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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
This document set in motion a whole new line of inquiry. Many who had at first supported Mackenzie now reversed themselves and found the triple execution to be “a high-handed and unnecessary measure.” When the preliminary naval court of inquiry failed to censure the Captain, such a halloo arose for a grand jury investigation that the Navy, anxious to protect its own, rather reluctantly arranged a court-martial for Mackenzie. He was acquitted, but the story that unfolded there could scarcely evoke the same verdict from history. As the omissions, embellishments, contradictions, and downright lies were sifted, the Somers tragedy emerged as a tale of mass hypnotic terror; of craven weakness on the part of Captain Mackenzie; and of a pathetic, juvenile bravura on the part of a maladjusted eighteen-year-old, Philip Spencer. The discrepancies that so aroused Mackenzie’s contemporaries are even more apparent to anyone who looks at the record today, 119 years later.
Mackenzie and his officers justified their action on the grounds of impending danger. Yet the newly commissioned Somers was no warship; it had been turned into a training vessel for juvenile recruits. Only six of the crew were over nineteen years of age; forty-five were under sixteen; three were only thirteen. The few older hands were expected to teach seamanship to the apprentices.
This floating academy had left New York in September, bound for the African coast, and had returned to Caribbean waters by the time the trouble occurred. It could not have been a pleasant voyage. The Somers was built to accommodate ninety; she carried one hundred and twenty. Floggings were frequent. The smaller boys lived in terror of Boatswain’s Mate Cromwell, a large, burly, bad-tempered man.
As for Captain Mackenzie, it would have been difficult to find a man less equipped to condition young boys to a naval career. Medium-sized, red-haired, mild-mannered, he was at thirty-nine prim, severe, fussy, sanctimonious, humorless, vain, moralistic, vacillating in time of crisis, and above all, vastly inhuman. Many who sailed with him on that voyage were to desert the sea forever.
His real aspirations were literary rather than nautical. Born Alexander Mackenzie Slidell, he reversed his middle and surnames at the behest of a wealthy uncle who wished to perpetuate the Mackenzie line—and thereby inherited enough money to allow him to pursue a literary career on the side. He wrote six books and quantities of tedious, if shorter, discourses; his pen was seldom still. It is worth noting that Mackenzie’s brother was John Slidell, the Confederate envoy to Britain who was snatched from the British steamer Trent by the Union Navy in 1861; his son, Ranald, became one of the most daring and successful Indian fighters in the history of the West ( see “Border Warrior,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , June, 1958).
Due largely to the backing of his friend Washington Irving, Mackenzie’s book, A Year in Spain , was an immediate success in both America and England. At twenty-nine he was mildly famous. His style was florid, but so was the era. The Navy was sufficiently impressed by this unaccustomed talent in its ranks to accord Mackenzie unusual consideration—though he was also a diligent and scrupulous officer. He rose rapidly to independent command, as much on the strength of his literary as his naval accomplishments. And this literary propensity stood him in good stead after the mutiny: during his various trials he wrote four versions of the affair, each longer than the last, and each containing new and fanciful embellishments; like a cuttlefish in danger, he defended himself by emitting blasts of ink.
Philip Spencer came to the Somers with a tarnished reputation. A slouching, sullen boy with a mop of dark hair and a cast in one eye, he had managed thus far in life to make a mess of everything he had attempted. After spending three years as a recalcitrant freshman at Geneva (now Hobart) College, he was thrust into Union College by his outraged, domineering, short-tempered father, a lean, hard man with eyes “fierce and quick-rolling,” and a lace bearing “an unpleasant character of sternness.” Here Spencer remained long enough to help found the Chi Psi fraternity, which still toasts him in its rituals. A further brush with the authorities landed him in the Navy, after a final warning from his father that disinheritance would follow should he fail once more. He was commissioned an acting midshipman in November, 1841, joining a squadron off Brazil. He began to drink heavily and was shipped back to New York in disgrace in July, 1842. Once again he got another chance—his last. Through his father’s intervention he was restored to his rank, boarding the Somers two weeks later.
No one could have appealed less to the prissy, fastidious Mackenzie. Nor did Spencer get on with his fellow officers, most of whom were hand-picked protégés of the Captain. Not unnaturally, this lonely, defiant outcast of eighteen turned to the crew for companionship, and inwardly conjured up grandiose dreams of glory and revenge as a solace to his ego.