Tuesday, October 15, 2013

USS Somers

Figure 1:  US brig Somers (1842-1846). A colored sketch drawn by a crewman from USS Columbus. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2:  Lithograph of USS Somers published circa 1843 depicting Somers under sail, bound home from the African coast on 1 December 1842, after the hanging of three alleged mutineers. The men executed were: Midshipman Philip Spencer, Boatswain's Mate Samuel Cromwell and Seaman Elisha Small. The print shows two of them hanging from the yardarm. Courtesy of Rear Admiral Elliot Snow, USN, 1925. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3:  Loss of USS Somers, 8 December 1846. Line engraving from The Illustrated London News, 23 January 1847, entitled "Wreck of the American Brig 'Somers',” depicting Somers on her beam ends after she capsized off Vera Cruz, Mexico, while chasing a blockade runner. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image. 

Figure 4:  Loss of USS Somers, 8 December 1846. Lithograph by A. Mayer, Paris, France, depicting a whaleboat crew from the French Navy brig Le Mercure rescuing survivors of the capsized Somers off Vera Cruz, Mexico. Somers is visible in the right background, on her beam ends. From the collection of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image. 

Named after master commandant Richard Somers (1778-1804), an American naval war hero who was killed in the quasi-war against the Barbary pirates, the 259-ton USS Somers was a Bainbridge class brig that was built by the New York Navy Yard in New York City and was commissioned on 12 May 1842. The ship was approximately 100 feet long and 25 feet wide, had a crew of 120 officers and men, and was armed with 10 32-pounder cannons.

After completing a shakedown cruise in the Caribbean, Somers returned to New York City in July 1842. The ship left New York on 13 September on a training voyage to the west coast of Africa. During this trip, Somers was used as an experimental school ship for naval apprentices. After making stops in the Canary and Cape Verde Islands, Somers arrived at Monrovia, Liberia, on 10 November. The next day, the ship left and headed west for the Virgin Islands, her last stop before returning to New York.

While sailing to the Virgin Islands, the officers on board the ship noticed a steady worsening of morale. On 26 November, the captain of the ship, Commander Alexander Slidelll Mackenzie, arrested 19-year-old Midshipman Philip Spencer, the son of Secretary of War John C. Spencer, for inciting a mutiny. The next day, Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell and Seaman Elisha Small were also arrested and put in irons.

Over the next few days, an investigation by the officers on board the ship discovered that the three men were plotting to take over the ship, throw the officers and the loyal members of the crew to the sharks, and convert Somers into a pirate ship. On 1 December 1842, the officers reported that they had “Come to a cool, decided, and unanimous opinion” that the prisoners were guilty of “A full and determined intention to commit a mutiny.”  The officers recommended that the three men be put to death and all of them were hanged the same day.

Somers reached St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, on 5 December and arrived back in New York City on 14 December. After she arrived in port, a naval court of inquiry investigated the mutiny and the subsequent court martials and executions. The court exonerated Commander Mackenzie, even though there was considerable controversy over his decision to execute the three men. But this was the age of sail and iron discipline was required to maintain order on board these ships. Any insubordination, let alone mutinous behavior, was dealt with quickly and harshly.

On 20 March 1843, Lieutenant John West assumed command of Somers. The brig was then assigned to the US Navy’s Home Squadron. For the next three years, Somers patrolled along America’s Atlantic coastline as well as in the West Indies.

Somers was sailing off the coast of Vera Cruz, Mexico, at the start of the Mexican-American War in the spring of 1846. Aside from brief visits to Pensacola, Florida, for food and supplies, Somers remained off the coast of Mexico on blockade duty for several months. On the evening of 26 November, Somers, then under the command of Lieutenant Raphael Semmes, was blockading Vera Cruz when the Mexican schooner Criolla slipped into that port. Semmes ordered a boarding party to take a small boat and capture the schooner, which they did. However, calm weather and the absence of any wind prevented the Americans from sailing their prize out to sea. So the boarding party set fire to Criolla and returned to Somers, bringing back seven prisoners.

On 8 December 1846, while chasing a blockade runner off Vera Cruz, Somers was caught in a sudden storm. Capsized by the heavy winds, the ship quickly sank with the loss of 32 crewmembers. Seven survivors were later captured by the Mexicans.

A very interesting sequel to the loss of Somers was the future career of its last commanding officer, Lieutenant Raphael Semmes. He survived the sinking of Somers and remained in the US Navy until March 1861, just before the actual start of the Civil War in April. He resigned from the US Navy and joined the Confederate States’ Navy, where he eventually became captain of CSS Alabama, the most famous and notorious Confederate commerce raider of the war.

Semmes commanded Alabama from August 1862 to June 1864. His time on board this ship carried him from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, and into the Pacific to the East Indies. During this remarkable voyage, Alabama captured or destroyed 65 US merchant ships and also sunk the Union warship USS Hatteras off Galveston, Texas. Alabama was cornered while in port at Cherbourg, France, by the Union warship USS Kearsarge. In one of the greatest duels in naval history, Semmes sailed Alabama out of Cherbourg and confronted Kearsarge. The union warship proved to be too powerful for the Confederate raider, and Alabama was sunk. A wounded Semmes and 41 of his crewmen survived the sinking of Alabama and were rescued by the British yacht Deerhound, which was literally observing the battle between the two warships.

Semmes and what was left of his crew were brought to England, where the Confederate captain recovered before returning to America via Cuba. Semmes was promoted to rear admiral in February 1865 and during the last few months of the Civil War he commanded the South’s James River Squadron from his flagship, the heavily armored ironclad CSS Virginia II. After the war ended, Semmes worked at his law practice in Mobile, Alabama, where he died on 30 August 1877 at the age of 67.