Mutiny On the High Seas

| February 10, 2021

Has there ever been mutiny on the high seas in the US Navy?

While there has never been an actual mutiny on a US Navy ship, there was an attempt by part of the crew to mutiny on the USS Somers by some of the crew, who wanted to turn the ship into a pirate vessel. This is now referred to as The Somers Affair.

The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk, was based on the events of the Somers affair.

The second USS Somers was a brig in the United States Navy during the John Tyler administration which became infamous for being the only U.S. Navy ship to undergo a mutiny which led to executions.

Somers was launched by the New York Navy Yard on 16 April 1842 and commissioned on 12 May 1842, with Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie in command.

This Lithograph, published circa 1843, shows the mutineers hanging under the US flag.

This Lithograph, published circa 1843, shows the mutineers hanging under the US flag.

The “Somers Affair” is described as follows (source: Wiki):

On 25 November 1842, during the passage to the West IndiesMidshipman Philip Spencer, the son of Secretary of War John C. Spencer, allegedly told purser’s steward J.W. Wales of a planned mutiny by approximately 20 of Somers crew, who intended to use the ship for piracy from the Isle of PinesSeaman Elisha Small was involved in the conversation, and Wales was threatened with death if he revealed Spencer’s plan.[1]

On 26 November, Wales notified Captain Mackenzie of the plan through his chain of command via purser H.M. Heiskill and first lieutenant Guert Gansevoort. Captain Mackenzie was not inclined to take the matter seriously, but instructed Lt. Gansevoort to watch Spencer and the crew for evidence of confirmation. Lt. Gansevoort learned from other members of the crew that Spencer had been observed in secret nightly conferences with seaman Small and Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell. Captain Mackenzie confronted Spencer with Wales’ allegation that evening. Spencer replied that he told Wales the story as a joke. Spencer was arrested and put in irons on the quarterdeck. Papers written in Greek were discovered in a search of Spencer’s locker and translated by Midshipman Henry Rodgers:[1] What is left out of possible reasons for Philip Spencer’s so called secret meetings with sailors and the Greek symbols in his journal is the fact that Philip Spencer was a founding member of the Chi Psi fraternity at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., in May, 1841. Spencer could have been trying to introduce sailors to a fraternal Navy group. He was also interested in pirates and buccaneers and may have used the pirates democratic model for a sailors’ “fraternity”.[2] He was insufficiently trained and foolishly unaware of the captain’s authority. Lt. Gansevoort was a cousin of Herman Melville who heard about the Somers Affair from him and turned it into his famous novella Billy Budd which takes place on a British frigate with a far different character than Philip Spencer.[3]

“CERTAIN: P. Spencer, E. Andrews, D. McKinley, Wales

“DOUBTFUL: Wilson (X), McKee (X), Warner, Green, Gedney, Van Veltzor, Sullivan, Godfrey, Gallia (X), Howard (X)

“Those doubtful marked (X) will probably be induced to join before the project is carried into execution. The remainder of the doubtful will probably join when the thing is done, 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.

NOLENS VOLENS: Sibley, Van Brunt, Blackwell, Clarke, Corney, Garratrantz, Strummond, Witmore, Waltham, Nevilles, Dickinson, Riley, Scott, Crawley, Rodman, Selsor, The Doctor

“Wheel: McKee

“Cabin: Spencer, Small, Wilson

“Wardroom: Spencer

“Steerage: Spencer, Small, Wilson

“Arm Chest: McKinley”

Herman Melville – whose first cousin, Lt. Guert Gansevoort, was an officer aboard the brig at the time of the Somers Affair – may have been influenced by the notorious events involving the Somers mutineers. Melville may have used elements of the story in his novella Billy Budd.[3]

The incident is detailed in the novel Voyage to the First of December by Henry Carlisle, written from the viewpoint of the naval surgeon on duty (from his old journals). It is also described in detail in the novel The Big Family by Vina Delmar.

The story of the Somers Affair and the subsequent trial is dramatized in the penultimate episode of the sixth season of the television series JAG. The presentation takes place as a dream by Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie, while she prepares to give a lecture at the United States Naval Academy, which came into existence as a result of the Somers Affair.[6] The regular cast portrayed the people involved. Trevor Goddard played the role of Mackenzie, and Catherine Bell (in a play on the identical surname of her usual role in JAG) played Mrs. Mackenzie.

