A Hanging Offense

The Strange Affair of the Warship Somers

About The Book

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.


Part One: Somers

Even tied up at dock, she gave the impression of speed. Her sharp bow, her tall, swept-back masts, made her seem as if she were a sprinter poised to fly across the white wave tops. Low, flush-decked, smallish in size, she had a touch of yacht about her. Even a casual eye could tell with just a glance or two that when she slipped the leash that held her alongside the land, she would take to the ocean with the swiftness and grace of a greyhound.

She was not, strictly speaking, a ship, although she was large enough: a hundred feet in length between her perpendiculars and a beam of twenty-five, an eleven-foot depth of hold, and more than two hundred fifty tons burthen. A good many acres of trees, everything from oak to pine, had given their lives to bring her forth. But she had only two masts, not a ship's requisite three, although both were square-rigged as a ship's masts were.

By the standards of her day, her armament was on the light side. In the old British classification system, she would hardly have rated. The ships of the line, the battleships of the wooden world, were floating fortresses, the equal of almost any land-bound castle in firepower. They carried seventy-four, ninety, a hundred and ten artillery pieces, while she carried scarcely a dozen. A single broadside from even a third-rate line-of-battle ship would have blown her to flinders. But first the battleship would have to catch her, and that could never happen. With the press of sail that she could carry on those tall masts of hers, she was one of the fastest things afloat.

She was first cousin to a Baltimore Clipper; the relationship showed in her sharp lines, her narrow, knifelike hull, and her rather broad beam. Forerunners of the true clipper ships, the Baltimore Clippers were quick and handy sailers. They carried small cargoes but carried them nimbly, in deep and shallow water alike. Slavers and buccaneers liked them; they were good at running and hiding, and at chasing down poorly armed prey.

But Baltimore Clipper was only part of her heritage. Technically she was a brig, given her rig and her number of masts. The name stems from brigand, in honor of the North African raiders who first used vessels of her sort. She had piracy in her bloodlines. But it was a domesticated piracy. She was on the side of the angels. She was designed to take on the slave ships and the corsairs, and to beat them at their own game. She was weatherly; she could sail very close to the wind, and easily into the shallows, following her enemies wherever they went, and she could sail as fast as they. She was over-sparred, like a modern-day hot rod with too much engine for its own good. Of course, all those sails could make her very hard to control. If someone handled her carelessly, the wind that she used for power could turn on her and tear her to pieces. But in the right hands, more firm than gentle, she could respond as no other ship did. And if her master knew his business, he could use what she had to hunt down his prey and bring her to the culmination of battle.

Given what she was hunting, her ten to twelve guns were enough. They were medium thirty-two-pounders, which was fairly heavy artillery. She was over-gunned, in fact, as well as over-sparred, the guns' thousands of pounds of weight adding to her handling problems. But in exchange for the loss in stability, those weapons gave her a serious punch. They were heavier than any field pieces, and of longer range, too. No army field artillery regiment of the day had anything close to her striking power, to say nothing of her mobility. A single broadside from her would send a hail of solid shot into an enemy hull, tearing it open to the sea and blowing its wood into shards that would shred human flesh to hamburger. If a round happened to hit a man it would take off his arm, or his leg, or his head, in less than an eyeblink. The guns could also be loaded with grapeshot, clusters of small iron balls, turning them from anti-ship weapons to purely anti-personnel pieces. A broadside of grape was like a blast from a bank of giant shotguns. It could sweep clean an enemy deck in seconds. The guns could even be loaded with chain and aimed at the enemy's rigging, robbing him of the ability to maneuver or even make headway. Then, after his likely surrender, her boarding parties could take him in hand. She was a potent device.

Swift and sharp, graceful and powerful, she stood at the pinnacle of six thousand years of sailing ship development, resting there at the New York Navy Yard in the spring of 1842, a few months after her birth. Good American ships were the best in the world, even better than England's, perhaps, and her maker had built her well. She was the epitome of her kind. No one could know that for all her newness and eagerness, she had a terrible flaw: this brand-new warship, this United States Brig-of-War Somers, was nearly obsolete.


