Mutiny on the Bounty is one of history's greatest naval stories—yet few know the similar tale from America's own fledgling navy in the dying days of the Age of Sail, a tale of mutiny and death at sea on an American warship.
In 1842, the brig-of-war Somers set out on a training cruise for apprentice seamen, commanded by rising star Alexander Mackenzie. Somers was crammed with teenagers. Among them was Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, a disturbed youth and a son of the U.S. Secretary of War. Buying other crew members' loyalty with pilfered tobacco and alcohol, Spencer dreamed up a scheme to kill the officers and turn Somers into a pirate ship.
In the isolated world of a warship, a single man can threaten the crew's discipline and the captain's authority. But one of Spencer's followers warned Mackenzie, who arrested the midshipman and chained him and other ringleaders to the quarterdeck. Fearing efforts to rescue the prisoners, officers had to stay awake in round-the-clock watches. Steering desperately for land, sleep-deprived and armed to the teeth, battling efforts to liberate Spencer, Somers's captain and officers finally faced a fateful choice: somehow keep control of the vessel until reaching port—still hundreds of miles away—or hang the midshipman and his two leading henchmen before the boys could take over the ship.
The results shook the nation. A naval investigation of the affair turned into a court-martial and a state trial and led to the founding of the Naval Academy to provide better officers for the still-young republic. Mackenzie's controversial decision may have inspired Herman Melville's great work Billy Budd. The story of Somers raises timeless questions still disturbing in twenty-first-century America: the relationship between civil and military law, the hazy line between peace and war, the battle between individual rights and national security, and the ultimate challenge of command at sea.
Buckner F. Melton, Jr., is a historian and professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An occasional commentator for National Public Radio, PBS, and MSNBC, he is also author to The First Impeachment, Aaron Burr: Conspiracy to Treason, and A Hanging Offense.
Publisher: Free Press (July 27, 2007)
Length: 320 pages
Clive Cussler Enough intrigue and drama to satisfy the most demanding reader of history. Melton has no equal in recording sea history.
Kenneth Hagan Author of This People's Navy: The Making of American Sea Power and Professor of Strategy, U.S. Naval War College, Monterey Program Writing with the awed voice of a seafaring poet and the tenacity of a trial lawyer, Buckner Melton creates a sense of immediacy concerning the near-mutiny aboard the naval brig Somers in 1842. The mesmerizing story is as troubling today as it was a century and a half ago.
Thomas Farel Heffernan Author of Mutiny on the Globe: The Fatal Voyage of Samuel Comstock An exciting and engrossing account of a great naval tragedy. Melton's thoroughly researched depiction of the national and nautical background of the affair and his penetrating analysis of its participants make the Somers story understandable and riveting as never before.
David W. Shaw Author of The Sea Shall Embrace Them: The Tragic Story of the Steamship Arctic In this well-researched and faithful account of the attempted mutiny aboard the brig Somers in 1842, Buckner F. Melton, Jr., brings to light a little-known chapter of maritime history. The book is rich in detail and compelling, a blend of high-seas adventure and legal drama.
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