USS Somers (1842)

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Colored sketch
USS Somers
Career (United States) United States Navy Jack
Name: USS Somers
Laid down: 16 April 1842
Launched: 12 May 1842
Fate: Sank, 8 December 1846
General characteristics
Displacement: 259 long tons (263 t)
Length: 100 ft (30 m)
Beam: 25 ft (7.6 m)
Draft: 14 ft (4.3 m)
Propulsion: Sail
Complement: 13 officers and 180 men[1]
Armament: 10 × 32 pdr (15 kg) carronades

The second USS Somers was a brig in the United States Navy during the John Tyler administration, infamous for being the only U.S. Navy ship to undergo a mutiny which led to executions.

Somers was launched by the New York Navy Yard on 16 April 1842 and commissioned on 12 May 1842, with Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie in command.

Initial cruise[edit]

After a shakedown cruise in June–July to Puerto Rico and back, the new brig sailed out of New York harbor on 13 September 1842 bound for the Atlantic coast of Africa with dispatches for frigate Vandalia. On this voyage, Somers was acting as an experimental schoolship for naval apprentices.

After calls at Madeira, Tenerife, and Praia, looking for Vandalia, Somers arrived at Monrovia, Liberia on 10 November and learned that the frigate had already sailed for home. The next day, Cdr. Mackenzie headed for the Virgin Islands hoping to meet Vandalia at St. Thomas before returning to New York.

The "Somers Affair"[edit]

This Lithograph, published circa 1843, shows the mutineers hanging under the US flag.

On 25 November 1842, during the passage to the West Indies, Midshipman Philip Spencer, the son of Secretary of War John C. Spencer, 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. Seaman Elisha Small was involved in the conversation, and Wales was threatened with death if he revealed Spencer's plan.[1]

On 26 November, 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:[1]

"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
"Wheel: McKee
"Cabin: Spencer, Small, Wilson
"Wardroom: Spencer
"Steerage: Spencer, Small, Wilson
"Arm Chest: McKinley"

A mast failed and damaged some sail rigging on 27 November. The timing and circumstances were regarded as suspicious; and Cromwell, the largest man on the crew, was questioned 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.[1]

On 28 November wardroom steward Henry Waltham was flogged for having stolen brandy for Spencer; and, after the flogging, Captain Mackenzie informed the crew of a plot by Spencer to have them murdered. Waltham was flogged again on 29 November 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.[1]

Four more men were put in irons on the morning of 30 November: Wilson, McKinley, Green, and Cromwell's friend, Alexander McKie. Captain Mackenzie then addressed a letter to his four wardroom officers (First Lieutenant 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. The seven convened in the wardroom to interview members of the crew.[1]

On 1 December, 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;" and they recommended that the three be put to death, despite Spencer's claim that the accused conspirators "had been pretending piracy". The plotters were hanged that day and buried at sea. 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 5 December and returned to New York on 14 December. She remained there during a naval court of inquiry which investigated the alleged mutiny and subsequent executions. The court exonerated Mackenzie, as did a subsequent court-martial, held at his request to avoid a trial in civil court. Nevertheless, the general populace remained skeptical.

In the Home Squadron[edit]

On 20 March 1843, Lt. John West assumed command of Somers, and the brig was assigned to the Home Squadron. For the next few years, she served along the Atlantic coast and in the West Indies.

Mexican-American War[edit]

Somers was in the Gulf of Mexico off Vera Cruz at the opening of the Mexican-American War in the spring of 1846; and, but for runs to Pensacola, Florida, for logistics, she remained in that area on blockade duty until winter. On the evening of 26 November, the brig, commanded by Lt. Raphael Semmes (later the celebrated commanding officer of the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama), was blockading Vera Cruz when Mexican schooner Criolla slipped into that port. Somers launched a boat party which boarded and captured the schooner. However, a calm wind prevented the Americans from getting their prize out to sea so they set fire to the vessel and returned through gunfire from the shore to Somers, bringing back seven prisoners. Unfortunately, Criolla proved to be a US spy ship operating for Commodore David Conner.

Loss of USS Somers off Vera Cruz

On 8 December 1846, while chasing a blockade runner off Vera Cruz, Somers capsized and foundered in a sudden squall. 32 crew members died from drowning and seven were rescued, including Semmes.

Legacy and wreck[edit]

Herman Melville – whose first cousin, Lt. Guert Gansevoort, was an officer aboard the brig at the time of the Somers Affair – may have been influenced by the notorious events involving the Somers mutineers. Melville may have used elements of the story in his novella Billy Budd.

The incident is detailed in the novel Voyage to the First of December by Henry Carlisle, written from the viewpoint of the Naval surgeon on duty (from his old journals).

The story of the Somers Affair and the subsequent trial is dramatized in the penultimate episode of the sixth season of the television series JAG. The presentation takes place as a dream by LtCol. Sarah MacKenzie, USMC, while she prepares to give a lecture at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, which came into existence as a result of the Somers Affair.[2] The regular cast portrayed the people involved. Trevor Goddard played the role of Cdr. Mackenzie, and Catherine Bell (in a play on the identical surname of her usual role in JAG) played Mrs. Mackenzie.

In 1986 an expedition, led by George Belcher, an art dealer and explorer from San Francisco, California, discovered the wreck, and in 1987 archaeologists James Delgado and Mitchell Marken confirmed the identification of the wreck. In 1990 Delgado, along with Pilar Luna Erreguerena, co-directed a joint Mexican-US expedition, which involved archaeologists and divers from the US National Park Service, the Armada de Mexico, and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. The project determined that unknown people had looted the wreck sometime after the 1987 expedition. The wreck remains as a site protected by legislation.

The most notable legacy of the Somers Affair is the US Naval Academy, founded as a direct result of it. Appalled that a midshipman would consider mutiny, senior Naval officials ordered the creation of the academy so that midshipmen could receive a formal and supervised education in Naval seamanship and related matters.

References[edit]

This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

  1. ^ a b c d e f Baldwin, Hanson W. Sea Fights and Shipwrecks Hanover House 1956
  2. ^ Lehman, John (8 August 2010). "Review of William Leeman's Naval Academy history, The Long Road to Annapolis". Washington Post: p. B6. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/06/AR2010080602819.html. 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."

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]