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Bill Thayer

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Part II
Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
One Man's Fight
for a Better Navy

Holden A. Evans
[Former Naval Constructor, U. S. N.]

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part II
Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Part II

 p155  Chapter V

When Our Blue-Jackets Mutinied

Mutiny in the Navy? Not the American Navy, you say. In other navies perhaps; but we in this country rest secure in the certainty that our American gobs will stay put under any circumstances, however difficult.

Yes? Then how about the once celebrated but now almost forgotten mutiny on the U. S. Brig Somers in 1842.​a

"No fair," is your reply. "That's going back to archaic times, when naval officers wore their hair in queues, and the cat‑o'‑nine‑tails was part of every ship's discipline. We mean the Navy as it is today. Every newspaper reader know there has never been mutiny in the modern U. S. N."

Let me reply that there was a mutiny aboard one of our Navy vessels in quite recent times — since the days of armor plate, revolving turrets and big guns, torpedo tubes, and submarines. I myself witnessed it, with five other officers, nearly all of whom were my seniors in rank.

The entire crew of one of our naval craft flatly and defiantly refused to obey an order of the commanding officer. Furthermore, they got away with it. The men were not even court-martialed. The only thing that happened to them was dispersal among other ships of the Navy. For sufficient reasons the whole affair was hushed up. The newspapers never heard a word of it. The Navy solemnly and with deliberation turned the page upon a blot it preferred to forget.

I am going to tell that story now — one never before in public print. But first let me resuscitate the tragic history of the U. S. Brig Somers, partly because it is an interesting episode in  p156 itself, partly to contrast the treatment of mutineers in the gallant days of sail and in the more prosaic times of the turbine engine.

Our first necessary glimpse of the Somers shows her becalmed in the West Indies. It is in a time of profound peace. The Somers rolls gently in the long swells, and dangling at the end of the yardarm swing the bodies of two men and a boy, condemned to death without trial and hanged as mutineers by the captain of the war vessel, Commander MacKenzie.

The men are of little consequence — sailors before the mast. The boy is Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, son of John Canfield Spencer, the Secretary of War.

What had happened? The purser's steward came to Commander MacKenzie with a fantastic tale. He had been approached, he said, by Midshipman Spencer with a proposition to join with others, murder the officers, seize the Somers, and turn pirate.

Commander MacKenzie threw Spencer in irons. With one midshipman the commander took charge of the vessel and ordered his other officers to form a court of inquiry. They heard the steward's testimony. The steward named Boatswain's Mate Cromwell and Able Seaman Small as ringleaders with young Spencer. The court's report recommended the immediate execution of all three. Armed with this report, MacKenzie hanged the culprits at the yardarm.

The Somers reached New York. The news broke, and there was great excitement — and intense criticism of MacKenzie. A Navy court martial tried him on a charge of murder. The court divided and MacKenzie got off with a Scotch verdict — not proved. Still, the uproar did not die down. The aristocratic novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, who had served in the Navy and had written its history, attacked Commander MacKenzie in a pamphlet and used the incident to argue the unfitness of  p157 military men to try culprits accused of capital crimes.

Within the Navy the feeling was so strong, for and against MacKenzie, that, according to a textbook studied at Annapolis, "it became a point of etiquette among naval officers never to discuss the mutiny on the Somers."

Who knows what happened aboard the Somers? Who will ever know? To us now it seems incredible that a boy brought up as young Spencer had been should have conceived the idea of seizing a Yankee man-of‑war and turning pirate, even in the turbulent 40's.

Spencer's father was an exceptional man. He had been superintendent of New York's public schools and also New York's Secretary of State. For many years he was a regent of Union College. He held two cabinet portfolios. He was editor of De Tocqueville's famous work on the American Government. Such a man does not usually beget a pirate.

Navy officers are notoriously opposed to civilian control of our military establishments. Secretary Spencer was the type of civilian particularly obnoxious to the service. If not a pacifist, he was an anti-imperialist. He resigned from the Government because he opposed the annexation of Texas. Yet if there was any political implication in the hanging of Midshipman Spencer, the record of the case does not show it.

But there were suspicious points. The court of inquiry — composed of officers of the Somers — reported that in view of the "uncertainty as to what extent they (the accused) 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 . . . they should be put to death."