The sea never changes. Its details may differ, to an amazing degree, from time to time and from place to place. Anyone who spends even a little while on or around the world's oceans knows that. The sea can be calm and as flat as a pond, and if the light is just right, the water can turn to milk, difficult to distinguish from skies the color of powder. In the north the sea can be hard, changing to liquid gunmetal with cold steel highlights or dead, leaden hues. The waters can sparkle like sapphire under a tropical sun, or green like a washed-out emerald closer to shore, or too black to make out on a dark, storm-tossed night. The sea can get angry, working up into a rage of white foam, spawning waves so high and troughs so deep that they can swallow a tanker, and winds that can drive raindrops so hard that they sting like a swarm of needles. But for all of these changes of aspect, the sea's essence remains the same. It always consists of water, which lies beneath air, which in turn lies beneath sun and stars. The tides are predictable, and the water is always as salty as teardrops. The sea, in short, is as constant as human nature.

But human technology changes. And in the mid-nineteenth century, a half-dozen transformations of naval technology changed the nature of ships and of war at sea more than all the developments of the previous half-dozen millennia put together. Yet, for all of that, Somers still had things in common with her earliest ancestors.

Ships are as old as human society. Perhaps they are even older. Technology is one of the signs of civilization, and technology is what ships are all about. A ship is a device that turns an impassable barrier -- a river, a lake, an ocean -- into a highway for travel and trade. Without ships, some of these barriers are absolute. But ships transmute them, like magic, into the world's greatest channels for exchanging every building block of society from food to ideas. When ships began, so, too, did civilization.

The Mediterranean was the earliest ocean frontier, along with the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, which together surrounded the Fertile Crescent. Calm and flat, with light and predictable winds, it was perfect for oar power. Egyptians were perhaps the first to reach out into its waters, although they began their lessons on the Nile. The currents of Egypt's river ran against the prevailing wind, so that air and water were always at battle, so maybe this was the place where humans first took to sail, using the breezes to fight the Nile's northward flow. This gave Egyptian sailors experience, so that when the time came for them to expand their horizons and set out into the open ocean and out of the sight of land, Egypt was up to the challenge. It had learned the ways of both oar and sail, the two sources of power that would rule, in tandem, for thousands of years.

The earliest sailing rigs were simple. Ancient depictions of sailing ships show single square sails on a single short mast, driving long hulls with uplifted ends. Such a rig wouldn't have let a captain do anything flashy or fast, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean's light winds. But it let him do things on the cheap, and that was what merchantmen wanted. Human beings, whether free men or slaves, cost money. They (or their labor) are expensive to buy, and they are expensive to feed. A ship is expensive, too, but once built, if powered by sail, its costs of operation are low and its cargo capacity relatively high, at least without many men on board. Even today, ships carry most of our cargo, and carry it more cheaply, pound for pound, than any other system of transport. This was a lesson that merchants picked up on almost as soon as there were merchants. So sail began to flourish, and Egypt moved outward, as did others -- the Cretans, the Phoenicians, the Greeks. But ships, in addition to helping these peoples build maritime empires, threatened their commerce as well, for pirates could use ships, too.

A lumbering merchant ship can be slow, especially if it uses sails in the Mediterranean. Pirates had to be faster, in order to catch their prey, so they usually relied on oar power. Oars are much more expensive to run than sails, for they need lots of men, and those men need food and fresh water. An oar-propelled ship tends to be longer and leaner than its sail-powered counterpart. All of this cuts down on cargo capacity, and thus on range. Oar-propelled ships were tied more closely to land, since they needed constant resupply. But as payback for all of these downsides, the oar-propelled ship got one huge advantage: a built-in power source that a captain could call on at whim. He could use it in motionless air; he could use it to move against an in-your-face wind. His ship did his will, his brain directing the rowers' muscles; all that his men supplied was animal power. And having harnessed that power, he could use it to overhaul and grab the fat merchant prizes. This was a dynamic that stayed the same until Somers's day. To a degree it is still true in our own. The only difference is that today the machinery is more complicated than oars.

