The Curse of the Somers: The Secret History Behind the U.S. Navy’s Most Infamous Mutiny
James P. Delgado. New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. 232 pp. Illus. Notes. Biblio. Index. $24.95.
Reviewed by Frederick C. Leiner
In September 1842, the U.S. brig Somers set sail from New York carrying dispatches for the African Squadron. They were never delivered.
Although a commissioned warship, the Somers was a training ship; three-quarters of the crew were teenage “apprentices” off the New York streets, some homeless, mostly poor, barely educated, often with criminal backgrounds, jammed into the small brig. In command, and acting as schoolmaster and chaplain, was 39-year-old Alexander Slidell Mackenzie. Mackenzie, from an industrious, upwardly mobile middle-class background, was a successful travel writer (and soon-to-be biographer of Stephen Decatur) who had broached the idea of using the Somers as a training ship. Unfortunately, as James P. Delgado, a noted maritime archaeologist and historian remarks in The Curse of the Somers, Mackenzie was a severe disciplinarian and “highly moralistic and a prig.”
Newly assigned to the Somers was 19-year-old Midshipman Philip Spencer. Delgado describes Spencer as “emotionally scarred,” in part the effect of being cross-eyed, in part because he had a distant, angry father and an overly protective mother. Yet, he also fits historian Samuel Eliot Morison’s description of a “punk,” being irreverent and combative. Deeply imaginative, Spencer was fascinated by pirates. He came from the elite—his father, John Canfield Spencer, was Secretary of War in President John Tyler’s cabinet, and his grandfather, Ambrose Spencer, had served as chief justice on the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. Young Spencer, however, was a lazy student who was forced to leave two colleges and a brawler and malcontent on board the ships to which he was assigned after his family sent him into the Navy to “straighten him out.” Only in deference to his father was young Spencer not court-martialed.
On board the Somers, he mocked Mackenzie and was coldly received by the officers. Despite Mackenzie running a “dry” ship, Spencer smuggled alcohol and tobacco on board and shared his stores with petty officers and apprentices. Delgado wonders whether some of the boys Spencer favored were his sex partners, noting the homoerotic relations with boys in the Navy.
Tensions on board the ship rose during the cruise to Africa. Spencer became increasingly insubordinate, disobeying direct orders and treating Mackenzie with disdain. Spencer began ranting about killing the officers, taking command, and turning the Somers into a pirate ship. Although Delgado suggests his projection was fantasy, it was dangerous to think those thoughts, much less to vocalize them, which Spencer did repeatedly. Spencer devised a plan to seize the Somers and annotated in Greek a list of crew members who might join an uprising and those who were loyal; again, Delgado questions if these jottings were real or merely a game from an overwrought imagination. But Spencer spoke of killing the officers and seizing the ship one too many times, and the purser’s steward reported the plot to Mackenzie.
Spencer and two sailors thought to be coconspirators were arrested and manacled. Other sailors were later arrested. The officers armed themselves. Over the next few days, Mackenzie spoke to the crew, at first thinking he had pacified the situation, but then he and the first lieutenant saw what they surmised to be seditious groups of sailors threatening the ship. Mackenzie thought he was losing control. The officers questioned 13 sailors and then unanimously advocated putting Spencer and his two initial coconspirators to death. After some theatrics on deck—Mackenzie asked Spencer what he had against him, and Spencer acknowledged he deserved his death—the three men were hanged on 1 December 1842.
To many, the extrajudicial hangings seemed precipitate and unnecessary. Mackenzie’s reports to the Secretary of the Navy did him no favors, suggesting that he executed Spencer so he would not evade punishment because of his family connections. When the Somers arrived back in New York later that month, Mackenzie faced condemnation from newspapers and Secretary Spencer, a court of inquiry, a court-martial (the case against him was “not proven”), civil lawsuits, and writers, including James Fenimore Cooper. The case divided the country—even “seamen’s friends” such as Richard Henry Dana Jr. supported Mackenzie—and ultimately spawned reforms that led to the establishment of the U.S. Naval Academy in 1845.
The Somers mutiny—if there was a mutiny, which Delgado questions, signified by his using quotation marks around “mutiny”—has been a continuing source of fascination. Although attention began to wane over the course of the 19th century, the novella Billy Budd, written by Herman Melville (the brother-in-law of the first lieutenant on board the Somers) and published in 1924, drew only loosely on the facts of the Somers incident but permanently affected how Americans came to view the episode. That imprimatur was driven home by the 1962 film Billy Budd, with Billy (the Philip Spencer character) portrayed as a Christ-like figure.
