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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Books for Adults ~ History: Navy


Cover Art: Sailing the Graveyard Sea
Sailing the Graveyard Sea
The Deathly Voyage of the Somers, the U.S. Navy's Only Mutiny, and the Trial that Gripped the Nation
By Richard Snow
Scribner, 2023, print ISBN 978-1-9821-8544-2, US $29.00 / CAN $39.00


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In 1804, Richard Somers was one of eleven men who volunteered to navigate a fire ship to its target during the First Barbary War. Unfortunately, he and his men died when the vessel exploded. Decades later, the United States Navy named a new brig-of-war in his honor and intended it to be a school-ship, one where novices would learn to become capable sailors. When she set sail on 13 September 1842, the majority aboard the USS Somers were between thirteen and nineteen years of age. Only thirty of the 120 men aboard were older.

One man, who was eighteen at the time, was Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, whose father served as secretary of war for President Tyler. John Spencer, a lawyer and politician, was successful, uncompromising, ill-tempered, and determined. Philip strove to please him but never succeeded. His favorite book, published in 1837, was The Pirates Own Book, and perhaps it fueled his desire to head West and try his hand at unlawful adventures on the Mississippi. Trouble at college convinced his father that a better option would be for Philip to join the US Navy, which is how he eventually landed aboard the Somers.

Alexander Slidell Mackenzie entered the navy at age eleven and rose from midshipman to command the USS Somers. He came from wealth and he had connections, one of whom was his brother-in-law, Oliver Hazard Perry. Commander Mackenzie was pious and followed the rules and he expected his men to do likewise. When they did not, he was known to have them flogged.

Philip didnít fit in easily with his fellow officers, so he gravitated to those who worked the ship. He bribed them with forbidden brandy, tobacco, and tales of misadventure at sea. Two favorites were Boatswainís Mate Samuel Cromwell and Seaman Elisha Small. Together, they hatched nefarious plans.

Commander Mackenzie initially laughed at the improbability of their scheme. But all was not right aboard Somers, and before she returned to New York, three would hang from the yardarm. The resulting scandal would captivate the nation as cries for justice were heard far and wide.

Snow raises interesting questions as he recounts events, such was why Spencer chose to confide in the purserís steward, a man beholden to Mackenzie. Details about life at sea and in the navy are interwoven with the principal story, helping readers to gain a better understanding of how and why events unfolded as they did. He provides key information about those involved to allow readers to see the individuals as actual people complete with their foibles and virtues. Combining the views of well-known contemporaries with the historical elements of what transpired permits readers to form their own opinions as to where the truth lies. Snow also ably demonstrates how resolutions donít always satisfy everyone, even in the past.

Sailing the Graveyard Sea has all the attributes of a sea thriller: mutiny, piracy, intrigue, murder, opposing forces, and newsworthy vilification. The book includes a map that shows the voyage of the Somers during the last quarter of 1842, illustrations of ship life and those involved in the mutiny, a bibliography, and index. What became of the participants, how the events impacted their lives, and a summary of later accounts on this period in naval history round out this absorbing, well-researched story of an incident few readers have ever heard of.



Review Copyright ©2024 Cindy Vallar

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