The oar never fully conquered the sail, at least in merchant shipping. But the tactical edge that it gave meant that the struggle for command of the sea more often than not took place between oar-powered ships. It was oar, not sail, that fought at Salamis in 480 b.c., where Athens stopped the Persian invasion of Europe, forever changing history. It was oar power that wrenched command of the sea from the Carthaginian Empire in the last of the Punic Wars, when Rome, already a magnificent land power, crushed Carthage's fleet on the water. When Carthage lost command of the sea, it lost its maritime buffer zone, and thus its national security. Not long after that, it lost everything else as well. It ceased to exist, the Romans eradicating it utterly. It was oar power that, not many years later, gave Octavian the victory and the emperor's crown in his seaborne clash with Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium. The Egyptian queen Cleopatra's fleet was with Antony's; but her ships were driven by sail. At the battle's crucial moment, having the weather gage, the benefit of being upwind, her ships charged Octavian's fleet, bearing down on it in a rush. Octavian quickly opened up a gap in his oar-powered line, and Cleopatra's ships sailed neatly through. Too neatly, in fact: she never engaged Octavian. An instant later she was downwind, with no easy way of coming about and making another attack. Her force, slave as it was to the winds, had wasted itself. So she kept sailing on, away from the battle and home to Egypt. Behind her Antony and his fleet came to ruin, Octavian's forces setting fire to her lover's ships. The ancient Mediterranean belonged to oars.

With the death of Carthage and the end of the Punic Wars -- certainly with Antony's death -- Rome came to rule the sea unchallenged, and the naval peace called the Pax Romana commenced. The only real danger at sea was the threat of small-scale piracy, and Rome's fleet soon took care of that. Even the dangers that came from the sea itself -- squalls, shoals, and lee shores -- were slight in the calm and sunny Mediterranean. Oar may have won the wars, but it had won them to make the sea safe for sail, as the merchantmen plied their trade.

But not all seas are calm and flat. To the west, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, beyond Gibraltar and Mount Acha, lay a far vaster, more tempestuous ocean, the ocean that Somers would sail nearly two thousand years later. Now and then the ancient ships had sailed beyond this place that marked the end of the world, into the unknown sea; but this was merely prelude. And in the following centuries, mariners learned that neither their long, oared ships nor the simple Mediterranean sailing rigs were a match for Atlantic and North Sea gales, or the high walls of water that the deep ocean could thoughtlessly throw at ships. Something more was needed. As Rome crumbled and fell, and the barbarians of Northern and Western Europe began to build a new world, seafaring technology began to evolve.

The Mediterranean is a very small sea, barely a million square miles in all. The North Atlantic alone is thirty times bigger than that, and the North Atlantic is just one of a half-dozen true oceans, most of which are still larger. Because of the size of those oceans, the possibilities that they offered for trade and expansion dwarfed those of the Mediterranean -- but only for ships that were up to the task. Gradually, very gradually, over a span of nearly a thousand years, Europe learned how to build such ships. And those ships were powered by sail.

But the sailing ship of the North Atlantic was far different from those of the Mediterranean. It had to be able to sail into the wind, not just with it, and to keep the currents and waves from pushing it off its course. Over the centuries the mariners there devised the technology that would let them do these things. The centerline rudder; the bowsprit; displacement hulls that bit well down into the water -- all of these things made ships better able to live in high winds and tempestuous seas. Sail plans grew more complex; one sail per mast became two, then three, then more. More sails meant more complexity, and more crew, too, but they also meant more speed and more flexibility. These were the rigs that could carry ships on voyages of nearly impossible distance, voyages around the Cape of Good Hope and eastward from there to India, voyages westward from Spain to American coasts, even voyages, by 1520 or so, completely around the world. By the end of the high Middle Ages, the technology was finally in place. The deep-ocean ship had finally come to be.

Europe, which had brought forth that ship, was now the mistress of the winds and the waters, which in turn gave her control of the planet. She used them to discover a new world to exploit. And, in time, a country of that new world would become one of the greatest maritime powers in history.


In August 1834, a young man with troubled eyes set foot on another brig that was tied up in Boston Harbor. He was new to Pilgrim; he had just come from Harvard, where he'd overdosed on his books. He needed a taste of fresh air and work to restore him to health, and in the next few years he would get them.

Being a landsman, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., managed to capture on paper for other landsmen and women something of what being a seaman meant, for the difference between the two was huge. His voyage was a long one, to California and back, and in his book Two Years Before the Mast, he painted quite a picture of the seagoing life. One of its highlights was his description of the sails of his vessel. One night in the South Atlantic he was far out on the bowsprit, and he turned and took in the sight of his ship. The night was calm, and nearly all of the sails were set. The sight took his breath away.

