LET us go back in our minds to the Navy of eighty-three years ago, and try to use our imaginations clearly and accurately so as to feel that we are in the naval atmosphere of the time. To picture the little United States brig Somers plowing the moonlit sea of the mid-Atlantic on the night of November 25, 1842, with a northeast trade behind her, in latitude north 13° and longitude west 41°, requires little mental effort, but to comprehend the character and temperament of the officers and men on board of her, to judge their actions with understanding and, if necessary, with leniency, is a very difficult task to us of this day, who have grown so different from our forefathers. The naval officer of that time was in all respects a worthy type, but we of today call the type limited and crude. We think him brave, but ignorant. Certainly he was a less complicated and cultivated official than his successor of today, but he could not help this as he was the product of his times. In the year 1842, when the Somers was on her trip from Cape Palmas in Liberia to St. Thomas in the West Indies, the institutions of duelling and slavery, and of flogging in the Navy were all extant in our country.
Piracy, which had even had men of education in its numbers, had flourished like a green bay tree all over the West Indian waters up to the year 1825, and still flourished on other oceans. Aristocracy lingered on shore, and tyranny and roughness of manners toward subordinates reigned aboard ship. In the eighteen-forties and thereabouts there was a difference of clay between the enlisted man and the officer which has disappeared. Even the unconsidered midshipman who was treated without respect by his superiors was, though only a boy, regarded as a divine authority by the grizzled seamen under him; and the reader of this story should always keep in mind that mutiny, or mutinous conduct (the former in foreign navies and the latter in our own), was more common or more recent in those days than in 1925.
On board the Somers there were at this time seven midshipmen ranging in ages from sixteen to twenty years, and it was one of these lads who was to play the most important part in the events about to take place on the little brig. Her captain was Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, of New York, an officer then thirty-nine years old, with a record of unusual ability in his profession and also out of it, for he was a successful and agreeable writer. Washington Irving and English critics had praised him for his books describing his travels in England and in Spain. His biographies of John Paul Jones and Oliver Hazard Perry had appeared the year before, and are creditable, well-written books. He was a man of attractive presence, rather tall, with thin and slightly auburn hair, of whom Richard Henry Dana, of Boston, wrote a few months later: “He is quiet and unassuming. He is unusually interesting and creates a feeling of personal affection toward him in those whom He meets.” Commander Mackenzie had been christened Alexander Slidell, his father being John Slidell, Sr., an esteemed merchant and manufacturer of New York, prominent in society and politics, and his brother the noted John Slidell, Jr., afterward U. S. Senator from Louisiana, who was appointed a Confederate commissioner to France and England and was captured from the English vessel Trent by Captain Wilkes of our Navy in 1861. Commander Mackenzie’s mother was a Miss Mackenzie, and about five years before our story opens, he had, at the request of his mother’s brother, added her family name to his own of Slidell. With his proved reputation for courage and efficiency, no officer was more highly esteemed, or had been more successful in winning life’s prizes up to the present time. Such was he to the world; what he was to himself, what he was to his Maker, is less easily discovered, but perhaps this story will help us to know him better.
The brig Somers sailed from New York for the west coast of Africa on September 13, 1842, with a crew of 120, consisting of thirteen officers, about eighty apprentice boys, and the rest petty officers, cooks and stewards, about five of them being only twenty years of age. She was on a practice cruise with orders to pick up Madeira, TenerifTe, and Porto Praia on the way to Liberia, then to return to New York via St. Thomas. In pursuance of these orders she left Cape Palmas in Liberia on November 11 and was proceeding westward on her uneventful, trade-wind journey, with nothing whatever to call the attention of history to her until November 25. Her wardroom officers were four in number, First Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort, P. A. Surgeon Leecock, Purser Heiskill, and Acting Master M. C. Perry, all of them crowded into a wardroom of which the “country” was only ten feet wide by six feet long. In the steerage, which was forward of the wardroom and which was fitted to accommodate only five people, being fourteen feet wide by four feet long, were the seven midshipmen already mentioned: namely, Messrs. Rodgers, Thompson, Hayes, Deslondes, Tillotson, Spencer, and Captain’s Clerk O. H. Perry, who did midshipman’s duty. The captain’s cabin, abaft the wardroom, was only eight feet wide at the broad end, and four at the narrow, with a length of eight feet. All of these quarters were on the berth deck, which had a height of four feet ten inches between decks; and the crew occupied all of the amidships and forward part of this deck. The only entrance to the wardroom was through the steerage by a door in its after bulkhead. The brig herself was one hundred feet long between perpendiculars, with an extreme width of twenty-five feet, seven inches, and her tonnage capacity was 266 tons. She carried ten carronades on her spar deck, her only other deck, although she was pierced for twelve guns.
On the evening of November 25, the brig being then 1,700 miles distant from St. Thomas, about the middle of the second dogwatch, Midshipman Philip Spencer walked forward on the spar deck and addressed some remarks about the weather to Purser’s Steward J. W. Wales, who was standing near the bitts. Midshipman Spencer, who was nineteen years old at the time of this story, and who is described as “a tall, pale, delicate looking young man,” was not a favorite with his messmates. He was a member of a distinguished family; his grandfather was Ambrose Spencer, LL.D. who had been Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New York, and his father was John Canfield Spencer, the editor and commentator of de Tocqueville’s Democracy, and at the time of the cruise of the Somers, Secretary of War in the Cabinet of President John Tyler. But Spencer’s messmates, among whom we recognize some typical naval names, did not approve of him on account of his general deportment among the ship’s company before the mast. He was a constant offender in a matter in which a self-respecting officer may never offend; he was always trying to bridge the unbridgeable distance in rank between man and officer —a distance which was first discovered to be necessary about the time when navies and armies first came into existence.
After a few minute’s conversation with the purser’s steward, young Spencer invited him to come amidships and get up on top the “booms” with him—the “booms” being the place where the brig’s launch, cutters and spare booms were stowed—remarking that he had something very important to say to him. It was against the rules of the ship to use this place as a loafing spot, but that made little difference to Spencer; and besides, it was after dark, so that discovery was improbable. In a very few minutes he made known to the astounded Wales that he had a plan of mutiny in his head, well thought out and arranged in all of its minute details. He began by solemnly asking Wales if he was afraid of death, and if he would dare to kill a man if necessary. To one reading Wales’ testimony as given later before the court-martial, it is evident that Wales was thoroughly frightened, not only by the question but by the fact that he was alone with Spencer. I give the exact words of Wales for what followed:
I was very much surprised at these remarks (i.e., whether he (Wales) feared death, and so forth), and looked up to see if he was in earnest. I found that he was serious and very much in earnest in what he said. I replied that I was not particularly anxious to die quite yet, that I had no cause to fear a dead person, and that did a man sufficiently abuse or insult me, I thought I could muster sufficient courage to kill him if necessary. Mr. Spencer replied, “I don’t doubt your courage at all; I know it. But,” said he, “can you keep a secret and will you keep one?” “If so,” he added, “take the oath.” He then dictated an oath, of which I cannot recollect the whole, but the purport of it was that I should never make known to any person the conversation which was about to take place between us. I took the oath as directed by Mr. Spencer. The oath was merely administered by word of mouth, no Bible being used. He then went on to state that he was leagued with about twenty of the brig’s company to take her, murder all of her officers and commence pirating. The plan and stations of the men, he said, he had all arranged in secret writing done up in his neck-handkerchief. He requested me to feel of his neck-handkerchief. I did so and there was a rumpling which showed that there was a paper in the back part of it. He went on to state to me the plan he should pursue. Some of his men would get into a fight on the forecastle. He (Spencer) was to bring them up to the mast and call Mr. Rodgers, the officer of the deck, to pretend to settle the difficulty. As soon as Mr. Rodgers had got to the gangway they were immediately to seize him and throw him overboard. They would then have the vessel in their possession. The keys of the arms chest he could lay his hands on at any moment. The arms chest was to be opened and the arms distributed to his men. He was then to station his men at the hatches to prevent any one from coming up on deck, and he should proceed to the cabin and murder the commander with the least noise possible. He should then proceed with some of his men to the wardroom, and murder the wardroom and steerage officers.
Further features of the scheme included throwing overboard such members of the crew as would not suit Spencer’s purposes, and the development of the brig and her crew into a fully equipped pirate ship. She was to proceed to the Isle of Pines and there take on board one who was familiar with the trade of piracy and who wanted to join them. They would then cruise the seas for prizes, would capture and scuttle ships, take money, commit murder, capture women and enslave them, and so forth.
For over half an hour Spencer poured into the frightened ears of the dissembling Wales one item after another of his mutinous scheme. He never stopped talking in this time, and was so eager and excited as to give Wales no chance to reply. He then interrupted himself by calling out to a seaman named Elisha Small to come to the booms. To this man, who came up, he made a remark in Spanish. Small understood Spanish, although Wales did not and Small’s face showed surprise at what Spencer had said to him. Spencer then said to Small in English, “Oh, you need not be under any apprehension of fear on his (Wales’) account, as I have sounded him pretty well, and find he is one of us.” Small showed pleasure at hearing this and remarked that he was glad of it. Small was here called away on duty, and Wales continues with his testimony:
Small then left. Spencer made overtures to me, saying that if I would join them he would give me the post of third officer in command. He then went on to state that the commander had a large amount of money on board. This, he said, with what the purser had, would make a pretty little sum to commence with. He then asked me what I thought of the project. I thought it prudent to dissemble as much as possible in order to gain further information and told him that I was favorably disposed toward it. My duty then called me away. Spencer remarked that we would have another interview on the morrow, when he would show me the plan he had drawn up. He followed me to the gangway saying that if I lisped a syllable of what he had communicated to me I should be murdered; that if he did not do it himself those connected with him would; that go where I might, my life would not be worth a straw. I said, “No, I would not make any mention of it.”
