"Somers Affair" Ends with Hanging of Three Mutineers

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"Somers Affair" Ends with Hanging of Three Mutineers

USS Somers, American brig sketched by crewman of USS Columbus
Author unknown, date ca. 1842-1846
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: December 1, 1842

Today's excursion into military history involves one of the few recorded mutinies in the history of the U.S. Navy (notwithstanding the 1954 movie "The Cain Mutiny"). It had far-reaching effects, especially for the U.S. Navy.

Background: the USS Somers

The USS Somers was a fast brig, launched earlier in 1842. It was named for Master Commandant Richard Somers, who was killed in the harbor of Tripoli during the First Barbary War in 1804. [His remains still lie buried under a parking lot near Martyrs Square in Tripoli, Libya.]

Bust of Richard Somers at monument in Somers, NY (Photograph courtesy of http://remembertheintrepid.blogspot.com)
Bust of Richard Somers at monument in Somers, NY
(Photograph courtesy of http://remembertheintrepid.blogspot.com)

The Somers was the second U.S. Navy vessel named for the American hero. After a shake-down cruise, its maiden voyage was to take dispatches to an American frigate cruising the western coast of Africa, seeking to suppress the slave trade. It was also acting as an experimental school for naval apprentices. Its crew complement totaled 120 men. After arriving at its destination, it was learned the other ship had already begun its homeward journey. The Somers' captain, Commander Alexander Mackenzie, was a 27-year veteran of the naval service. He ordered his vessel to set course for St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, hoping to intercept the American frigate before going on to New York.

The Somers Affair

On November 25, 1842, during the passage to the West Indies, Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer (aged 17 and the ne'er-do-well son of the Secretary of War) allegedly told Purser's Steward J.W. Wales of a planned mutiny by approximately 20 of Somers crew, who intended to use the ship for piracy from the Isle of Pines – which is south of Cuba in the western Gulf of Mexico. Seaman Elisha Small was involved in the conversation, and Wales was threatened with death if he revealed Spencer's plan.

On November 26, Wales notified Captain Mackenzie of the plan through his chain of command via Purser H.M. Heiskill and First Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort. Captain Mackenzie was disinclined to take the matter seriously, but instructed Gansevoort to watch Spencer and the crew for evidence of confirmation. Gansevoort learned from other members of the crew that Spencer had been observed in secret nightly conferences with Seaman Small and Boatswain's Mate Samuel Cromwell. Captain Mackenzie confronted Spencer with Wales' allegation that evening. Spencer replied that he told Wales the story as a joke. Spencer was arrested and put in irons on the quarterdeck. Papers written in Greek were discovered in a search of Spencer's locker and translated by Midshipman Henry Rodgers. It listed all the regular crewmembers of the vessel, apparently indicating who would likely join the mutiny, who might be persuaded, and who was "nolens volens" (essentially wishy-washy):

"CERTAIN: P. Spencer, E. Andrews, D. McKinley, Wales

DOUBTFUL: Wilson (X), McKee (X), Warner, Green, Gedney, Van Veltzor, Sullivan, Godfrey, Gallia (X), Howard (X)

Those doubtful marked (X) will probably be induced to join before the project is carried into execution. The remainder of the doubtful will probably join when the thing is done, if not, they must be forced. If any not marked down wish to join after the thing is done we will pick out the best and dispose of the rest.

NOLENS VOLENS: Sibley, Van Brunt, Blackwell, Clarke, Corney, Garratrantz, Strummond, Witmore, Waltham, Nevilles, Dickinson, Riley, Scott, Crawley, Rodman, Selsor, The Doctor"

On the reverse side of this sheet of paper were the projected duty assignments for the mutineers: "Wheel: McKee; Cabin: Spencer, Small, Wilson; Wardroom: Spencer; Steerage: Spencer, Small, Wilson; Arms Chest: McKinley";

The next day a mast failed and damaged some sail rigging. The timing and circumstances were regarded as suspicious; and Cromwell, the largest man on the crew, was confronted by Mackenzie about his alleged meetings with Spencer. Cromwell said: ";It was not me, sir – it was Small."; Small was questioned and admitted meeting with Spencer. Both Cromwell and Small joined Spencer in irons on the quarterdeck.

On November 28 Wardroom Steward Henry Waltham was flogged for having stolen brandy for Spencer; and, after the flogging, Waltham was flogged again on November 29 for suggesting theft of three bottles of wine to one of the apprentices. Sailmaker's Mate Charles A. Wilson was detected attempting to obtain a weapon on that afternoon, and Landsman McKinley and Apprentice Green missed muster when their watch was called at midnight. Four more men were put in irons on the morning of November 30: Wilson, McKinley, Green, and Cromwell's friend, Alexander McKie.

