U.S. Navy captain David Porter bore the elements of greatness—but his epic 1812 Pacific voyage led to a Shakespearean final act.
At age 32 in 1812, David Porter Jr., the son of a Revolutionary War seafarer, was a proud, ambitious man in a hurry. As newly minted captain of the USS Essex, a 32-gun frigate, Porter managed within 60 days of the United States’ declaration of war with Britain to capture nine prize ships in the Atlantic, including the Alert, the first British warship to be taken by a U.S. Navy man-of-war. This first successful voyage brought acclaim and wealth to Porter, and whetted his appetite for more—especially for single combat with a British man-of-war. So, with high hopes for prizes, battle, and glory, Porter set out on what would become an epic 17-month voyage around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, preying on British merchantmen and whalers. Of the coast of Valparaiso, Chile, in March 1814, Porter got his wish and met his match: HMS Phoebe, a 36-gun man-of-war. The tale of their bloody running showdown follows.
Porter decided he would make a night attack on the Phoebe so successfully in the Galapagos Islands. Given the constant training his men had received in hand-to-hand combat, he was confident they were superior to any British crew, which was probably true. On the night of March 12, all using the small boats he had employed the Essex’s boats were filled with armed men, and with muffled oars, they rowed toward the Phoebe. Porter was in the lead boat with his protégé, the 12-year-old David Farragut. They pulled close enough to hear conversation on the forecastle, which led Porter to believe that Captain James Hillyar was waiting for him, whereupon he aborted the mission and rowed back to the harbor.
In fact, Hillyar was unaware of Porter’s presence, and the Essex men got back to their ship without difficulty. Evidently embarrassed, Porter never mentioned the nonevent or noted it in any letter or in his journal. He must have realized later that he had taken Hillyar by surprise after all, and had retreated when he did not have to.
On March 14, Porter began a paper war with Hillyar, hoping to prod him into abandoning his caution. He accused Hillyar of trying to encourage men on the Essex to desert. Hillyar denied doing so, although, of course, he would welcome any American seaman who left his ship. That Porter thought his transparent gambit would succeed with Hillyar is a tribute to his inflamed imagination.
At length, Porter concluded that Hillyar was never going to fight him one on one, and he looked for an opportunity to escape. His sense of urgency increased when word arrived overland from Buenos Aires that Britain’s 38-gun Targus was on the way, and possibly two other frigates, along with the Hector—back from the Columbia River. In fact, the Targus arrived of Valparaiso on April 13.
Porter planned to race out to sea and draw the Phoebe and the 24-gun Cherub after him, giving his first lieutenant, John Downes, on the Essex Junior a chance to sortie safely out of the harbor. Porter could then rely on his speed to get away. If all went well, he and Downes would rendezvous later. It was a workable plan.
An opportunity arose on March 28. At daylight, winds were light, and Porter had the ship ready for an escape. He had determined from a lieutenant’s report that Phoebe and Cherub, which were usually stationed to the weather point, or western side of Valparaiso Bay, would be more to leeward, giving Porter an excellent chance to get to windward of them and break free close hauled. Meanwhile Essex Junior could slip out to leeward when the two British ships inevitably hauled their wind and chased the Essex.
All Porter needed was a stronger breeze, and at noon the wind, which was from the south-southwest, freshened before increasing to a strong gale. It blew over the hills and through the ravines in back of the harbor, stirring the bay waters to a frenzy and rocking the shipping. Porter ordered the royals and their masts taken down, and then, at 2:45 the Essex suddenly parted her larboard cable, causing her to drag the starboard anchor leeward. Conditions now seemed ideal to go forward with the escape Porter had been planning. Aboard at the time was Joel Poinsett, the American consul general in Santiago, who regularly met with Porter and made sure he received what he wanted. Porter hailed Essex Junior to send a boat to take him ashore. Immediately after Poinsett departed, Porter ordered the starboard anchor cable cut, and he was on his way.
At that moment, Phoebe and Cherub were standing in for the protection of the harbor, providing Porter with an opportunity to get windward of them. He took in the topgallant sails, which were set over single-reefed topsails, and stood close hauled for the Point of Angels at the western end of Valparaiso Bay. His chances of breaking free looked excellent. But, as luck would have it, on luffing round the point, a heavy squall suddenly struck the ship. The topsail halyards were let go, but the yards jammed and would not come down. When the ship was nearly gunwale to, the main topmast went by the board, carrying the men on the topgallant yard, Samuel Miller and Tomas Browne (both superb topmen), into the sea, where they drowned.
