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Panic Rides The High Seas
A hysterical captain thought he detected mutiny. After a hasty court-martial, three men were hanged—one the son of the Secretary of War. Then the uproar began
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Shortly after noon, on December 1, 1842, three hooded, manacled figures were hoisted to the main yardarm of the U.S. brig-of-war Somers . the captain, as was his wont in such an emergency, delivered a pious homily to the remaining 117 men and boys, many of whom were weeping. The Stars and Stripes was raised. Then the crew gave three cheers for the American flag and were piped down to dinner, leaving the bodies of Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell, Seaman Elisha Small, and Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer—the son of the Secretary of War —to swing in the rising wind.
After dinner, under the personal direction of the captain, always a stickler for form, the three bodies were elaborately prepared for burial; at dusk they were ceremoniously lowered into the sea. Thus ended the only recorded mutiny in the United States Navy—if mutiny it was.
Fifteen days later the Somers dropped anchor in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, still carrying eleven prisoners. The story was soon common gossip in New York City, whereupon the captain of the ship, Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, U.S.N., was wildly acclaimed as a hero. Horace Greeley led the applause. “By the prompt and fearless decision of Captain Mackenzie,” he wrote in his New York Tribune , “one of the most bold and daring conspiracies ever formed was frustrated and crushed.”
In his initial report on the trouble to Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur, Mackenzie described conditions aboard the Somers as approaching a state of imminent peril: A plot to seize control of the ship, head her into the Isle of Pines off the coast of Cuba, and turn pirate had been foiled. Philip Spencer was the ringleader; Cromwell and Small his loyal cohorts. Those crew members who wanted to join forces with the mutineers were to have been retained; the rest, including all the officers, were to have been murdered. Only prompt and severe measures by Mackenzie had saved the ship.
The plot had been uncovered on the night of November 25 by (he purser’s steward, James W. Wales, whom Spencer approached to join the conspiracy. Next morning Wales told the purser, who in turn reported to the brig’s lieutenant, Guert Gansevoort. Gansevoort rushed to the Captain with the story. Mackenzie at first ridiculed the possibility of a mutiny, but on second thought he took a graver view. As a precaution, Spencer was put in irons on deck and forbidden to communicate with the crew.
A list written in the Greek alphabet was found in Spencer’s locker, which when translated named those crew members who were surely in the plot; those who might collaborate; and those who would have to be held against their will. Another piece of paper contained the specific assignments of the plotters at the moment of the mutiny. Small was mentioned twice on the lists, Cromwell not at all. Nonetheless, both men were confined on November 27. Tension mounted. The officers stood round-the-clock armed patrol. The crew went sullenly and anxiously about their business.
“During the night [of Tuesday the 29th] seditious words were heard throughout the vessel,” Mackenzie wrote later. “Various intelligence was obtained from time to time of conferences … Several times during the night, there were symptoms of an intention to strike some blow.” (At no point, however, were these words or actions ever specified.)
Further doubts had assailed the Captain: What if other mutineers were at large? Four more of the crew were taken into custody the next morning. By Wednesday several officers had concluded that seven prisoners on deck would impede the operation of the ship—an opinion which forced decision on what to do with the original three.
At this juncture Mackenzie formally asked his officers for their joint counsel, after taking “into deliberate and dispassionate consideration the present condition of the vessel …” The officers formed themselves into a court of inquiry which lasted into the following day. At length, prodded by Mackenzie, they announced that they had come to a cool, decided and unanimous opinion that they Spencer, Cromwell, and Small] have been guilty of a full and determined intention to commit a mutiny on board of this vessel of an atrocious nature and that the revelation of circumstances having made it necessary to confine’ others with them … we are convinced the safety of the public property, the lives of ourselves and of those committed to our charges require that … they should be put to death, in a manner best calculated … to make a beneficial impression upon the disaffected.
No time was lost in reflection; the sentence was executed within two hours.
Mackenzie certainly believed his command and his crew to be in danger. And had Philip Spencer not been the son of John Canfield Spencer, then President Tyler’s Secretary of War, Mackenzie’s story might well have gone unchallenged. But on December 21, a letter in the New York Tribune (later attributed to the elder Spencer) pointed out that by Mackenzie’s own report, “the men were hanged when everything and person were perfectly quiet after four days of perfect security.” No mutinous act had occurred in that interlude.