The Cruise of the Essex, Oct. 28, 1812 - Mar. 28, 1814
In Chapter VIII it was said that the 32‑gun frigate Essex, after missing the Constitution and the Hornet, set sail on a roving cruise in southern waters. There were several reasons for this independent action on the part of Captain Porter. In the first place, after waiting in vain two weeks off Cape Frio (near Rio de Janeiro) to meet Bainbridge, Porter found his ship running short of supplies. He, therefore, hurried on to the next rendezvous agreed upon, the Island of St. Catharine's, which was also on the Brazilian coast. There he failed to find either the Constitution or the Hornet, but heard of the capture of the Java, with rumors to the effect that the Hornet had been taken by the ship-of‑the‑line Montague, and learned that several heavy British ships were soon expected in those waters. Fearing that he should be blockaded, or attacked in port by an overwhelming force, Captain Porter immediately put to sea.
"It was then necessary,"1 he wrote in his journal, "to decide promptly on my proceedings, as our provisions were getting short. I called on the purser for a report and found that we had about three months' bread at half allowance. There was no port on this coast where we could procure a supply, without a certainty of capture, or blockade (which I considered as bad); to attempt to return to the United States at a season of the year when our coast would be swarming with the enemy's cruisers, would be running too much risk, and would be going p176diametrically opposite to my instructions. I was perfectly at loss now where to find the commodore, as, in remaining before Bahia, he had departed from his original intentions, and had already disappointed me at three rendezvous. The state of my provisions would not admit of going off St. Helena's to intercept the returning Indiamen, nor would my force justify the proceeding. . . . I, therefore, determined to pursue that course which seemed best calculated to injure the enemy and would enable me to prolong my cruise. This could only be done by getting into a friendly port, where I could increase my supplies without the danger of blockade, and the first place that presented itself to my mind was the port of Concepcion on the coast of Chile. The season was, to be sure, far advanced for doubling Cape Horn; our stock of provisions was short, and the ship in other respects not well supplied with stores for so long a cruise; but there appeared no other choice left to me except capture, starvation or blockade."
Accordingly he put all hands on half rations and steered for the Cape. After a rough three weeks spent in beating against the storms for which Cape Horn is famous, the Essex turned northward again, the first American man-of‑war to weather the Horn or to enter the Pacific. It happened by an odd coincidence that this little vessel had been also the first American man-of‑war to round the Cape of Good Hope.2
On March 13, 1813, Captain Porter dropped his anchor in the harbor of Valparaiso,3 and proceeded at once to replenish his exhausted stores. The Chilean Government treated him with courtesy, for, being at that time already p177in revolt against Spain, it did not profess an alliance with England, as did the still loyal colonies of Spain and Portugal. Peru, for example, was so zealous in England's cause that she had already commissioned several privateers to prey on the returning American whalers.
While lying at Valparaiso, Captain Porter learned from an American whaler that there were likely to be many English whalers in the vicinity of the Galapagos Islands, a noted whaling rendezvous •about five hundred miles west of Ecuador, and that the presence of the Essex in that neighborhood would serve also to give warning and protection to home-bound American vessels, whose masters were still ignorant of the fact that war had broken out. Acting on this information, as soon as he had finished storing ship (March 20), Captain Porter left Valparaiso for the Galapagos, skirting, en route, the coast line of Chile and Peru, looking for a Peruvian privateer which he heard had captured two American whalers. In a few days he succeeded in finding and capturing the privateer, whose captain, on demand, furnished a list and description of all the British whalers he knew in those waters. Two days later, he recaptured the Barclay, one of the two American ships taken by the privateer. After this, he sailed direct for the Galapagos Islands, arriving there on the 17th of April.
While cruising in this neighborhood, the Essex captured six ships, carrying in all eighty guns and 340 men. Finding himself burdened with prisoners and prizes, which were too far from any American port to send home, Porter took his squadron to the coast to land his prisoners and dispose of some of his prizes. He touched first at Tumbez, a town at the mouth of the Tumbez River, in the Gulf of Guayaquil, Ecuador. There he put the largest of the prizes, the Atlantic, mounting twenty light guns, under the command of the first lieutenant, Master-Commandant p178Downes, and renamed her the Essex Junior. To another prize, the Greenwich, he transferred all the supplies he had taken from his captures and made her thereafter the store ship of his squadron.