In this short, immensely readable book, Delgado spins out the Somers mutiny with important insights about the early Navy, the evolution of antebellum American society, and the psychological makeup of Philip Spencer and Alexander Slidell Mackenzie. Questions raised by the Somers mutiny will never be resolved because people can come to different conclusions about order and discipline on board ship, what Spencer intended, and whether there was a real and imminent threat. The Curse of the Somers is a fresh, compelling look at the story.
Mr. Leiner, a lawyer, is a regular contributor to Naval History. He has written three books about the early Navy, including Prisoners of the Bashaw: The Nineteen-Month Captivity of American Sailors in Tripoli, 1803–1805 (Westholme, 2022).
The Fighting Coast Guard: America’s Maritime Guardians at War in the Twentieth Century
Mark A. Snell, ed. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2022. 424 pp. Gloss. Appx. Index. $34.95.
Reviewed by Commander Steve Hulse, U.S. Coast Guard
The Fighting Coast Guard, a compilation of essays by 13 authors and edited by military historian Mark A. Snell, is a comprehensive history of the Coast Guard’s combat exploits throughout the 20th century. History enthusiasts unfamiliar with the Coast Guard’s wartime roles will gain a robust understanding of the service’s contributions to the nation, while readers with existing knowledge of the service’s history will appreciate the in-depth research that reveals unique details behind some of the most well-known stories of courage, ingenuity, and loss. Overall, those interested in military history, from the casual reader to the military history buff, will find this collection of essays highly engaging and informative. Coast Guardsmen looking to research the service’s combat history and leaders within the joint force who want to better understand the Coast Guard’s contributions during armed conflict will find it valuable as well.
The book is organized chronologically, beginning with a prologue titled “A Historical Overview of the Revenue Cutter Service,” which covers the period from the service’s inception in 1790 until the Spanish-American War in 1898. This section highlights the little-known actions of the service during the 1798 Quasi-War with France, in which revenue cutters served alongside vessels of the newly reestablished U.S. Navy, along with excerpts from the War of 1812, the Seminole Wars, and the Civil War.
The next sections focus on the Coast Guard’s efforts while serving under the Department of the Navy during World War I, as these combat exploits are often attributed to the U.S. Navy alone and remain little known in military history. Most notably is an essay entitled, “The Loss of the USS Tampa and Its Lasting Legacy” by Nora Chidlow and Arlyn Danielson, which documents the tense escorts of U.S. convoys across the North Atlantic. While the story of the Tampa is widely known throughout the Coast Guard, Chidlow and Danielson’s essay boasts tremendous research that includes photos, anecdotes, and letters from the crew, providing insight into the last few weeks of the doomed cutter that was ultimately sunk by a German U-boat with all hands lost.
The Coast Guard’s effort against “wolf packs” during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II is also covered extensively in Scott Price’s essay, “Bringing Home the Bacon,” which features the heroics of the 327-foot Treasury-class cutters, including the USCGC Spencer (WPG-36)—the flagship of escort group A3 across the North Atlantic. Another highlight of the book is its detailing of the Coast Guard’s contributions to amphibious landings in both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters during World War II. In the Pacific, an essay by Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian William Theisen focuses on the landings at Guadalcanal and includes a detailed history of Signalman First Class Douglas Munro—the only Coast Guard member to receive the Medal of Honor.
In the Atlantic theater, a chapter entitled “The Mission . . . Is to Put the Army on the Beach,” by Snell himself highlights the Coast Guard—manned landing craft infantry (LCI) that delivered troops to Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day. The level of research is evident, as Snell provides vivid anecdotes from Coast Guard crews detailing the horrors, courage, and resourcefulness that enabled a successful invasion of France by Allied forces.
The latter part of the book features unique essays on the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s roles during World War II and the service’s Greenland patrols by John A. Tilley and Dennis L. Noble, respectively. Author Scott Price also has a piece on the Coast Guard’s efforts during the Korean War, while both Paul C. Scotti and Paul Cora authored essays on the Vietnam War, including a memoir from the Coast Guard’s patrols of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and the cutter Taney’s (WHEC-37) missions supporting Operation Market Time. Finally, author John R. Olsen concludes the essays with a section covering the history of expeditionary port security units, including their deployments to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm.
Retired Admiral Thad Allen, former Commandant of the Coast Guard (2006–10), authored the foreword, and this section is a tremendous read that captures the importance of the Coast Guard’s combat history. As the United States again faces great power competition and increasingly belligerent adversaries, an understanding of the Coast Guard’s past roles, capabilities, and contributions to the joint force could help leaders understand how to best employ the service in future conflicts.
Overall, The Fighting Coast Guard is an outstanding tribute to our nation’s smallest and most misunderstood military branch and should have a place in every Coast Guard unit’s library and every military history enthusiast’s collection.
CDR Hulse is a career afloat officer with tours of duty on board four different cutters. He was assigned as a Federal Executive Fellow to the U.S. Naval Institute for 2022–23.