There rose up from the water, supported by only the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark blue sky was studded with the tropical stars; there was not a sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out, wide and high -- the two lower studding-sails stretching out on each side, twenty or thirty feet beyond the deck; the top-mast studding-sails, like wings to the top-sails; the top-gallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher, the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and, highest of all, the little sky-sail, the apex of the pyramid, seeming actually to touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculptured marble, they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail -- so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in the sight, that I forgot the presence of the man who came out with me, until he said (for he, too, rough old man-of-war's-man as he was, had been gazing at the show) half to himself, still looking at the marble sails -- "How quietly they do their work!"

Dana's reverie reminds us of one of the most vitally important things about a sailing ship. It is a thing of great beauty. Rarely in human invention has pure functionalism had such an exquisite form. But the beauty is happenstance. A ship has a job to do. And a warship's job is the projection of force beyond its home country's shores. Until the Wright brothers flew, warships were the only means of projecting force across water barriers. And when force projection is the objective, beauty must take a back seat.

Sail was always the choice of merchants, but by the 1500s it was the choice of most navies, too. Oared galleys survived until 1800 or so, but by the time they finally died out, sail had held center stage for centuries. The reason was simple: guns had appeared.

Navies are different from armies, in almost every imaginable way, from strategy and tactics to matériel and logistics. In the Age of Sail, a warship was an excuse for its guns, the guns the reason for the rest of the ship. While armies traditionally arm the man, in the words of one strategist, navies man the arm. The officers, the crew, the sails, the rigging, the hull -- everything serves the weapons. The ship's raison d'etre is to bring those weapons to bear on the target that the national will has selected.

The more firepower, the better. And with heavy, slow-firing artillery pieces, that meant putting a lot of guns along the sides of the ship, instead of just in the bow and the stern, where only a few could fit, and where they could only point forward and aft. Broadside arrangement of the guns, therefore, made a ship far more powerful. But the sides were where the oarsmen sat, so the oarsmen, and the oars, had to go. The transition began in the 1500s, as artillery first took to the sea in a serious way, and before long it was nearly complete. By 1600, oars, though still around, were passé. Thus did navies finally embrace the power of sail.

Now that warships relied on the wind, both tactics and strategy changed. A warship, to attack, had to be upwind of the enemy, to be able to pursue and to catch it. In nautical terms, it had to have the weather gage. When enemy ships met each other at sea, chance usually decided which one of them held the weather gage, and so chance played a big role in combat. In the string of Anglo-French wars that raged from the Glorious Revolution in 1688 to Waterloo in 1815, England's Admiralty constantly feared that a momentary, contrary wind would sweep its fleet from the Channel, giving Louis XIV or Napoleon the window he needed to invade, and thus smash, England, just the way that Rome had smashed Carthage. All this was the price of sail. And navies adapted, but always they remembered the day when they carried their driving force aboard the ship itself.

Then, in the nineteenth century, that day returned, when an American inventor first came up with the idea of putting a steam engine aboard a ship. And suddenly the game was never the same again.

Steam engines had been around for years before Robert Fulton began working with them. They had even been on boats before, but never successfully. In 1807 Fulton made them work, linking them to paddle wheels and thus changing the relationship of ships to the elements, and to manpower, too. At first the arrangement was primitive, but each passing year saw greater efficiency, and brought more experience. Before long steam moved from rivers to oceans, first in the service of merchants, and then, slowly, into naval vessels.

Steam power at sea worked a huge revolution. In a way it was closer to oars than to sails, but it was different even from them. It freed a ship from the slavery of the winds and the tides, but at the same time it tied the vessel to shore, limiting its range because of the need for coal. Shiphandling and tactics changed drastically. Even geography itself seemed to alter, since steam-powered ships could travel from place to place in more or less a straight line, instead of having to follow the paths of the winds. Room had to be made for engines and fuel, and engineers and their magical science became major forces aboard. With the arrival of steam power, in short, hundreds -- even thousands -- of years of nautical knowledge began to grow obsolete; and so did the sailors who knew and practiced the old ways.

