Commodore Porter Gains Glory In The Pacific


ANY of you who have read much of American history must have often met

with the names of Porter and Farragut. There are no greater names in our

naval history. There was Captain David Porter and his two gallant sons,

all men of fame. And the still more famous Admiral Farragut began his

career under the brave old captain of the War of 1812.

I am going now to tell you about David Porter and the little Essex, a

ship whose name the British did not like to hear. And I have spoken of

Farragut from the fact that he began his naval career under Captain


Captain Porter was born in 1780, before the Revolution had ended. His

father was a sea-captain; and when the boy was sixteen years old, he

stood by his father's side on the schooner Eliza and helped to fight

off a British press-gang which wanted to rob it of some of its sailors.

The press-gang was a company of men who seized men wherever they found

them, and dragged them into the British navy, where they were compelled

to serve as sailors or marines. It was a cruel and unjust way of getting

men, and the Americans resisted it wherever they could. In this

particular fight several men were killed and wounded, and the press-gang

thought it best to let the Eliza alone.

When the lad was seventeen he was twice seized by press-men and taken to

serve in the British navy, but both times he escaped. Then he joined the

American navy as a midshipman.

Young Porter soon showed what was in him. In the naval war with France

he was put on a French prize that was full of prisoners who wanted to

seize the ship. For three days Porter helped to watch them, and in all

that time he did not take a minute's sleep.

Afterward, in a pilot-boat, with fifteen men the boy hero attacked a

French privateer with forty men and a barge with thirty men. Porter,

with his brave fifteen, boarded the privateer and fought like a hero.

After more than half its crew were killed and wounded the privateer

surrendered. In this hard fight not one of Porter's men was hurt.

That was only one of the things which young Porter did. When the war

with the pirates of Tripoli began, he was there, and again did some

daring deeds. He was on the Philadelphia when that good ship ran

aground and was taken by the Moors, and he was held a prisoner till the

end of the war. Here you have an outline of the early history of David


When the War of 1812 broke out, he was made captain of the Essex. The

Essex was a little frigate that had been built in the Revolution. It

was not fit to fight with the larger British frigates, but with David

Porter on its quarter-deck it was sure to make its mark.

On the Essex with him was a fine little midshipman, only eleven years

old, who had been brought up in the Porter family. His name was David G.

Farragut. I shall have a good story of him to tell you later on, for he

grew up to be one of the bravest and greatest men in the American navy.

On July 2, 1812, only two weeks after war was declared, Porter was off

to sea in the Essex, on the hunt for prizes and glory. He got some

prizes, but it was more than a month before he had a chance for glory.

Then he came in sight of a British man-of-war, a sight that pleased him

very much.

Up came the Essex, pretending to be a merchant ship and with the

British flag flying. That is one of the tricks which naval officers

play. They think it right to cheat an enemy. The stranger came bowling

down under full sail and fired a gun as a hint for the supposed

merchantman to stop. So the Essex backed her sails and hove to until

the stranger had passed her stern.

Porter was now where he had wanted to get. He had the advantage of the

wind--what sailors call the "weather-gage." So down came the British

flag and up went the Stars and Stripes: and the ports were thrown open,

showing the iron mouths of the guns, ready to bark.

When the English sailors saw this they cheered loudly and ran to their

guns. They fired in their usual hasty fashion, making much noise but

doing no harm. Porter waited till he was ready to do good work, and then

fired a broadside that fairly staggered the British ship.

The Englishman had not bargained for such a salute as this, and now

tried to run away. But the Essex had the wind, and in eight minutes

was alongside. And in those eight minutes her guns were busy as guns

could be. Then down came the British flag. That was the shortest fight

in the war.

The prize was found to be the corvette Alert. A corvette is a little

ship with not many guns. She was not nearly strong enough for the

Essex, and gave up when only three of her men were wounded. But she

had been shot so full of holes that she already had seven feet of water

in her hold and was in danger of sinking. It kept the men of the Essex

busy enough to pump her out and stop up the holes, so that she should

not go to the bottom. Captain Porter did not want to lose his prize. He

came near losing it, and his ship too, in another way, as I have soon to


You must remember that he had taken other prizes and sent them home with

some of his men. So he had a large number of prisoners, some of them

soldiers taken from one of his prizes. There were many more British on

board than there were Americans, and some of them formed a plot to

capture the ship. They might have done it, too, but for the little

midshipman, David Farragut.

This little chap was lying in his hammock, when he saw an Englishman

come along with a pistol in his hand. This was the leader in the plot

who was looking around to see if all was ready for his men to break out

on the Americans.

He came up to the hammock where the boy lay and looked in at him. The

bright young fellow then had his eyes tight shut and seemed to be fast

asleep. After looking a minute the man went away. The instant he was out

of sight up jumped the lad and ran to the captain's cabin. You may be

sure he did not take many words to tell what he had seen.