It was almost two hours before Wales could shake off Spencer and escape from the ordeal of pretending to share in his murderous ideas. That the young officer was terribly in earnest and meant all that he said there was not a shadow of doubt in Wales' mind. To us of this day, listening for the first time, in 1925, to Midshipman Spencer’s scoundrelly and bloody schemes as laid before Wales, it is uncertain whether to view them as grotesque nonsense, or to see in them real dangers to the security and the lives of the people on board the Somers. Should one laugh at them or be transfixed with horror? We recall again the fact that piracy was until about that time a very common trade. When Commodore C. G. Ridgely was ordered in 1826 to command the West India squadron his orders included directions to “suppress piracy” in those waters. Young Spencer had told Wales that he was leagued with about twenty of the Somers’ crew to take possession of the brig and turn her into a pirate. Could this be true? Why not? Although mutinies were almost unknown in our Navy, yet there had once been one on board the Essex under Porter at the Marquesas Islands in 1813. Was it wholly impossible for a mutiny to occur, especially with an officer to lead the disaffected? To Wales’ frightened mind anything seemed possible; and he was convinced of the necessity of immediate action on his part without paying any attention to his oath of secrecy to Spencer. He came up on the quarter-deck after Spencer had gone below, and hovered about the entrance to the cabin with the intention of carrying the news directly in to Commander Mackenzie, but he perceived that his movements were watched by Small and he dared not carry out his design. He then went below with the idea of reporting the matter to the first lieutenant, Mr. Gansevoort, in the wardroom. To do so he would have had to pass through the steerage to the door in the after bulkhead which was the only entrance into the wardroom, but Midshipman Spencer was already in his hammock for the night, and his hammock was slung close to this door. Spencer noticed Wales coming into the steerage, and raising up his head wanted to know “Why in the devil he was cruising about that place at that time of night, and why he had not turned in.” Wales made no reply but pretended to be busy about something, and got out of the steerage onto the berth deck where he remained for an hour, hoping that Spencer would go to sleep so that he could get into the wardroom to speak with the first lieutenant. But lights were put out, and there was nothing to be done until next morning, so Wales had to turn in and to lie awake the whole of the rest of the night. In the morning he got into the wardroom on the first opportunity and made the matter known to Purser Heiskill; he then went on deck and told Mr. Gansevoort that the purser wished to speak with him immediately. Wales says in his testimony that while he was speaking to the first lieutenant he was being watched by Small and by a boatswain’s mate named Cromwell, and two men named Wilson and McKinley. He assumed that all of these men were among the intending mutineers, and that they observed that he was playing them false. Mr. Gansevoort went below to the wardroom about ten o’clock in the morning where he received from Purser Heiskill the momentous news that there was a mutiny on foot on board the U. S. brig Somers. He listened to enough of this information to feel thoroughly alarmed and did not wait to hear all of the details, but hurried to the captain’s cabin, where he laid the matter before Commander Mackenzie. I give the exact words of the first lieutenant in describing this interview: “I immediately entered the cabin and mentioned the circumstances. He (Commander Mackenzie) received it with great coolness; said that the vessel was in good discipline and expressed his doubts as to the truth of the report. I asked him if I should see Mr. Wales myself and get the information from him. He said no, he did not wish me to do or to say anything about it. He assigned no reason at this time for this, but ordered me to keep a strict lookout upon Mr. Spencer and the crew generally.” On this, Mr. Gansevoort left the cabin.
The plot, or whatever it was, was now the property of the directing mind of the ship, and from this mind a new and strange consciousness, as of danger, was soon to spread itself through the ship’s company of the Somers. A disorder had come into the ship’s organism, and it had to work itself out, either for good or bad. Mr. Gansevoort, in obedience to orders, began watching Mr. Spencer, and watching everyone in the crew. About two o’clock in the afternoon, observing that Spencer was not on deck, but had gone into the foretop, he went up there himself to see what he was about. He found him sitting on the lee side of the top, with his chin resting on his breast and in such deep thought that he did not see Gansevoort until the latter had got into the top and was standing erect. Spencer then got up in confusion and asked Gansevoort some questions about the rigging, which the latter answered and came down puzzled by the young man’s demeanor and strongly inclined to see something suspicious in it. A little later an apprentice named Green went into the top to join Spencer, and to prick a design in India ink on his arm. Mr. Gansevoort ordered Green to come down, which he did, but Spencer remained on the top until later, when he came down and Gansevoort observed him sitting on the Jacob’s ladder on the starboard side forward. Now occurred an important incident in this story. “I turned my eye toward him,” says Gansevoort, “and immediately caught his eye which he kept staring upon me for more than a minute with the most infernal expression I have ever seen upon a human face. It satisfied me at once of the man’s guilt.”
Now Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort was not the type of man we should expect to imagine dangers where they did not exist. He was thirty years of age, had been at sea since the age of twelve when he had entered the Navy as a midshipman, and his judgment of a fellow seaman deserves consideration even if based, as this one undoubtedly was, on intuition only. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon of this day, November 26, that, in consequence of this malignant glare from young Spencer, he mentally ranged himself alongside Wales in the belief that the midshipman was plotting to be a mutineer.
Meanwhile, what was Commander Mackenzie thinking about? He had received with apparent ridicule the fearsome news that there was treason on board his ship; it hardly seemed possible that he would change his views. Yet that is exactly what happened. To understand this we turn to his own account of it, as related in a report to the Secretary of the Navy written three and a half weeks later. From the manner of his narrative it is evident that the large number of facts relating to Spencer which it contains could not all have been learned by Commander Mackenzie on the afternoon of November 26; but this does not invalidate his reasons for acting toward Spencer as he did later in the day, since the facts which he learned afterwards corroborated those which he had learned before.
He remarks that although he at first felt that Mr. Spencer must have been amusing himself with the purser’s steward, he yet decided that it was joking on an improper theme and should be stopped. It was in case there might be a shadow of reality in Spencer’s project that he had ordered Mr. Gansevoort to watch him. In the course of the afternoon Gansevoort had reported that Spencer had been in the wardroom examining a chart of the West Indies and making inquiries about the Isle of Pines, which was the place where he had told Wales he was going to take the Somers. He also learned that Spencer had been in secret and nightly conferences with Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell, and Seaman Elisha Small; that he had given money to Small and several of the crew, and had the habit of distributing tobacco among the apprentices, contrary to orders; that he had corrupted the wardroom steward and caused him to steal brandy from the wardroom mess; that he had occasionally been drunk himself when removed from observation; that he had given brandy to the crew; that he had “the habit of amusing the crew by making music with his jaw”; that he had once drawn a brig with a black pirate’s flag, and had repeatedly asserted that the Somers could be easily taken; that he had been dismissed with disgrace from the Brazilian squadron and compelled to resign for drunkenness and scandalous conduct; and, finally, that he, while on the Somers, had little intercourse with the officers and was very intimate with the crew. As the day wore on, much thinking of these discreditable facts gradually accomplished the feat of changing Commander Mackenzie’s ridicule of the morning into a mood so serious in the afternoon that he took the resolution which we shall soon record. Gansevoort, after the incident of the hateful gaze turned upon him by Spencer, reported it to Commander Mackenzie, and gave it as his opinion that Spencer ought to be confined. Mackenzie replied that he did not wish to act hastily, and that by evening quarters he would decide what it was best to do. Just before that time arrived Commander Mackenzie himself asked Mr. Gansevoort what he would do in the present situation of affairs, were he, Gansevoort, the commanding officer of the Somers. “I told him,” says Gansevoort, “that I would bring that young man aft and iron him and keep him on the quarter-deck.” The minds of the two men met in the same conclusion. In his report to the Secretary of the Navy, Commander Mackenzie, after enumerating the instances of bad conduct on Spencer’s part already described, states:
These various recollections, added to what had been revealed to me, determined me to make sure at once of his person, though I had meditated allowing Mr. Wales to have another interview with him that evening for the purpose of ascertaining more of his plans, as had been agreed upon between them. If he was really in earnest, enough was already known. At evening quarters I ordered through my clerk, O. H. Perry, doing the duty also of midshipman and aid, all of the officers to lay aft on the quarterdeck, excepting the midshipmen stationed on the forecastle. The master was ordered to take the wheel, and those of the crew stationed abaft sent to the mainmast. I approached Mr. Spencer and said to him, “I learn, Mr. Spencer, that you aspire to the command of the Somers?” With a deferential, but unmoved and gently smiling expression, he replied, “Oh, no sir.” “Did you not tell Mr. Wales, sir, that you had a project to kill the commander, the officers and a considerable portion of the crew of this vessel and convert her into a pirate?” “I may have told him so, sir, but it was in joke.” “You admit then that you told him?” “Yes, sir, but in joke.” “This, sir, is joking on a forbidden subject; this joke may cost you your life. Be pleased to remove your neck-handkerchief.” It was removed and opened, but nothing was found in it. I asked him what he had done with the papers containing an account of his project which he had told Mr. Wales was in the back of his neck-handkerchief. “It is a paper containing my day’s work, and I have destroyed it.” “It is a singular place in which to keep day’s work.”1 “It is a convenient one,” he replied with an air of deference and blandness. I said to him, “You must have been aware that you could only have compassed your designs by passing over my dead body, and after that, the bodies of all of the officers; you had given yourself, sir, a great deal to do; it will be necessary for me to confine you, sir.” I turned to Lieutenant Gansevoort and said, “Arrest Mr. Spencer, and put him in double irons!” Mr. Gansevoort stepped forward and took his sword. He was ordered to sit down on the stern post, double ironed, and, an additional security, handcuffed. I directed Lieutenant Gansevoort to watch over his security, to order him to be put to instant death if he was detected speaking to or holding intelligence in any way with any of the crew. He was himself made aware of the nature of these orders. I also directed Lieutenant Gansevoort to see that he had every comfort of which his safekeeping would admit.