Having completed these arrangements, Porter returned to the Galapagos in the Essex, accompanied by the Greenwich, and a prize ship of 16 guns, the Georgiana. The remaining prizes he sent to Valparaiso under the escort of the Essex Junior. By this stime he had captured so many vessels that he was compelled to draw on the midshipmen for prize masters, and in the trip from Tumbez to Valparaiso, he put the ship Barclay, with her ex‑captain retained on board to help November 8 her, under the command of Midshipman Farragut, then not quite twelve years old. At the very outset, the lad was compelled to settle the question of command with the big whaler, who swore that he would take the Barclay to New Zealand instead of Valparaiso, and went below to get his pistols. The other vessels of the squadron were by this time too far away to communicate with, but Farragut, after telling his right-hand man of the prize crew what the situation was, shouted down the cabin ladder that if the whaler came up with his pistols he did so at the risk of going overboard. Finding that the crew were ready to stand by their young commander, the ex‑captain had to give in. From that moment Farragut was master of the situation, and navigated the Barclay without mishap to Valparaiso.
Captain Porter continued to make valuable captures in the neighborhood of the Galapagos, and by the end of September, when he was rejoined by the Essex Junior, he had captured nearly every English ship on the southern coast. Master-Commandant Downes, on his arrival, brought the news from Valparaiso that the 36‑gun frigate Phoebe and the sloops Cherub and Raccoon were on their p179way round the Horn. Porter looked forward to an opportunity of trying the Essex against the Phoebe, but his ship was in great need of overhauling. Accordingly, he set sail with his squadron for the Marquesas Islands, where he could dismantle his ship without fear of being disturbed by a British man-of‑war.a
While the squadron lay at Nukahiva, one of the Marquesas Islands, the work of refitting was interrupted by a lively campaign on shore in defense of the coast tribe, which had received them with hospitality, against hostile tribes of the interior. On the 12th of December, 1813, the overhauling of the Essex was completed. Captain Porter left Lieutenant Gamble4 of the marines with three midshipmen and twenty‑six men in charge of a small battery, under which the four prizes were moored; and made sail for Valparaiso, accompanied by the Essex Junior. He hoped now to meet an English man-of‑war of equal force, and conclude his commerce-destroying cruise with the capture of a frigate.
The results of this famous cruise, Captain Porter summarized in his report to the Secretary of the Navy, as follows:5
"I had completely broken up the British navigation in the Pacific; the vessels which had not been captured by me were laid up and dared not venture out. I had afforded the most ample protection to our own vessels, which were, on my arrival, very numerous and unprotected. The valuable whale fishery there [of the British] is entirely destroyed, and the actual injury we have done p180may be estimated at two and a half million dollars, independent of the expenses of vessels sent in search of me. They have supplied me amply with sails, cordage, cables, anchors, provisions, medicines, and stores of every description — and the slops on board them have furnished clothing for the seamen. We have, in fact, lived on the enemy since I have been in that sea; every prize having proved a well-found store ship for me. I have not yet been under the necessity of drawing bills on the Department for any object, and have been enabled to make considerable advances to my officers and crew on account of pay. For the unexampled time we have kept at sea, my crew have continued remarkably healthy."
On the way to the mainland, Captain Porter kept his men exercised daily at gun and sword drills in anticipation of meeting the Phoebe. On February 3, 1814, the Essex and the Essex Junior reached Valparaiso. Five days later, the Phoebe and the Cherub came in together. The Raccoon had previously parted company from her consorts and headed north. What happened between the two forces is graphically told by Farragut in his journal.6
"In January, 1814, we arrived off the coast of Chile. After looking into Concepcion, we ran down to Valparaiso, where we lay until the arrival of the British frigate Phoebe and sloop of war Cherub. This occurred early in February. The frigate mounted thirty long 18‑pounders, sixteen 32‑pounder carronades, one howitzer, and six 3‑pounders in the tops, with a crew of 320 men. The Cherub had eighteen 32‑pounder carronades, eight 24‑pounders, two long nines, and a crew of 180 men.
