Friday, March 29, 2024

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,

 The Washington Times ran my 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 or the below text:

BOOK REVIEW: 'Sailing the Graveyard Sea' - Washington Times 

Sailing the Graveyard Sea: The Deadly Voyage of the Somers, the U.S. Navy’s Only Mutiny, and the Trial That Gripped a Nation.

By Paul Davis - - Thursday, March 28, 2024

Richard Snow, a former editor-in-chief of American Heritage magazine and a consultant on historical motion pictures, has written a fascinating book about a mutiny aboard a U.S. Navy ship in 1842. 

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 reached out to Richard Snow and asked him how he would describe the book. 

“’Sailing the Graveyard Sea’ is a murder mystery, a sea story, a courtroom drama, and an account of the only mutiny in the history of the U.S. Navy,” Mr. Snow replied. “On December 16, 1842, the U.S. brig-of-war Somers dropped anchor in Brooklyn Harbor at the end of a cruise meant to teach many adolescents the rudiments of naval life. This seemingly harmless exercise ended in catastrophe. Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie came ashore saying he had narrowly prevented a mutiny that would have left him and his officers dead. Some of the thwarted mutineers were being held under guard, but three had been hanged: Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell, Seaman Elisha Small, and Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer. 

“What made the story the press sensation of the decade was that Midshipman Spencer’s father was the secretary of war. John Spencer’s boy, Mackenzie said, had been the ringleader who seduced the crew into planning to seize the ship and become pirates, raping and pillaging their way across the old Spanish Main. Philip Spencer was an 18-year-old malcontent fascinated by pirates—there was no doubt of that. But as more of the story leaked out, it became clear the drumhead trial that condemned the three men had no legal basis, that perhaps nothing like a mutiny had really occurred, and that the ship might have been seized by a strange, creeping hysteria that ended in the blood sacrifice of three innocents.” 

Q: How would you describe the USS Somers? 

A: “Beautiful. One of the very last ships built for the U.S. Navy before steam power came in, she represented the culmination of a thousand years of maritime evolution. But she was small—only 100 feet from stem to stern and twenty-five feet at her waist’s thickest. Designed for a complement of 90 men, with all her schoolboys packed aboard, she would sail with 120.” 

Q: How would you describe the accused mutiny? 

A: “A couple of months into the voyage, Philip Spencer waylaid the ship’s assistant purser, James Wales, swore him to secrecy, and, with the two crouched in one of the few corners of privacy the small brig afforded, said that Spencer and his confederates would seize the ship, swing the guns inboard to cover the decks, butcher the officers, and lead those crewmen who had been allowed to keep their lives into a paradise of looted treasure and fragrant tropical isles. He would make Wales one of his officers. 

“Then, as soon as he could get away, Wales hurried to tell the first lieutenant, Guert Gansevoort (all American literature is in this officer’s debt, as he persuaded his cousin Herman Melville to go to sea). Of course, Gansevoort immediately reported the plot to Captain Mackenzie.” 

Q: How would you describe the accused mutineer, Philip Spenser? 

A: “Mutineer or not, Spencer was a difficult fellow, moody, slyly insolent, surly to his fellow officers but overly gregarious with the crew. His academic life had been lethargic enough for his father to send him to sea. Pirates and piracy had long fascinated Philip Spencer. The hobby cost him his life.” 

Q: How would you describe Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie? 

A: “Captain Mackenzie was patriotic; his books swarm with tributes to the American flag; he was energetic and observant; he was unfailingly moralistic; he was utterly without a sense of humor. There is little in his writing from which a reader might predict the catastrophe to come when he took Philip Spencer aboard. Yet here and there, he shows a relish for violence that approaches the prurient.” 

Richard Snow does a fine job of describing the atmosphere, suspense and controversy surrounding the mutiny inquiry and Captain Mackenzie’s court-martial. 

• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers. 

By Richard Snow.

Scribner, 304 Pages, $29.00

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