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The Revolution’s Caine Mutiny

May 2024
19min read

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

In a prefatory note to The Caine Mutiny Herman Wouk makes the point of informing the reader that “the records of thirty years show no instance of a court-martial resulting from the relief of a captain at sea under Article 184, 185, and 186 of the Naval Regulations,” and that both persons and events in his novel are imaginary. Had his researches carried him back much farther into the American past, as far back as the closing years of the American Revolution, he might have uncovered a singularly parallel case, one where fact proved even stranger than his fiction.

The mutiny on the Continental frigate Alliance occurred under much the same circumstances as on the mine sweeper Caine. In both cases the captains were relieved of command because they were considered by their officers to be no longer in control of their mental faculties. Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg and Captain Pierre Landais were both martinets who threw tantrums over the slightest infraction of their orders. Both had paranoid personalities, were unreasonably suspicious and gripped by feelings of persecution, and both sought to withdraw from reality when the crisis came. Both were petty and arbitrary toward their subordinates, arguing with them over the ship’s water and food supplies. And finally, the reputations of both commanders were destroyed as a result of sensational courts-martial.

Congress christened one of the largest and best-built ships in the Continental Navy the Alliance and then fittingly gave command of the swift-sailing frigate to a Frenchman. He was a naval captain named Pierre Landais, a supercharged egoist whose conduct proved of great disservice to Franco-American amity.

From her maiden voyage, the Alliance seemed destined to ride stormy seas. In the winter of 1779 she sailed for France with Lafayette as a passenger. Hardly had she left Boston when Landais revealed what was to be a characteristic weakness as a disciplinarian. Writing to Franklin in February, 1779, Landais reported that he had reached Brest only after putting down a full-scale mutiny of the crew with the aid of the Marquis and the officers of the ship. As a result of a court of inquiry held on shipboard, thirty-eight of the crew were put in irons and on reaching port were confined to a French prison without the formality of a trial.

Benjamin Franklin, who directed American naval operations in foreign waters in addition to running interference for the Franco-American alliance, now ordered Landais and the Alliance to report to L’Orient and there join John Paul Jones’s squadron. John Adams, who had been in France as a commissioner, was now anxious to return home on the Alliance, and during this period spent a good deal of time in Landais’ company. Adams found him frustrated in his ambitions, disappointed in love, unable to win the affection of his officers or hold their respect, and consumed by jealousy. In his diary for May 12, 1779, Adams recorded: “Landais is jealous of everything, jealous of everybody, of all his officers, all his passengers; he knows not how to treat his officers, nor his passengers, nor anybody else.” He found him a bewildered man, constantly harping on imaginary plots against him. Adams, who served as peacemaker between captain and crew, predicted that when he left the ship “all will become unhappy again.” He entered a further prediction: “Landais will never accomplish any great thing … This man … has a littleness in his mien and air. His face is small and sharp so that you form a mean opinion of him from the first sign.”

It did not take Landais long to confirm Adams’ prognosis. His astounding behavior during the notable engagement of the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, which took place in the North Sea on September 23, 1779 only seven months after the Alliance arrived in European waters, should have been conclusive evidence that he was dangerously unstable. With the converted Indiaman and the more heavily gunned British frigate both afire, Jones was relieved when the Alliance finally made her appearance. To his consternation his would-be rescuer discharged a broadside into the stern of the Bonhomme Richard.

“For God’s sake forbear firing into the Bonhomme Richard” Jones shouted frantically, but Landais continued to pour shot into Jones’s ship. One of his volleys killed several men and an officer of the forecastle, and others hit the Bonhomme Richard under water. Only fantastic bravado saved the day for Jones.

“Either Captain Landais or myself is highly criminal, and one or the other must be punished,” Jones complained to Franklin. But the political climate made it imprudent to take such action in France against a French officer, even though he held an American commission, and Franklin referred the issue to the Continental Congress. Whether Landais acted from treachery or made an incredible blunder cannot now be determined. Suffice it to report that the Frenchman was not cashiered from the service at that time. What is more, he had the effrontery to insist that Jones return to him the command of the Alliance, which Franklin had turned over to the peppery Scot. And here the intrigues and feuds among the American commissioners in France—Franklin, Arthur Lee, and Silas Deane—played right into Landais’ hands.

