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Mutiny on the high seas

The USS Somers (Records of the Bureau of Ships)

The USS Somers with men hanging at the aft. (19-N-11508)

In the history of the United States Navy, no formal mutiny on the high seas has ever occurred, though one was narrowly averted on the storied decks of the USS Somers in 1842.

Without a Naval academy to train future Naval officers, the USS Somers set out in 1842 with a crew of seaman in training, on orders from Commodore Perry to deliver dispatches to another ship off the coast of Africa.  After delivering the letters, whispers of mutiny reached the ears of Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie and Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort the only two commissioned line officers aboard.

It was thought that Midshipmen Philip Spencer was plotting to seize the helm and turn the Somers into a pirate ship, a rumor that was validated when a list of crew members who would support an insurrection was found in Spencer’s room, along with a drawing of the ship flying a pirate’s flag.

Spencer and two others were tried on the ship’s decks, found guilty, and hanged.

The story of mutiny may have faded into the annals of Naval history, but Spencer was the son of the Secretary of War and, though exonerated by the courts, Mackenzie was criticized for carrying out the hanging when he was only a few days from land, and less than two weeks from his final port of call, New York.

The USS Somers went on to be commanded by another man, famed Confederate Raphael Semmes, before it went down in a squall during the Mexican-American war, killing almost all of its crew.

If the near mutiny on the Somers sounds somewhat familiar, it may be that you’ve heard it before:  Gansevoort’s first cousin was Herman Melville.  It’s speculated that Melville drew many of his characters and plot lines from the stories told by Gansevoort.

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Comments

Comment from Craig L. Martin
Time June 2, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Thank you Mr. Crotty for telling this story. This was lost to American history? I just wonder if there is an account of it in period newspapers? There must be.

I’ll look for any mention in the many stampless letters that pass through my hands, Many, many such letters survive from this period. And, it would great to look at some period newspapers for accounts. (Yes, they are available in “Pay-per- View” databases.)

If a son of say, Robert Gates, happened to be in the Navy and was caught planning a mutiny, do you think he would be shot at the captain’s orders? Times sure have changed.

Craig L. Martin

rcrotty Reply:

I’m glad you enjoyed the post! If you’re interested in further reading, you may find some primary sources here at the National Archives. One primary source which is available online is the court martial hearing of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (URL also pasted below).

There have been many books written on the account, of which “Sea Dangers” and “A Hanging Offence” stand out (listed below) if you’re interested in reading more.

“Case of the Somer’s Mutiny, Defence of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie before the Court Martial Held at the Navy Yard, Brooklyn.” New York: Tribune Office, 1843. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=zT0uAAAAYAAJ&dq=only%20mutiny%20in%20US%20somers&pg=PA3#v=onepage&q&f=false

McFarland, Phillip. “Sea Dangers: The Affair of the Somers.” Michigan: Shocken Books, 1985.

Melton, Buckner Jr. “A Hanging Offence: The Strange Affair of the Warship Somers.” New York: The Free Press, 2003.