USS Somers - Mutiny or Murder? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

USS Somers - Mutiny or Murder?

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A wall of bamboo

In the closing months of 1842, the United States brig1Somers left the port of New York crammed with 120 young men bound for the slave coast of Africa2. The two-fold mission was to deliver dispatches to the sloop of war3Vandalia, and to teach the new apprentices about seamanship and the customs of the navy.


The Brig

A 'Bainbridge'-class brig of 259 tons displacement, the Somers carried ten 32-pounder carronades4. She was launched on 16 April, 1842, and commissioned on 12 May of the same year.

She was named after Lieutenant Richard Somers, who had served in the war against the Barbary Pirates - a group of countries along the western end of the African coast, along the Mediterranean Sea. For centuries, the pirates had demanded money from any weak nation to allow trade. When the young United States replied with the slogan 'a million for defence but not a penny in tribute', a series of wars followed.

In September, 1804, Lieutenant Somers was given charge of the Intrepid, a bomb ketch5 that had been filled with explosives and was to be sailed into the harbour at Tripoli and set to explode in the centre of the enemy fleet after the crew had abandoned her. Unfortunately, the Intrepid exploded before she could reach her intended position, killing Somers and his entire crew.

With a length of 100 feet between perpendiculars6, and a maximum width of 25 feet, the Somers did not leave much space for privacy. Her sails were carried on two masts - a foremast mounted near the front and a taller main mast mounted a bit behind the centre of the hull. Both of these masts carried several square sails. A bowsprit thrust from her bow supporting an array of jibs and stay sails7.

The Navy

The United States navy in the 1840s was divided into squadrons. Unlike the large fleets of ships of the line8 that were the standard of the major navies of the time, the US had squadrons with possibly one ship of the line and one to three frigates9. The squadron would have perhaps a dozen or so smaller war vessels, depending on the nature of the threat and the available assets at the time. These small squadrons were stationed at various locations around the world looking out for the interests of their country. The Africa squadron was primarily charged with suppressing the slave trade, which had been outlawed by the US. The West Indies squadron spent much of its time capturing and suppressing piracy among the many islands and newly-formed republics.

The rules for conduct in the US navy were contained in the Articles for the Government of the United States Navy, unofficially referred to as 'Rocks and Shoals', from a passage about punishment for anyone who '...intentionally or willfully suffers any vessel of the Navy to be stranded, or run upon rocks and shoals, or improperly hazards or maliciously or willfully injures any vessel of the Navy...'.

The highest rank in the navy was that of Captain. Captains appointed to command a squadron were given the temporary title of Commodore. Once his tour of duty was completed, his rank was officially reduced back to that of Captain. The rank of Rear Admiral would not come into existence in the US until 1862.

The Captain

Born in New York City on 6 April, 1803, Alexander Slidell joined the Navy in 1815 as a midshipman. With sea-duty and advancement slow in the post-war navy, he accepted command of a merchant ship in 1822. By 1825 he was given permission to sit for his lieutenant exam and was promoted to that rank. He served in the Mediterranean Squadron, the West Indies Squadron, the Brazil Squadron, and also in the mid-Pacific, protecting the whaling fleet. He added his mother's maiden name (Mackenzie) to his own in 1837 at the request of her brother. In 1841 he was promoted to the rank of Commander.

A learned man, Mackenzie published several pamphlets and books on his adventures in foreign lands as well as sailing the oceans. His brother, John Slidell, was a Senator in the US Congress.

Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie was given command of the Somers and saw to her commissioning.

The First Officer

Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort, the grandson of a Revolutionary War hero, was the only other commissioned line officer10 on board the Somers. Born on 7 June, 1812, he was appointed as midshipman in 1823 and was commissioned as lieutenant in 1837.

The 'Mutineer'

Philip Spencer was born in 1820. During the years 1838 - 1841 he was enrolled as freshman at Geneva College where he was one of the founders of the Chi Psi fraternity. After three years of failing to advance in his studies, his father - Secretary of War John C Spencer - requested his dismissal. He entered Union College in Schenectady, NY for the spring session of 1841 but, by November of that year, he was appointed midshipman in the Navy.

By June he was on his way to the Brazil Squadron aboard the frigate John Adams. Shortly after his arrival in South America, Spencer was forced to resign his appointment on charges of dereliction of duty and drunkenness - at the time, it was common for captains to issue multiple charges as the 'articles' limited the punishment that could administered. Multiple offences meant multiple punishments.

The frigate Potomac entered Boston harbour on 31 July, 1842, carrying Spencer back from the coast of South America as a failure. Once more he was in disgrace. However, either through quick talking or political influence, he managed to be reinstated as a midshipman. On 13 August, 1842, Midshipman Spencer was assigned to the Somers, which had just returned from a shakedown cruise to the West Indies.

The Voyage

The Somers cleared New York harbour on 13 September, 1842, headed for the west coast of Africa. As the Somers was being used as an experimental school ship in hopes of recruitment, a large portion of her crew consisted of teenage apprentice volunteers.