Porter quickly gave orders to wear ship and clear the wreckage. The mainsail and main topsail were cut away to prevent them from acting against the ship as it worked back into the bay. Porter was trying desperately to return the Essex to her original anchorage, where she would be safe in neutral territory again. Despite a mighty effort from her crew, however, the disabled ship could not make it back. As an alternative, Porter ran to leeward (east) for about three miles into a small bay called Villa la Mar—about one and a half miles to leeward of the battery on old Fort jel Barron, guarding the east side of Valparaiso Bay. Once there, he let go his anchor in nine and a half fathoms within pistol shot of shore. It was 3:45 p.m. Porter intended to make repairs quickly in what he assumed were neutral waters.
Being in neutral territory did not put a check on Hillyar, however. He was already hot after the Essex, with the Cherub close behind. When he saw Porter drop anchor, he must have been relieved. Hillyar knew he was facing disaster when Porter raced close hauled for the Point of Angels. The Phoebe could never have caught him. Allowing the Essex to escape had been Hillyar’s worst nightmare. The sudden squall that wrecked Porter’s plans saved Hillyar. He did not want to answer to the Admiralty for failing to destroy the Essex when she was within his grasp.
Hillyar was saved again when Porter wore ship and ended up anchored on the east side of Valparaiso Bay to make repairs. The Essex might have continued eastward into the open sea, where, again, Hillyar might not have caught her, even though she was injured. When Porter dropped his hook, thinking he was safe in neutral territory, Hillyar pounced. Having already had a brush with disaster, he was not going to let this opportunity pass. He now had a chance to engage the Essex in an unequal battle with both of his ships. He did not hesitate.
As Phoebe and Cherub sped toward the Essex, they made furious preparations for battle. Porter cleared for action as well, but he did not think Hillyar would actually attack him. Nonetheless, he prepared for the worst. He knew that if there was a fight, the Phoebe’s long 18-pounders would be critical. The Cherub was a different matter. Her principal armament was carronades, just like the Essex, which meant that to be effective she had to get close to the Essex, where Porter’s heavier guns could decimate her. So the Phoebe, with her battery of long guns, would carry the brunt of the attack.
Despite the significant advantage he now had, Hillyar remained cautious. He approached deliberately, giving Porter time to run three 12-pounders out of stern ports and rig springs on the Essex’s cable, so that she could turn without using her sails. Poinsett, meanwhile, had remained on the scene, and he tried to help. He urged the governor of Valparaiso to use the small battery nearby to defend the neutrality of the port. The pro-British governor refused, but he did offer to send an officer to Hillyar and request that he cease firing, should Porter succeed in reaching the common anchorage—an unlikely event, which the governor was well aware of.
The men from all the ships were ready for a fight. They had been anticipating one for weeks. Still, with the decisive battle now at hand, tension gripped every stomach, especially on the Essex, where the crew could see the obvious superiority of the enemy. “I well remember the feelings of awe produced in me by the approach of the hostile ships,” Farragut recalled. “Even to my young mind it was perceptible in the faces of those around me, as clearly as possible, that our case was hopeless. It was equally apparent that all were ready to die at their guns rather than surrender.” In their heart of hearts, however, the brave crew of the Essex must have hoped that Hillyar would not violate a neutral port—certainly Captain Porter did.
They hoped in vain. Hillyar was determined to smash the Essex right now. As he drew closer, the wind continued southerly but had let up some. He positioned the Phoebe under the Essex’s stern and the Cherub of her starboard bow, commencing a hot fire from both ships at 3:54 p.m. Porter’s 12-pounders fired back and were surprisingly effective. A splinter struck the Cherub’s captain, Tomas Tucker, but he kept directing the fight, even though blood was pulsing from his wound. Fire from the Essex soon forced Tucker to change positions, but it still looked as if the American frigate stood no chance. During the next half hour, however, Porter’s three long 12-pounders, firing out of stern ports, were handled with such skill that both enemy ships were forced to haul of for repairs. In addition to being much cut up in her rigging, and her topsail sheets flying away, the Phoebe had lost use of her mainsail, jib, and mainstay.
Hillyar could afford to pause—the Essex was trapped and too banged up to attempt an escape—and he needed to change his strategy.
The carnage aboard the Essex was indeed dreadful. With only three long guns to oppose two broadsides, Porter had tried to bring his broadsides to bear with the springs he had hitched to the cables, but they were no sooner hooked up than Hillyar’s gunners cut them. Many Essex men had been killed in the first minutes of the fight, before her three long 12 guns in the stern could be brought to bear. Nonetheless, spirits remained high; the men had no quit in them. The ensign flying at the gaff had been shot away, but “free trade and sailors rights,” the American motto throughout the War of 1812, continued flying at the foremast. Porter replaced the damaged ensign and put another in the mizzen rigging.
