BROOKLYN — When the 10-gun brig USS Somers was launched at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on April 16, 1842 no one would have believed that one day three sailors accused of mutiny would be hung aboard ship.
USS Somers was named for Richard Somers who died while commanding a bomb ketch named the Intrepid at Tripoli. A small, swift vessel, one of Somers’ primary missions was to train young naval ratings and officers for careers at sea, an idea fostered especially by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Although designed to carry 90 officers and crew, on her second voyage, the brig carried a complement of 120. Although three-quarters of them were still teenagers, they included the scions of some distinguished families: two sons of Matthew Calbraith Perry, the son of Commodore John Rodgers, and Philip Spencer the son of President John Tyler’s Secretary of War, John Canfield Spencer.
Under command of Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, Somers sailed from New York on Sept. 12, 1842, bound for Monrovia with dispatches for the slave patrol frigate USS Vandalia. After calling at Madeira in the Canary Islands, the ship arrived at Cape Mesurado, the site chosen by Matthew Perry for the African-American colony of Liberia in 1822, only to find Vandalia had left. After only two days in port, Somers sailed for St. Thomas, Danish West Indies on November 12. Two weeks later, on the strength of a report of a shipmate, Midshipman Philip Spencer, together with the boat-swain’s mate and another seaman, were placed under arrest for plotting a mutiny. Further investigation by Mackenzie and his officers revealed that Spencer intended to seize the ship and kill the officers and any who sided with them. For their crime, they were hanged, while still at sea, on December 1. Mackenzie was later court-martialed and, despite the standing of Spencer’s father, acquitted of charges of illegal punishment, oppression, and murder. Since this incident proved to many that teenagers were too young to be trained at sea, the U.S. Naval Academy was founded.
Somers subsequently remained with the Home Squadron, cruising along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. During the Mexican-American War, she took up blockade duty off Vera Cruz, under command of Lieutenant Raphael Semmes, later captain of CSS Alabama. On December 8, 1846, while chasing a blockade-runner, Somers capsized in a squall and sank with the loss of 32 of her 76 crew. In 1986, her remains were found in 110 feet of water about a mile of Isla Verde.