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Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (1803–1849) Born in New York City, Mackenzie was a U.S. Navy officer who served during the first half of the 19th century. He was an accomplished author and writer who wrote several contemporary essays and biographies of notable US naval figures of the early 19th century. He was the brother of U.S. Senator John Slidell of Louisiana, who was later involved in the American Civil War's "Trent Affair."

Mackenzie was captain of the USS Somers when it became the only U.S. Navy ship to undergo a mutiny which led to executions, including Philip Spencer, the nineteen-year-old son of the Secretary of War John C. Spencer. Mackenzie's handling of the Somers affair, including its lack of a lawful court martial, was controversial; the incident was described at length in Vina Delmar's novel The Big Family. It also inspired the novella Billy Budd by American author Herman Melville. The Somers affair also led to the founding of the United States Naval Academy.[1]


Mackenzie was the father of General Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, who, after a successful Civil War career, commanded the 4th Cavalry Regiment (United States)[1], securing the line of settlement in Texas and throughout the West. Ranald Mackenzie was arguably the best Indian fighter of the American West. Another son was Lt. Commander Alexander Slidell MacKenzie.

A sister, Jan married Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the brother of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.

Military service

Mackenzie entered the U.S. Navy as a midshipman in 1815. In honor of a maternal uncle, he assumed the surname Mackenzie in 1837. A contemporary of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a personal friend of Washington Irving, he published a number of books, including A Year in Spain, Life of John Paul Jones, Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur and Life of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Commodore Perry was the brother of Matthew Perry, both of MacKenzie's brothers-in-law.

USS Somers was launched by the New York Navy Yard on April 16, 1842, and was commissioned on 12 May 1842, with Mackenzie in command. After completing a shakedown cruise Puerto Rico and back, the new brig sailed out of New York harbor on September 13, 1842 with orders to head for the Atlantic coast of Africa with dispatches for frigate Vandalia. Somers was also acting as an experimental schoolship for naval apprentices on this voyage; the Somers crew was mostly inexperienced sailors and seamen.

After looking for Vandalia at Madeira, Tenerife, and Porto Praia, Somers arrived at Monrovia, Liberia, on November 10 only to discover that the frigate had already sailed for home. The next day, Mackenzie set sail for the Virgin Islands hoping to meet up with Vandalia at St. Thomas before the return journey back to New York.

USS Somers Mutiny

On the passage to the West Indies, some of the Somers officers noticed a steady worsening of morale among the crew. On November 26, 1842, Mackenzie arrested Midshipman Philip Spencer, the son of Secretary of War John Canfield Spencer, for inciting mutiny.[2] The other two young sailors arrested with Spencer were Elisha Small and Samuel Cromwell.

A council of officers - not a court martial - concluded the three sailors were guilty and recommended their immediate execution. This took place at sea on December 1, 1842. Only thirteen days later, the "Somers" arrived in New York, where a naval court of inquiry was immediately ordered to investigate the affair.

Although Mackenzie was completely exonerated at the court of inquiry and at a subsequent court martial (by a split vote), the controversial incident (known as the "Somers Affair") colored the remainder of his life. It was customary at the time to commend officers cleared at a court martial, but Mackenzie's court martial made very clear it was not commending him. The entire affair resulted in a great sensation, and Mackenzie's conduct was as severely criticized by some as it was ardently defended by his supporters.

Military historian and author

Mackenzie was also an accomplished author and military historian who was a contemporary of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper and a personal friend of Washington Irving. His first work was A Year in Spain, by a Young American, 1829; which immediately became popular in America as well as in England. " Other works by MacKenzie include Popular Essays on Naval Subjects, 1833; The American in England, 1835; Spain Revisited, 1836; Life of John Paul Jones, 1841; Life of Commodore Oliver H. Perry, 1841; and Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur 1846. He also wrote a manuscript A Journal of a Tour in Ireland, The Case of the 'Seiners'; Defence of A. S. Mackenzie", 1843.

Published works

See also


  1. Lehman, John (August 8, 2010). "Review of William Leeman's Naval Academy history, The Long Road to Annapolis". Washington Post. p. B6. Retrieved 2010-08-08. "In 1842, midshipman Philip Spencer, who happened to be the son of the secretary of war, was hanged aboard the training brig Somers by his captain on suspicion of conspiracy to mutiny. In 1845, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft seized on the Somers affair as a reason finally to establish a naval academy at Annapolis." 
  2. "Somers". Naval History & Heritage Command, Department of the Navy. Archived from the original on 8 June 2011. Retrieved 3 June 2011. 
  • McFarland, Philip Sea Dangers: The Affair of the Somers (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 308p., illus. ISBN 0-8052-3990-1

Primary sources

  • Cooper, James Fenimore (1844). Proceedings of the naval court martial in the case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie
    H. G. Langley, New York
    . pp. 344.

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