1“Day’s work,” the navigational computations for the day.
The intended mutiny was now an established fact—made so by the action of the commanding officer in openly securing the person of the ringleader. The revelation was a thunderclap to everyone except the intending mutineers, whose number we may now state, was small. How changed the quiet career of the little brig of twenty-four hours before, homeward bound and glad to be so, and now with some evil spirit lurking in every breeze that whispered along her deck! Midshipman Spencer was placed on the port arms chest of the quarter-deck, close to the roundhouse, and as the sun went down the officer of the deck, by order, was armed with a cutlass and pistol. Just after the arrest, the locker of Midshipman Spencer in the steerage was searched by Lieutenant Gansevoort and Midshipman Henry Rodgers. Among his possessions were found two papers which contained startling proofs of his intention to start a mutiny. They consisted of a list of about thirty names of men in the ship, classified under the headings of “Certain,” “Doubtful,” and “To be kept nolens volens,” with explanatory notes attached. In order to make his program secure from discovery, he had written every name and every word of it in the Greek character. The notes stated that some of the “doubtful” men would be “induced to join,” and some others would have “to be forced.” The number of names under the caption “Certain” was only four, including himself; under “Doubtful” there were ten names. The distribution of certain men at the wheel, arms chest, and other places on the deck was also put down all in Greek. Midshipman Henry Rodgers was the only officer able to read these Greek characters and to transliterate them into English, which he did, and took the results to Commander Mackenzie. Proof upon proof seemed to be piling up that the ship was in danger; but even before the discovery of the Greek papers the captain had given orders to the watch officers to make frequent rounds of both decks that night, in order to see that the crew were in their hammocks and that there were no suspicious gatherings anywhere.
The following day was Sunday, November 27, inspection day, and at ten o’clock in the morning all hands were assembled at quarters, with Commander Mackenzie determined, as he tells us, to observe minutely the person and bearing of Cromwell and of Small. Boatswain’s mate Samuel Cromwell was the tallest man in the crew, wore a big beard and a large pair of whiskers; was violent, profane, and able. He was cruel to the boys, and he swore (under his breath) at the captain. He appears to have had a past career of no gentle kind, having served on a slaver, and bore on his scalp several scars that showed that he had been in bloody fights. In appearance at least he might have been a suitable first mate for the pirate ship which young Spencer was planning to make of the Somers. How far he was involved in these schemes, if at all involved, and what the subject of his private talks with Spencer was, will never be known. His truculent appearance seems to have assisted toward a belief in his collusion with the young officer. On that morning carpenter’s mate Dickerson, who was one of the loyal petty officers, had said to Mr. Gansevoort, in speaking of Cromwell, “that big fellow forward is more dangerous than the rest; he ought to be confined.” This was the man whom Commander Mackenzie observed closely while he stood at quarters, erect and pale, with eye fixed and grasping resolutely his battle-axe.
The result of the examination was that Commander Mackenzie decided that he had a “determined and dangerous air.” Elisha Small presented a very different appearance from Cromwell; he was a short, little man with a white, frightened face, shifting from one foot to the other, passing his battle-axe from one hand to the other, and avoiding the eye of his captain. Both men, though for opposite reasons, impressed Commander Mackenzie as men who were not to be trusted. After quarters, church was held, and the crew was uncommonly devout and attentive to the service. A general muster followed and Commander Mackenzie states that he examined every countenance in the crew with the result that he discovered none which disturbed him. This statement, of course, must have intended to except Cromwell and Small. In the afternoon, the wind having moderated, skysails and royal studding sails were set, but the operation was hardly completed before the main-royal mast was carried away. Occurring at this time, this accident immediately took on a sinister appearance both to Commander Mackenzie and his first lieutenant, whose minds at once rushed to the conclusion that it was intentional. Gansevoort dashed to the deck from below and took charge of clearing the wreck, fearing lest conspirators would take advantage of the confusion to get possession of the ship. Later, when the main-top-gallant mast was about to be swayed from the deck, he states that he “heard an unusual noise—a rushing on deck and I saw a body of men in each gangway rushing aft toward the quarterdeck. I said to the Commander, ‘God, I believe they are coming.’ I had one of Colt’s pistols, which I immediately drew and cocked; the commander said his pistols were below. I jumped onto the trunk and ran forward to meet them. As I was going along I sang out to them not to come aft. I told them I would blow the first man’s brains out who should put his foot on the quarterdeck. I held my pistol pointed at the tallest man I saw in the starboard gangway, and I think Mr. Rodgers sang out to me that he was sending the men aft to the mast rope. I then told them that they must have no such unusual movements on board the vessel; what they did they must do in their usual manner; they knew the state of the vessel and might get their brains blown out before they were aware of it.”
The state of mind of Gansevoort seems to have seen unmistakable mutiny in the crew before him. Commander Mackenzie, whether influenced by this or not, found cause for alarm that afternoon in the fact that five or six men, including Cromwell, Small, and a sailmaker’s mate named Wilson, had collected about the mainmast head and in the crosstrees, where some of them were out of their stations. After consulting with Gansevoort, he made up his mind to arrest Cromwell, first taking the precaution to order all officers to be armed and stationed about the spar deck, ready for action in case of attack. When Cromwell descended the rigging he found facing him, with cocked pistol, the first lieutenant who told him that the captain wished to see him, and took him aft. Here Commander Mackenzie questioned him as to a secret conversation he had held with Mr. Spencer, but Cromwell replied, “It was not me, sir, it was Small.” He was then informed that there were reasons for many suspicions about him; therefore, it was necessary to arrest and confine him in the same way as Mr. Spencer, and to take him home for trial where, if found innocent, he would be set free, and if found guilty, would be punished. Cromwell replied, “Yes, sir, but I don’t know anything about this; I assure you, I don’t know anything about it.” He was put in double irons and placed on the starboard arms chest directly across the quarter-deck from Spencer.
As Cromwell had named Small as the person who had conferred secretly with Spencer, Commander Mackenzie, after consulting with Gansevoort, had Small called aft, and put him also into double irons. He charged him with having listened to Spencer’s plot of mutiny, to which Small answered, “Yes, sir,” and made no objection to being confined. He was told that he also would be legally tried at home, and he was placed on the starboard quarter-deck abaft the after gun. Purser’s steward Wales was armed and detailed to keep watch over the three prisoners. “Increased vigilance,” says Commander Mackenzie, “was now enjoined upon all the officers; henceforward, all were perpetually armed; either myself or the first lieutenant was always on deck, and generally both of us were.”
The following morning, Monday, November 28, the routine of the ship’s day included the punishment of two men for offenses reported by the master-at-arms. One of them was Henry Waltham, the wardroom steward, who had recently stolen brandy from the wardroom mess and given it to Mr. Spencer. The whole ship’s company, officers and men, were called on deck by the boatswain’s cry of “All hands witness punishment,” and Waltham’s hands were tied, his shoulders stripped, and the lash laid on. After this (what must seem to us) brutalizing ceremony, Commander Mackenzie made a speech to the crew. He disclosed to them the general nature of Spencer’s plot, while not mentioning that he had a list of the names of those implicated in it, and impressed upon them that many of them had been marked for murder by Spencer. He exhorted them to think of their homes and kindred and to rejoice at the prospect of being with their families again in about three weeks. Commander Mackenzie states in his report to the Secretary of the Navy, that the effect of his speech upon the crew was various: “it filled many with horror at the idea of what they had escaped; it inspired others with terror at the dangers awaiting them from their connection with the conspiracy. The thoughts of returning to that home and those friends from wom it had been intended to have cut them off forever caused many of them to weep. I now considered the crew tranquillized and the vessel safe.”