Farragut was stationed beside the captain during this time, along with another midshipman and the sailing master. Two quartermasters attended the wheel. The jobs of those next to Porter were to carry out his every wish amid the smoke, confusion, and incessant cacophony of an ever-changing battle. “I performed the duties of the captain’s aid, quarter gunner, powder boy, and in fact did everything that was required of me,” Farragut remembered. He could have added that he was exposed to enemy missiles the entire time, as well as the deadly splinters they unleashed. “I shall never forget the horrid impression made upon me at the sight of the first man I had ever seen killed. He was a boatswain’s mate, and was fearfully mutilated. It staggered and sickened me at first; but they soon began to fall around me so fast that it all appeared like a dream, and produced no effect on my nerves.”
When he wasn’t employed otherwise, Farragut “assisted in working a gun,” often running to bring powder from the boys, and send them back for more “until the Captain wanted me to carry a message; and this continued to employ me during the action.”
Hillyar soon returned to the attack, positioning both his ships on Essex’s starboard quarter, out of range of her carronades. Porter’s deadly stern guns could not be brought to bear either. The punishing blows from the Phoebe hit the Essex hard, while she remained unable to return fire—a sitting duck if ever there was one. Porter was in the exact situation he had most feared, where his short-range carronades could not reach an enemy employing long guns. His only hope was to get a sail up and bear down on the Phoebe. But the topsail sheets and halyards had been shot away, as well as the jib and fore topmast staysail halyards. The only ropes not cut were the flying jib halyards. After several frustrating attempts, the crew finally hoisted the flying jib, and Porter quickly cut the cable. With a favorable slant of wind, the Essex ran down toward the Phoebe with guns blazing, intending to board and fight it out hand to hand. “The firing on both sides was now tremendous”; Porter recalled: “I had let fall my fore topsail and foresail, but the want of tacks and sheets had rendered them almost useless to us—yet we were enabled for a short time to close with the enemy.”
The Cherub was forced to haul of and continue firing ineffectively from long distance, out of range of the Essex’s carronades. Hillyar also maneuvered away from the Essex as she came toward him. He had no intention of allowing her to crash into his ship and have the American crew swarm board. He pulled to a position where his long guns could pummel the Essex without fear of being hit in return.
The Essex was again helpless. Hillyar’s continuous fire smashed many of her guns and created havoc on her decks. The killed and wounded were everywhere. Porter gave up trying to close with Hillyar and decided to run the Essex ashore, land the men who were alive, and destroy her. At the moment, the wind was favorable.
As the stricken Essex strained toward shore, her decks were strewn with bloody, mangled bodies. She had been on fire several times and was in desperate condition. For a brief moment it looked as if she might make it to the beach. But when she was a hundred feet from it, the wind suddenly, according to Porter’s journal, “shifted from the land (as is very common in this port in the latter part of the day)” taking the ship fat aback and paying her head offshore, pointing it directly at the Phoebe, where she was “once again exposed to a dreadful raking fire.”
At this moment, Lieutenant Downes appeared looking for orders. Essex Junior, being too weak to participate, had been spared. Downes was convinced that the Essex, in her wretched state, would shortly be taken, and he wanted direction. Porter ordered him back to defend Essex Junior, but if that proved impossible, to destroy her if it looked as if she were in danger of being captured. Downes went back, taking with him several of the wounded and leaving three of his healthy men.
All the while, the Phoebe kept up a deadly barrage, raking the Essex. Porter could not return fire. And the Cherub, without having to fear any response from the Essex, lobbed in her shots as well. Lifeless bodies lay strewn about the American ship’s decks, their mortal wounds horribly evident—heads cut of, chests shot out, arms sliced in half. Blasphemous oaths from the wounded filled the air, as they writhed in pain from jagged splinters stuck in their bodies every which way, mangled arms, gouged-out eyes, sliced ears. Blood ran everywhere. “The slaughter on board my ship [was] horrible,” Porter lamented.
But he was still not ready to give up. He ordered a hawser bent on the sheet anchor, and the anchor cut from the bows to bring her head round. Tis miraculously succeeded, and the Essex’s broadside was brought to bear again. But the hawser soon snapped, and the Essex started drifting out of control while the Phoebe’s guns kept hammering her.