On November 29, Captain Mackenzie made a fateful decision. He knew that he did not have enough officers to enforce discipline on over 100 regular seamen and recruits. He informed the crew of a plot by Spencer to have them murdered and turn the Somers into a pirate ship. Mackenzie then addressed a letter to his four wardroom officers (First Lt. Gansevoort, Past Assistant Surgeon L.W. Leecock, Purser Heiskill, and Acting Master M.C. Perry) and three oldest midshipmen (Henry Rodgers, Egbert Thompson, and Charles W. Hayes), asking their opinion as to the best course of action. Over the next day-and-a-half the seven convened in the wardroom to interview members of the crew.

'Somers, starboard side, under sail, 1842' Showing 2 of the three mutineers still hanging, author and date unknown (Image courtesy of Wikipedia and the National Archives and Records Administration)
"Somers, starboard side, under sail, 1842"
Showing 2 of the three mutineers still hanging, author and date unknown
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia and the National Archives and Records Administration)

On December 1, the officers reported that they had ";come to a cool, decided, and unanimous opinion"; that Spencer, Cromwell and Small were ";guilty of a full and determined intention to commit a mutiny."; They recommended that the three be put to death, despite Spencer's claim that the accused conspirators ";had been pretending piracy,"; essentially daydreaming. The crew was informed of the impromptu board's decision. At 2:15 p.m. that day, plotters were hanged; their bodies were finally taken down at 3:30, and buried at sea that evening at 6:30 p.m. Some have noted that the captain could have waited since there were only thirteen days to home port. In response, the captain noted the fatigue of his officers, the smallness of the vessel and the inadequacies of the confinement.


Somers reached St. Thomas on December 5 and returned to New York on December 14. During the voyage home, another 12 members of the Somers crew were placed in irons. She remained there during a naval court of inquiry – convened on December 28, 1842 – which investigated the alleged mutiny and subsequent executions. The court exonerated Mackenzie on January 20, 1843.

During the court of inquiry, Commander Mackenzie received word that relatives of the hanged men were seeking civil indictments against him. As a result, Mackenzie requested a formal court-martial, to avoid a trial in civil court and the possibility of "double jeopardy." He was formally charged on January 23 with murder, oppression, illegal punishment, conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman (for taunting Spencer before his execution), and cruelty and oppression of the brig's company. The court met from January 28 through March 31, 1843. During the trial, Commander Mackenzie submitted written statements to the court, but he did not testify, for to give testimony would have exposed him to cross-examination. Even so, he did confront and examine the witnesses. The testimony of the witnesses was too rehearsed for some of the trial's observers. [Unfortunately, there are no written records of the court proceedings, although the New York Herald published daily transcripts of the trial.]

The court concluded that the first three charges were not proven, and that the prosecuting Judge Advocate had waived or abandoned the fourth and fifth charges. The court's votes were nine to acquit and three to convict on the charge of murder; eight to acquit and four to convict on the charge of oppression; and all twelve to acquit on the final charge of illegal punishment. The court could have acquitted him ";with honor,"; but it did not. Even after the verdict, the general public remained skeptical of the whole event.

Drawing of the foundered USS Somers off Veracruz, Mexico, December 8, 1846, author unknown; From the Illustrated London News of January 23, 1847
Drawing of the foundered USS Somers off Veracruz, Mexico, December 8, 1846, author unknown
From the Illustrated London News of January 23, 1847

Footnote #1: After the whole affair, the Somers was regarded by many superstitious sailors as a cursed ship. In December, 1846 while chasing a blockade runner near the Mexican harbor of Veracruz, the Somers capsized in a squall and sank; 32 crewmen drowned and 7 were rescued, including its captain Raphael Semmes.

Footnote #2: Fifteen years after the foundering of the Somers, Raphael Semmes would join the navy of the Confederate States of America. He would become commander of the British-built commerce raider Alabama, commanding it when it was sunk in 1864 by the USS Kearsarge.

Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, CSN (1809-1877) (Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command, www.history.navy.mil)
Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, CSN (1809-1877)
(Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command, www.history.navy.mil)

Footnote #3: A more long-term result of the "Somers Affair" would be the founding of a school for the proper education of young men seeking a career in the U.S. Navy. This institution was founded at Annapolis, Maryland and opened in October 10, 1845 as the U.S. Naval Academy.

Footnote #4: There is evidence that Herman Melville – author of "Moby-Dick" – modeled his novella "Billy Budd" after the events of the Somers Affair. He was the first cousin of the brig's First Lt. Guert Gansevoort.

Dust jacket cover of novel 'Billy Budd,' 1946; Image in the digital archive of the New York Public Library
Dust jacket cover of novel "Billy Budd," 1946
Image in the digital archive of the New York Public Library

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