"When they made their appearance off the port, our whole watch, being a third of our crew were on shore on liberty. The mate of an English merchantman, which p181was lying in port at the time, went immediately on board the Phoebe, and stated to Captain Hillyar that one‑half of our men were on shore and that the Essex would fall an easy prey. The two ships then hauled into the harbor on a wind. The Phoebe made one larboard quarter, but the Cherub fell to leeward •about half a mile. On gaining our quarter, the Phoebe put her helm down, and luffed up on our starboard bow, coming within •ten or fifteen feet of the Essex.
"I should say here, that as soon as the enemy hove in sight, we fired a gun and hoisted a cornet for all boats and men to return, and in fifteen minutes every man was at his quarters, and but one was under the influence of liquor, he a mere boy. When the Phoebe, as before mentioned, was close alongside, and all hands were at quarters, the p182powder-boys stationed with slow matches ready to discharge the guns, the boarders, cutlass in hand, standing by to board in the smoke, as was our custom at close quarters, the intoxicated youth saw, or imagined that he saw, through the port, some one on the Phoebe grinning at him. 'My fine fellow, I'll stop your making faces,' he exclaimed, and was just about to fire his gun, when Lieutenant McKnight saw the movement and with a blow sprawled him on the deck. Had that gun been fired, I am convinced that the Phoebe would have been ours. But it was destined to be otherwise. We were all at quarters and cleared for action, waiting with breathless anxiety for the command from Captain Porter to board, when the English captain (Hillyar) appeared, standing on the after gun in a pea‑jacket, and in plain hearing said:
" 'Captain Hillyar's compliments to Captain Porter, and hopes he is well.'
"Porter replied, 'Very well, I thank you; but I hope you will not come too near, for fear some accident might take place which would be disagreeable to you,' and with a wave of his trumpet the kedge anchors went up to our yard-arms, ready to grapple the enemy.
"Captain Hillyar braced back his yards and remarked to Porter that if he did fall aboard him, he begged to assure the captain that it would be entirely accidental.
" 'Well,' said Porter, 'you have no business where you are. If you touch a rope-yarn of this ship, I shall board instantly. He then hailed the Essex Junior, and told Captain Downes to be prepared to repel the enemy.
"But our desire for a fight was not yet to be gratified. The Phoebe backed down, her yards passed over ours, not touching a rope, and she anchored •about half a mile astern. We thus lost an opportunity of taking her, though we had observed the strict neutrality of the port under very aggravating circumstances.
p183 "We remained together in the harbor for some days, when the British vessels, having completed their provisioning and watering, went to sea and commenced a regular blockade of our ships. One night we manned all our boats for the purpose of boarding the enemy outside. The captain in his boat, with muffled oars, pulled so close up to the Phoebe that he could hear the conversation of the men on her forecastle, and thereby learned that they were lying at their quarters prepared for us; so the attempt was given up, and we returned on board.
"It was understood in our ship, one day, that Captain Porter had sent word to Captain Hillyar that, if he would send the Cherub to the leeward point of the harbor, he would go out and fight him. We all believed the terms would be accepted, and everything was kept in readiness to get under way. Soon after, the Phoebe was seen standing in with her motto flag flying, on which was God and our Country! British Sailors' Best Rights! This was in answer to Porter's flag, Free Trade and Sailors' Rights! She fired a gun to windward, and the Cherub was seen running to leeward. In five minutes our anchor was up, and under topsails and jib we cleared for action — in fact, we were always ready for that. When within •two miles of our position, the Phoebe bore up and set her studding-sails. This I considered a second breach of faith on the part of Hillyar; for, by his maneuvers in both instances, it was evident that he was either wanting in courage or lacked the good faith of a high-toned chivalrous spirit to carry out his original intention. However, as Captain Hillyar subsequently proved himself a brave man, in more than one instance, I shall not deny him that common characteristic of a naval officer, and have attributed his action on these two occasions to a want of good faith. He was dealing with a far inferior force and it was ignoble p184in the extreme, on his part, not to meet his foe, when he had the ghost of an excuse for doing so, ship to ship.
