Alexander Slidell Mackenzie

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Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (1803–1849), born Alexander Slidell, was a U.S. naval officer most famous for his 1842 decision to execute three suspected mutineers aboard a ship under his command, the USS Somers. Mackenzie was also an accomplished man of letters, producing several volumes of travel writing and biographies of early important U.S. naval figures, some of whom he knew personally. Mackenzie was the brother of U.S. Senator John Slidell of Louisiana, who was later involved in the American Civil War's "Trent Affair."

Mackenzie was captain of the USS Somers when it became the only U.S. Navy ship to undergo a mutiny which led to executions, including Philip Spencer, the nineteen-year-old son of the Secretary of War John C. Spencer. Mackenzie's handling of the Somers Affair, including its lack of a lawful court martial, was controversial; the incident was described at length in Vina Delmar's novel The Big Family. It also inspired the novella Billy Budd by American author Herman Melville. The Somers Affair also led to the founding of the United States Naval Academy.[1]

Family[edit]

Mackenzie (then Slidell) was born April 6, 1803, in New York City, to Margery [also spelled Marjorie] (Mackenzie) and John Slidell.[2] Alexander was one of a large family of children. His older siblings included Thomas Slidell (later chief justice of Louisiana's state supreme court),[3] John Slidell (later US Senator from Louisiana), and Jane Slidell (later the wife of Commodore Matthew C. Perry). Jane's marriage to M.C. Perry was to have a particularly profound influence on her younger brother's life, bringing him into close contact with one of the nation's leading naval families, which included Matthew's heroic older brother, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, and members of Commodore John Rodgers' family,[4] with whom the Perrys intermarried.

In 1837-8, Alexander Slidell petitioned the New York State legislature and obtained the right to change his name to Mackenzie, reputedly as a condition of claiming the inheritance of a maternal uncle.[2]

Mackenzie was the father of General Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, who, after a successful Civil War career, commanded the 4th Cavalry Regiment (United States)[1], securing the line of settlement in Texas and throughout the West. Ranald Mackenzie was arguably the best Indian fighter of the American West. Another son was Lt. Commander Alexander Slidell MacKenzie.

Naval service[edit]

Mackenzie entered the U.S. Navy as a midshipman in 1815. A contemporary of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a personal friend of Washington Irving, he published a number of books, including A Year in Spain, Life of John Paul Jones, Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur and Life of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (his late brother-in-law).

USS Somers was launched by the New York Navy Yard on April 16, 1842, and was commissioned on 12 May 1842, with Mackenzie in command. After completing a shakedown cruise Puerto Rico and back, the new brig sailed out of New York harbor on September 13, 1842 with orders to head for the Atlantic coast of Africa with dispatches for frigate Vandalia. Somers was also acting as an experimental schoolship for naval apprentices on this voyage; the Somers crew was mostly inexperienced sailors and seamen.

After looking for Vandalia at Madeira, Tenerife, and Porto Praia, Somers arrived at Monrovia, Liberia, on November 10 only to discover that the frigate had already sailed for home. The next day, Mackenzie set sail for the Virgin Islands hoping to meet up with Vandalia at St. Thomas before the return journey back to New York.

USS Somers Mutiny[edit]

On the passage to the West Indies, some of the Somers officers noticed a steady worsening of morale among the crew. On November 26, 1842, Mackenzie arrested Midshipman Philip Spencer, the son of Secretary of War John Canfield Spencer, for inciting mutiny.[5] The other two young sailors arrested with Spencer were Elisha Small and Samuel Cromwell.

A council of officers - not a court martial - concluded the three sailors were guilty and recommended their immediate execution. This took place at sea on December 1, 1842. Only thirteen days later, Somers arrived in New York, where a naval court of inquiry was immediately ordered to investigate the affair.

Although Mackenzie was completely exonerated at the court of inquiry and at a subsequent court martial (by a split vote), the controversial incident (known as the "Somers Affair") colored the remainder of his life. It was customary at the time to commend officers cleared at a court martial, but Mackenzie's court martial made very clear it was not commending him. The entire affair resulted in a great sensation, and Mackenzie's conduct was as severely criticized by some as it was ardently defended by his supporters.

Naval historian and author[edit]

Mackenzie was also an accomplished author and naval historian. While his tours of duty in the navy were broadening, he also used several extended leaves to travel in Europe, where he mingled with other literary Americans including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and fellow New Yorker Washington Irving, a lifelong friend. Mackenzie's first work, A Year in Spain, by a Young American(1829), made him known in America as well as in England. Other works followed: Popular Essays on Naval Subjects (1833), The American in England (1835), Spain Revisited (1836), Life of John Paul Jones (1841), Life of Commodore Oliver H. Perry (1841), and Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur (1846). Mackenzie's interpretations of recent naval history and his role in the Somers affair made him the subject of spirited attacks from James Fenimore Cooper.

Mackenzie also wrote a manuscript, A Journal of a Tour in Ireland, The Case of the 'Seiners'; "Defence of A. S. Mackenzie", 1843.

Published works[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Lehman, John (August 8, 2010). "Review of William Leeman's Naval Academy history, The Long Road to Annapolis". Washington Post. p. B6. Retrieved 2010-08-08. In 1842, midshipman Philip Spencer, who happened to be the son of the secretary of war, was hanged aboard the training brig Somers by his captain on suspicion of conspiracy to mutiny. In 1845, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft seized on the Somers affair as a reason finally to establish a naval academy at Annapolis. 
  2. ^ a b McFarland, Philip S. "Mackenzie, Alexander Slidell". American National Biography Online. Retrieved 30 August 2014. 
  3. ^ "Celebrating 200 Years: The Louisiana Supreme Court, 1813-2013". The Louisiana Supreme Court. Retrieved 30 August 2014. 
  4. ^ Emery, George W. "Vice Admiral, USN (retired)". The Rodgers Family Collection at the Navy Department Library. Retrieved 30 August 2014. 
  5. ^ "Somers". Naval History & Heritage Command, Department of the Navy. Archived from the original on 8 June 2011. Retrieved 3 June 2011. 
  • McFarland, Philip Sea Dangers: The Affair of the Somers (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 308p., illus. ISBN 0-8052-3990-1

Primary sources[edit]

  • Cooper, James Fenimore (1844). Proceedings of the naval court martial in the case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie.
    H. G. Langley, New York. p. 344.
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