Alexander Slidell MacKenzie




NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Heroic Age of Sail (1816-1865)








Naval officer and author.

As a child Alexander was stirred, like multitudes of his countrymen, by the navy's heroism in the War of 1812, and so on 1 January 1815, while that war was still in progress, the eleven-year-old boy entered the navy as a midshipman. For the next decade Slidell served on various ships in the Caribbean and the Pacific. He was aboard the Macedonian in the Pacific from 1818 to 1821. In 1822 he took leave from the navy to experience his first command, as captain of a merchant vessel. Returning to the navy, he served aboard the Terrier, suppressing piracy in the Caribbean in 1824, an incident of note in light of his reactions during the tragedy that would later envelop his career.

Early in 1825 Slidell was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and soon after he was granted another extended leave, during which he traveled in Europe. He cruised aboard the Brandywine in the Mediterranean in the early 1830s. In 1837-1838 Slidell served as first lieutenant aboard the Independence on a cruise to Russia; it was after his return during the latter year that he changed his name [to Mackenzie].

Now Lieutenant Mackenzie, he commanded the Dolphin in 1839 in Brazilian waters. Mackenzie, now promoted to commander (Sept. 1841), undertook the command of the new training vessel Somers. The brig sailed with a crew of young apprentices on a training mission to Africa in September 1842.

The cruise proved a fateful one. The crossing to Liberia was made without incident, but on the return passage the captain was informed of a mutiny being planned among the crew. He ordered his officers to investigate and on the basis of their findings proceeded to hang at the yardarm three of the alleged ringleaders: two seamen and an eighteen-year-old midshipman named Philip Spencer. At the time of the hanging, the vessel was some two days east of the Virgin Islands. After the burials at sea, the Somers put into port briefly at Charlotte Amalie and set course posthaste for New York, arriving battered and exhausted 14 December 1842.

The hanged midshipman was the son of Secretary of War John Spencer. President John Tyler's cabinet officer was overwhelmed by what Mackenzie had done and sought to have the commander tried in a civil court for murder. The navy forestalled that effort, conducting first a court of inquiry into the events aboard the Somers and then a court-martial, which dragged on for eight weeks during early 1843. Feelings ran high on both sides, and to this day opinions differ as to the necessity for Mackenzie's actions.

On 28 March 1843 the court-martial finally returned a finding of not proven, but thereafter Mackenzie's career in the navy was stalled. President James K. Polk in 1846 agreed to send the officer on a mission to Havana to negotiate with Santa Anna, who was seeking to return to power in Mexico. Mackenzie's fluency in Spanish stood him in good stead on this trip. Again, during the Mexican War, he acted as interpreter at the surrender of Veracruz and later commanded artillery at the second attack on Tabasco. His last shipboard service was as captain of the steamer Mississippi in 1847-1848.

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