to examine—the three prisoners—were never called. But thirteen other witnesses did appear. One of them, later a prisoner himself, described the procedure: “Before a question of one officer was answered, others would be put by other officers, thus not only confounding the person being examined but themselves.”

A witness was told just to sign a statement—his answers would be filled in later. None of the information represented anything but hearsay and wild supposition. A typical response: “I don’t think the vessel is safe with these prisoners aboard. This is my deliberate opinion from what I heard King, the gunner’s mate say: that is, that he had heard the boys say there were spies about.”

Afterward, Mackenzie saw to it that the faithful were rewarded. Seven of the witnesses were recommended for advancement. And it is worthy of note that during Mackenzie’s own subsequent court-martial, when every effort was made to unearth supporting evidence for his actions, no single person was found who had ever heard the word “mutiny” mentioned aboard the Somers before Spencer’s arrest. But they were hanged anyway, and on February 1, 1843, on a ship in New York Harbor Alexander Slidell Mackenzie was brought before a court-martial to defend himself. His own court-martial gave Mackenzie every leeway. He did not testify in his own behalf, thus saving himself from the hazard of cross-examination. Instead, he was allowed to present written explanations of the points raised by the timid, fusty little prosecutor.

While Mackenzie sat resplendent in dress uniform day after day (he donned it on the slightest provocation), his loyal cohorts rehearsed the co-operative members of the crew until they had their stories letterperfect. (The less reliable were allowed to desert.) The eleven prisoners were eventually freed without charge. New York grew bored and turned to more lively topics. A quiet acquittal became inevitable.

The most searching questions were asked by a man who had no connection with the case. And the answers he offered make Mackenzie out part fool, part coward, part arrant knave. No less a personage than James Fenimore Cooper, himself an ex-midshipman in the Navy, carried the case to the public. Why he entered the controversy is not exactly certain. Disputatious by nature, and frequently involved in litigation, Cooper was a constant supporter of causes. Perhaps he simply hated the injustice of the affair or the sanctimonious behavior of Mackenzie. Or possibly, himself expelled from Yale, defiant of authority, and an ex-Navy man aware of the brutality of the fleet, Cooper identified himself with Spencer, whose life roughly paralleled his own early experience.

Mackenzie had presented four prime reasons why the prisoners had perforce to forfeit their lives:

First, the size and construction of the brig made it vulnerable. The prisoners had been held on deck because Mackenzie feared that they could not have been safely kept below. The partitions, he claimed, were so frail that they might have been forced.

Cooper thought that an extremely far-fetched assumption. On the contrary, he suggested, the size of the Somers actually favored the officers. If there was real trouble, “twenty, or even ten armed men on the quarter-deck of a brig of 266 tons make them a very formidable array as opposed to any number of unarmed, or even armed men that could approach them at a time.” Furthermore, her size was an asset from another point of view. “We see nothing to have prevented Captain Mackenzie from sending all but his officers below and of carrying the brig across the ocean, if needed, with the gentlemen of the quarter-deck alone.” Under such circumstances, “even admitting a pretty widespread disaffection” the chances were nine out of ten in favor of her officers, “and that risk might have been run before an American citizen was hanged without trial.”

To Mackenzie’s report that each night’s darkness added to the peril on board the Somers , Cooper answered that there was no necessity for darkness, for every man-of-war had means of lighting her own decks.

Second, Mackenzie cited “the sullenness, the violent and menacing demeanor and portentous looks of the crew.” Cooper rejoined, “We entertain no doubt that much the greater portion of the ominous conversations, groupings, shakings of the head and strange looks … had their origin in the natural wonder of the crew at seeing an officer in this novel situation. … The Somers had … at least 30 more than she should have had—and it is scarcely possible that with her boats bestowed and one third of her deck reserved for her officers, one hundred men could be on her remaining deck without being in … ‘knots.’ ”

Third, though it had been suggested by some of the officers that the prisoners be landed at St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, Mackenzie had refused because he claimed it would have been virtual admission that the mutiny was beyond the control of the ship’s authority. Cooper pointed out that since men-of-war often sought protection in a friendly port from starvation or disease, why not from mutineers?

Fourth, Mackenzie said his officers were exhausted by the emergency watch-and-watch routine. Cooper ridiculed this assertion. What was there to cause all this exhaustion? Thousands were on watch-and-watch daily. “It is a common thing to be all hands all day and watch-and-watch at night for long voyages.” (At a tender age Cooper himself had been watch-and-watch for weeks on end.) The officers couldn’t sleep, Mackenzie said, because they were uneasy. “We have a better opinion of the physical powers of these gentlemen,” Cooper answered, “than they have of themselves.” But Cooper’s objections, however well-taken, accomplished nothing, and the Somers case was soon forgotten.

The single beneficial result of the whole sorry business was the founding—in 1845—of the Naval Academy at Annapolis. The Somers mutiny convinced George Bancroft, a successor to Abel Upshur as Secretary of the Navy, that it was time to stop recruiting a naval force from the ranks of problem children (or neurotic officers). A new, land-based, properly supervised establishment was needed, only the best candidates to be accepted. This decision has never been regretted.

Otherwise, misfortune seems to have befallen many of those involved. Three days after Mackenzie’s acquittal, Richard Leecock, Passed Surgeon of the Somers , shot himself. He had been the most reluctant of all the officers to pass sentence on the prisoners; subsequent testimony evidently preyed on his conscience.

Gansevoort reputedly took to drink. He is said to have told a cousin years later that when he reported to Mackenzie that the officers had been unable to reach a verdict, the Captain had replied that “it was evident that the young men had wholly misapprehended the nature of the evidence, if they had not also misapprehended the aggravated character of the offense” and that there would be no security for the lives of the officers nor protection to commerce if an example was not made in a case so flagrant as this. “It was my duty,” he urged, “to impress these views on the court. I returned, and did, by impressing these considerations, obtain a reluctant conviction of the accused.” Mackenzie swept all before him. After the gloomy burial of the conspirators, he closed his prayer book with unclouded confidence and later wrote: “I could not but humbly hope that divine sanction would not be wanting to the deed of that day.” His wish appears to have been denied him. He died six years later, in no disgrace, but dogged to the grave by ugly rumors.

What of the Somers ? The bad deed gave her a bad name; those who could, avoided her like the plague. Legend has it that ghosts gibbered nightly in her shrouds. Sleek and fast, but untrustworthy, poorly designed, and dangerously top-heavy, she came to a perhaps well-deserved end. One stormy night in December, 1846—four years and six days after the hangings—she rolled over and sank with nearly half her unlucky crew on board.

“It was not a mutiny The old fraternity tie

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