By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York
Talented, well connected, intelligent, mild, affable, diligent, pious, and, above all—controversial. All these things could be said of the man whose order inspired Billy Budd, the dark, short masterpiece of American literary giant, Herman Melville. Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie was born in New York City and began his naval career before he was twelve years old. During the last eight years of his life, 1840-1848, he made his home at the northern limits of Sleepy Hollow. Today that place is called Rockwood Hall or Rockwood.
Mackenzie the Writer
Mackenzie was a productive writer and an accomplished naval officer. His literary friends included Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Fennimore Cooper (until Mackenzie and Cooper fell out). A few hundred yards to the south of Mackenzie’s Sleepy Hollow farm was the estate of the wealthy and influential newspaperman, James Watson Webb—a place that was once called Pokahoe, or later, the Fremont estate. Ocean-going writer, Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast, was another literary acquaintance of the commander. Mackenzie’s second in command at the most critical moment of his career was Guert Gansevoort—the cousin of American novelist Herman Melville—author of what many scholars believe to be the “Great American Novel,” Moby Dick.
It was in Spain between 1826 and 1827 that Mackenzie began close friendships with Washington Irving and American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. With Irving, Mackenzie discussed the notion of turning his personal journal of Spain into a first book. Irving endorsed the idea and the result was A Year in Spain (1829). Irving would generously assist the younger author in producing a successful London edition of the book. America’s leading author of that age actually took pen in hand to make stylistic improvements to Mackenzie’s manuscript. Irving wrote to his friend that these changes were “petty corrections which will be of service to you hereafter in point of style.” The unselfish Washington Irving, acting as a copy editor! But Irving had already garnered a service from his friend; Mackenzie, then a lieutenant in the U. S. Navy, had provided Irving with valuable nautical information to be used in an ambitious biography of Christopher Columbus.
The Navy and Marriage
Mackenzie’s naval and political circle was prominent and influential. It included his brother-in-law Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur, and Mackenzie’s brother John Slidell, a leading congressman, senator, and diplomat. Commodore Perry had married Mackenzie’s older sister Jane, in 1814, and it appears that through this marriage tie Mackenzie had sailed, as a twelve-year-old midshipman, with both Commodore Perrys—Matthew C. Perry and Oliver Hazard Perry. The latter of the two was a national hero, the victor of the decisive naval Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
On October 1, 1835, Mackenzie himself married Catherine Alexander Robinson, the daughter of Morris Robinson, a prosperous New York City banker and lawyer. They lived together in Manhattan, and during the late 1830s Mackenzie was assigned to several lengthy voyages far from home—his travels took him from Russia to Brazil. His record shows that during this time he acquitted himself well under challenging circumstances. Upon his return to New York he and his wife Catherine decided to look for a home in the country north of Manhattan. They chose to settle down on a Hudson River farm just north of today’s Sleepy Hollow.
The Mackenzie farm at Rockwood was formerly part of the expansive Gerard G. Beekman farm. In that day the Beekman place comprised most of what we know today as the incorporated Village of Sleepy Hollow. In early 1840, Mackenzie purchased roughly twenty acres from Cornelia Beekman (the widow of Gerard G. Beekman) to establish his family’s small holding on the Hudson River’s Tappan Zee. His friend, Washington Irving, had bought a riverside home only five years earlier; “Sunnyside” stood just four miles to the south. The family of Commodore Matthew C. Perry and Mackenzie’s sister, Jane, owned the portion of Rockwood immediately north of Mackenzie’s farm.
The farmhouse of Alexander and Catherine Mackenzie was evidently located very near the scanty remains (still visible) of the William Rockefeller mansion at Rockwood Hall. According to Washington Irving the farmhouse was neat and modest in size, and another visitor, Dr. Francis Lieber, noted that a window of the house, “looks upon the noble Hudson, down nearly to N. York…” Dr. Lieber was a nineteenth-century German-American jurist and political philosopher whose work on the rules of war was to serve as the basis for what we know as the Geneva Convention.
Mackenzie’s social connections and excellent naval record led him to steady promotions—not easy in time of peace—midshipman, lieutenant, and commander. His literary career also continued under good sail: A Year in Spain (1831), Popular Essays on Naval Subjects (1833), Spain Revisited (1936), The American In England (1836), The Life of [John] Paul Jones (1841), The Life of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1841), and The Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur (1946).