The changes came fast when compared to the centuries of slow technological evolution that had been the usual way of the ship, but they still weren't instant. For now -- for 1842 at least -- sail still had something to offer. Somers was not obsolete, not quite, not just yet. Her days were numbered from the moment her keel was laid down, for she was one of the last ships of the United States Navy -- of any navy, in fact -- to be designed and built as purely a vessel of sail. But she still had some things to offer that steam couldn't possibly match. She was handy, and she had long legs. Given a capable crew, she could sail completely around the world, the way Magellan and Drake had done, with few supplies and no help. She could show the Stars and Stripes on nearly any sea on the planet, off the shore of any continent. All by herself she could project more power beyond American shores than the whole of the U.S. Army, which could cross no sea on its own. Though the sun was about to set, her day, and that of her sail-driven sisters, was not over.

Yet for all her advantages, there was one thing she had to have -- one thing, without which she would lie as dead in the water as a steamship empty of coal. She needed men to work her. She needed officers who knew the ways of the sea, who knew how to tack and wear ship and take bearings, able seamen who knew the ropes, hands who could climb the rigging like monkeys. She needed a crew with cast-iron stomachs who had the art of sail in their bones, an art much harder to learn than the labor of shoveling coal toward a boiler. And in mid-nineteenth-century United States, unbelievably, such a crew could be terribly hard to find.


"Seeing how energetically the Anglo-Americans trade, their natural advantages, and their success, I cannot help believing that one day they will become the leading naval power on the globe," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, at the height of the Golden Age of American Sail. "They are born to rule the seas, as the Romans were to conquer the world."

He was right. The United States is a maritime nation, and it has been so from the beginning. Its eastern coast fronts on the sea that links it to Europe; its bays and fine harbors, its many deep rivers, invited exploration and settlement, welcoming the Old World's peoples. Its innumerable hardwood stands were perfect for hulls and for masts, while its forests of pine supplied pitch and tar. When the colonies gained independence, Yankee traders swept out all over the world, from Mahon to Mauritius, from Canton to Liverpool, hawking the wares that North America grew in abundance: corn, rice, wheat, cotton, and a hundred other products. In time the United States gained a foothold on the Pacific Rim, on the continent's western shores, looking across the world's largest ocean to the Orient's massive markets and limitless raw materials. Between San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York -- the three great ports through which so much wealth flowed -- the whole landmass was filled with resources of its own, resources that no other maritime power has ever commanded within its own borders. And with the end of the War of 1812, the country began to exploit these things as it never had before.

Of all of the tonnage that America sent to sea in the years after 1812, only a small amount was naval. A navy is a means of power projection, and today America's navy is one of the bases of America's strategic power projection capability. But a navy is only a means, not an end. A major reason for its existence is to protect its country's vital trade, to safeguard its merchant marine. Commerce is the root of maritime greatness; naval power is merely its guardian.

It can be an expensive guardian, too. Right after the War of 1812, Congress expanded the navy. It was a big investment for its day, a million dollars a year, guaranteed for six years, for upkeep and new construction, and after the burst of postwar national pride had worn off, the price tag sank in and Congress backed off. Trade may increase the country's wealth, but except for the merchants and shipowners, once a ship slipped below the horizon, out of sight was out of mind. "No more ships of war than are requisite to the protection of our commerce," declared President Andrew Jackson in 1829, with all the assurance of a frontiersman who had never once gone to sea. "Our best policy would be to discontinue building ships of the first and second class." Others agreed. America's early version of the military-industrial complex, they feared, would become an expensive engine that could wipe out the country's finances.

dBig ships were costly, and so Congress tended to skimp on them, authorizing only smaller vessels, when it authorized any at all. But as bad as this problem was, it wasn't the worst one. Even with the navy's small size, it faced a perpetual manpower shortage. Without well-trained sailors, the ships might as well lie alongside the wharves and rot. And well-trained sailors were rare in the mid-1800s, and they seemed to be getting still rarer.

One of the first to notice the problem, or at least one of the first to say something about it, was Matthew C. Perry. Perry was a remarkable man. He was a member of America's most prominent naval family, and a highly capable officer in his own right. His appearance was nothing unusual: medium height, brown hair and eyes, rather strong features that most often wore a humorless, sober expression. By age twenty he was already a battle-hardened veteran of the War of 1812, which helps explain the gaze. Still, he wasn't a typical officer. He had many of the usual qualities: an ability to lead men, a devotion to duty and country, and a deep, bellowing voice that was so perfect for issuing orders in a howling gale that he won the nickname "Old Bruin" before he turned thirty. But he had other traits, too: an understanding of tactics and strategy much deeper than that of most of his fellow officers, a deeply religious perspective that stood in stark contrast to the torrent of blasphemies that could often be heard aboard ship, and a thoughtful, even temperament that was a sure recipe for success. He believed in the use of the navy in scientific expeditions. He helped found Liberia, the humanitarian experiment in colonizing Africa with freed American slaves. And he was always interested in improving the navy's efficiency, especially when it came to personnel and education.

