Skip to main content

Was It Mutiny?

June 2024
1min read

Billy Budd’s Ghost Ship

a film by George Belcher, Somers Documentary Film Project, 55 minutes .

Pursuing a Mexican blockade-runner off Veracruz in 1846, the U.S. brig-of-war Somers sailed straight into a gale and sank. It was lost for a century and half until an expedition led by George and Joel Belcher tracked it down in 1986. Their subsequent venture with the Mexican government found cannon still loaded and skylight glass intact from the officers’ mess. But their discovery also gave new life to the ship’s scandalous legends, reviving a debate over its “mutiny” of 1842. The alleged plot, for which the Secretary of War’s son, Philip Spencer, was executed at sea along with two others, was in effect a pretext for murder, according to the naval historian Edward L. Beach. During the first six months of the voyage, the Somers’s commander, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, ordered a total of 2,265 lashes with the “cat” on a crew largely of teenage boys. In December 1842 the eighteen-year-old Spencer was hanged—raised to strangle from the yardarm, not dropped—for mutinous remarks made to a fellow sailor. The alleged mutiny (the American Navy’s first) and hangings became such a scandal that following Mackenzie’s court-martial and bare acquittal, the U.S. Naval Academy was founded.

There the story ended until the ex-seaman Herman Melville read a newspaper account years later and was inspired to write his masterful last novel, Billy Budd , about a young sailor hanged by his commander. This film begins with the brig’s sinking and moves briskly along through its history and the clues that led the Belchers to pinpoint the wreck site (a detail on an old Spanish map, a survivor’s naval testimony). It is history brought up from the ocean floor.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.