Home at Sleepy Hollow
When Washington Irving visited the Mackenzie farm in 1841, he was impressed by the domestic industry of Mackenzie and by the hospitality, beauty, and unpretentious nature of Mackenzie’s wife. He also, in a letter to one of his nieces, remarked on the humbleness of the couple’s abode. Of Mrs. Mackenzie’s generous spirit and readiness to receive family members for extended stays at her modest home, Irving wrote, “One would think her mansion was as large as her heart….” Indeed, an American naval officer did not earn much in 1841, yet the Mackenzie’s farmhouse was a happy, contented home. Irving noted, “…he only wants a little money to make him one of the happiest of mortals. Indeed, when I saw him seated by his fireside, with his wife beside him and his bright-looking child on his knee. I would not have exchanged his lot for the richest man of my acquaintance….”
“The Somers Affair”
But that was 1841. In 1842, something was to occur that would cast a cloud on the remainder of Mackenzie’s life. There is an ominous foreshadowing of events to come in Mackenzie’s first book. A brief portion of Mackenzie’s Spanish travelogue and its sequel display an unusual—one might say—morbid interest in public executions. He described a public hanging in the following terms. “It was sure to be a spectacle full of horror and painful excitement…. I felt sad and melancholy, and yet, by a strange perversion, I was ready to feel more so.” The action that Mackenzie took in 1842 would shock the American public in a way unknown since the 1804 death of Alexander Hamilton at the hands of Aaron Burr; the public would not experience such shock and outrage again until the death of Lincoln in 1865. The episode of Mackenzie’s life alluded to here is known in American history as the “Somers Affair.”
In December of 1842, Mackenzie ordered, without trial, the execution of Philip Spencer, the eighteen-year-old son of the United States Secretary of War. Philip Spencer was hanged on the high seas, charged with conspiring to mutiny. Incredible as it seems, the youth’s father, John C. Spencer, was a sitting member of President John Tyler’s cabinet. The father, stern and testy, was considered one of the most gifted attorneys of his time. Before becoming secretary of war, the elder Spencer had served as an able special prosecutor, a member of Congress, speaker of the New York Assembly, and New York Secretary of State. He would subsequently serve as United States Secretary of the Treasury. How did the son of such a man come to be hanged for mutiny?
Young Philip Spencer was a troubled youth, sullen, unruly, difficult, and with an appearance that was noted for two unusual features, a disproportionally large nose and eyes that diverged to the sides. It was said that he had a tendency to become intoxicated when on shore leave and to behave churlishly with his peers. Spencer was once described as the least popular midshipman in his naval squadron, and he was avoided by other junior officers. In spite of being unruly and problematic, Philip was shielded by his superiors. He was more than once saved from dismissal from the service by senior officers, who were naturally cautious of Spencer’s politically formidable father. Even Commodore Matthew Perry, the brother-in-law of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, ruled that the youth be given yet another chance, thus setting up Mackenzie, the youth’s future commander, for a giant career misstep. Mackenzie proved himself to be no coddler of the strangely eccentric young man.
Prior to directing Philip Spencer into the navy as a midshipman, Spencer’s father had attempted twice to start his son off in college, first at Geneva College and then Union College. In neither case did Philip make any academic headway, so the father withdrew him from one college after the other. It seems that Philip Spencer’s one college achievement was the founding of a fraternity—Chi Psi—and during his college days the youth continued to expand his interest in pirate stories.
While on the maiden voyage of Mackenzie’s ship, the Somers, the intransigent midshipman spoke secretly to a few members of Mackenzie’s crew about a real or fancied design to take over Mackenzie’s ship, the U. S. Brig of War, Somers. Mackenzie later stated that he felt bound to take the threat seriously due to the crowded conditions on the vessel and uncertainty about exactly how much Spencer had corrupted the crew. After a brief informal investigation at sea, Mackenzie ordered the hanging of Spencer and two of the young man’s alleged co-conspirators. Two weeks later the Somers landed in New York.
A naval inquiry cleared Mackenzie, after which a court martial found Mackenzie not guilty of murder and other charges, but the verdict of Mackenzie’s well-disposed peers fell far short of endorsing his conduct, and questions lingered. Why had the ship’s captain not brought the suspects back to New York? Why had he not allowed them a trial before hanging them? Mackenzie pleaded the difficulty of the moment and a conviction that the plot would be successful if strong action was not taken immediately. His cadre of very young junior officers had concurred with their captain’s decision, but possibly under pressure from their captain. The ship’s log testifies that there was an abnormally high number of floggings administered to the crew during this overcrowded first voyage of the Brig of War Somers, causing us in the twenty-first century to wonder whether the captain of the ship may not have been sadistic and mentally unstable. Yet even Richard Henry Dana, who wrote the most famous call for humanitarian nautical reform in the interest of American seamen, said of Mackenzie after the Somers Affair that he carried “every mark of a humane, conscientious man.”