In 1851, Perry would command the squadron that called on Japan, opening relations between that country and his. By then he would have sailed nearly all of earth's oceans, doing everything from pushing the navy to make the move to steam power and high-tech explosive shells to commanding the naval forces off Vera Cruz during the Mexican War. But in the mid-1820s he was just another lieutenant commandant serving in the pirate-infested Caribbean, in command of the schooner Shark. He gave the pirates a very rough time, and they returned the favor. But the real enemy was different. His men dropped like flies from the fevers. Disease could mow down men by the hundred, and sometimes it did. This, no doubt, made him realize just how important it was for the navy to have a supply of good sailors, a supply that it just didn't have. Not long after the end of his tour, while he was serving at Brooklyn Navy Yard, he decided to try to do something about this dangerous shortage.

He himself had once felt the pull of the American merchant service, with its better pay and better living conditions, but he hadn't given in. Still, he knew that many men did. Life in the Old Navy wasn't usually an adventure; it was a job, one that wasn't very high-profile or respectable, and the service lost out on a lot of nautical talent that went to the private sector. In Perry's eyes, that trend compromised national security. The problem bothered him enough to make him leapfrog the chain of command, complaining directly to Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard in early 1824. "The sources from whence we have heretofore drawn our choicest seamen are partially dried up," he said, lamenting the lingering effects of the War of 1812. "Unless some plan is adopted to improve the number and condition of our seafaring population, we shall find too late, that although we may have ships in abundance, yet our government in case of emergency would have to contend with insuperable difficulties in procuring crews for them."

Perry even tried to go over the secretary's head, and the president's, too. Officers of the Old Navy often did things that way. They were so good at making decisions, bawling out orders from their quarterdecks, and watching their crews leap to obey them, that they tended to behave the same way whenever they stepped ashore. Perry was no different, and now he appealed to the public. Four years after he first approached Southard, and with nothing having happened, he began writing letters to the newspapers. He was for a strong navy in general: "By maritime means only can we be approached," he said, using words that government reports would soon echo, "and by such means must we be principally defended." He offered many suggestions, one of them touching on the training of a corps of young seamen. "My proposition is to enter boys as apprentices to the Navy, until they shall be twenty-one years of age," he wrote in one issue of the National Gazette. He made a compelling case. "It is an object of national importance to increase the number of our seafaring population," he argued. "Doing so would not clash with any other interest in the community." And using boys would help not just the boys, by teaching them valuable skills, but the service as well. "The moral and intellectual condition of seamen generally," he wrote, "might be greatly improved by early attention to their education."

Southard quickly picked up on the idea of using boys to make up for the lack of trained men, and he mentioned the idea to Congress in an 1825 report. But Congress was slow to decide. Four years later, all it had done was to ask Southard for further details. So Southard submitted another report on the shortage, spelling out all the reasons that enlistments stayed down. The terrible pay; the lack of a social security system for aging and infirm seamen; the exciting lure of life as a privateer or in a Latin American navy; Southard listed these things and more. He suggested recruiting in the nation's interior, and again he brought up the subject of boys. He hammered on this point, suggesting a scheme to enlist young teenagers who would serve until they turned twenty-one. By then, he observed, the apprentices would know much about sailing a ship. It would be a great education for them; it would produce hundreds of hands right away; and in the long run it would give the navy a new group of able seamen who had first served as apprentices before signing on again as grown men. Ten years after the Congress established an apprentice system for boys, Southard predicted, the nation's reliance on foreign-born sailors would end; the boys, now grown sailors, would supply "all our petty officers of every description," and they would "make the navy what it ought to be, in every thing -- American." With that last nationalistic flourish, Southard again left the matter with Congress.