Nothing happened that Monday afternoon to destroy this tranquillity which, it must be remembered, was founded on and maintained by the conspicuous presence of twelve armed officers, each with cutlass and pistol ready for instant use. In addition to this guard against an uprising, Commander Mackenzie had directed that the three prisoners should be turned with their faces aft, as he had once or twice observed Mr. Spencer attempting by signs to hold intelligence with the crew. Tuesday the twenty-ninth came, and in the morning all hands were again called to witness punishment, and another “catting” took place. Again Commander Mackenzie thought it advisable to address the crew, urging them to obey the laws of the ship and to keep down the number of punishments, so that the record of the ship, when sent in to the Secretary of the Navy, would make a creditable showing. At this point of Commander Mackenzie’s narrative we are hardly prepared for his next remark. After mentioning this speech to the crew, he says, “But the whole crew was far from being tranquillized.” It was only twenty-four hours before that he had told us that they were tranquillized. What had caused this sudden change? Had his first belief been an error based on hasty judgment? Evidently so, for he goes on to tell the Secretary of the Navy that the suspected mutineers “began once more to collect in knots,” and that during the previous (Monday) night “seditious words had been heard through the vessel, and an insolent and menacing air assumed by many.” He became possessed, from reports made by certain of the loyal men, with the idea that the conspirators were planning to make a rush aft and to rescue the three prisoners confined in irons on the quarter-deck. It seemed to him that, so far from the three arrests having quelled the spirit of mutiny, they had tended to increase it. Purser’s steward Wales reported that sailmaker’s mate Wilson had acted as if he intended to kill him with a handspike. After hearing this, Commander Mackenzie remained continuously on the spar deck. At midnight of Tuesday when the watch was called, two men, landsman McKinley and apprentice Green, missed their muster and gave lame excuses for doing so. At four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon the same slackness was again evinced by some other men. In Commander Mackenzie’s mind, the danger of a rescue of the prisoners grew from hour to hour. For over forty-eight hours all officers had now carried arms, and none of them had secured a requisite amount of sleep. Each new symptom of disaffection produced an angry reaction in their tired minds. As Commander Mackenzie states: “Where was this thing to end? Each new arrest of prisoners seemed to bring a fresh set of conspirators forward to occupy the first place. With fine weather and bright nights, there was already a disposition to make an attack and rescue the prisoners. When bad weather should call off the attention of the officers .... how great the probability of a rescue! .... Hitherto, I had consulted the first lieutenant only, and had been justified in everything I had done by finding his opinions identical with my own. In so grave a case, however, I was desirous of having the opinion of all of the officers, and was particularly anxious that no shadow of doubt should remain as to the guilt of either of the prisoners, should their execution be deemed necessary.”
Their execution! Surely Commander Mackenzie was traveling fast. Was there not a law which stated that any person in the Navy making or attempting to make any mutinous assembly, shall, on conviction thereof by a court-martial, suffer death? Where was the court-martial which alone could justify him in thus considering the necessity of an execution? How could he overlook the law and rush to the thought of an execution? His own story will tell us how, and why. On the morning of Wednesday the thirtieth, he addressed this letter to the four wardroom officers and the three' oldest midshipmen, omitting the four acting midshipmen who were only boys.
U. S. Brig Somers,
November 30, 1842
The time has arrived when I am desirous of availing myself of your council in the responsible position in which, as commander of this vessel, I find myself placed. You are aware of the circumstances which have resulted in the confinement of Midshipman Philip Spencer, Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell, and Seaman E. Small, as prisoners, and I purposely abstain from entering into any details of them, necessarily ignorant of the exact extent of disaffection among a crew which has so long and so systematically and assiduously been tampered with by an officer. Knowing that suspicions of the gravest nature attach to persons still at large, and whom the difficulty of taking care of the prisoners we already have, makes me more reluctant than I should otherwise be to apprehend, I have determined to address myself to you, and to ask your united council as to the best course to be now pursued, and I call upon you to take into deliberate and dispassionate consideration the present condition of the vessel, and the contingencies of every nature that the future may embrace, throughout the remainder of our cruise, and enlighten me with your opinion as to the best course to be pursued.
“I am, very respectfully, gentlemen, your most obedient,
Alex. Slidell Mackenzie,
To Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort, Past Assistant Surgeon R. W. Leecock, Purser H. M. Heiskill, Acting Master M. C. Perry, Midshipman Henry Rodgers, Midshipman Egbert Thompson, Midshipman Chas. W. Hayes.
Before handing in this letter to the officers concerned, Commander Mackenzie had made four more arrests on the morning of Wednesday. Wilson, already suspected on account of the handspike incident; McKinley, one of those on Spencer’s list as “Certain”; Green, who had missed muster at mid-watch; and Alexander McKie, a close friend of Cromwell’s, and also an absentee at muster, all were put in irons. There were now seven prisoners in double irons on the quarter-deck, incidentally in the way of everybody, and interfering seriously with the working of the ship.
The officers addressed met in council at once in the wardroom and began the examination of witnesses. This business lasted all day long without their adjournment even for food, and was not finished at nightfall; during this time Commander Mackenzie remained in charge of the deck with the young acting midshipmen. He then ordered the adjournment of the council until next day, and he drew up a special watch-bill for the night in which he took charge of the starboard watch himself and put Mr. Gansevoort in charge of the larboard. He states that he was determined not to pass another such anxious night as the previous one. But there was not much sleep that Wednesday night, and on the morning of December 1, about nine o’clock, the following letter was handed to him from the council of officers by Mr. Gansevoort:
U. S. Brig Somers,
December 1, 1842
In answer to your letter of yesterday, requesting our counsel as to the best course to be pursued with the prisoners, Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell, and Seaman Elisha Small, we would state, that the evidence which has come to our knowledge is of such a nature as, after as dispassionate and deliberate a consideration of the case as the exigencies of the time would admit, we have come to a cool, decided, and unanimous opinion that they have been guilty of a full and determined intention to commit a mutiny on board of this vessel of a most atrocious nature; and that the revelation of circumstances having made it necessary to confine others with them, the uncertainty as to what extent they are leagued with others still at large, the impossibility of guarding against the contingencies which ‘a day or an hour may bring forth,’ we are convinced that it would be impossible to carry them to the United States, and that the safety of the public property, the lives of ourselves, and of those committed to our charge, require that (giving them sufficient time to prepare) they should be put to death, in a manner best calculated as an example to make a beneficial impression upon the disaffected. This opinion we give, bearing in mind our duty to our God, our country, and to the service.
“We are, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servants,
Guert Gansevoort, Lieutenant
R. W. Leecock, Past Assistant Surgeon
H. M. Heiskill, Purser
M. C. Perry, Acting Master
Henry Rodgers, Midshipman
Egbert Thompson, Midshipman
Chas. W. Hayes, Midshipman
“Put to death!” and “put to death in a manner best calculated as an example to make a beneficial impression!” The minds of Commander Mackenzie and of his officers can truly be said to have run in the same channel. As if the verdict had been expected and foreseen by him, he states that he “at once concurred in the justice of the opinion and in the necessity of carrying its recommendations into immediate effect.” He tells us that he selected the three mutineers, Spencer, Cromwell, and Small, from the rest, for execution, because they alone were capable of navigating and sailing the ship. With them out of the way there would remain no further reason for the rescue of prisoners or for converting the ship into a pirate. As to the momentous decision itself, the decision to execute, he believed that he was driven to it by circumstances. He says—and in this saying is the whole reason for his subsequent actions—“In the necessities of my position I found my law, and in them also I must trust to find my justification.”
We are now at the last act of this drama on the high seas. What happened cannot be as well described by another as by Commander Mackenzie himself in his report to the Secretary of the Navy.
I gave orders to make immediate preparations for hanging the three principal criminals at the main yard arms; all hands were now called to witness punishment. The afterguard and idlers of both watches were mustered on the quarter-deck at the whip intended for Mr. Spencer; the forecastle men and foretop men at that of Cromwell, to whose corruption they had been chiefly exposed; the maintop men of both watches at that intended for Small, who for a month or more had held the situation of captain of the maintop. The officers were stationed about the decks according to the watch-bill that I had made out the night before, and the petty officers were similarly distributed, with orders to cut down whoever should let go the whip with even one hand, or fail to haul on it when ordered. The ensign and pennant being bent on and ready for hoisting, I now put on my full uniform and proceeded to execute the most painful duty that has ever devolved upon an American commander—that of announcing to the criminals their fate.
Let me interrupt his narrative for a moment in order to quote a remark by Charles Sumner in regard to the scene which was now about to take place: “The annals of the world,” says Mr. Sumner, “do not afford a more impressive scene than that of the young commander of a small ship, away from his country, at sea, in the exercise of what he believes to be a solemn duty, ordering the execution at the yardarm of a brother officer, the son of a distinguished minister of state.”
Returning to the Mackenzie report, it continues as follows:
I informed Mr. Spencer that when he had been about to take my life, and dishonor me as an officer when in the execution of my rightful duty, without cause of offence to him, on speculation, it had been his intention to remove me suddenly from the world in the darkness of night, in my sleep, without a moment to utter one murmur of affection to my wife and children, one prayer for their welfare. His life was now forfeited to his country, and the necessities of the case, growing out of his corruption of the crew, compelled me to take it. I would not, however, imitate his intended example, as to the manner of claiming the sacrifice. If there yet remained to him one feeling true to nature, it should be gratified. If he had any word to send to his parents, it should be recorded and faithfully delivered. Ten minutes should be granted him for this purpose, and Midshipman E. Thompson was called to note the time and inform me when the ten minutes had elapsed.
This intimation overcame him entirely. He sank, with tears, upon his knees and said that he was not fit to die. I repeated to him his own catechism, and begged him at least to let the officer set, to the men he had corrupted and seduced, the example of dying with decorum.
This immediately restored him to entire self-possession; and, while he was engaged in prayer, I went and made in succession the same communication to Cromwell and Small. Cromwell fell upon his knees completely unmanned, protested his innocence, and invoked the name of his wife. Mr. Spencer said to me, “As these are the last words I have to say, I trust that they will be believed. Cromwell is innocent.” The evidence had been conclusive, yet I was staggered. I sent for Lieutenant Gansevoort and consulted him. He said there was not a shadow of doubt. I told him to consult the petty officers. He was condemned by acclamation by the petty officers. He was the one man of whom they had real apprehensions; the accomplice at first, and afterward the urger on of Mr. Spencer, who had trained him to the act by which he intended to benefit.
