7 Hill 95 (1845)
Action Against an Officer of the Navy for Illegally Assaulting and Imprisoning a Subordinate While on the High Seas
In 1842, Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie took command of the new Navy brig, the Somers, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. On September 13, the Somers set sail for Africa on a training exercise, with more than one hundred apprentice seamen and midshipmen on board. Among the trainees was Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer of Canandaigua, New York, the eighteen-year-old son of John C. Spencer, Secretary of War in the administration of U.S. President John Tyler and grandson of Ambrose Spencer, former Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court.
On November 25, rumors of a planned mutiny reached Commander Mackenzie. At first he considered them a boyish prank, but when informed that Midshipman Philip Spencer and others had been overheard planning to kill the officers and loyal crew of the Somers, and that Spencer had been observed in the wardroom examining a chart of the West Indies and enquiring about the Isle of Pines, a notorious haunt for pirates, Commander Mackenzie ordered that Spencer be arrested and placed in irons on the quarterdeck.
The following day, the main topmast of the ship and its rigging fell to the deck and Commander Mackenzie, convinced that he had further evidence of the plot, ordered the two men who were responsible for the mast, Boatswain Samuel Cromwell and seaman Elisha Small, arrested and placed in irons. Morale declined, and the crew became sullen, discontent, and inattentive to duty. This caused Commander Mackenzie to arrest and place in irons other members of the crew including sailmaker’s mate Charles A. Wilson.
Commander MacKenzie then requested advice from his officers who reported that We think the safety, our lives and honor to the flag entrusted to our charge, requires that the prisoners be put to death, as the course best calculated to make a salutary impression upon the rest of the crew. In this decision we trust we have been guided by our duty to God, to our Country, and to the Service. Three days later, Commander Mackenzie, without any form of trial, executed Spencer, Cromwell and Small by hanging them from the yard-arm of the brig.
When the brig returned to New York Harbor on December 14, the Navy conducted a formal inquiry into Commander Mackenzie’s conduct. He was brought before a court-martial but was acquitted on a split vote. The public was outraged and many commentators, including James Fenimore Cooper, denounced the hangings as murder. In a move to end the practice of training midshipmen at sea, the U.S. Naval Academy was established.
Charles A. Wilson, the sailmaker’s mate, brought a civil action in the New York Supreme Court of Judicature against Commander Mackenzie to recover for the assault and detention in irons. In the case which was heard in January 1845, Wilson was represented by J. B. Scoles, while the counsel to Mackenzie were D. Lord, Jr. and J. Duer. In an opinion written by Chief Justice Samuel Nelson, the Court held that an action could be maintained against an officer of the Navy for illegally assaulting and imprisoning one of his subordinates, even though the actions occurred on the high seas and under color of navy discipline. Wilson was awarded judgment.
John Proffatt, Abraham Clark Freeman, 42 American Decisions 51 (1910)
Proceedings of the Naval Court Martial in the case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (New York, 1844).