"On the 28th of March, 1814, it came on to blow from the south, and we parted our larboard cable, dragging the starboard anchor leeward; we immediately got under way and made sail on the ship. The enemy's vessels were close in with the weathermost point of the bay; but Captain Porter thought we could weather them, so we hauled up for that purpose, and took in our topgallant sails, which had been set over close reefed topsails. But scarcely had the topgallant sails been clewed down, when a squall struck the ship and, though the topsail halyards were let go, the yards jammed, and would not come down. When the ship was nearly gunwale under, the maintopmast went by the board, carrying the men who were on the maintopgallant yard into the sea, and they were drowned. We immediately wore ship and attempted to regain the harbor; but, owing to the disaster, were unable to do so; therefore we anchored in a small bay, •about a quarter of a mile off shore and •three-quarters of a mile from the small battery.
"But it was evident, from the preparations being made by the enemy, that he intended to attack us; so we made arrangements to receive him as well as we possibly could. Springs7 were got on our cables, and the ship was perfectly prepared for action.
"I well remember the feelings of awe produced in me by the approach of the hostile ships; even to my young mind it was perceptible in the faces of those around me, p185as clearly as possible, that our case was hopeless. It was equally apparent that all were ready to die at their guns rather than surrender; and such I believe to have been the determination of the crew almost to a man. There had been so much bantering of each other among the men of the ships, through the medium of letters and songs, with an invariable fight between the boats' crews when they met on shore, that a very hostile sentiment was engendered. Our flags were flying from every mast, and the enemy's vessels displayed their ensigns, jacks, and motto flags, as they bore down grandly to the attack.
"At 3.54 P.M. they commenced firing; the Phoebe under our stern, and the Cherub on our starboard bow. But the latter, finding out pretty soon that we had too many guns bearing on her, likewise ran under our stern. We succeeded in getting three long guns out of the stern ports, and kept up as well directed a fire as possible in such an unequal contest.
"In half an hour they were both compelled to haul off to repair damages. During this period of the fight, we had succeeded three times in getting springs on our cables, but in each instance they were shot away as soon as they were hauled taut. Notwithstanding the incessant firing from both the enemy's ships, we had, so far, suffered less than might have been expected, considering that we could bring but three guns to oppose two broadsides. We had many men killed in the first five or ten minutes of their fire, before we could bring our stern guns to bear.
"The enemy soon repaired damages, and renewed the attack, both ships taking position on our larboard quarter, out of reach of our carronades, and where the stern guns could not be brought to bear. They then kept up a most galling fire, which we were powerless to return. At this juncture the captain ordered the cable to be cut, and, p186after ineffectual attempts, we succeeded in getting sail on the ship, having found that the flying jib‑halyards were in a condition to hoist that sail. It was the only serviceable rope that had not been shot away. By this means we were able to close with the enemy, and the firing now became fearful on both sides. The Cherub was compelled to haul out, and never came into close action again, though she lay off and used her long guns greatly to our discomfort, making a perfect target of us. The Phoebe also, was enabled, by the better condition of her sails, to choose her own distance, suitable for her long guns, and kept up a most destructive fire on our helpless ship.
" 'Finding,' as Captain Porter says, 'the impossibility of closing with the Phoebe,' he determined to run his ship ashore and destroy her. We accordingly stood for the land, but when we were within •half a mile of the bluffs the wind suddenly shifted, took us flat aback, and paid our head off shore. We were thus again exposed to a galling fire from the Phoebe. At this moment Captain Downes of the Essex Junior came on board to receive his orders, being under the impression that our ship would soon be captured, as the enemy at that time were raking us, while we could not bring a gun to bear, and his vessel was in no condition to be of service to us.
