I’d never heard of the USS Somers before I started writing Duty, Honor, Country. Then again, I went to West Point, not the Naval Academy. I imagine their first year cadets have to memorize something about the ship and it’s infamy. As the only mutiny the US Navy ever experienced. And led to the execution of three men, one the son of the Secretary of War.
The entire scene plays out in my novel and here is an excerpt:
November 1842, USS Somers, Atlantic Ocean
“Are you afraid of death? Do you fear a dead man? And dare you kill a person?” The questions came in an excited tumble, hushed but insistent.
George King sat on the foremost boom of the USS Somers and restrained himself from shoving the speaker off the wood and into the ocean below. “I don’t believe I’m particularly anxious to die quite yet, but I do not fear death.”
“And killing a man?” Midshipman Philip Spencer, son of the Secretary of War, pressed him. It was just after mid-watch, the start of the 25th of November, 1842, and the Somers had been at sea since early September. Stars sparkled overhead as the ship cut a course west across the Atlantic.
“If honor is involved, I could kill a man,” King assured him.
Spencer appeared disappointed with the answer. “Can you keep a secret?”
Now King was in a bind. First, it was wrong to be out on the boom according to ship’s regulations. The only reason King had agreed was he sensed that Spencer had something of great importance to say and the situation on the Somers had been deteriorating since the ship had turned around and begun its return cruise from Liberia to St. Thomas. There were one hundred and twenty souls on board the ship, a hundred of them under the age of 18. There were dark whispers that Spencer was up to something and King wanted to know what it was. The boom was one of the few places on board where a whispered conversation could be had and not have a half-dozen over-hear it whether they tried to or not.
“I can keep a secret,” he said.
There were only two men on board who could navigate the ship other than the handful of officers, and King had noted Spencer in the company of those two. King has seen Spencer pay them money and slip them illegal liquor. King had gone under Cromwell’s verbal lashings several times and other less fortunate trainees had felt the Chief’s cat-of-nine-tails tear their skin.
“Will you take an oath?” Spencer pressed. He was a tall, thin fellow of nineteen who had seemed amiable enough on the outbound voyage from New York City, but King had seen something in his eyes on first meeting that had never left—a sense of instability in the mind.
“An oath on what?”
That gave Spencer pause. “On your family.”
King smiled coldly in the dark. “Certainly.”
“I lead a group,” Spencer began, “who will take the ship.”
Prior to this event, midshipman were trained at sea. On the Somers, the vast majority of crew were under 18 as noted. After this, a decision was made to form a Naval Academy on land, and my fictional character, George King, becomes one of those involved, although it doesn’t work out quite that smoothly.
Tomorrow: The Honor of the South General Johnston’s Order to the Army of the Mississippi the evening before Shiloh