After crossing the Atlantic, the Somers stopped at the ports of the Portuguese island of Madeira, Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and Puerto Pria in the Cape Verde Islands, inquiring at each about the whereabouts of the Vandalia. After almost two months at sea without success, the Somers reached Monrovia, Liberia on 10 November. After inquiring ashore, Mackenzie was told the Vandalia had already departed for home waters. Putting once again to sea, the Somers set off for the Danish port of St Thomas in the Virgin Islands in an attempt to catch the sloop before she returned to the USA. This island was located at the extreme north-east corner of the area patrolled by the West Indies Squadron.

On Saturday 26 November, Mackenzie received a most disturbing report from his first officer. Gansevoort said that the purser, HM Heiskell, told him that his steward Josiah Wales had been asked to join in a plot to seize the ship! Wales explained that he had pretended to go along with the idea to gain as much information as possible. Midshipman Spencer said he had a fancy to slip into the Caribbean and become a pirate. This could be accomplished merely by seizing the officers and loyal hands and throwing those who were not needed overboard while still far out at sea, and compelling the others to comply under threat and by force. While he was talking with Spencer, Wales reported that one of the seamen, Elisha Small, had approached them and was obviously familiar with the plan. Piracy was a real concern in the 19th Century and a fast brig like the Somers could pose a significant danger in the wrong hands.

With only ten officers - one of whom it had been said was disloyal - to control over a hundred men, Mackenzie dared not proceed too quickly. He asked Gansevoort to discreetly watch the activities of Spencer and report back to him later in the day. Among Spencer's activities had been the studying of Caribbean charts, including one for the Isle of Pines. This was a large island off the southern coast of west Cuba, an area far from the course of the Somers, that had been a known base for pirates. He had also inquired about the accuracy of the ship's chronometer - accurate time was considered vital to determine how far east or west the vessel was from the Prime Meridian, which passed through Greenwich, England.

Satisfied that there was reasonable proof of Wales's accusations, Mackenzie went on deck and confronted Spencer, telling him that he had heard that Spencer wished to take command of the Somers. After an initial denial, Mackenzie told the midshipman about Wales's report. Spencer then tried to pass it all off as a joke. The captain was not amused and ordered Spencer to be chained hand and foot. He was placed in a corner of the quarterdeck, where he would be isolated from most of the crew, and where the officer of the deck could keep him under constant observation.

After Spencer's arrest, Mackenzie ordered that his personal effects be searched for evidence. A paper written in Greek characters was found, which listed the names of four persons as 'certain' including Spencer and the informant Wales. Another four men were marked as expected to join after the plan was put into effect, with another six names listed as doubtful. Under the Articles, anyone who had heard about the slightest hint of mutiny was eligible for a death sentence if he did not do '... his utmost to suppress it...'. Another 18 names were listed to be kept, whether or not they chose to join willingly. One of the four 'certain' conspirators did not match the name of anyone aboard the brig.

The following evening, Sunday 27th, after having the crew set sail again, Mackenzie ordered the arrest of boatswain's mate Samuel Cromwell and seaman Elisha Small and they were placed with Spencer and bound in the same way. With three men confined on the tiny quarterdeck, the officers began to get nervous any time the handling of the vessel required a group of sailors to enter the area near the prisoners. On at least one occasion an officer pulled his pistol on such a group, until one of the midshipmen intervened and explained that they were acting under his orders.

On Tuesday November 29, 1842, the crew was mustered at their inspection stations at 9am. At that time, sailmaker's mate Charles A Wilson, landsman Daniel McKenly, and apprentices Benjamin Green and Alexander McKee were all put into double irons and placed on the quarterdeck with the others.

Mackenzie ordered each of the petty officers to be armed with a single pistol and cutlass. All the officers, except the officer of the deck, were ordered to assemble in the wardroom to determine the guilt or innocence of Spencer, Cromwell and Small, and, if they were found guilty, give their recommendation about what should be done with them.

The ship's log indicates that the report stated '...they were decidedly Guilty, and that the safety of the vessel required that they be immediately put to death.' Mackenzie ordered three ropes to be rigged to the main yardarms - one to larboard (or port) and two side by side to starboard11.

On Thursday 1 December, 1842, at 1.45pm, the hands were called to witness punishment. Philip Spencer received the outboard noose on the starboard side, next to him was Elisha Small. Samuel Cromwell was placed on the line to larboard. Petty officers were stationed at various positions to make sure that the crew did their duty. At 2.15, a gun was fired to windward while the crew ran the three men up to the yardarms. The national flag was hoisted and, after a short speech, Mackenzie ordered the crew give three cheers, which they did loudly. Whether this was due to loyalty or fear we will never know. The hands were piped down to their dinner at 2.30.

The corpses remained at the yard until the watch was called at 3.30, when they were carefully lowered and given to their messmates to prepare for burial. Each man was sewn into their hammock, a round shot placed at their feet. At 6.30pm, every lantern aboard was lighted, the Captain solemnly read the burial service, and the three bodies were committed to the deep.

