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
On the sixth day, the three men were hanged, although no single incident occurred that in any way further incriminated them. As Mackenzie explained later: “The deep sense I had of the solemn obligation I was under to protect and defend the vessel … the officers and the crew—the seas traversed by our peaceful merchantmen and the unarmed of all nations … from the horrors which the conspirators had meditated and, above all, to guard from violation the sanctity of the American flag“—the commander wrapped himself in the national ensign as habitually as he put on his nightshirt—”all impressed on me the absolute necessity of adopting some further measures for the security of the vessel.”
The proceedings were a shabby farce. Mackenzie later admitted that the kangaroo court of officers was assembled after he and Gansevoort had privately made up their minds to execute the prisoners. The court had no chairman, and the notes of its secretary were sketchy at best. The obvious people to examine—the three prisoners—were never called. But thirteen other witnesses did appear. One of them, later a prisoner himself, described the procedure: “Before a question of one officer was answered, others would be put by other officers, thus not only confounding the person being examined but themselves.”
A witness was told just to sign a statement—his answers would be filled in later. None of the information represented anything but hearsay and wild supposition. A typical response: “I don’t think the vessel is safe with these prisoners aboard. This is my deliberate opinion from what I heard King, the gunner’s mate say: that is, that he had heard the boys say there were spies about.”
Afterward, Mackenzie saw to it that the faithful were rewarded. Seven of the witnesses were recommended for advancement. And it is worthy of note that during Mackenzie’s own subsequent court-martial, when every effort was made to unearth supporting evidence for his actions, no single person was found who had ever heard the word “mutiny” mentioned aboard the Somers before Spencer’s arrest. But they were hanged anyway, and on February 1, 1843, on a ship in New York Harbor Alexander Slidell Mackenzie was brought before a court-martial to defend himself. His own court-martial gave Mackenzie every leeway. He did not testify in his own behalf, thus saving himself from the hazard of cross-examination. Instead, he was allowed to present written explanations of the points raised by the timid, fusty little prosecutor.
While Mackenzie sat resplendent in dress uniform day after day (he donned it on the slightest provocation), his loyal cohorts rehearsed the co-operative members of the crew until they had their stories letterperfect. (The less reliable were allowed to desert.) The eleven prisoners were eventually freed without charge. New York grew bored and turned to more lively topics. A quiet acquittal became inevitable.
The most searching questions were asked by a man who had no connection with the case. And the answers he offered make Mackenzie out part fool, part coward, part arrant knave. No less a personage than James Fenimore Cooper, himself an ex-midshipman in the Navy, carried the case to the public. Why he entered the controversy is not exactly certain. Disputatious by nature, and frequently involved in litigation, Cooper was a constant supporter of causes. Perhaps he simply hated the injustice of the affair or the sanctimonious behavior of Mackenzie. Or possibly, himself expelled from Yale, defiant of authority, and an ex-Navy man aware of the brutality of the fleet, Cooper identified himself with Spencer, whose life roughly paralleled his own early experience.
Mackenzie had presented four prime reasons why the prisoners had perforce to forfeit their lives:
First, the size and construction of the brig made it vulnerable. The prisoners had been held on deck because Mackenzie feared that they could not have been safely kept below. The partitions, he claimed, were so frail that they might have been forced.
Cooper thought that an extremely far-fetched assumption. On the contrary, he suggested, the size of the Somers actually favored the officers. If there was real trouble, “twenty, or even ten armed men on the quarter-deck of a brig of 266 tons make them a very formidable array as opposed to any number of unarmed, or even armed men that could approach them at a time.” Furthermore, her size was an asset from another point of view. “We see nothing to have prevented Captain Mackenzie from sending all but his officers below and of carrying the brig across the ocean, if needed, with the gentlemen of the quarter-deck alone.” Under such circumstances, “even admitting a pretty widespread disaffection” the chances were nine out of ten in favor of her officers, “and that risk might have been run before an American citizen was hanged without trial.”
To Mackenzie’s report that each night’s darkness added to the peril on board the Somers , Cooper answered that there was no necessity for darkness, for every man-of-war had means of lighting her own decks.