All the while, fires continued to threaten the Essex. Flames were shooting up from the hatchways. Tars rushed up from below, many with their clothes on fire. Their shipmates tore the burning rags of them as best they could. Porter told those having trouble getting their clothes off to jump overboard and douse the flames. On hearing this, many thought the magazine was about to blow up, and they went overboard too. Several of them made it to shore, but others drowned.
Presently, a midshipman came up to Porter and reported that quarter-gunner Adam Roach had deserted his post. Porter turned to Farragut and said, “Do your duty.” Farragut grabbed a pistol and went searching for the deserter but could not find him. He discovered later that, upon seeing the ship on fire, Roach and six others had taken the only undamaged boat left and rowed to shore. Tis was not the only time during the battle that Roach appeared to be derelict in his duty. His behavior outraged his comrades. One of them was William Call, whose leg had been hit, and while it hung by the skin with blood spilling from it, he saw Roach on the berth deck, wandering around suspiciously. Furious, Call “dragged his shattered stump all around…, pistol in hand, trying to get a shot at him.”
Roach’s conduct puzzled Farragut. Before the battle, Roach had been a respected man on the ship—the first to grab a cutlass and board an enemy ship. When the Phoebe first entered Valparaiso Bay on February 8 and looked as if she might attack the Essex, Porter had called for a boarding party, and Farragut saw Roach in the lead “standing in an exposed position on the cathead with sleeves rolled up and cutlass in hand, ready to board, his countenance expressing eagerness for a fight.” Farragut concluded that Roach was “brave with a prospect of success, but a coward in adversity.” It could have been that Roach and the others were simply avoiding the fires, or they might have objected to Porter’s continued resistance in the face of certain defeat, and were unwilling to sacrifice themselves in a mindless slaughter, or, as Farragut suspected, they might have been just plain scared.
The Essex had now drifted to a point a half mile from the beach. Most of the men had stuck with Porter, and they continued to fight. But only a hundred remained active. Some of these were wounded and died later. The most pressing problem of the survivors was the fires that threatened to reach the magazine and blow up the ship. There had already been an explosion from gunpowder strewn about below deck. The men turned their attention “wholly to extinguish the flames, and when we had succeeded,” Porter wrote, “went again to the guns.”
Farragut received orders to bring gun primers up from below. While he was on the wardroom ladder, the captain of the gun directly opposite the hatchway was struck full in the face by an 18-pound shot and fell back directly onto him. They tumbled down the hatchway together. At the bottom Farragut’s head struck the hard deck while the other man, who weighed over 200 pounds, came down on the little midshipman’s hips. Had the dead man landed on Farragut’s stomach, he would have killed him. “I lay for some moments stunned by the blow, but soon recovered consciousness enough to rush up on deck.” When Porter saw him covered with blood, he asked if he was wounded.
“I believe not, sir.”
“Then, where are the primers?”
Suddenly realizing that he had completely forgotten why he had gone below, Farragut recovered his wits and went back. When he returned he saw Porter sprawled out on deck, apparently wounded. He asked if he was injured.
“I believe not, my son, but I felt a blow on the top of my head.”
Farragut assumed a cannonball had whizzed by close enough to the captain’s head to knock him down and damage his hat, but not his head. Porter got back on his feet and resumed command.
Not long afterward, Farragut saw a cannonball coming straight for him while he was standing at the wheel next to the quartermaster. Farragut screamed a warning, but the ball tore of the quartermaster’s right leg and Farragut’s coattail. Recovering, Farragut dragged the man below, hoping he could be saved, and then rushed back to the quarterdeck.
The Essex’s condition had now deteriorated to the point where the remaining, loyal crewmembers pleaded with Porter to surrender and save the wounded. He responded by going below to check the amount of powder left in the magazine, and then sent for the officers of divisions to discuss hauling down the fag. Sadly, only one answered the call; the others were dead or severely wounded.
The Phoebe and the Cherub, in the meantime, kept pouring in shot. The stricken Essex was still unable to respond. Her cockpit, steerage, wardroom, and berth deck were all packed with wounded. “I saw no hope of saving her,” Porter lamented, and, after sending Farragut to make certain the signal book and other important papers had been thrown overboard, he “gave the painful order to strike the colors.” It was 20 minutes after 6 o’clock.
In spite of the American flag having come down, the Phoebe and the Cherub kept firing. Porter angrily discharged a gun in the opposite direction to indicate surrender, but still the shelling continued. Ten more minutes elapsed before the guns fell silent. Before they did, Farragut and others worked hard throwing pistols and other small arms overboard to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.
Adapted with permission from The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the USS Essex During the War of 1812, by George C. Daughan. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.