The Somers proceed to St Thomas, arriving on 5 December, 1842; the elusive Vadilia was not there. The Somers then sailed north to her home port of New York, arriving on 14 December, 1842. Mackenzie sent his clerk to Washington with his report on the whole affair. He then had the four remaining prisoners, and eight others that he suspected might have been involved, transferred to the ship of the line North Carolina for imprisonment.

The Aftermath

On 28 December, two weeks after their arrival, a court of inquiry was held on board the North Carolina to investigate if there had been anything improper or illegal in the execution of the prisoners. On 20 January, 1843, Mackenzie was fully exonerated by the court by a unanimous verdict. Although this finding protected Mackenzie from any further action from the military, he could still be brought up on charges for murder in a civilian court. Considering the influence of Spencer's family, Mackenzie requested, and was granted, a full court-martial on any possible charges that could be brought against him.

The court-martial lasted for almost two full months, with the Somers under the acting command of Lieutenant Gansevoort while the officers and crew were called to testify. After deliberation on the charges and testimony, the court handed down its findings on 31 March, 1843.

  • Murder - Not proven (9 votes to 3)
  • Oppression - Not proven (8 to 4)
  • Illegal punishment - Not proven (12 to 0)
  • Conduct unbecoming an officer - Dismissed (No vote)
  • Cruelty and oppression of crew - Dismissed (No vote)

Mutiny or Murder

Over 150 years after these events, the controversy remains.


Mackenzie was charged with the safety of his ship and crew, and, faced with mutiny, he was required to 'do his utmost to suppress it'. Had the plan succeeded, he would have been responsible, not only for the loss of his ship and those killed in its capture, but all the others killed and captured while Spencer played at being a pirate. Of course, he would have been dead by then.

After receiving Wales's report, Mackenzie could not ignore the threat or take Spencer's word that it was joke without being guilty of severe dereliction of duty. Even if there had not been an actual mutiny, his juniors could have asked for a court of inquiry where he would have had to defend himself. Any negative finding would have at least ended his career. After Spencer's arrest, the events took on a momentum of their own. The officers' recommendation, though not legally binding, buttresses his decision. Lastly, he was tried and acquitted.


There was no mutiny. Even if the plot was real, the leaders had all been subdued and could have been carried home for trial. Mackenzie had months to defend himself, was allowed to cross-examine his accusers, and he was judged by his peers. Spencer, Cromwell and Small were arrested, confined and executed without any trial. The evidence was judged by their superior officers with little or no chance to speak in their own defence. The fifth amendment to the US Constitution guarantees every citizen certain rights if accused of a crime; these were denied on the Somers.


  • The 12 prisoners who were suspected as conspirators were kept confined for a time and eventually all were released without any formal charges having been brought against them.

  • On 8 December, 1846, the Somers was serving in the Mexican War under the command of Raphael Semmes. She was struck by a squall while chasing a ship that was trying to run the blockade. She capsized and lost 32 of her crew to the sea, and another seven were captured by the enemy. Her wreck still lies on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico off the port of Vera Cruz.

  • Mackenzie was sent to Cuba by president Polk in the spring of 1846, and served as an artillery commander in the Mexican War before his death in 1848.

  • Gansevoort went on to a distinguished naval career commanding the John Adams in the Mexican War and the ironclad Roanoke during the American Civil War. Commodore Gansevoort retired in January 1867.

  • On 10 October, 1845, the United States Navy opened its officer school at Annapolis, Maryland to train young midshipmen in a formal academic setting. It is generally accepted that this was a direct result of the Somers incident.

  • In 1924, a novella was published from the unedited manuscript that Herman Melville had been working on at the time of his death. It is commonly accepted that the inspiration for the character Billy Budd came from his older cousin Guert Gansevoort's experience on board the Somers.

1A sailing vessel with two masts and all her guns on the top level, usually with between ten and 20 cannons.2The southern side of the bulge of west Africa, sometimes called the 'Gold Coast'.3A three-masted ship with a single deck of cannons, smaller than a frigate.4A short cannon that fires a round iron ball weighing 32 pounds.5A small ship in which the foremast is eliminated to make room for a pair of large mortars.6The vertical timbers at the front and back of the vessel, this is the approximate usable length and excludes overhanging structures and spars.7A bowsprit is a horizontal mast at the front of a ship. Jibs and stay sails are triangular sails on the centreline of the ship that hang from the ropes supporting the masts - the name depends on where they are located.8A large ship with two or more full gun decks carrying 60 to 100+ cannons, and considered capable of being in a line of battle in a major sea battle.9A three-masted ship with a full deck of cannons and more cannons mounted on the upper decks.10A line officer is someone who can assume command of the ship. Unlike Star Trek, a doctor or engineering officer would never take command, even if the job fell to enlisted personnel.11The left and right sides of the ship, respectively.

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