I returned to Mr. Spencer; I explained to him that remarks had been made about the two not very flattering to him and which he might not care to hear, which showed the relative share ascribed to each of them in the contemplated transaction. He expressed great anxiety to hear what was said. One had told the first lieutenant “In my opinion, sir, you have the damned fool [meaning Spencer] on the larboard arms chest, and the damned villain [meaning Cromwell] on the starboard; “another had remarked that after the vessel should have been captured by Mr. Spencer, Cromwell might allow him to live, provided he made himself useful; he would probably make him his secretary. I remarked, “I do not think this would have suited your temper.” This effectually aroused him; his countenance assumed a demoniacal expression; he said no more of the innocence of Cromwell. * * * * Small alone, whom we had set down as the poltroon of the three, and on that account had at first determined not to iron, received the announcement of his fate with composure. When asked if he had any preparation to make, any message to send, he said, “I have nobody to care for me but my poor old mother, and I would rather that she should not know how I have died.”
I returned to Mr. Spencer and asked him if he had no message to send to his friends; he answered, “None that they would wish to receive.” When urged still farther to send some words of consolation in so great an affliction, he said, “Tell them I die wishing them every blessing and happiness; I deserve death for this and many other crimes—there are few crimes that I have not committed; I feel sincerely penitent, and my only fear of death is that my repentance may be too late.” I asked him if there was anyone whom he had injured to whom he could yet make reparation—any one who was suffering obloquy for crimes which he had committed; he made no answer, but soon after continued; “I have wronged many persons, but chiefly my parents;” “This will kill my poor mother. ****” Afterward he said to me, “But have you not formed an exaggerated estimate of the extent of this conspiracy?” I told him, “No,” that his systematic efforts to corrupt the crew and prepare them for the indulgence of every evil passion, since the day before our departure from New York, had been but too successful. I knew that the conspiracy was still extensive—I did not know how extensive. I recapitulated to him the arts which he had used; he was startled by my telling him that he had made the wardroom steward steal brandy and had given it to the crew; he said, “I did not make him steal it”; I told him that it was brought at his request—that he knew where it came from—it was, if possible, more criminal to seduce another to commit crime than to commit crime one’s self; he admitted the justice of this view. He turned again to say to me: “But are you not going too far—are you not fast? Does the law entirely justify you?” I replied that he had not consulted me in making his arrangements—that his opinion could not be an unprejudiced one—that I had consulted all of his brother officers, his messmates included, except the boys, and I placed before him their opinion. He stated that it was just, that he deserved death; he asked me what was the manner of death; I explained it to him; he objected to it and asked to be shot; I told him that I could not make any distinction between him and those whom he had corrupted; he admitted that this also was just; he objected to the shortness of the time for preparation, and asked for an hour; no answer was made to this request, but he was not hurried, and more than the hour for which he asked was allowed to elapse. He requested that his face might be covered; this was readily granted, and he was asked with what it should be covered; he did not care; a handkerchief was sought in his locker; none but a black one found and this brought for the purpose.
I now ordered that the other criminals should be consulted as to their wishes in this particular; they joined in the request and frocks were taken from their bags with which to cover their heads. Mr. Spencer asked to have his irons removed; this could not be granted; he asked for a Bible and a prayer book; they were brought, and others ordered to be furnished to his accomplices. “I am a believer,” he said; “do you think that repentance at this late hour can be accepted?” I called to his recollection the case of the penitent thief who was pardoned by our Savior upon the cross. He then read in the Bible, kneeled down and read in the prayer book; he again asked if I thought that his repentance could be accepted—that the time was so short, and he did not know if he really was changed. I told him that God, who was all-merciful as well as all-wise, could not only understand the difficuties of his situation, but extend to him such a measure of mercy as his necessities might require. He said, “I beg your forgiveness for what I have meditated against you.” I gave him my hand, and assured him of my sincere forgiveness; I asked him if I had ever done anything to him to make him seek my life, or whether the hatred he had conceived for me, and of which I had only recently become aware, was fostered for the purpose of giving himself some plea of justification. He said, “It was only a fancy—perhaps there might have been something in your manner which offended me.” * * * * When Mr. Wales came up, Mr. Spencer extending his hand to him, said, “Mr. Wales, I earnestly hope you will forgive me for tampering with your fidelity.” Mr. Spencer was wholly unmoved, Mr. Wales almost overcome with emotion; he replied, “I do forgive you from the bottom of my heart and I hope that God may forgive you also.” “Farewell,” exclaimed Mr. Spencer, and Mr. Wales, weeping and causing others to weep, responded “Farewell.” Mr. Spencer now passed on; about this time he asked for Midshipman Rodgers, but he had no orders to leave his station: I was only afterward aware of the request. At the gangway Mr. Spencer met Small with the same calm manner, but with a nearer approach to emotion; he placed himself in front of Small, extended his hand and said, “Small, forgive me for leading you into this trouble.” Small drew back with horror—“No, by God! Mr. Spencer, I can’t forgive you.” On a repetition of the request, Small exclaimed in a searching voice, “Ah, Mr. Spencer, that is a hard thing for you to ask me; we shall soon be before the face of God, and there we shall know all about it.” “You must forgive me, Small—I can not die without your forgiveness.” I went to Small and urged him to be more generous—that this was no time for resentment. He relented at once, held out his hand to take the still-extended hand of Mr. Spencer, and said with frankness and emotion, “I do forgive you, Mr. Spencer; may God Almighty forgive you, also!” Small now asked my forgiveness; he was the one of the three who was most entitled to compassion; I took his hand and expressed my complete forgiveness in the strongest terms that I was able; I asked him what I had ever said or done to him to make him seek my life, conscious of no injustice or provocation of any sort: I felt that it was yet necessary to my comfort to receive the assurance from his own lips. If any wrong had been done him—if any word of harshness, in the impatience or excitement of duty, had escaped me, I was ready myself to ask the question before he exclaimed, “What have you done to me, Captain MacKenzie? What have you done to me, sir?—nothing, but treat me like a man.” I told him, in justification of the course which I was pursuing, that I had high responsibilities to fulfil—that there were duties that I owed to the government which had intrusted me with this vessel—to the officers placed under my command—to those boys whom it was intended either to put to death, or reserve for a fate more deplorable: there was yet a higher duty to the flag of my country. He was touched by this: “You are right, sir; you are doing your duty, and I honor you for it; God bless that flag and prosper it! Now brother topmates,” he said, turning to those who held the whip, “give me a quick and easy death.” He was placed on the hammocks forward of the gangway, with his face inboard. Mr. Spencer was similarly placed abaft the gangway, and Cromwell also on the other side.
Mr. Spencer, about this time, sent for Lieutenant Gansevoort, and told him that he might have heard that his courage had been doubted; he wished him to bear testimony that he died like a brave man. He then asked me what was to be the signal of the execution. I told him that being desirous to hoist the colors at the moment of execution, at once to give solemnity to the act and to indicate that by it the colors of the Somers were fixed to the masthead, I had intended to beat the call as for hoisting the colors, then roll off, and at the third roll fire a gun. He asked to be allowed himself to give the word to fire the gun; I acceded to the request, and the drum and fife were dismissed. * * * * Time still wearing away in this manner, Small requested leave to address the crew. Mr. Spencer having leave to give the word, was asked if he would consent to the delay. He assented, and, Small’s face being uncovered, he spoke as follows: “Shipmates and topmates, take warning by my example; I never was a pirate, I never killed a man; it’s for saying that I would do it that I am about to depart this life; see what a word will do. It was going in a Guinea-man that brought me to this; beware of a Guinea-man.” He turned to Mr. Spencer, and said to him, “I am now ready to die, Mr. Spencer, are you?”
Cromwell’s last words were; “Tell my wife I die an innocent man: tell Lieutenant Morris, I die an innocent man.” But it had been the game of this man to appear innocent, to urge Mr. Spencer on, to furnish him with professional ideas, to bring about a catastrophe, of which Mr. Spencer was to take all of the risk, and from which he, Cromwell, was to derive all of the benefit. He had taken a great many precautions to appear innocent, but he had not taken enough. I now placed myself on the trunk in a situation from which my eye could take in everything. I waited for some time, but no word was given.
Even after eighty-three years we seem to fix our eyes upon the young culprit and wait from moment to moment, amid the silence of the crowded deck, for the word which will hang him, to issue from his own lips. One minute passes, then another and another, but he cannot utter it, and turning to a boatswain’s mate named Browning, asks him to tell the captain that he is unable to speak the word, and that he wishes the captain to give the word himself. Commander Mackenzie then called out, “Stand by. Fire!” The first lieutenant sang out, “Whip!” and the three men were run up to the yard, Spencer on the port side, Small and Cromwell on the starboard.
