USS Somers (1842)
|Laid down:||16 April 1842|
|Launched:||12 May 1842|
|Fate:||Sank, 8 December 1846|
|Displacement:||259 long tons (263 t)|
|Length:||100 ft (30 m)|
|Beam:||25 ft (7.6 m)|
|Draft:||14 ft (4.3 m)|
|Complement:||13 officers and 180 men|
|Armament:||10 × 32 pdr (15 kg) carronades|
After a shakedown cruise in June–July to the Spanish colony of 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"
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.
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 not inclined to take the matter seriously, but instructed Lt. Gansevoort to watch Spencer and the crew for evidence of confirmation. Lt. 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: What is left out of possible reasons for Philip Spencer's so called secret meetings with sailors and the Greek symbols in his journal is the fact that Philip Spencer was a founding member of the Chi Psi Fraternity at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., in May, 1841. Spencer could have been trying to introduce sailors to a fraternal Navy group. He was also interested in pirates and buccaneers and may have used the pirates democratic model for a sailor's "fraternity". He was insufficiently trained and foolishly unaware of the Captain's authority. Lt. Gansevoort was a cousin of Herman Melville who heard about the Somers Affair from him and turned it into his famous novella Billy Budd which takes place on a British Frigate with a far different character than Philip Spencer.
- "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.
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.
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, Passed 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.
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
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.
Somers was in the Gulf of Mexico off Vera Cruz at the opening of the Mexican-American War in the spring of 1846; and, except for runs to Pensacola, Florida, for logistics, remained in that area on blockade duty until the 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.
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. On 3 March 1847, Congress authorized gold and silver medals to the officers and men of French, British, and Spanish ships-of-war who aided in the rescue.
Legacy and wreck
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 Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie, while she prepares to give a lecture at the United States Naval Academy, which came into existence as a result of the Somers Affair. The regular cast portrayed the people involved. Trevor Goddard played the role of 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 which was founded as a direct result of the affair. 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.
- Baldwin, Hanson W. Sea Fights and Shipwrecks Hanover House 1956
- Sliffer, H. Seger (1951). The Chi Psi Story. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Chi Psi Fraternity. pp. 73–79.
- Dolin, Kieran (1994). "Sanctioned irregularities : martial law in Billy Budd, Sailor". Law Text Culture. Wollongong, Australia: University of Wollongong. 1 (1): 129–137.
- 29th Congress, 9 Stat. 208
- 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."
- McFarland, Philip Sea Dangers: The Affair of the Somers (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 308p., illust. ISBN 0-8052-3990-1
- Melton, Buckner (1 April 2003). A Hanging Offense: The Strange Affair of the Warship Somers. Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-3283-6.
- Sherman, William Thomas: A Proposed Solution to the Somers Mutiny Tragedy
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to USS Somers (1842).|
- history.navy.mil: USS Somers
- National Park Service: Wreck exploration
- CASE of the Somers' MUTINY. DEFENCE of ALEXANDER SLIDELL MACKENZIE, COMMANDER OF THE U.S. RIG Somers, BEFORE THE COURT MARTIAL HELD AT THE NAVY YARD, BROOKLYN, NEW YORK: TRIBUNE OFFICE, 160 NASSAU STREET, 1843.
- Records of the United States Naval Academy [USNA] - In National Archives