Commodore Porter Gains Glory In The Pacific
THE GALLANT FIGHT OF THE "ESSEX" AGAINST GREAT ODDS
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
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
"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
"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
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.