The crew were then called aft and Commander Mackenzie addressed them at length. He spoke of the tragedy of Spencer’s young life being ruined by his own ill-regulated ambition and his infamous aims; how he had disgraced his honored parents and thrown away the chance to win success in his profession; he spoke of the future of his hearers and told them how it was entirely in their power to win competence and rank by their own character and industry; he told them that their conduct must be founded on truth, honor, and fidelity; and he illustrated his remarks by anecdote. The rest of the day is thus described by him:
The crew were now piped down from witnessing punishment, and all hands called to cheer the ship. I gave the order, “Stand by, to give three hearty cheers for the flag of our country”; never were three heartier cheers given. In that electric moment, I do not doubt that the patriotism of even the worst of the conspirators, for an instant, broke forth. I felt that I once more was completely commander of the vessel that was intrusted to me, equal to do with her whatever the honor of my country might require. The crew were now piped down and piped to dinner. I noticed with pain that many of the boys, as they looked at the yard arm, indulged in laughter and derision. I still earnestly desired that Mr. Spencer should be buried as officers usually are, in a coffin. I ordered one to be forthwith made from a portion of the berth-deck; but Lieutenant Gansevoort, having offered to relinquish two mess chests, used instead of a wardroom stores room, they were soon converted into a substantial coffin.
When the hour usually given to the crew’s dinner was over, the watch was set and the bodies lowered from the yardarms and received by the messmates of the deceased, to be decently laid out for burial, the midshipmen assisting in person. When all was ready, the first lieutenant invited me to accompany him to see that these duties had been duly performed. Mr. Spencer was laid out on the starboard armschest, dressed in complete uniform, except the sword, which he had forfeited the right to wear. Further forward, the two seamen were also laid out with neatness. . . . .
At this moment a sudden squall sprung up, making it necessary to reduce sail; it was attended by heavy rain, and tarpaulins were hastily thrown over the corpses. The squall over, the sailors were sewed up in their hammocks—the body of Mr. Spencer was placed in the coffin. The three corpses, arranged according to rank, Mr. Spencer aft, were placed along the deck. All hands were now called to bury the dead; the procession was formed according to rank; .... the ensign was lowered to half-mast. Before the corpses had been placed on the lee, hammock-sails were ready for lowering overboard. The night had already set in; all of the battle lanterns and the other lanterns in the vessel were lighted and distributed among the crew. Collected, with their prayer books, on the booms, in the gangways, and lee-quarter-boat, the service was then read, the responses audibly and devoutly made by the officers and crew, and the bodies were consigned to the deep.
Night closed in. The little brig was free at last of the dangers of the past six days. An immediate change in the demeanor of the crew took place; where slowness and sullenness had prevailed, were now alacrity and obedience. That night for the first time in several nights sleep again visited the pillows of the officers. The ship continued on her way to New York via St. Thomas, with the four remaining prisoners kept in manacles to await trial on their arrival in the United States.
Thirteen days after the execution, or on December 14, she sailed past the lower end of Manhattan Island up the East River, and dropped anchor off the Navy Yard, Brooklyn. It became evident that there was something mysterious about the ship, for her officers did not come ashore on leave, and visitors were not allowed to go on board of her. A brother of Lieutenant Gansevoort was denied admission to the ship. Commander Mackenzie, on coming to anchor, had sent one of his officers ashore, Midshipman O. H. Perry, with instructions to proceed to Washington and deliver to the Secretary of the Navy a letter containing a brief report of the attempt at mutiny and the subsequent events, and requesting a court of inquiry. Then he ordered all of the ship’s company to go ashore with him; and with himself at their head marched solemnly to the nearest church, where he gave public thanks to Almighty God for the recent miraculous preservation of his ship and her company from the horrors of capture and murder by mutineers. This ceremony completed, they returned to the ship. A tendency toward religious exaltation on the part of Commander Mackenzie is noticeable in several instances while he was handling the mutiny on board his ship, and it should be regarded as a trait in his character.
On December 19, Commander Mackenzie supplemented his first brief report to the Secretary of the Navy by a very long one giving a full account of the attempted mutiny, together with the reasons for his own actions in relation to it. It is from this report that quotations have already been made in this article. It was published in Washington by authority of the government and was copied by newspapers in all parts of the country. A sure theme of conversation in every gathering of people was the mutiny on board the Somers. The social prominence of the actors in it, the terrible outcome of the scheme, made the subject a burning one. Soon the influence of political feeling on opinion was shown by those persons who were Henry Clay Whigs and detested President Tyler, for to them the fact that Midshipman Spencer’s father was a member of Mr. Tyler’s Cabinet was an incentive to believe that Commander Mackenzie had probably dealt justly with the son of his father. The personal attraction of Commander Mackenzie, the excellent reputation that he enjoyed as an officer, and his popularity as a literary man—all helped to make the majority of educated people both in New York and Boston disposed to believe that in suppressing the mutiny he could not have avoided performing the disagreeable duty of over-riding the law. Nevertheless, there was a minority of thinking persons who refused to take this attitude, and awaited, with great interest the court of inquiry which had been ordered by the Navy Department and which was to meet in open session on December 28, on board the U.S.S. North Carolina at the Navy Yard, Brooklyn. Even among his admirers there was general regret at the style and tone of his long statement to the Secretary of the Navy. As Mr. Philip Hone, who was friendly to him, remarks in his diary: “The truth is, there is much to be seen in this statement of the pride of authorship.”
The numbers of the court of inquiry were the following distinguished veterans: Commodore Charles Stewart, who had fought the famous action of the Constitution with the Cyane and Levant twenty-seven years before; Commodore Jacob Jones, who on the Wasp took the Frolic in 1812; and Commodore Alexander J. Dallas, who had fought under Rodgers in the President. The judge-advocate was Mr. Ogden Hoffman, District Attorney of New York, who had formerly been in the Navy, and Mr. John Hone was allowed to assist Commander Mackenzie in his defense. The court was ordered to report to the Navy Department its opinion as to the right and propriety of the conduct of Commander Mackenzie in ordering the execution of Midshipman Spencer and Cromwell and Small. It sat from December 28, 1842, until January 19, 1843, examining in this time all of the officers of the Somers and the majority of the crew. As it was only a court of inquiry and was destined to be followed by a court-martial of Commander Mackenzie, its findings have not quite the same weight as those of the later and more thorough investigation, but every word of its proceedings was followed from day to day by the whole country. “All the world,” writes Richard Henry Dana on December 29, “is talking about the Somers mutiny and the execution of Spencer. The prevailing opinion (I have not met an exception), is that Mackenzie will justify himself. I have little doubt of it.”
The findings of the court under the date of January 20, 1843, were as follows (I quote only the last clause):
That Commander Mackenzie under these circumstances was not bound to risk the safety of his vessel, and jeopardize the lives of his crew, in order to secure to the guilty the forms of trial, and that the immediate execution of the prisoners was demanded by duty and justified by necessity. The court are further of opinion that throughout all of these painful occurrences so well calculated to disturb the judgment and try the energy of the bravest and most experienced officer, the conduct of Commander Mackenzie and his officers was prudent, calm, and firm, and he and they honorably performed their duty to the service and their country.
(Signed) Charles Stewart,
President of the Court
While the court of inquiry was still sitting, and before its findings were arrived at, the Navy Department, either at the instigation of Secretary of War Spencer, or on its own initiative, decided that a court-martial of Commander Mackenzie was required by the circumstances. In this decision it was probably expressing the growing opinion of the thinking public. On February 2, therefore, an impressive court-martial composed of thirteen officers, eleven captains and two commanders, with Captain Downes as president, met on board the U.S.S. North Carolina. The judge-advocate was Mr. William H. Norris, of Baltimore, and the counsel for the accused were Messrs. John Duer, George Griffin, and Theodore Sedgwick, distinguished lawyers of New York. Two other equally distinguished lawyers, Charles O’Connor and B. F. Butler, also of New York, were, for some unknown reason, denied the right to be present at the sessions of the court to represent the interests of the dead midshipman and his comrades. On February 11 the court transferred its sittings to the little chapel in the Navy Yard, Brooklyn, where it continued to meet every week-day until its final verdict on March 28. During all of this time the controversy of the public over the conduct of Commander Mackenzie never ceased to rage. It even reached England where the reviews strongly condemned Mackenzie and called him murderer and other names. Our own New York Herald used similar language toward him. Every day of the trial visitors would come over from New York to Brooklyn to attend it. “My daughters,” writes Philip Hone in his diary, “went over with Mrs. de Peyster, Mrs. John Hone, and Emily. I also formed one of the delighted audience, prejudiced, I acknowledge, in favor of the accused.”
The charges against Commander Mackenzie at this court-martial were five in number, as follows: murder, oppression, illegal punishment, conduct unbecoming an officer, and cruelty. Of these, the last two were abandoned for want of proof. On April 14, 1843, the verdict was promulgated. As all of the world knows, it was one of acquittal, though the word “honorable” was not included before the word “acquittal”; and the finding was simply “confirmed and carried into effect without any expression of approbation or disapprobation on the part of the President, no such expression being necessary.”
