Many naval historians dispute whether there ever was a mutiny in the history of the U.S. Navy, though they do agree that several near-outbreaks have occurred. In response to an inquiry from AMERICAN HERITAGE, Rear Admiral E. M. Eller, Director of Naval History in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, had this to say:
There has never been an actual mutiny on board a ship of the United States Navy. … There have been instances of plots to mutiny, particularly in the Continental Navy of the Revolution, when crews were an assorted lot of many nationalities. John Paul Jones had his troubles on board the Ranger; and when the crazed Frenchman, Pierre Landais, made off with the frigate Alliance in 1780, he had to be relieved of command at sea by his first lieutenant.
In 1813, Captain David Porter took the Essex into a South Pacific island harbor, and soon received word that some of his crew were so enchanted with the tropical Elysium that they were reluctant to return to the rigors of cruising against the British. But a stirring address by the Captain soon disabused them of their mutinous notions.
On August 13, 1849, during the California gold rush, five men from the U.S. surveying schooner Ewing, a Treasury Department ship manned by naval personnel, joined in a mutinous action. Returning from the beach in a ship’s boat, they threw the midshipman in charge over the side and deserted. They were soon apprehended, tried by general court-martial for deliberate mutiny, desertion, manhandling an officer, and theft of government property. They were found guilty, sentenced to death, and two were hanged.
The so-called “Somers mutiny” was not a mutiny but rather an attempt to organize a mutiny. The unfortunate event gained much prominence and heated publicity because Midshipman Spencer was the son of the Secretary of War. Mackenzie was denounced in the public press. He was, however, acquitted by a court of inquiry and a court-martial, and later served as a naval diplomat and commanding officer of the Mississippi during the Mexican War.