In 1986, an expedition led by George Belcher, an art dealer and explorer from San Francisco, California, discovered the wreck, and in 1987 archaeologists James Delgado and Mitchell Marken confirmed the identification of the wreck. In 1990, Delgado, along with Pilar Luna Erreguerena, co-directed a joint Mexican-US expedition, which involved archmaeologists and divers from the US National Park Service, the Armada de Mexico, and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. The project determined that unknown people had looted the wreck sometime after the 1987 expedition. The wreck remains as a site protected by legislation.

The most notable legacy of the Somers Affair is the US Naval Academy which was founded as a direct result of the affair. Appalled that a midshipman would consider mutiny, senior naval officials ordered the creation of the academy so that midshipmen could receive a formal and supervised education in naval seamanship and related matters. – article

Two novels about similar events and a classic movie came out of this heinous action by part of the Somers’ crew.  And “The Caine Mutiny”? One of Bogey’s best films, but it took the Navy some serious time and soul-searching to agree to assist in production of the film.

The things we find out when we dig into history….

Category: "The Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves", Darwin Awards, Navy

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Green Thumb

Good read.


Wait, how was “The Caine Mutiny” in any way based on the Somers incident?

Wasn’t that the one where Bogart was the unstable ship’s captain who went ape shit when someone ate his strawberries? And then the crew realized he’d lost his nerve when they turned back too soon while supporting an amphibious landing because the captain got scared?

Were strawberries involved in the Somers incident? Inquiring minds want to know.

Old Crow

As an aside “The Caine Mutiny” is one of the films I try to watch once a year. It is an absolutely superior tale and provides what the kids today call a “Master’s Class” in leadership and dynamic subordinacy.

However, I think the crew was right in staging the mutiny. Queeg commits two cardinal sins of officership and seamanship – cowardice before the enemy and hazarding his vessel. The crew had no choice. Not a popular opinion, but it’s mine.

BTW – If you’ve ever wondered what 4 minutes of true brilliance looked like, check out this clip of Jose Ferrer giving a performance that rivals Scott’s “Patton” speech and EXCEEDS Nicholson’s “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH…” monologue.


I agree with your opinion, and always have.

The legal team’s claim that none of the other vessels were damaged in the storm proved the Caine’s officers were in the wrong always irked me, as that isn’t a sign that they were wrong at all, it just suggests the other vessels had more competent commanders conning them.

You see today with the case of the SS EL FARO sinking in 2015 that officers are encouraged to speak up on matters of vessel safety in heavy weather and be assertive, even with the Master of the vessel if they appear to be incompetent or make serious errors in judgment.

A classic movie but a weak legal argument from the prosecution.


I thought 4 vessels DID sink in the typhoon?


A few did capsize, but I am trying to recall the prosecution’s arguments in the film regarding how other vessels fared in the same storm.


Wouk’s novel gives the storm’s date as 18 December 1944. That is the same date as the USN’s Third Fleet lost 3 destroyers and had a number of other ships badly damaged by Typhoon Cobra.

I’m reasonably certain that Wouk’s novel on which the ship was based said that the Navy lost 3 ships during the storm. The film definitely indicated three ships were lost during the storm.


There’s some really interesting back-and-forth in the YouTube commentary to the various excerpts from “The Caine Mutiny.” I loved – LOVED – Jose Ferrer’s performance but I’m not sure I agree with him.

Certainly the officers of the wardroom were out of line in their insubordination and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways they undermined his authority.

But Queeg showed himself time and again to be a leader who was more concerned with picayune details and asserting his authority than he was in actually being a competent commander. He was in every way a tyrant. And tyranny might be acceptable in wartime if the tyrant is also competent, but Queeg was both tyrannical AND incompetent.

The tow rope incident and the “yellow stain” incident both showed this. So in that sense, the XO’s actions in relieving Queeg were at least defensible if not completely justified.

In any case, I hope The Caine Mutiny is required subject matter in every military academy since it is a great study on what “leadership” means, particularly in wartime, and the acting was superb.


BTW it is interesting to contrast the Caine Mutiny with the “soft mutiny” of the NCO’s in the HBO Band of Brothers series when the NCOs offered to resign en masse if Captain Sobel wasn’t removed from command.