The officers who made that report were in the main but boys  p158 themselves, from 17 to 18 years old. In this day and age a Navy board usually takes orders from somebody on high. Unless the spirit of the Navy has violently changed, it would have been easy for Commander MacKenzie to impose his will upon that young and inexperienced court.

Another point is that the Somers was not far from the port of St. Thomas. Even if MacKenzie feared a widespread plot on his ship, rather than take the responsibility for hanging three men, should he not have made a run for St. Thomas? There, if necessary, he could have put have whole crew in irons and transported them home with foreign assistance. This was James Fenimore Cooper's view.

Now to skip sixty odd years to the spring of 1905 and another Navy mutiny. As naval constructor at the Mare Island Navy Yard, I was a member of the Western Board of Inspection and Survey. We were ordered to make a military inspection of submarines at Mare Island.

Submarines were new then. The swivel-chair admirals in Washington were opposing them, just as they have always opposed every scientific advance in the art of warfare. I have no doubt that the admirals of sail opposed steam when it arrived. In 1905 the only reason we had submarines was that the submarine-builder's lobby in Washington had foisted them on the Navy.

My friend Lieutenant Woods was in command of the submarines. He was an enthusiast for them and had made careful preparation for the inspection.

"I'll show the mossbacks what a submarine can do," he told me.

The board was largely made up of Woods' "mossbacks" — captains and commanders. The only young men on it were Lieutenant Hepburn (now Rear Admiral Hepburn, late Commander-in‑Chief of the Fleet) and myself. We boarded a tug  p159 and went out to the submarine selected for the tests. On the way out the uncomfortable captains and commanders took counsel with one another and reached an astonishing decision. They delegated the youngsters, Hepburn and myself, to represent the entire board in the diving tests.

How those members could inspect the military operation of a diving submarine from a tug, I can not say. They might as well have stayed in their swivel chairs ashore.

Lieutenant Hepburn and I went over to the submarine, only to meet with a stunning surprise. We found Lieutenant Woods, white as paper, facing a sullen crew.

"I'm afraid there'll be no diving today," Woods told us. "The men won't obey."

A petty officer called out, "No, we won't. We're not going down with him. The lieutenant has been practicing stunts with us. Only the other day he had us stuck in the mud for over half an hour. Today he's going to try to break records for the board — but not with us. We'll not risk our lives with him any more."

Lieutenant Hepburn was a reasonable chap. He kept his head now.

"Men," he argued with them, "you can't take this attitude. You are threatening to commit a very grave offense — mutiny. Even in peace times there are heavy penalties for mutineers. Now think it over, do your duty, and we'll forget this flare‑up."

"We won't dive," came back the spokesman. "Jail us, if you want to; that's better than losing our lives."

This was too much for Hepburn. "Are you going to obey?" he demanded, sternly. There was a stubborn murmur of refusal.

"Very well," said Hepburn. "Lieutenant Woods, take them to the tug."

On the tug the mutineers were lined up. The senior officer of  p160 the board reasoned with them as had Hepburn but with no better success.

"We won't condemn you as a body," said the senior officer. "Each man shall have his chance to say how he stands. Mr. Woods, call the roll.

Woods began, "Smith, will you obey my order?"

"I will not," responded Smith.

"Jones, will you obey?"

"I will not."

Every man in turn refused. The senior officer directed Woods to take his crew to the submarine and return to Mare Island — on the surface. The inspection was over. The military value of at least one submarine of the United States was officially nil.

The board debated earnestly and long what to do and finally decided to do — nothing. Perhaps the older members had a sneaking sympathy with the mutineers. They didn't care much for submarines themselves, and who knew what a man like Woods might not attempt in one. If they recommended a court martial for the men, it would be bad advertising for the Navy.

The only recommendation was that the mutinous sailors be scattered among other ships of the Navy, not more than one man to a ship.

Thus ended the Navy mutiny of 1905. In 1842, on an accusation of intended mutiny three men are hanged without trial at the yardarm; in 1905, actual mutiny and no punishment inflicted. Autres temps autres moeurs.

Thayer's Note:

a Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, pp214‑218.

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Page updated: 3 Feb 15