Despite the patent evidence of his instability, incompetence, and possible treachery, Landais was supported in his claim to the command of the Alliance by the quarrelsome and suspicious Lee, a born troublemaker who had a running feud with Deane and Franklin. Out of perversity he encouraged Landais to recover the command of the Alliance. Lee notified Jones that Franklin was without authority to divest Landais of the command of the frigate that Congress had conferred upon the Frenchman. Warning Jones against “a rash and illegal action,” Lee, in a typically self-righteous vein, insisted that his duty to his country and his “love of law and order” impelled him to stop Jones from interfering. John Adams, who took a dim view of his Paris colleagues, later backed up Lee, despite his private reservations about Landais’ character.

Encouraged by Arthur Lee and animated by a consuming envy of Paul Jones, Landais plotted to get the Alliance back. On June 13, learning that Jones had gone ashore, he boarded the ship in L’Orient Harbor at a time when virtually all the officers who had previously served under him were on the quarterdeck and all Jones’s officers were below at dinner. He was greeted with loud huzzas. Jones’s officers were summoned on deck, Landais’ commission from Congress was read to them, and all officers of the late Bonhomme Richard, as well as all others who did not acknowledge his authority, were summarily ordered ashore. Landais would not allow any of the crew to leave, however. Jones’s men were kept in the hold in irons. The rest seemed happy at the coup, as they were dissatisfied by Jones’s delay in distributing their share of the prizes gathered in recent encounters. A notorious martinet himself, Jones was scarcely beloved by his seamen.

When Jones learned how he had been outwitted, he was beside himself. Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning, a loyal Jones supporter, tells us that “his passion knew no bounds; and in the first paroxysm of his rage he acted more like a madman than a conqueror.” But once he regained command of himself, Jones, though normally not distinguished for his prudence, began to behave with surprising circumspection. Instead of confronting Landais and reasserting his rights at once, he chose to run off to Paris to obtain authorization from the American and French governments. Franklin provided him with written instructions explicitly ordering Landais to quit the ship immediately. M. de Sartine, the French minister of marine, issued a warrant in the king’s name for Landais’ arrest.

Meantime the crafty Landais was by no means idle. When Jones returned from Paris on June 20, he found that the Alliance had been moved from L’Orient to nearby Port Louis. Presenting his two orders, Jones called upon the captain of the port, his friend Antoine Thévenard, for help. Among the papers in the Naval Manuscripts Collection of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library is an order by the port officials for the disposition of ships and men to prevent the escape of the Alliance. A boom was promptly moved across the harbor to block Landais’ exit, and a gunboat armed with three 24-pounders and manned by sixty-five men was ordered to stand by to prevent the boom from being cut. Orders were given to the commander of the citadel to fire on the frigate if she attempted to pass. To take the Alliance, Jones was provided with a small flotilla of three warships, along with their armed boats, one hundred soldiers from the garrison, and one hundred marines.

For reasons of prudente or delicacy, Jones abstained from accompanying the expedition. When Landais was called upon to yield the frigate, he replied: “If you come within reach of my cannons I will sink you.” That was enough for the task force. They turned tail and returned to port. And that, surprisingly, was enough for John Paul Jones, too. For some reason he suddenly got cold feet. He had the order to fire upon the Alliance reversed and the boom removed. He justified his strange volte-face in a letter to Robert Morris written on June 27: “My humanity would not suffer me to remain a silent witness of bloodshed between allied subjects of France and America,” he declared. Jones accused the officers of the port of acting “rather like women than men,” but his own indecision and his failure to accompany the expedition reveal him in this episode to have been a bumbler rather than a hero.

The boom removed, Landais slipped out to sea on the eighth of July. Trouble was not slow to appear. At least one officer aboard the Alliance did not take enthusiastically to Landais’ seizure of power. He was Captain Matthew Parke, in charge of the marines, who had received his orders from Jones. Parke had agreed to defend the ship and “her commander,” but the other officers were to defend themselves. Landais regarded this as a reflection upon his authority and ordered the purser, Nathaniel Blodget, to keep near Captain Parke and if he “saw any treachery in him to run him through the body.” Blodget considered this an “extraordinary” order and told Landais flatly he would not obey it. But Landais was taking no chances. On June 21, while still in Port Louis, he had Parke arrested, only to release him once the ship was at sea. It was his first serious blunder of the voyage.