Captain Porter knew there was no time to be lost. He sprang out of bed

in haste and ran to the deck. Here he gave a loud yell of "Fire! Fire!"

In a minute the men came tumbling up from below like so many rats. They

had been trained what to do in case of a night-fire and every man ran to

his place. Captain Porter had even built fires that sent up volumes of

smoke, so as to make them quick to act and to steady their nerves.

While the cry of fire roused the Americans, it scared the conspirators,

and before they could get back their wits the sailors were on them. It

did not take long to lock them up again. In that way Porter and Farragut

saved their ship.

The time was coming in which he would lose his ship, but the way he lost

it brought him new fame. I must tell you how this came about. When the

Constitution and the Hornet, as I have told you in another story,

were in the waters of Brazil, the Essex was sent to join them. You

know what was done there, how the Constitution whipped and sunk the

Java, and the Hornet did the same for the Peacock.

There was no such luck for the Essex, and after his fellow-ships had

gone north Captain Porter went cruising on his own account. In the

Pacific Ocean were dozens of British whalers and other ships. Here was

a fine field for prizes. So he set sail, went round the stormy Cape Horn

in a hurricane, and was soon in the great ocean of the west.

I shall not tell you the whole story of this cruise. The Essex here

was like a hawk among a flock of partridges. She took prize after prize,

until she had about a dozen valuable ships.

When the news of what Porter was doing reached England, there was a sort

of panic. Something must be done with this fellow or he would clear the

Pacific of British trade. So a number of frigates were sent in the hunt

for him. They were to get him in any way they could.

After a long cruise on the broad Pacific, the Essex reached the port

of Valparaiso, on the coast of Chile, in South America. She had with her

one of her prizes, the Essex Junior. Here Porter heard that a British

frigate, the Phoebe, was looking for him. That pleased him. He wanted

to come across a British war-vessel, so he concluded to wait for her. He

was anxious for something more lively than chasing whaling ships.

He was not there long before the Phoebe came, and with her a small

warship, the Cherub.

When the Phoebe came in sight of the Essex it sailed close up. Its

captain had been told that half the American crew were ashore, and very

likely full of Spanish wine. But when he got near he saw the Yankee

sailors at their guns and ready to fight. When he saw this he changed

his mind. He jumped on a gun and said:--

"Captain Hillyar's compliments to Captain Porter, and hopes he is well."

"Very well, I thank you," said Porter. "But I hope you will not come too

near for fear some accident might take place which would be disagreeable

to you."

"I had no intention of coming on board," said Captain Hillyar, when he

saw the look of things on the deck of the Essex. "I am sorry I came so

near you."

"Well, you have no business where you are," said Porter. "If you touch a

rope yarn of this ship, I shall board instantly."

With that the Phoebe wore round and went off. It was a neutral port

and there was a good excuse for not fighting, but it was well for

Porter that he was ready.

A few days later he heard that some other British ships were coming from

Valparaiso and he concluded to put to sea. He didn't want to fight a

whole fleet. But the wind treated him badly. As he sailed out a squall

struck the Essex and knocked her maintopmast into the sea. Porter now

ran into a small bay near at hand and dropped anchor close to the shore.

Here was the chance for the Phoebe and the Cherub. They could stand

off and hammer the Essex where she could not fire back. They had over

thirty long guns while the Essex had only six, and only three of these

could be used. The rest of her guns were short ones that would not send

a ball far enough to reach the British ships.

The Essex was in a trap. The British began to pour solid iron into her

at the rate of nearly ten pounds to her one. For two hours this was kept

up. There was frightful slaughter on the Essex. Her men were falling

like dead leaves, but Porter would not yield.

After this went on for some time there came a change in the wind, and

the Essex spread what sail she had and tried to get nearer. But the

Phoebe would not wait for her, but sailed away and kept pumping balls

into her.

Soon the wind changed again. Now all hope was gone. The American crew

was being murdered and could not get near the British. Porter tried to

run his ship ashore, intending to fight to the last and then blow her


But the treacherous wind shifted again and he could not even reach the

shore. Dead and wounded men lay everywhere. Flames were rising in the

hold. Water was pouring into shot holes. The good ship had fought her

last and it was madness to go on. So at 6.20 o'clock, two and a half

hours after the fight began, her flag came down and the battle was over.

The story of the cruise of the Essex and her great struggle against

odds was written for us by her young midshipman--David Farragut.

President Roosevelt, in his Naval History of the War of 1812, says the

following true words about Captain Porter's brave fight:

"As an exhibition of dogged courage it has never been surpassed since

the time when the Dutch Captain Keasoon, after fighting two long days,

blew up his disabled ship, devoting himself and all his crew to death,

rather than surrender to the hereditary foes of his race." Porter was

the man to do the same thing, but he felt he had no right to send all

his men to death.