The proceedings of the famous trial are almost as interesting now as when they took place. We devour the testimony with a determination to digest it and to know where we stand in regard to a decision on the facts as they appear to us. With such a motive the present writer will note and comment on a few of the salient points of the trial, weighing the testimony from the viewpoint of one who has a knowledge of later facts additional to those brought out in the trial. To begin with, the crew of the Somers included 89 sailors under age out of 108 persons; and the age of no fewer than 83 of these boys ran from only 13 years to 19 years. There were only 18 men of over 21 years of age. If any proof of the boyishness, not to say childishness, of a part of the crew were needed, it is furnished by the recital in Commander Mackenzie’s letter to the Secretary of the Navy, of the shocking levity of these lads just after the hanging of the three prisoners. “I noticed with pain,” he says, “that many of the boys, as they looked at the yardarm, indulged in laughter and derision.” The first thought that occurs to one in reading of this youthful crew is that the mutiny must have been confined to a small group of grown men on the ship. Assuming that half of the grown men would be loyal, and adding to them the eleven officers, there would seem to be a formidable band of about twenty people to handle the remaining grown men and the boys. This does not appear at first sight a dangerous situation, but let us read on and see what Richard Henry Dana says about it. He went on board the Somers when he was in New York and noted her “single narrow deck flush fore and aft,” and that there were only two exits to this deck from below for the officers—one from the cabin and the other from the steerage. “The officers,” he says, “would have to come up the steps and through the small companion scuttles, at which a couple of men could easily have cut them down or shot them as they appeared.” Continuing, he says, “one must either have been at sea or be willing to receive something on faith for those who have, to judge fairly of this case.” He adds that the facts “are such as can never come to us with the same force and meaning with which they came to him (Commander Mackenzie) at the time.” Mr. Dana writes thus in a letter to the Boston and New York papers of January 11, 1843, before the trial by court-martial was begun, and having already prejudged the case in favor of Commander Mackenzie. On reading him today one asks oneself why the conditions which he describes as possible in regard to the subjection of all of the officers by only two armed mutineers, might not be equally applicable if all the mutineers were below and only two armed officers stood ready to cut them down as they poked their heads above the lower deck.
We are told that Midshipman Spencer had a mania for piracy; in fact, he tells us so himself. The impression received of this young man, both from the testimony about him in this trial and from other knowledge of him, is that he was a silly, vicious-minded and insubordinate person, but only a lad of nineteen, and possibly not yet developed as to character. Yet, in spite of his youth, he might have been both a traitor and a villain. That Commander Mackenzie regarded him as fully grown is shown by the following statement he made to the court of inquiry:
I am prepared to prove that more than a year ago it was one of the amusements of Mr. Spencer to relate to the young children of one of the professors of Geneva College, in whose family he was domesticated, murderous stories and tales of blood; that the chief and favorite theme of his conversation was piratical exploits and the pleasures of a pirate’s life; that the-great object of his ambition was renown as a pirate; that the book which he oftenest read, and which, on leaving Geneva College to embark in a whaler, he presented to the students’ library, was the Pirate’s Own Book, and that it still remains there with his name in it; that, on stepping into the stagecoach to leave Geneva, the last words he said to a friend who took leave of him were that he would next be heard of as a pirate.
The paper in Greek characters is evidence of how obsessed with a desire to mutiny was the mind of young Spencer; yet there is something decidedly childish and silly, first, in using Greek at all; second, in committing his scheme to paper; third, in calling the attention of Midshipman Tillotson to the fact that he was at work on a very mysterious paper which he could not allow anyone to see; fourth, in putting down no less than twenty names as men to be coerced, although the coercion was to be done by only four who were “Certain” and perhaps by some of the “Doubtful.” Both his childishness and his ambition to be a pirate are also shown by his drawing on one occasion a picture of a brig with a black flag bearing a skull and crossbones, and then inviting the attention of Midshipman Hayes to it. There is too much testimony to doubt that this poorly developed young man would have liked to mutiny, and the evidence also seems to show that he induced Elisha Small to promise to follow his lead in case a mutiny were put into effect. I am unable to fasten with certainty the motive of mutiny on Samuel Cromwell. He was a desperate and insubordinate man, but he was too able to be led by the nose in any foolish and uncertain scheme. He had enemies before the mast on account of his tyranny, and his intimacy with an officer probably brought him more. But, the score of reasons given by Commander Mackenzie for putting him in irons seems but negligible as legal testimony, and merely resolve themselves with one general offense: namely, “the badness of his general character and conduct.”
As there was no evidence of ill treatment by the officers of the crew, but on the contrary there was a regard for their welfare and comfort shown by Commander Mackenzie, there was not the slightest excuse for a mutiny among the score of grown-up sailors on the Somers. The apprentice boys were too young to be considered as material for the making of a mutiny. Therefore, it was only a desire to roam the seas, to capture booty, to murder men, and to enslave women, which appealed to the undeveloped Spencer and to the weak-minded Small, and made them hope to lead others along the same alluring way.
That discontent and sullenness existed among the crew after leaving Madeira seems to be proved, but this might well have been due to the bad examples of subordination shown by Spencer and Cromwell. In any event, it never was considered dangerous until the officers examined it in retrospect and connected it in their minds with the subsequent symptoms of mutiny. Lieutenant Gansevoort himself testifies that he had no suspicion of a mutiny before November 26.
The sincerity of Commander Mackenzie’s belief in the existence of a plot to mutiny is conspicuous in every act of his during the six days from November 26 to December 1. The same may be said of Lieutenant Gansevoort. Belief in the mutiny, even if unfounded, unquestionably justified the act of the commanding officer in putting the supposed ringleaders in irons; but, belief in a plot to rescue the prisoners and to take possession of the ship could only justify the law-breaking act of the execution of the prisoners if founded on a reasoned certainty that the mutineers could really effect a rescue, could really overcome the officers, and could become the masters of the ship. There is nothing in the evidence to prove that such a rescue was even meditated, or, if attempted, could have succeeded. The imaginations of Commander Mackenzie and his first lieutenant led them to create greater dangers than existed. Their error in interpretation of the facts before them led them into doing wrong. To put men in irons is merely to take precautions; to hang them is a very grave matter and may be to commit a crime.
The imagination of 1843 as exercised by the minds of sensible men on the subject of piracy cannot be understood by us moderns unless we remember that piracy had been as I have already remarked the “scourge of nearly every sea” until only recently, and especially of the West Indies. Bearing this in mind we should not be amazed at the language of Mr. Charles Sumner, who wrote a long article on this trial, strongly favorable to Commander Mackenzie, in the North American Review in 1843. Following the lead of Mr. Griffin, the counsel of the accused, who had indulged his fancy in imagining the Somers as having turned pirate and captured some passenger ship plying between New York and Europe, “freighted with the talent and beauty of the land,” Mr. Sumner joins him in raising hands of horror at the subsequent treatment of the fair passengers by the pirates, picturing the latter as “bearing to foreign shores wives in the fresh morning of a husband’s love, and maidens the light and joy of happy household hearths,” and subjecting them to horrors indescribable. With similar pictures in his mind, and, in addition, with a rooted conviction that the mutineers of the Somers were only waiting for the proper moment to take possession of his ship, what else could Commander Mackenzie do but hang the three would-be pirates who were known to be the only ones among the mutineers who could navigate and handle a vessel?
As about half of the petty officers of the Somers were loyal and were trusted by the commanding officer to the extent of his arming them against the mutineers, there does not seem to be any good reason for supposing that the loyal men could not have prevented the others from effecting a rescue of the prisoners until such time as the brig might arrive at a port. The inconvenience, or the impossibility, of working the ship with seven prisoners in irons encumbering the deck can hardly be considered as a reason for hanging some of them in order to get them out of the way. Commander Mackenzie kept four men in irons, McKinley, Green, Wilson, and McKie, all the way to New York, and as soon as he dropped anchor there, put three more men and five big boys in irons, for he suspected them all of having been concerned in the mutiny, and not without some reason, for most of them had been on Spencer’s list of the “Doubtful.” Nothing could better illustrate his belief in the magnitude of the conspiracy against his ship than this confinement of twelve persons, after executing three others. Yet it is an extraordinary fact that a court-martial lasting forty days could not bring out sufficient evidence against these twelve men and boys to make Commander Mackenzie, after conferring with one of his lawyers, Theodore Sedgwick, decide to bring charges against a single one of them. Well might it be commented, as it was at the time: “If no offense could be discovered which would subject the offenders [the twelve above mentioned] to a trial before a court-martial, what becomes of all these charges of mutinous conduct which compelled the commander to put three helpless prisoners to death?” So wrote Mr. William Sturgis, of Boston, an eminent ship master and practical seaman himself, whose published remarks on the Somers case were in direct opposition to the opinions of his young friend and protegé, Richard Henry Dana.
The report of December 19, on the attempted mutiny, by Commander Mackenzie is the most important document in this trial in his defense, but its length of sixteen double-column printed pages prevents its complete inclusion in this article. An estimate of the general character of this paper as an argument in his favor, and of the impression it makes on a reader of today, will now be attempted by one who at least has endeavored to make an impartial study of it. The first thing to be said of the report is that it is too long. It is filled with remarks that tend to be irrelevant; or if necessary to the story, they are treated with a weight that they do not deserve. The whole report is emotional, written in a key of exaltation that is at times religious, at times invoking in high-sounding phrase the reverence for country and for flag which we all feel. Its sincerity is evident, but so is its rhetoric, its importance, its confidence, its pride. There is blindness to its own trivialities and to its inconsistencies in appraising the details of the tragedy which it describes. One is amazed to read in this report of Commander Mackenzie that among the defects of conduct of Midshipman Spencer—defects which included drunkenness and scandalous conduct—he lists the fact that Spencer had the “habit of amusing the crew by making music with his jaw.” “He had the faculty,” says Commander Mackenzie, “of throwing his jaw out of joint, and by the contact of the bones, playing with accuracy and elegance a variety of airs.” This trivial, irrelevant, and childlike announcement in the midst of his relation of a profound tragedy is not understood by the common-sense mind. It makes us wonder if, with all his long report, he felt that tragedy as deeply as it deserved to be felt. There are other examples of uneven treatment of fact in his assignment of suspicion to the various acts of some of the mutineers. He details at length unimportant traits of personality; he finds reason to see danger in actions which appear to us to bear little or no evidence of guilty motive. These he classes with other actions that are of real importance. Prolix, self-conscious in its eloquence, occasionally undignified, his report yet tells a story which of itself makes one read every word of it; and it must be added that one rises from the reading with a perplexed feeling as to just how deep the roots of mutiny, struck in the personnel on board the Somers. Was it as deep as depicted by Commander Mackenzie?