The recapture of the command brought Landais little peace of mind. His behavior was agitated; he grew fretful and slept very little (and that in the daytime); he was distrustful of his own officers, and as his purser later testified, “gave his friends a good deal of pain.” He was constantly creating new difficulties and stirring up imaginary ones. Nobody aboard ship was exempt from his tyrannical moods, not even the five passengers, most prominent among them Landais’ staunch supporter, Arthur Lee, who had taken along a private cargo of goods, at government expense, for his own profit. One day at the dinner table Lee complained that the officers and passengers were required to drink water from the filthy common scuttle cask. Landais retorted that the water was good enough for the captain and that they ought to be content even though the water stank. By now thoroughly enraged, Landais brandished the carving knife and slammed it down on Lee’s fork as the celebrated passenger was trying to help himself from the common dish. “I’ll let you know I am captain of the ship,” he cried, “and I shall be helped first at the table. You shall not pick the liver out of the dish. You shall take the first piece that comes to hand as I do.”

That volley seemed to confound Lee.

“What do you mean? I don’t ever remember disputing you being the captain of the ship. I was never so used in my life,” he expostulated.

“When you get ashore,” said Landais, “you may load your pistols as soon as you please.”

Landais’ gluttony and his eccentricities kept the ship in a constant turmoil. He got into a man-size row with his officers. Before leaving Boston for France on the initial voyage, they had insured a supply of fresh meat for the long journey by purchasing sows with their own funds. Naturally they considered the swine their own property. But Landais demanded one half of the pigs because he owned the boar that begot them; on that ground he ordered the officers to refrain from killing any of them without his permission.

On the trip back to America the Captain became steadily more abusive and was so tactless as to reprimand his officers before the crew. On the night of July 13, Landais appeared on the quarter-deck and gave the ship’s first officer, Lieutenant J. A. Degge, a public dressing-down for not keeping the ship reared to the wind. Hitherto Degge had been one of Landais’ most loyal supporters. Now, unable to stomach any more abuse, he shouted to the men to cut off all the weather braces. Landais took exception to the tone of his voice and ordered him below. Degge refused to go.

“I had rather be in hell,” Degge was later quoted as saying, “than to sail with a man I cannot please.”

A slapstick scene followed, with Landais chasing Degge up the gangway. The Frenchman called upon Captain Parke of the Marines to arrest the Lieutenant, but Degge armed himself, went into the wardroom, and stayed below.

With passengers, officers, and crew completely against the Captain, a series of crises was building up. The first occurred on the morning of August 5, when virtually the whole ship’s company—a mixture of Americans, Frenchmen, Scots, and several other nationalities—came to the quarter-deck and asked the Captain why, since the wind was fair that morning, he had ordered sail taken up. Why was he not proceeding to America? Shortening sail hardly seemed the best way to get to the Banks. Landais, taken aback by the defiant attitude of the crew, asked the men whether or not they intended to obey him. They answered that they would, provided he proceeded to America at once. Since the Captain gave no indication of giving such an order, the men all went forward and began to make sail. Enraged at their insubordination, Landais shouted to Third Lieutenant Lynd to lower the fore-topsail, which had been hoisted. Lynd tried to do so, but the crew would not let him.

Then Landais had no recourse but to order the marines put under arms at once. Captain Parke, an original and consistent anti-Landais stalwart, called the roll of marines. Not a single man would come aft. A state of mutiny now existed, with the crew in control of the ship and the officers and passengers exceedingly uneasy. Here Landais’ indecisiveness was fatal. All witnesses at the trial agreed that had Landais called upon his officers at this time he would have had their support, and the crew might possibly have been overawed. One of the officers named Buckley went to the Captain and asked him, “in the name of God,” what to do when so many were against him. Landais did not know the answer. He went below, allowing the crew to make sail and take charge of the ship.

The next day, at 10 A.M., the Alliance found bottom in thirty-five fathoms on the Banks of Newfoundland. In accordance with regulations laid down by the Continental Congress, the crew were provided with fishing tackle so they could supplement the ship’s rations with fresh fish. The men threw their lines overboard and almost at once three fish were caught. Thoroughly beside himself, Landais rushed to the quarter-deck and out of sheer perversity ordered the fish thrown back into the sea and told the officer of the watch to make sail and bear away. This order was carried out, amidst much grumbling.

