Friday, March 29, 2024

My Extended Q&A With Richard Snow, The Author Of 'Sailing The Graveyard Sea: The Deadly Voyage Of The Somers, The U.S. Navy's Only Mutiny, And The Trial That Gripped The Nation'

In my previous post, I offered a link to my Washington Times On Crime column on Richard Snow’s Sailing the Graveyard Sea, the true story of the U.S. Navy's only mutiny. 

You can read the column via the below link:

Paul Davis On Crime: Sailing the Graveyard Sea: My Washington Times 'On Crime' Column On The Deadly Voyage Of the Somers, The U.S. Navy’s Only Mutiny, And The Trial That Gripped A Nation,

As I noted in my column, having served as a teenage U.S. Navy sailor on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, the mutiny interested me, as did the vivid descriptions of shipboard life in the U.S. Navy in the 19th century. 

I especially liked that Mr. Snow quoted extensively from the late, great writer Herman Melville and other former U.S. Navy sailors who served during that timeframe.   

Below is an extension of my Q&A with Richard Snow (seen in the below photo).

Q: How did you research the book? 

A: "Almost as soon as I started in, my heart sank because I immediately encountered two sources whose value, I was too stupid to spot quickly. The first came from Captain Mackenzie himself. It turned out he had written in the 1830s a highly popular book about his travels in Spain. The Navy has long been a bit suspicious of seafaring authors unless their subjects are gunnery or tidal charts, but two centuries ago the service was proud enough of Mackenzie’s success to order copies of his Spain book put aboard every U.S. warshipWell, good for Mackenzie. But this didn’t make me any more eager to read a three-volume (!) collection of archaic travel reminiscences. And, by God, once he’d finished with Spain the captain had sat down and given England the same treatment. It took me a while to realize what a singular stroke of luck this was for me. So much that happened aboard the Somers on her lethal cruise flowed from the captain, and here I was studying a long-dead, mid-level naval officer who had bequeathed me hundreds of pages of first-person narrative from which to tease clues about his character and personality. No other naval officer in that era ever supplied so many written clues about himself.

"I was at first equally opaque about the value of another crucial source, and here my reluctance came from simple peevishness about having to read tiny type. But that was all there was on offer in the pages of the transcripts of the court of inquiry and the court-martial. At least it did not take me long to realize that for the small price of having to squint I was able to eavesdrop on what people actually said. Any newspaper of the 1840s, in reporting a harsh conversation, would run something like “he rounded on his adversary with an oath…” In a trial transcript, he will call him” a son of a bitch.” The language lives on the page. Despite their minuscule type, these transcripts were a godsend, their energetic question-and-answer format helping to lend momentum to the narrative. I thought it was a nineteenth century phrase that reflected the many mortal perils the sea always has on offer—a little like Rudyard Kipling’s quatrain in which each ocean waves is, in effect, a gravestone: We have fed our sea for a thousand years/ And she calls us, still unfed,/ Though there's never a wave of all her waves/ But marks our English dead. It was only later that I realized the phrase had nothing to do with the nineteenth century at all."

Q: In your view, should Spenser and the other two men have been hanged at sea?  Should they have been court-martialed in port?  

A: "Opinion was divided in 1842, and it remains so today. But I finished the book believing that the mutiny—if mutiny it was—could have been contained until the Somers made port. Many of Captain Mackenzie’s actions remain baffling to me. Naturally I speculate on their causes—and I do think the hangings were unnecessary—but in the end I find myself thinking of something lieutenant Gansevoort’s cousin Herman Melville wrote. He gave his book White-Jacket the subtitle The World in a Man-of-War. He meant just that: a ship is its own world, carrying with it always the idiosyncrasies and unknowable corners and reckless passions of the world itself.

“Outwardly regarded,” he writes, ‘our craft is a lie; for all that is outwardly seen of it is the clean-swept deck, and oft-painted planks comprised above the waterline; whereas, the vast mass of our fabric, with all its store-rooms of secrets, forever slides along far under the surface.”

Q: Why was the court martial covered widely in the newspapers of the day?

A: "When the news first broke, Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune, asked: “…How many hundreds of worthy men would have been murdered in cold blood—how any women would have been devoted to a fate infinitely more horrible than the most cruel death that the hellish ingenuity of devils could devise?” 

"Greely was excitable, but he wasn’t a fantasist. To the New York of the 1840s, a town whose life was nourished by the sea, pirates were not the chummy rascals one can visit today in a Disney Park: they were remembered as well-armed, well-trained bands of assassins that specialized in arson, maiming, plunder, murder, and rape."

Q: How much did Mackenzie being a famous author and Spenser being the son of the Secretary of War impact the proceedings?

A: "If Mackenzie had merely hanged two ordinary seamen, he likely would have remained a naval hero. There the matter might have rested, had not a letter appeared a few days later in a Washington, D.C. newspaper. Captain Mackenzie’s first published account of the events had his ship simmering on the verge of combustion, with every passing day bringing the crisis closer, until, at the last possible hour, he destroyed the mutinous beast. The new letter told a different story: Spencer, the accused head of the plot, had been in double irons at the time of the executions, so closely confined that he couldn’t have stood upright, let alone lead an uprising; that the ship had been cruising in perfect peace for days through the densely-populated Virgin Islands whence help could have been summoned in a few hours if needed; that there had been no disturbances among the crew when the three mutineers were noosed and hanged.

"The letter’s tone was crisp and calm throughout, never suggesting the writer had any personal connection with the events it detailed. Save for one sad hint: of Philip Spencer the writer says that the paper gave his age as “over twenty. Had he lived, he would have been nineteen on the twenty-eighth of January next. “The letter was signed only with a cryptic initial “S” but the identity of its author soon got out: He was John Spencer, one of the most powerful legal minds of his day and President John Tyler’s secretary of war; Philip Spencer was his dead son. 

"No chance now that the story would soon blow over; rather, as the great naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison remarked, “No case of the century, prior to the assassination of President Lincoln, aroused as much interest and passion.” 

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