In both cases the officer in question was clearly in over his head, but it could also be argued that the NCO
s in Easy Company essentially did the same thing that the wardroom of the Caine did, but mocking and denigrating their commanding officer and undermining his leadership at every turn.


One of the few times when a sailor makes a claim of being “hung” that it was in fact…the truth! (dodges a thrown belaying pin, snatches a tankard of grog, and beats feet)

Tanks Matey. Good story. Saw that episode of JAG a little while back on the Heroes & Icons MeTv Channel. I put Catherine Bell up there real close with Dana Delaney in the Hotness Category. Too bad Ms Bell plays for the other team tho, I think, given the opportunity, I could convert her.


Met her once. Amazing lady… great personality and even dressed in a driving suit with helmet hair, gorgeous. Cameron Diaz was also present… let’s just say suffering in comparison.


If you mean dangling from a yardarm by the neck or similar demise, the term is “hanged” not “hung.” Bad doggie.


Heh heh! No doubt that the mutineers on USS Somers were “hanged” by the neck (or another extremity), from a yardarm or met a similar demise. Also, no doubt, certain cast members from the TV Show were “hanged” (Hollywierd Style…CUT…That’s a wrap).

How some ever, sea stories of Sailors being “Hung like an (GO) Army Mule” are embellishments of a Bernathian Level. Navy gridiron players did get “hung up” attempting to get a pigskin ball past a certain line during a competition this December past.

What’s for mid rats? Got a recipe for the Crow you gotta eat?

The Other Whitey

I grew up having impure thoughts about Catherine Bell.

Jeff LPH 3, 63-66 A Gang Snipe

Don’t know if this could be called a mutiny but back in the Navy coal days, Boiler Tender didn’t have any say and were considered bottom of the barrel until BT Chief Snipe stopped the ship by not feeding the boilers with coal until the brass heard of his complaints and things improved. The word Snipe was named after Chief Snipe.


….In December 1965, CMDR Marc Arnheiter, USN, took command of USS VANCE, a DER on patrol duty off Vietnam. Arnheiter would tell anyone who’d listen that VANCE was unready and dirty, and he’d get her back into shape.

Ninety-nine days later, Arnheiter was relieved of his command in what he would later call the only mutiny in USN history. Check out the book ‘The Arnheiter Affair’ by Neil Sheehan – something went seriously wrong on that ship, and it’s unclear where, but it killed Arnheiter’s career and that of a few others.



Excellent read. Arnheiter was a LCDR though. He retired to Marin County and died a few years ago in his 80s. I worked for his former CortRon Ops officer when we were on the staff at ASW School San Diego.


ASW School the most coveted piece of real estate in Point Loma – I was there 86 – 89 – and 96 Great Base in the heart of San Diego on the bay — Officers Club was the spot where Maverick cornered ol girl in the head in the beginning of Top Gun.


I happen to have a book written about the USS Somers called “A Hanging Offense” by Buckner F. Melton Jr. (it’s a signed copy – got to meet him back in 2003 at Great Lakes). It’s a really good read about the Somers and the events leading up to the “affair” and afterward.

Boiling Mad CPO

I was a YN1 at a Naval Reserve Center in Dearborn, Mi and for some reason this command got on the distribution list for all messages/correspondence concerning this event. There were many more instances of this officer doing things that were not proper/legal. By keeping the Mad Marcus Log, the crew maintaining this missive, which by the way included some officers and Chief Petty Officers, presented some pretty strong evidence of an naval officer on the verge of insanity.

He should have gotten his court martial but for some reason the navy NEEDED to sweep this under the carpet. I read Sheehan’s book and it stayed pretty close to the messages/corresponcence that my command received.

In hindsite, I wish I had kept all that paper. It would make interesting reading today.


…The one part about the Arnheiter Affair that has always made me wonder was CAPT Richard Alexander, who had been selected to command the then-newly reactivated NEW JERSEY. He stood up and publicly called the USN out on the matter, saying that Arnheiter was railroaded and that he was in the right. IIRC the USN gave him one chance to change his mind, at which point he offered to walk away from the NEW JERSEY if his judgement was in question…and they took him up on it. He went from the most coveted command in the Navy to a desk at the Boston Navy Yard, where he took the hint and retired. His actions made a lot of people wonder if the USN hadn’t made a serious mistake.