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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
Barry castigated Landais for reprimanding his officers in the presence of the men. Had the Captain possessed a sense of humor, the presiding judge pointed out dryly, he might have kept the “affair of the pigs and the water” from burgeoning into raging disputes. But Landais’ failure to allow his officers and crew to fish could not be so lightly dismissed, Barry insisted. All Landais could have possibly gained by denying such permission was “to get half an hour sooner to America.” This hardly justified putting the ship into an uproar and disobeying a resolve of Congress. Barry referred to the court the question whether Landais’ conduct “abated or inflamed sedition.”
The summation treated at some length Landais’ refusal to deliver over his cabin and furniture to Barry himself as the newly appointed commander. As for Landais’ refusal to read a letter from the Navy Board delivered by the hand of Captain Parke, Barry observed that “to be obliged to receive it from Captain Parke, of all men in the world an officer whom the captain could never stomach, with whom he had the first quarrel that happened on board and with whom he was now like to have the last—I say for Captain Parke to serve the death warrant, as it were, upon the unfortunate Captain Landais is a circumstance which must excuse, if not justify” his behavior in the matter.
The verdict of the court was a foregone conclusion. By unanimous opinion Pierre Landais was adjudged guilty of a breach of “the orders of the Congress” and of the Navy Board in coming away with the Alliance without the permission of Benjamin Franklin. However, since he had acted on the advice of Arthur Lee, “a gentleman learned in the laws and high in office,” this could be considered a mitigating circumstance. Landais was found guilty on a second count of a breach of the order of Congress and the Navy Board in “suffering” private goods to be transported on the Alliance. Thirdly, he was found guilty of a breach of the first and thirty-seventh articles of the Navy Rules “in not exerting his utmost abilities” to inspect the behavior of passengers, officers, and crew, in not punishing offenders aboard ship, and in not setting a proper example to his officers by the discharge of duty. Fourthly, he was held guilty of a breach of the order of the Navy Board in not delivering up the ship Alliance, her cabin, and cabin furniture. But the court took into consideration the fact that Landais was without money or credit when he landed in Boston, had no comfortable place to lodge except the ship, and that he had “greatly suffered from a mutinous disposition in both passengers and officers and from a real mutiny in the crew.” He was sentenced “to be broke and rendered incapable of serving in the American navy for the future.”
But if Landais, unlike Queeg, was not permitted to finish his naval career in an obscure naval depot, Lieutenant Degge was not even allowed the ignominy of being assigned to command a Revolutionary version of an LCI. For him there was no technical vindication by a verdict of acquittal. The fact is that in view of the stern code of the sea then prevailing, Degge was a very lucky man indeed. The judges at his court-martial were divided. Captains Barry and Nicholson voted for the death penalty, but the majority view prevailed. Degge was “broke, cashiered, and rendered incapable of serving in the American navy in the future.”
Thus for the captain and first officer of the Alliance the outcome of the trials was far more conclusive than for the parallel pair on the Caine, and the two ships pursued divergent courses once the trials were out of the way. The decrepit mine sweeper Caine, accumulating rust and barnacles, continued to serve as a plodding escort vessel, sweeping only six mines throughout the whole of World War II, and in the end was broken up for scrap. For the Alliance, her moments of glory lay ahead. The two trials aboard ship had hardly come to an end when the Alliance raised sail with Captain Barry on the quarter-deck. En route to France she captured the privateer Alert. Then, leaving L’Orient in company with the forty-gun letter-of-marque ship Marquis de Lafayette, she captured the privateers Mars and Minerva and, following an especially spirited engagement, forced two British brigs, the Atalanta and the Trepassey, to strike. Finally, to the Alliance and Captain Barry must go the distinction of having fought (save for some privateering exploits) the last naval action of the war. In March, 1783, one month before the peace treaty was ratified by Congress, she defeated—but failed to capture—the British ship Sybil.