"Captain Porter now ordered a hawser to be bent on to the sheet anchor and let go. This brought our ship's head around, and we were in hopes that the Phoebe would drift out of gun shot, as the sea was nearly calm; but the hawser broke, and we were again at the mercy of the enemy. The ship was now reported to be on fire, and the men came rushing up from below, many with their clothes burning, which were torn from them as quickly as possible, and those from whom this could not be done were told to jump overboard and quench the flames. Many of p187the crew, and even some of the officers, hearing the order to jump overboard, took it for granted that the fire had reached the magazine, and that the ship was about to blow up; so they leaped into the water and attempted to reach the shore, •about three-quarters of a mile distant, in which effort a number were drowned.
"The captain sent for the commissioned officers, to consult with them the propriety of further resistance; but first went below to ascertain the quantity of powder in the magazine. On his return to the deck, he met Lieutenant McKnight,8 the only commissioned officer left on duty, all the others having been killed or wounded. As it was pretty evident that the ship was in a sinking condition, it was determined to surrender, in order to save the wounded, and at 6.30 P.M. the painful order was given to haul down the colors."
In this action, the Essex lost fifty-eight killed, sixty‑six wounded, and thirty‑one missing. Most of the last were probably drowned in the attempt to swim ashore. If the number of the missing is included, this is the heaviest loss sustained by any American vessel during the war. The British reported four killed and seven wounded on the Phoebe; and one killed and three wounded on the Cherub. Among the killed on the Phoebe was Captain Hillyar's first lieutenant, Ingram, who, it is said, begged his captain to close with the Essex, saying that it was p188deliberate murder to lie off at long range and fire into the Americans like a target, when they were unable to return the fire. Hillyar, however, naturally preferred to make the capture at least cost to himself.
The result was conclusive as to the folly of arming a frigate's main deck with carronades. Porter himself had protested, on taking command, and begged to be allowed to substitute long guns, but the Department refused. It may fairly be said that the country owes the loss of the Essex to this refusal.9
Though the British captain showed Captain Porter and the survivors of the American crew every consideration, as Porter freely admits, the latter could not but feel a bitter resentment over Hillyar's attacking him in neutral waters. This was particularly hard to endure after Porter's forbearance when the Phoebe came into the harbor with the evident intention of taking the Essex by surprise. Captain Hillyar's conduct, however, was in keeping with the policy of those days, common to Napoleon and to the British Government alike, which recognized neutral rights only when it was convenient.
Like another famous commerce-destroyer, the Confederate cruiser Alabama, the Essex was not taken till after she had struck her blow. By destroying British commerce in the Pacific she did far more to hurt the enemy than she could have done by the capture of a frigate; for in 1814 England had frigates to spare, but her merchantmen were her very means of existence.
1 Porter's Journal, I, 56, ff.
2 In 1800, under Captain Edward Preble.
3 Porter was prevented from carrying out his original intention of entering Concepcion by a gale that drove him so far north of that port that he made for Valparaiso instead.
4 A mutiny broke out shortly afterwards. Lieutenant Gamble escaped with his life and eventually made his way to one of the Sandwich Islands, and was captured afterwards by the Cherub. The mutineers were British deserters in the crew of the Essex aided by six prisoners.
5 Porter's Journal, II, 161.
6 Loyall Farragut, Life of David Glasgow Farragut, p32, ff.
7 A spring is a rope taken from the stern of a ship to an anchor off the bow. By hauling on it the crew can turn or "wind" the ship in the desired direction without having to depend on sail power. In this action the springs were bent to the anchor cable instead of to the ring of the anchor itself, an unfortunate arrangement which exposed them to the enemy's fire.
8 The loss of the Essex is linked with the tragedy of the Wasp. After the battle in Valparaiso, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur McKnight and Midshipman James Lyman were exchanged against a number of Englishmen in one of the Essex's prizes that remained in port, and these officers consented to go in the Phoebe to Rio to testify before the prize court in behalf of the Phoebe's prize claims. Afterwards they embarked in a Swedish brig sailing for England. On October 9, 1814, the brig fell in with the Wasp, in mid ocean. The two officers were transferred to her, and she was never heard from again.
9 The armament of the Essex in her action with the British ships consisted of forty 32‑lb. carronades and six long 12's.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A Short History
of the U. S. Navy
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 18 Jun 13