It was like towing a battleship with a rowboat. Ten years later, at the point when Southard had hoped to see an established corps of professional sailors, Congress was still dragging its feet. It refused to be hurried, especially when it came to spending the money. Southard and others claimed that the measure would be cost-effective, but either Congress didn't believe them or else it didn't care. But the chatter in the newspapers about it gradually increased the momentum. Eventually a viable bill emerged from committee. At last, more than a decade after Southard first proposed it, Congress enacted it into law.

It came at the very end of the Twenty-fourth Congress, in March of 1837, as if the legislature feared a public backlash. It was close to what Southard had first suggested. It allowed the enlistment of boys between thirteen and eighteen years old, to serve, with their parents' permission, until they turned twenty-one. But it didn't expressly provide for their education, or how, exactly, the navy was to use them. These were things that the law left to the navy.

At first the navy decided to segregate the boys, putting them all aboard school ships, and training and teaching them there. But sometimes this caused problems. These school ships rarely left port, and their ports were all good-sized cities, Boston, New York, and Norfolk. Big-city life lured more than one boy to desert. On top of that, the boys and their families often found the program a big disappointment. There was no naval academy at Annapolis in the 1830s, and many people had gotten the idea that this new law was designed to turn out young officers, the same way that West Point did. They were wrong. The way that Congress imagined it, and the way that the navy ran it, it was a system for making seamen, not officers. Once people figured this out, they grew disenchanted.

So the program started to falter, almost as soon as it started. Southard had once predicted that twelve hundred boys would join up in the first year or so, but he was nowhere close. The total number of boys to have enlisted had barely reached that number even six or seven years after Congress first passed the law.

But the program wasn't a total debacle. Some officers, among them Matthew C. Perry, thought that it was doing all right. He claimed that when a trained boy came off a school ship and helped crew a regular vessel, he usually proved a better young sailor than most of the rest of the seamen. Of course that, too, caused problems. A ship's crew was literally a pretty rum bunch, soused in spirits, in love with foul words and tobacco, and happy to pass on its ways to teenagers. Perry liked the apprentices, but even he could see the need to keep the men from corrupting them.

By 1841 Perry was a commodore, in command of the New York Navy Yard and all of its ships, when he got an idea that seemed brilliant. Why not get the boys out of their school ships and send them on a training cruise, a whole crew of them, with just enough older hands, specially picked, to help the youngsters learn what they needed to learn? The prospect of a sailing adventure, perhaps in tropical waters, on a smart man-of-war, would interest boys and their parents and with luck help boost enlistments. It would show the truth of what Perry was claiming, that the apprentices were fine young sailors. And it would avoid the danger that impressionable boys would pick up older men's bad habits. Only a few trusty sailors would ship with them. For the most part, the boys would be associating only with other boys, all of them equally innocent. What harm could possibly come of that?

Quite simply, the plan seemed perfect.

Of course Perry had to make sure. This was to be a high-profile cruise, and he didn't want a single thing to go wrong. So he planned everything very carefully. Somers was fitting out in New York, brand-new and ready to go, freshly commissioned in April. The new steamships were coming along, but their bleeding-edge technology was inelegant and uncertain. Somers, on the other hand, was a smart, handy brig, one that would draw a lot of admiration, and small enough for a crew of boys to handle. Perry even gave her an official mission, just to add to the voyage's prestige. He bade her sail to the African coast and find the ship Vandalia, engaged on anti-slavery duty there, and deliver important dispatches. He carefully chose her officer complement, each officer with years of experience, but each of them young -- this was to be a ship of youth, from her keel to her captain -- and two of them related to Perry. These were men whom he knew and trusted. Finally, he even helped choose the Somers's four midshipmen, one of whom was also his son, and two others of whom had ties to him by marriage or family friendship. The problem was with the fourth.

Because midshipmen, as junior officers, were important, Perry wanted to be careful in choosing them, just as careful as he was being in every other respect. But it was in choosing midshipmen that he made his mistake, the mistake that would help bring a nightmare to pass, although he could never have known it. And so it happened that his picture-perfect training cruise, on a spanking-new warship, this showcase of naval ability, this triumph in the making that was to show American sea power at its best, included a young man who should never have set foot on the deck of a ship.

His name was Philip Spencer.

Copyright © 2003 by Buckner F. Melton, Jr.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (November 1, 2007)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416595922

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Raves and Reviews

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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