Saturday, June 11, 2011

USS Somers & Founding of Naval Academy

Alleged Mutineer Midshipman hang from the yardarm of the USS Somers in this lithograph.

The second of six US Naval ships named after Master Commandant Richard Somers, was used to train Midshipman as officers. Given the fact that Somers, and his Philadelphia Free Academy schoolmate Stephen Decatur were two of the first Midshipmen appointed to the US Navy and assigned to the frigate USS United States under Capt. John Barry, the Father of the US Navy, it was appropriate that such a ship be named after Somers.

But during one of its voyages, three of the young men were hung for mutiny, including the son of the Secretary of War, an incident that led to the end of training of Midshipmen at sea and the founding of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.

The story of that mutiny also inspired Herman Melville to write one of his best known works, "Billy Budd," based on recollections of a relative who was on the ship.

The USS Somers later sunk in a storm off Mexico, but its wreck was discovered by American divers and its location kept secret so it would not be stripped by scavengers. The same crew who discovered the Somers also planned on searching Tripoli Harbor for the wrecks of the frigate USS Philadelphia and the USS Intrepid, both of which sunk close to shore in 1804 during the first Barbary War.

According to other reports:

The only known US Naval mutiny in documented history ended in 1842 with three mutineers having their necks prematurely lengthened.

Mutiny on the high seas has been a focal point in history. Explorer Henry Hudson was cast adrift as a result of a mutiny. The last Tsar of Russia granted a constitution to his country after the battleship Potemkin mutinied in 1905. The Wilhelmshaven mutiny in 1918 was one of the deciding factors in ending World War One. The British Royal Navy was epidemic with mutinies aboard the HMS Hermione in 1782, the HMS Sandwich and her escorts in 1797 at Spithead, as well as the more famous HMS Bounty. The only documented naval mutiny in US history that ended with bloodshed was aboard the brig USS Somers

The USS Somers was a brand new 259 ton, 100-foot brig which mounted ten 32-pounder guns and carried 120 sailors. She was serving an experimental training ship as there was no naval academy at the time and as such included several teenaged midshipmen in her crew. After a quiet summer cruise to Africa the ship's captain, Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (who was also a well-published author and a personal friend of Washington Irving) and mate Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort, a career officer from an aristocratic Dutch-American family (his father was a brigadier general and had served in the Continental Army) were told that a mutiny was afoot. The center of this plot was seventeen-year-old acting Midshipman Philip Spencer. It was thought that Spencer, along with two sailors, Boatswain's Mate Samuel Cromwell and Seaman Elisha Small, were planning to seize the ship and then kill any who opposed them before turning it into a pirate ship. This charge was supported when Mackenzie ordered Spencer seized after Gansevoort found him studying a map of the West Indies and asking questions about navigation. When Spencer’s cabin was searched a scarf was found with a list of names written in Greek of those of the crew who would be kept after the mutiny as well as drawing of the USS Somers flying a pirate's flag. This led to Small and Cromwell's arrest the next day and their subsequent captain’s mast (courts marshal at sea). The defendants were unanimously found guilty by the panel and ordered hanged three days later. On December 1st, 1842 at 1:45 in the afternoon the ship's crew was called to attention. The defendants were tied to the ship's yardarms and heaved aloft while the ship's ensign was raised above them. All hands were ordered to cheer three times to salute the flag. The mutineers were left to dangle in the sails until 3:30 and were then committed to the sea at dusk.

The teenaged Spencer was the son of Secretary of War John C. Spencer and an inquiry and scandal ensued as soon as the USS Somers hit port. Commander Mackenzie, a naval veteran of some 27 years at sea, was tried at courts marshal for murder as well as eight other charges and fully exonerated. The U.S. Naval Academy was established October 10, 1845 in response to this scandal and the practice of training midshipmen at sea. The scandal colored Mackenzie's career and he died just six years later at age 45. The USS Somers herself did not outlive Mackenzie, being lost in a sudden squall in 1846 while under command of Raphael Semmes, who went on to become the Confederate navy's most famous officer. Th US Navy, who often recycles warship names, has had four subsequent ships (all destroyers) named USS Somers on the navy list as recently as 1988.

Letter from ZB file concerning ancestry.
July 1, 1938
Dear Madam:
Your letter of May 20, requesting information concerning the ancestry of Commander Alexander Slidell MacKenzie has been referred to this office for reply by the Bureau of Navigation.

Particulars as to the parentage, etc., do not form a part of the early records of the Navy Department. Such information, if available at all, is usually obtained from incidental reference in correspondence or from outside sources. I shall be glad to give you what we have, which, however is very little.

The biographical sketch of Alexander Slidell MacKenzie in the recently published Dictionary of American Biography states that he was born April 6, 1803, and that he was the son of John Slidell, a New York merchant, and Margery or May MacKenzie, a native of the Highlands of Scotland, and a brother of John Slidell, the Confederate diplomatic agent. The Navy Department records show that he was warranted Midshipman in the U.S. Navy on January 1, 1817, with a number of other young men, and that his warrant, with those of quite a few others, was delivered that month to "Dr. Marshall". We have not traced the identity of "Dr. Marshall", but it is quite possible that he may have been Surgeon Samuel R. Marshall. The records show also that he was born in and a citizen of the State of New York. He accepted the appointment, apparently in March 1817, but we unfortunately do not have his letter of acceptance. At the time of his appointment and up to May 9, 1817, he was attached to the U.S.S. Java, Captain Oliver H. Perry. He accepted the appointment, apparently in March 1817, but we unfortunately do not have his letter of acceptance. The date of his appointment as Midshipman is given in the navy Registers, 1817-1821, as January 1, 1817, but beginning with 1818 is changed to January 1, 1815.

In searching for a reason for the change of date of appointment from 1817 to 1815 a letter from his father, John Slidell, Esq., to the Navy Department was found, written from New York, October 17, 1817, stating he had just been informed that the U.S. Brig Enterprise, on which his son was then acting as Midshipman, was ordered on foreign service. The letter went on to say that he had been an acting Midshipman for 31 months (which would date the beginning of his service as about March 1815), and had during that time been twice to the Mediterranean, and the last summer attending the survey of the coast; that he was very young, and that he (the father) was desirous that he should perfect himself in French and mathematics, in which studies he was then engaged, and if consistent with the views of the Department he would be highly gratified in his being attached to the U.S.S. Cyane.

The above letter clears up the question of the change of date in his appointment, although we find no letter to either Midshipman Slidell or his father relative to it.

The name of MacKenzie was added to that of Slidell by Act of the Legislature of New York in either 1837 or 1838. We find only two references to this change of name. the first is a letter from him to the Secretary of the Navy, written from the U.S. Brig Dolphin at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 27, 1837, informing him that an application was before the legislature of the State of New York praying that he might be allowed to assume his maternal name of MacKenzie in addition to that of Slidell in order to qualify him to inherit property, and asking that he might be permitted by the Department to be so known in the Navy, and to take the additional name whenever authorized to do so by the legislature. The Second is the Secretary's reply, dated March 13, 1838, informing him that the additional name of MacKenzie had been sanctioned by the Legislature of New York, and he would be known henceforth by the Department as Alexander Slidell MacKenzie.

Commander MacKenzie died suddenly September 13, 1848, at his residence, near Tarrytown, N.Y., of heart disease. The Department was notified of his death on September 14, by Captain Isaac McKeever, Commandant at New York, who stated that he had been informed of it by Commodore Matthew C. Perry.

Very Sincerely,
D. W. Knox
Captain, U.S.N. (RET.),
Officer in Charge.
Mrs. Mabel M.Moran

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