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The Revolution’s Caine Mutiny
In Pierre Landais the Continental Navy had its own real-life Commander Queeg. His tour as master of the Alliance was a nightmare wilder than any a novelist could invent
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
When the Alliance reached Boston, the Navy Board for the Eastern District directed Parke to deliver a letter ordering Landais to leave the ship and to turn over his cabin and furniture to Captain John Barry, the new commander. When Parke tried to carry out the order, Landais threatened to blow his brains out. Finally, a sergeant and two men had to go in and haul the Captain off the ship.
Landais at once filed formal charges of mutiny by the officers and passengers. “Before God! Bring to light the truth,” Landais implored the Navy Board, warning them that the officers were supported in their mutinous behavior by the passengers. “You will find them out but there are very cunning ones among them,” he pointed out in a self-revealing sentence. The Board of Admiralty instructed the Navy Board in Boston to hold a court of inquiry into Landais’ conduct “from the time he entered on board the Alliance at Port L’Orient until her arrival in Massachusetts Bay.” In addition to suspending Landais, the commissioners directed the board to determine the ringleaders of the “mutiny” and confine them for court-martial.
As a result of these orders two courts-martial were held: the first, beginning late in November, 1780, inquired into Landais’ behavior; the second in January, 1781, tried Lieutenant Degge for mutiny. Presiding over both trials was the naval hero Captain John Barry, whose greatest victories still lay ahead. Two other captains, Samuel Nicholson (who was fiercely jealous of Jones) and Hoystead Hacker, along with three lieutenants, made up the Landais court. Thomas Dawes, Jr., served as judge advocate. In Degge’s trial Henry Johnson was added to the court, and in addition to three naval lieutenants, a lieutenant of the Marines was put on the panel. Neither of the accused men had an attorney. Landais cross-examined the government’s witnesses.
The crucial issue at Landais’ trial was his mental condition.
“Did you ever see me destitute of any of the common sense such as what I had formerly used to exercise?” Landais asked Lieutenant Lynd.
“When you acted in your own station as commander of the ship I thought you in your proper senses.”
“Did you ever see anything that looked like craziness since the command of the ship was taken from me?”
A more prudent cross-examiner would have stopped here. But Landais plunged recklessly ahead.
“Did you ever hear anyone else say so?” he asked.
“I have heard some of the people say that you were not right,” Lynd replied. “I have heard numbers, officers, passengers, and many others say that they did not think you in your proper senses.”
Of course, Captain Parke of the Marines had no reason to love Landais, and on the stand he did not beat about the bush. On direct examination, in reply to a question of whether Landais was in his proper senses after leaving L’Orient, he stated: “There were times when I thought he was not.” Fitch Poole, captain’s clerk on the Alliance, testified that the Captain on the last voyage was not himself and that he used to pace his cabin for hours talking to himself.
On the question of whether the supplanting of Landais was carried out in a mutinous spirit, James Warner, a lieutenant of Marines, was explicit. “I looked upon it as absolutely necessary from circumstances.”
“Did you not look upon it as a mutiny?”
The testimony was all in, the judge advocate gave his closing argument, and now Captain Barry summed up the evidence. He found that Landais had been explicitly ordered by Congress to obey Franklin’s instructions upon his arrival in France; that in seizing the Alliance he had acted directly contrary to these orders; and that he had either permitted or connived at the shipping of private cargoes to America aboard the Alliance. Barry was unwilling to discredit the testimony of so many witnesses concerning the events on shipboard: “That every action of theirs to him should be diabolic and every action of his to them divine is a phenomenon, and to believe such things requires a great share of credulity.” Barry went on:
It may be urged again that all were against him and that he had not the confidence of his officers. But is this to his credit? Which is the most probable: that such a number of various characters should without motive conspire to ruin their commander, or that a commander should have some weak part, some alloy in his constitution and by his behavior create enemies? …