In the April of 1843, Mackenzie was found not guilty, and he went home to Sleepy Hollow. The harsh memories of the “Somers Affair” began to fade. His friends closed ranks and sent him their good wishes, but others voiced their dissatisfaction with the trial’s outcome. Mackenzie settled down to write the biography of naval hero, Stephen Decatur, which was published in 1846. He planted more trees and shrubs at his Hudson River farm and socialized with his prestigious circle. No doubt he visited his brother-in-law, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who owned the next parcel of land to the north, between the small hamlet of Archville (where the Old Croton Aqueduct crosses Route 9) and the Hudson River.
In October, 1846, Washington Irving, came to call again. America’s aging man of letters was newly returned from his assignment as United States Ambassador to Spain. He wrote of Mackenzie’s farm, “The house [was] more respectable in appearance than I had supposed it capable of being.” Mackenzie was “likely to have a poor man’s fortune, a house full of children.” His farm, then as now, offered its superb views of the Hudson River. The Hudson River Railroad had not yet come through but was expected soon. The Old Croton Aqueduct had been completed just four years before. When Irving stopped by the commander was absent. He had been sent on official business to Havana, to participate in secret talks with the once-and-future Mexican dictator, Santa Anna. Apparently Mackenzie’s fluent command of Spanish recommended him for the job. During the same fall of 1846, Mackenzie’s former command, the Somers, sank in a gale while performing blockade duty off Vera Cruz, in the Mexican War.
In 1847, Mackenzie himself served in the Mexican War, returning home in the spring of 1848. He died a few months later, on September 13, 1848, while out on horseback. He was forty-five. Edgar Mayhew Bacon, an early historian of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, relates that Mackenzie suffered a heart attack while riding in Sing Sing (Ossining) and the horse returned home with its dead master upon it. His funeral was held at St. Marks Church in Manhattan two days after his death.
Mrs. Mackenzie and her five children left their farm on the Hudson and went to live with relatives in Morristown, New Jersey. Exactly how the Sleepy Hollow farm was disposed of is not clear. We find maps showing that, within two or three years, a new owner named Edwin Bartlett had taken possession of the place. One local history indicates that the Bartlett family lived briefly in the old farmhouse, until the completion of a new, more substantial residence near it. The property then came into the hands of Bartlett’s business partner, the great railroad builder, William Henry Aspinwall—the businessman behind the construction of the Panama Canal. Aspinwall’s son, General Lloyd Aspinwall, is said to have been the next owner. The estate was purchased (apparently upon the sudden death of Lloyd Aspinwall) in 1886 by William Rockefeller, brother and business partner of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. William Rockefeller (according to a website at the Rockefeller Archives) either had his mansion built from scratch or substantially modified the existing mansion which had been created earlier for Edwin Bartlett.
Two of the Mackenzie sons became military officers. The eldest of the Mackenzie children, Ranald Mackenzie, became a noted Union cavalry general during the Civil War. He is reputed to have been the most effective general in the West during the Indian Wars of the latter nineteenth century. He was also reputed to be an arch-disciplinarian whose troops referred to him as “the perpetual punisher.” Ranald’s younger brother, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, Jr., became a lieutenant commander in the U. S. Navy. He was killed in battle, leading an attack against natives on the Island of Taiwan (then known as Formosa) in 1867. The chain of events that lead him into action is known as the “Rover Incident.”
In considering Alexander Slidell Mackenzie and the Somers Affair, we are left with a number of questions that are difficult to answer. Among them: Was Mackenzie justified in his actions? Was Philip Spencer genuinely plotting a mutiny? How did the Somers Affair color the relationship between Mackenzie and his brother-in-law (and neighbor), Matthew C. Perry? How did life unfold for Mrs. Mackenzie after the death of her husband, and what kind of help did she receive raising her five children? What became of Mackenzie’s grave at Saint Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery? The Mackenzie home was apparently too diminutive to appear on period maps; was it already standing when Mackenzie bought the property, or was the home built at the time of the Mackenzie’s purchase of the land?
©2006-2016 Henry John Steiner