Sailing the Graveyard Sea: The Deathly Voyage of the Somers, the U.S. Navy's Only Mutiny, and the Trial That Gripped the Nation (Hardcover)
A “compelling” (The Wall Street Journal) account of the only mutiny in the history of the United States Navy—a little-known but once notorious event that cost three young men their lives—part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, and as propulsive and dramatic as the bestselling novels of Patrick O’Brian.
On December 16, 1842, the US brig-of-war Somers dropped anchor in the New York Harbor at the end of a voyage intended to teach a group of adolescents the rudiments of naval life. But this routine exercise ended in catastrophe. Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie came ashore claiming he had prevented a mutiny that would have left him and his officers dead. Some of the thwarted mutineers were being held under guard, but three had already been hanged at sea: Boatswain’s Mate Samuel Cromwell, Seaman Elisha Small, and Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, whose father was the secretary of war, John Spencer.
Eighteen-year-old Philip Spencer, according to his commander, had been the ringleader who encouraged the crew to seize the ship and become pirates so that they might rape and pillage their way through the northern coast of South America and the Caribbean. While the young man might have been fascinated by stories of pirates, it soon became clear the order that condemned the three men had no legal basis. And, worse, it appeared possible that no mutiny had actually occurred, and that the ship might instead have been seized by a creeping hysteria that ended in the sacrifice of three innocents.
Months of accusations and counteraccusations were followed by a highly public court-martial that put Mackenzie on trial for his life, and a storm of anti-Navy sentiment drew the attention of such leading writers of the day as Herman Melville and James Fenimore Cooper. But some good did come out of it: public disgust with Mackenzie’s hapless “training” gave birth to Annapolis, the distinguished naval academ that within a century would produce the mightiest navy the world had ever known.
Vividly told and filled with tense shown directly in court-martial transcripts, Richard Snow’s masterly account of this all-but-forgotten episode is “a hell of a yarn” (Kirkus Reviews) and naval history at its finest.
About the Author
Richard Snow spent nearly four decades at American Heritage magazine, serving as editor in chief for seventeen years, and has been a consultant on historical motion pictures, among them Glory, and has written for documentaries, including the Burns brothers’ Civil War, and Ric Burns’s award-winning PBS film Coney Island, whose screenplay he wrote. He is the author of multiple books, including, most recently, Disney’s Land.
"Superb—provocative and unnerving. . . . a tour de force. [Snow] has impressively smooth control of his depraved, devastating material." —National Review
"[Snow] deftly recounts that mortal episode, which helped to set the Navy on a modern course. . . . [he] offers a compelling psychological portrait of the antagonists . . . Drawing on contemporary accounts, Mr. Snow vividly evokes the myriad trials faced by the so-called saplings.” —Wall Street Journal
“Gripping . . . Snow delves into the investigation and courtroom drama, drawing on court transcripts to vividly recreate scenes on board the Somers. Readers will be intrigued.” —Publishers Weekly
“A page-turning history of an infamous mutiny . . . consistently compelling. . . . Much of the book’s appeal derives from Snow’s tart commentary . . . readers of this iteration will find it an absorbing one. A hell of a yarn.” —Kirkus Reviews
"Richard Snow has brought forth the literary equivalent of a perfect storm in which nineteenth-century adventure, true crime, and high drama on the high seas all come together in the hands of a master storyteller operating at the height of his considerable powers. Sailing the Graveyard Sea braids the poetic force of Herman Melville with the narrative flair of Patrick O’Brian to create a dark, tightly strung, and deeply unsettling chapter in the saga of the United States Navy. A masterpiece of maritime history lifted straight from the gun decks of an American brig-of-war in the great age of sail."—Kevin Fedarko, author of The Emerald Mile
"As engrossing as Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. In Richard Snow’s masterful hands, the collision between a brash, young, wannabe pirate and his rash, too-proud, unyielding commanding officer is a sea story for the ages. What happened on Somers during a routine U.S. Navy voyage in 1842 is as shocking and unsettling today as it was in its day." —James Sullivan, author of Unsinkable: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett
“First Snow’s watershed New York Times book review revived Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels for a new generation; now he delivers a masterful account of one of the most intriguing episodes of U.S. Naval history. The moral questions raised by the Somers mutiny echo through the ages—but never so profoundly, or with such intensity, as in Sailing the Graveyard Sea.” —Dean King, nationally bestselling author of Skeletons on the Zahara and A Sea of Words