The literature brought into being by the Mackenzie trial was voluminous and in some cases of a high quality. The long review of the case by Charles Sumner is pitched in the intellectual key that we should expect. He states among other things that it is absurd to say that the Somers was “not at least in apparent danger, when all the officers join in testifying to its existence,” but he adds that all question of the guilt or innocence of Spencer, Cromwell, and Small is irrelevant. Providing the commanding officer, seeing this apparent danger, acted in good faith in causing the executions and believing them to be necessary to the safety of his ship, then the commanding officer is entitled to receive the protection of the law. This is, indeed, intellectual to the ordinary, sea-going, ship-handling mind, which balks at the proposition that whatever the commanding officer thinks to be danger, and whatever fearful interpretation he may put on acts that may merely be somewhat out of the ordinary, nevertheless, he is justified in going as far as he likes in combating the evil that he sees in his mind’s eye. To the common-sense reader of the testimony in this case the facts of the situation do not appear to have been either accurately or sensibly interpreted by the commanding officer and by his first lieutenant, and therefore did not justify the sequel. Mr. Sumner does not pay as much attention to weighing these facts as he does to propounding law, which, of course, he knew as a master and which we humbly accept from his lips. His review has literary attraction, with its history of famous mutinies of the past, though they do not seem to bear closely on the Somers’ case. His estimate of the value of Commander Mackenzie’s services to the nation is logical, even if excessive in its appraisal. Here it is: “He [Mackenzie] has done more than gain a battle, and deserves more than the homage of admiration and gratitude with which we greet the victor returning from successful war. We thank him, and the country thanks him, that he did not hesitate.” Commander Mackenzie could ask no better friend and advocate than this, but he had another endorser almost as admiring in Richard Henry Dana, whose favoring letter to the New York and Boston papers has, in the opinion of Charles Francis Adams, a permanent interest, “for it is the judgment of a man whose judgment carried weight in this painful episode in our naval history, in regard to which opinions then were, and probably always will remain divided.” Mr. Dana states the most important point in the case when he says that it is necessary for Commander Mackenzie to prove that the arrested persons could not be taken into port in irons. “For this,” he adds, “must be made out, or the execution is unjustifiable.” Mr. Dana wrote this letter during the court of inquiry, but there is no record that his favorable conclusions of that time were afterward altered by anything brought out in the testimony of the court-martial. Mr. Adams is right in attributing weight to the opinions of Mr. Dana. To the sea-faring student of this case, Mr. Dana’s reasoning, touched as it is with sympathy for Mackenzie, carries such weight that he turns again to reexamine the testimony of the officers of the Somers, and especially of Sergeant Garty, Gunner’s Mate Collins, Quartermaster Rogers and other witnesses for the defense. Again he feels that although there was undoubtedly a spirit of unrest and lawlessness existing in a few minds on board the brig, yet he cannot read into these signs as much as did Mr. Sumner and Mr. Dana. At this point one should read the pungent articles of Mr. William Sturgis already referred to, whose technical objections to Mr. Dana’s conclusions in this case are convincing to one reader at least. Among the interesting observations of Mr. Sturgis on the testimony of the trial is the following: “Cromwell, I firmly believe had no more intention to capture the Somers and turn pirate than had Commander Mackenzie himself.”
But there is no article or review called forth by this remarkable trial more analytical, more illuminating as to technicalities, than the eighty-page review of it by James Fenimore Cooper, published in New York in 1844. It is masterly in its keenness of observation of the motives behind the various acts of the chief persons in the drama. Even a psycho-analyst would be satisfied with it. The literary powers of the author are conspicuous, and those admirers of Cooper who collect his works are not aware that their collections are seriously incomplete, if lacking the rare volume known as The Mackenzie Case, with a review by J. F. Cooper. There is no incident of importance in the whole six days’ story which he does not examine and interpret. The proved courage of Commander Mackenzie is a matter of history, but we cannot disagree with the general statement of Cooper when he remarks that “brave men, those who are ready to risk their lives on all suitable occasions, often see danger where there is truly none.” The substance of all of Mr. Cooper’s reasoning and arguments is to be found in the last four words of his review which attribute the tragedy, among other causes, to a “lamentable deficiency of judgment.”
Before the Cooper review was published the facts relating to the division of the votes of the twelve officers who comprised the court-martial at its close, appear to have been drawn out on authority, and it was said that nine of the members of the court had voted “not guilty” on the charge of murder, and three “guilty”; on the charge of illegal punishment, eight had voted “not guilty,” and four “guilty.” The report that Commander Mackenzie had not received a unanimous acquittal did not tend to quiet the contention that raged around his name among civilians. Among his colleagues it was different; for “the feeling was so strong,” says G. R. Clark in his History of the Navy, “that it became a point of etiquette among naval officers never to discuss the mutiny on the Somers. This silence, both among themselves and especially toward the outside world, was continued for scores of years. Captain William H. Parker, writing in his interesting Recollections, as late as 1883, speaks of the mutiny on the Somers, but adds that he declines to express any opinions concerning it.
That Commander Mackenzie still carried the majority of the public with him just after the verdict of the court was made known, is probable. On May 11, 1843, Mr Philip Hone, of New York, writes thus in his diary: “A letter is published signed by three hundred merchants and others of our most respectable citizens, addressed to Commander Alexander S. Mackenzie, expressing their approval of his conduct in the unhappy affair of the mutiny on board the Somers and their congratulations on his honorable acquittal by the court of inquiry and court-martial. His answer to this high compliment is much better written and in better taste than his unfortunate statement to the government on his arrival. . . . .” Commander Mackenzie received a similar letter of congratulation from citizens of the same class in the city of Boston. The trial was now over—a thing of the past—and history, aided by time, was to deal with the mutiny on the Somers.
Thirteen years later the public was interested to read from the pen of Senator Thomas H. Benton, of Missouri, a long review of the whole tragedy in his book called the Thirty Years View. It was strongly condemnatory of Mackenzie, but it probably expressed the prevailing civilian point of view as it had gradually shaped itself. The article is by an able mind, but too severe on the officers of the Somers, and not so accurate in its facts or inferences as the review by Fenimore Cooper. It is in strong contrast to the views held by the senator’s colleague at the time of writing, Mr. Charles Sumner, to whom he does not even refer except to say that Mackenzie had been “encomiastically reviewed in a high literary journal.” There does not appear to be any further writing of note on the mutiny in this country until 1889 when Miss Abigail Dodge, better known as “Gail Hamilton,” wrote for a magazine a full story of the tragedy in three instalments accompanied by illustrations, more or less accurate, of incidents in the story. She called her article “The Murder of Spencer,” and a note of shrill denunciation of Commander Mackenzie and of some of his officers runs through it, leaving them little character. Miss Dodge calls aloud for the restoration of the three victims to the right to bear a good name. Her story is too blind in its judgments to be valuable. It was impossible for Mackenzie to be as bad as she painted him.
The naval histories have dealt with the mutiny on the Somers either scantily, though favorably to Mackenzie, or else not at all. Fenimore Cooper’s third volume of his naval history, coming down to 1852, was written by another hand than his own, and its account of the mutiny, mildly favorable to Mackenzie, does not reflect the opinion of Cooper himself. In 1900 Mr. Park Benjamin in his History of the U. S. Naval Academy gives an account of the mutiny, quotes with approval Charles Sumner on it, and vehemently decries the efforts of those mistaken people who desire the canonization” of the “three miscreants” who had been, in his opinion, rightly hanged. A similar view, though less pronounced in its partiality to Mackenzie, is expressed in the history of the Navy by G. Ramsay Clark and others, but its account of the occurrence is neither full nor very accurate.
But, let us get back to 1843 and the last chapter of this sad story. There is no tragedy complete without women, and there were three of them to suffer when the Somers dropped anchor off Brooklyn. The mother of Spencer, shocked beyond relief, was to die not long afterwards, believing sacredly in the innocence of her son to the last. Even the rude Cromwell had a wife who cared for him, and she tried, though in vain, to bring punishment through the civil courts on the one she held responsible for her bereavement. I find no record of the humble mother of the weak, hard-drinking Small, but we know that she sent him to sea with a Bible, and that a letter of affection from her aged hand was found in it on the day that he was strung up.
As for the chief actor in this tragedy, there can be no better description of his plight, even after acquittal by his brother officers, than the words which Mr. Sumner applied to him, quoting from Plato: “He who has slain a man, however justly, is not to be envied.” Commander Mackenzie was not happy in his remaining years. How could he be, for the attacks upon him for his conduct in the mutiny never wholly ceased? In less than six years, during which period he distinguished himself in the land attack on Vera Cruz in the war with Mexico, he died at the comparatively early age of forty-five. The brig Somers herself passed out of existence in 1846, going down in a gale off Vera Cruz and carrying three midshipmen and thirty-seven of her crew with her.
In writing of this painful event in our naval history the author has been moved more by a desire to explain than to condemn. Our judgment of the occurrence should include a knowledge of the times as well as of the individuals.