written by Todd DePastino

Illustration of mutineers hanging from the USS Somers, potentially founding the US national academy

On October 10, 1845, the United States Naval Academy opened its doors at an old abandoned Army post, Fort Severn, in Annapolis, Maryland. There were 56 midshipman students and seven professors. Its mission to train and educate future naval officers by giving them a modern scientific training in the art of naval warfare and instilling discipline, leadership skills, and a strong sense of duty.

We take the US Naval Academy for granted today, but in the 1840s, the idea of a land-based school to train sea-based military officers seemed absurd to most Americans.

Apprentice Navy officers—“midshipmen” in Navy-speak–received on-the-job training at sea while serving under senior officers on a ship. In the US, the training evolved into special training vessels where midshipmen served together as a kind of class while underway.

This OTJ training system had worked for generations, and the US Congress saw no reason to abandon it, despite progressive calls for a more modern and formal classroom education.

“Our Naval officers have thus far gone to sea, and learned their duties there, where they were to be performed, and not by nursing themselves in idleness on shore,” argued one Senator William Smith from South Carolina in 1827. “The Navy does not want a host of tender youths, carefully nursed and indulged in a quiet life; neither does it stand in need of a troop of silk stocking gentry to lead to battle our hardy seamen, who would look with contempt upon trifling or effeminate leaders.”

Congress time and again rejected attempts to found a school for the Navy like the one for the Army on the Hudson River, the United States Military Academy.

A scandalous mutiny in 1842 prompted many in Washington, it seems, to have second thoughts about formalizing Navy education.

The dramatic events occurred on the brig USS Somers, one of those school ships designated as a training vessel for would-be officers. Commanded by Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, the ship patrolled the Caribbean to enforce navigation rights and fight piracy. It carried a mix of seasoned enlisted sailors, 13 officers, and inexperienced midshipmen.

Among the midshipmen was a bad seed, Philip Spencer, the son of the Secretary of War, John C. Spencer. Spencer had a reputation for fiendish intelligence and an obsession with pirates. Kicked out of two colleges, Spencer had joined the Navy, where he earned a reputation for heavy drinking and twice assaulted a senior officer aboard USS North Carolina. Reassigned to USS John Adams, he got into a drunken brawl with a Royal Navy officer in Rio de Janeiro. He resigned his commission to avoid a court-martial, yet, it was not accepted due to his father’s position.

Spencer’s assignment to the Somers was a last-ditch effort to straighten him out.

On November 26, 1842, Captain Mackenzie received a tip from a crew member that Philip Spencer was planning a mutiny. He had allegedly recruited some fellow midshipmen to take over the ship and turn pirate.

After some investigation, Captain Mackenzie clapped Spencer in double irons on the quarterdeck along with fellow conspirators, Seaman Elisha Small and Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell.

The smoking gun were papers stashed in Spencer’s locker. They were written in Greek and had to be translated. The document listed the names of the conspirators and divided others into those likely or unlikely to cooperate in the coup.

“The remainder of the doubtful will probably join when the thing is done,” read one passage, “if not, they must be forced. If any not marked down wish to join after the thing is done we will pick out the best and dispose of the rest.”

With the accused mutineers in custody, discipline aboard ship seemed to break down. Sailors allegedly sabotaged the rigging. Others stole brandy and tried to break in to the weapons’ locker. A rush to the quarterdeck, possibly to free the three prisoners, was only stopped by the First Lieutenant, who pulled out his Colt revolver and pointed it at the advancing sailors.

Captain Mackenzie faced a dilemma. He was far from the nearest port, and the situation required immediate action. Mackenzie convened a trial aboard the ship, with himself as the presiding judge and a hastily assembled jury of officers and midshipmen. The trial, conducted without legal counsel, resulted in the conviction of Spencer, Cromwell, and Small.

On December 1, 1842, in a grim and somber ceremony witnessed by the entire crew, Spencer, Small, and Cromwell were hanged from the yardarm, their bodies buried at sea.

The events aboard the USS Somers sent shockwaves through the United States Navy and the nation at large after the ship returned to New York City two weeks later.

Secretary of War and Philip Spencer’s father, John Spencer, accused Mackenzie of murder and the entire Navy Department, from the Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur on down, of covering up the criminal behavior of the Captain and his fellow officers.

Exonerations of Mackenzie by a Navy court of inquiry and a court-martial did little to quell skeptics of the Somers Affair. The famed novelist James Fenimore Cooper denounced Mackenzie and the Navy in his book, The Cruise of the Somers: Illustrative of the Despotism of the Quarter Deck and the Unmanly Conduct of Commander Mackenzie.

Herman Melville, whose first cousin was an officer on the Somers, also commented indirectly on the case in White-Jacket and Billy Budd.

The Somers Affair of 1842 had a profound impact on the US Navy and the debate about how it trained its officers.

The scandal emboldened those who believed the whole apprentice ship system was not only failing to give adequate training but also morally and physically endangering students by exposing them prematurely to the rough life at sea.

A more comprehensive and modern institution would also allow the Navy to weed out candidates like Philip Spencer before they even stepped aboard a ship. Only those with the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively handle the challenges of naval service, including maintaining discipline and leadership among the crew, would be permitted to graduate from the school and take command.

Congress remained unconvinced and thought it unwise to reward a brutal, drunken, unruly branch of service with its own national academy. And plenty of salty old Navy officers opposed the idea of land-based education for sailors. “The best school for the instruction of youth in the profession,” declared Captain Charles Stewart, “is the deck of a ship.’’

In 1845, the new Acting Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft, decided to do an end-run around Congress and fund the new naval academy from the Navy’s existing budget. First, he struck a deal with the Army to transfer dilapidated old Fort Severn in Annapolis to the Navy. Then, he waited for Congress to go into summer recess to complete the transfer without oversight. Finally, he arranged for some instructors and ordered all Midshipmen arriving from sea duty to report to Annapolis.

Classes began on 10 October 1845. Navy modernizers got their academy through the backdoor. And the Somers Affair faded into obscurity.