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Special Collections & Archives

The rare or unique holdings of Nimitz Library.

The Somers Affair: A Mother's Perspective

by David D'Onofrio on 2021-06-22T10:33:04-04:00 in Special Collections & Archives, History | Comments

Students of naval and Naval Academy history are probably familiar with the story of the alleged mutiny aboard the US Brig Somers, which served as a rallying point for the founding of the academy. On November 26, 1842, Lieutenant Guert Gansevoort of the Somers informed his commanding officer, Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, that a group of potential mutineers led by Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer planned to murder the ship's officers and crew. Spencer, the son of the Secretary of War, and his co-conspirators were promptly arrested, tried, and executed.

Currier&Ives print of USS Somers
Currier & Ives print of the US Brig-of-War Somers, highlighting the convicted mutineers hanging from the yard arms, courtesy of the Naval Academy Museum's Beverley R. Robinson Collection.

The fallout from what came to be known as the Somers Affair is, and was at the time, well documented. Numerous newspapers covered the Navy's court of inquiry and subsequent court-martial of Commander Mackenzie for his handling of the alleged mutineers. Mackenzie's actions were pilloried in the far longer prose of The Cruise of the Somers: Illustrative of the Despotism of the Quarter Deck, purportedly authored by none other than James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans. Mackenzie's own defense even found its way into print under the title Case of the Somers Mutiny: Defense of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie.

Beyond the opinions of journalists, Navy officers, and literary luminaries, however, were the concerns of a different group: the parents of those midshipmen whose training was entrusted to the Navy. One example of such concern can be found in the papers of Thomas Roney of Baltimore, who was himself an acting midshipman at the time the Somers Affair unfolded. On January 16, 1843, Thomas' mother Alice wrote:

The papers I send you will give you an account of the horrible mutiny that took place on board the U.S. Brig Sommers on her voyage from Africa where Midshipman Spencer (Son of the Secretary of War) and 2 of the crew, which three were the Ringleaders were hung at the yard arm. The trial of the remaining of the Crew which was composed principally of Apprentices is now going on at New York. My Dear Son you cannot tell how thankful I have been to the giver of all good that you were not aboard of her.

Alice Roney letter of January 16, 1843

Alice Roney relays the news of the incident aboard the Somers to her son, Acting Midshipman Thomas Roney, on January 16, 1843.

Two months later, on March 15, 1843, Alice Roney raised the topic of the Somers again, when she gave her son the following admonition:

My very dear Thomas be very cautious of how you speak and who you to about your Superior officers. There has been so much Court Martialing in Phila and New York for mere trifles as they appear to me, except [the] Sommers Mutiny, as it is called.

Alice Roney letter of March 15, 1843
Alice Roney warns her son to be careful what he says and to whom with regards to his superior officers on March 15, 1843.

While mentioned only briefly in a longer letter updating Thomas about the affairs of the family and news from Baltimore, it is clear that Alice Roney feared that a slip of the tongue could lead her son to the same fate that befell Philip Spencer. Although she never states as such, the founding of the Naval Academy in 1845, which Thomas Roney himself later attended, would likely have come as a measure of relief to Alice Roney and countless other mothers of midshipmen like her.

Sources:

Roney and Warden Family Papers, MS 555, Special Collections & Archives, Nimitz Library.

Print of USS Somers courtesy of the Naval Academy Museum's Beverley R. Robinson Collection.


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