The fishing episode revealed that Landais could be both spiteful and sadistic. That evening at dinner Samuel Guild, the ship’s surgeon, remonstrated with him, pointing out that the stores for the sick were almost expended and that a number of them (three had already died during the passage) needed nourishing food.

“Everybody is in a hurry to get home,” Landais retorted, “so everybody will soon be where he can get everything he wants.” Furthermore, he argued, if the men stopped to fish they would delay the trip and thus consume more of the precious stores. The surgeon pointed out how ridiculous this argument was: off the Grand Banks the crew needed just two hours to catch a supply sufficient for the remainder of the voyage. Landais replied curtly: “I can stop for nothing.”

The reader of The Caine Mutiny will recall how Queeg found excuses in migraine headaches and kept to his cabin completely, leaving the running of the ship to his executive officer. Landais did the same. He returned to his cabin, said he was sick, threw himself on his cot, and feigned sleep.

The officers of the Alliance now had the greatest difficulty in getting the crew to return to their duty. Accordingly, they requested Landais to head for the nearest port in the United States. He refused, insisting that his orders were to go to Philadelphia. Muttering increased. At 2 P.M. on August 10, two of the foremastmen, Thomas Bayle and James Pratt, proposed to the officers that they change the ship’s course to Boston. When the officers refused, the greater part of the ship’s company assembled on deck at 3:10 P.M., and when the officers still refused to change course, declared “they would not fire a single broadside against any frigate that they should fall in with if the ship would not carry them to Boston.” They warned the officers that they carried nails in their pockets with which to spike the guns should a hostile ship come alongside. During this mutinous altercation Landais did not appear on deck.

A five the next morning the officers drew up a written report on the dangerous condition of the ship and brought it down to Landais, who would not allow the paper to be read. “I will not hear itl I will not hear itl” he cried out. “I have my orders to go to Philadelphia and will go there.”

“We now looked upon the Captain as deserting his command,” the purser later testified, and Lieutenant Lynd backed him up: “We thought the Captain had abdicated the command and would not assist us and that it was high time to choose somebody to command.” The officers then wrote out and signed a statement pointing out the “alarming situation” aboard the frigate “from the discontent of the people which is now of the most serious nature, being universal and fermented to a great degree,” but Landais refused to receive the communication, outshouting the delegation and declaring he would neither have nor receive anything from his officers.

The officers now held a meeting and, according to Captain Parke’s later testimony at Landais* trial, declared “they would rather be hanged for bringing the ship into a safe port than be taken by an inferior force and carried to the enemy’s port.” The passengers then submitted to the officers, in writing, their opinion that an officer be designated to conduct the ship to the first safe port in the United States.

Acting with considerable circumspection and with every caution to keep a record of every move they made, the officers by unanimous vote chose Lieutenant Degge to take over the command. Degge was the only commissioned officer aboard except Landais, and he was still under arrest. With understandable reluctance he accepted, but only after the ship’s other officers gave him their orders in writing.

“I never saw Captain Landais out of his cabin after that time until we came in sight of land,” the purser later told the court.

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? …

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.

And there were still other mutinies to be recorded on the log of the Alliance. On his initial cruise on Landais’ ship Barry was forced to report: “I believe a ship never put to sea in a worse condition as to seamen.” For disobeying orders under fire three sailors were tried for a breach of the twenty-ninth article of the Navy Rules which fixed the penalty for desertion and cowardice. One of the accused was sentenced to receive 354 lashes on the bare back; the second to wear a halter across his neck and to receive fifty lashes; and the third to “be hanged by the starboard foreyard arm of the said ship Alliance until he is dead.” But the sentences were never carried out. John Brown, secretary to the Agent of Marine, visited Boston some months after the trials and reported finding the three men in prison awaiting execution of their sentences and suffering acutely from the cold. To “save expense” Brown had two of the culprits whipped and put aboard the frigate Deane; the third was sold by the sheriff to pay his bill for fees and board. As Brown reported to Robert Morris, then Agent of Marine, “with the surplus of the money” he procured three good seamen for the Deane.

The following year, when the Alliance was in the port of New London, the crew mutinied, calling for “liberty and back allowance.” Barry, who was on shore at the time, returned to hold an inquiry aboard ship. Three men were court-martialed and flogged.

So from first to last the Alliance kept the Navy Boards and courts-martial busy investigating complaints against her officers and men, and the taint of the distraught Landais and his mutinous crew clung to her till the end.

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