The Somers was laid down at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in early 1842 and commissioned on 12 May. On 13 September, after a shakedown cruise that summer under Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, she sailed as an experimental school ship for naval apprentices to Africa with dispatches for the U.S. sloop Vandalia. With no luck finding the ship, Mackenzie learned on 10 November in Monrovia, Liberia, that the Vandalia had sailed for home. The Somers set sail for the Virgin Islands in hopes of intercepting the sloop there.
While nearing St. Thomas on 26 November, Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort reported to Mackenzie that he had learned of a plot to murder the officers and most of the crew and turn the Somers into a pirate ship. Gansevoort named Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, the son of Secretary of War John Canfield Spencer, as the ringleader of the conspiracy. He was arrested the next day, as were Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell and Seaman Elisha Small.
There is little doubt a conspiracy existed, and the trio repeatedly admitted to their goal of converting the brig into a piratical cruiser, “effected by the murder of the officers and faithful of the crew.” Indeed, after once again confessing in front of the assembled crew as he was about to be hanged, Spencer added that he had attempted a mutiny on board the “two national vessels in which he had last sailed” and that his piratical propensity was a “sort of mania.”
On 30 November, after an investigation at the written behest of the captain, four officers and three midshipmen signed a report with the “cool, decided, and unanimous opinion” of the trio’s guilt and that they should be put to death. At the firing of a weather gun at 1415 on the afternoon of 1 December, the mutineers were run up the main yardarm. The crew was piped to dinner at 1430. The bodies were lowered at 1530 and buried at sea three hours later by lantern light.
After the brig returned to port in New York, the Navy convened a court of inquiry into the “Somers Affair,” which exonerated the captain. Because the Secretary of War remained unsatisfied, Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur had Mackenzie court-martialed. He once again was exonerated. Controversy remains to this day over whether the commander acted properly or was guilty of murder.
The Somers returned to sea in March 1843 when Lieutenant John West assumed command and she joined the Home Squadron. There she served three uneventful years along the Atlantic coast and in the West Indies until May 1846, when war broke out with Mexico. She patrolled off Mexico’s east coast on blockade duty until called on 7 August to participate in the abortive Marine Corps landing at Alvarado, 40 miles from Vera Cruz.
By mid-October, Lieutenant Raphael Semmes, later of CSS Alabama fame, was ordered to command the Somers—which he deemed a “fast and active vessel [and] a very efficient blockader”—on duty off Vera Cruz “for the most part, alone.” She was there throughout November, until near disaster struck in the form of, in Semmes’ words, the “severest gale I ever experienced, in any part of the world. . . . It blew for three days and nights . . . and with such violence that we could not show ourselves above the hammock-rail, without imminent danger of being taken off our feet.” Despite yards and topmasts being lowered and two anchors and “long scopes of well-tried chain” anchoring the brig, “I feared every moment to be driven on shore.” The Somers rode out the storm despite “every timber and plank in her . . . trembl[ing] and quiver[ing] as though she were being shaken to pieces.”
Not long after, on 8 December, she did not fare as well. Soon after sunrise that morning, the Somers weighed anchor and sped after a sail, later identified as belonging to a man-of-war sighted in the distance. After ordering his ship’s identity “number” hoisted, Semmes was happy to see some 15 or 20 minutes later that the ship replied with the identity of the old U.S. frigate John Adams. But Semmes became increasingly apprehensive of a gale. The barometer had fallen significantly, and the weather had hauled to the north. These were both signs of gales typical to the area. Upon identifying the frigate, he headed around back to his anchorage to prepare for the blow. As he neared safety, another cry of “sail-ho” came from the masthead. This time he saw a brig running toward Vera Cruz.
“I immediately abandoned my intention of anchoring” and “under topsails and courses, commenced beating up the passage a second time,” wrote Semmes. The Somers “did not appear to be too much pressed.” Alerted to a squall to windward, the lieutenant immediately ordered the mainsail hauled and the spanker brailed (gathered in). Just as these precautions neared completion, the squall struck. “It did not appear to be very violent” nor was it accompanied by other indications “which usually mark the approach of heavy squalls.” Nevertheless, the Somers was “flying-light”—she had little water and provisions on board and “but six tons” of ballast. She was “thrown over almost instantly.” Semmes fought the helm, attempting to luff and “shake the wind out of her sails,” but to no avail. In seconds she was on her beam ends, with “water pouring into every hatch and scuttle.” Semmes ordered the masts cut away, but this immediately became a fruitless endeavor. With her masts and yards “lying flat upon the surface of the sea . . . I accordingly turned my attention to the saving of as many lives as possible.”
“It was now blowing a strong gale, with a heavy sea running,” Semmes reported. The crew was able to release only one small boat with 20 men before the ship went down. At the command of “Every man save himself who can! . . . [T]here was the simultaneous plunge into the sea, of about sixty officers and men.” Midshipman F. G. Clark, in charge of the boat, landed survivors on nearby Verde Island and per orders returned to the site of the sinking. “It seemed impossible that so small a boat could live” in violent gale and raging seas. This trip rescued Semmes and some others. Clark made a third venture to the scene but returned having “been unable to descry any floating object, whatever.”
The Somers’ sister ship, the Bainbridge, also capsized in a gale, but off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1863. She had only one survivor.
In the wake of the Somers disaster, which killed more than half her crew, three British, two French, and one Spanish warship aided the victims. In his report to Commodore Matthew C. Perry, executive officer of the Home Squadron, Semmes submitted the names of 37 survivors and 39 officers and men lost. Interestingly, Midshipman F. G. Clark is not on either list.