Court-Martial of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie

About the court-martial of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie for quashing a possible mutiny aboard the Somers, history and biography of the man and event.


In 1842, the small U.S. brig, Somers, a training ship for naval officers under the command of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, knifed through the choppy waters off the African coast. This was the era of wooden sailing ships, large crews, and few officers; and together with poor food, cramped quarters, and lengthy sea duty, this caused the fear of mutiny to hang like a pall over most ships.

Mackenzie, a literary man who had written several books, disliked his job, the men who served under him, and in particular, he disliked Philip Spencer, the 18-year-old son of John C. Spencer, Secretary of War. By nature, Commander Mackenzie was a frustrated Captain Bligh, but running scared.

James W. Wales, a purser's steward, reported to Mackenzie that young Spencer had approached him with plans for a full-scale mutiny wherein Mackenzie and his officers were to be killed. On Wales's statements rested the bulk of evidence. Mackenzie and his officers were frightened. Day by day, their uncertainty fed this cancer until, in a burst of determination to prevent that which they feared, they acted. On Mackenzie's orders, Spencer, Cromwell, and Small were hanged.

The Court-Martial. When the Somers put into New York Harbor on December 14, 1842, a court of inquiry was called for December 28. Before completion of the inquiry and at the request of Mackenzie, a court-martial date was set for January 28, 1843, at Brooklyn. Mackenzie was charged with 3 courts of murder, 2 counts of oppression, illegal punishment, and conduct unbecoming a naval officer.

In answer to the charges, Mackenzie stated: "I admit that acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, Boatswain's Mate Samuel Cromwell, and Seaman Elisha Small, were put to death by my order, but, as under existing circumstances, this act was demanded by duty and justified by necessity, I plead not guilty to all charges."

The trial, a mere formality, presented only one side of the sordid story, for dead men cannot defend themselves. The judges were sympathetic toward Mackenzie, feeling that any commander deserved the full support of the Navy to assure discipline.

Significance. In this extremely controversial court-martial, there was no way to prove or disprove the allegations of Wales, the other officers, or Mackenzie. But the repercussions resulting forced an overhaul of naval justice. Flogging was abolished as were punishment deaths at sea. The practice of training naval officers, as on the Somers, gave way to the establishment of Annapolis.

Herman Melville, related to Lieutenant Gansevoort of the Somers, authored Moby Dick and other never-to-be-forgotten novels. His Billy Budd has preserved for all time the infamous hanging aboard the Somers. Over 130 years after the fact, stage plays and motion pictures are still being made, based on the testimony and court-martial of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie.

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