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War of 1812: Commodore David Porter and the Essex in the South Pacific

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: September 01, 2006 
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Captain David Porter, United States Navy, was unhappy with his new command. His 32-gun Essex, in his opinion, was poorly armed. Originally consisting of 12-pounder cannons capable of accurate long-range fire, the frigate's armament had been diluted by 1811 with 32-pounder carronades. Though they threw a much heavier shot, these short-barreled weapons were effective only at short range. And so, with only six 'long twelves' remaining aboard, Porter worked fervently to have his ship refitted with her original armament.

Were his ship to lose rigging in the early part of an engagement, he wrote to the secretary of the Navy, 'a ship much inferior to her in sailing, armed with long guns, could take a position out of reach of our carronades and cut us to pieces.' His requests were never granted, and his words would prove sadly prophetic.

In June 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. The first wartime cruise of Essex began shortly thereafter–she sailed from New York Harbor on July 3. Porter was an experienced officer, having fought in the Tripolitan War and against Caribbean pirates. Now, in a two-month cruise, he snatched up 10 prizes, including a troop transport and the sloop Alert, the first British warship captured during the War of 1812. The last vessel was lured under Essex's guns while she posed as a merchantman. Porter would often use such deception to good effect.

Essex was soon ordered to sea again, this time to join Constitution and Hornet in the South Atlantic, where the small squadron could harass British shipping.

The cruise was likely to be a long one, and Porter would be leaving behind a pregnant wife, knowing he would not be seeing his new child during the first year of its life and quite possibly longer. The child would be a son, also named David, destined to be the second person to obtain the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy. The Navy's first admiral would be David Farragut, then an 11-year-old midshipman aboard Essex.

The voyage started well. On December 11, Essex lookouts spotted a small British ship. All day and throughout the night, Essex pursued the ship, finally coming within hailing distance. The vessel, a mail packet christened Nocton, tried to come around Essex's stern, probably intending to rake the frigate, then run for it again. Porter ordered a musket volley that killed one of Nocton's crew and forced her to surrender. To Porter's delight, Nocton was found to be carrying $55,000 in gold bullion.

Essex stopped at several pre-established points, but was unable to find the other two American warships–both had become involved in successful single-ship actions, distracting them from the rendezvous. Their absence left Porter free to decide upon an independent course of action. The South Atlantic offered little opportunity for an American ship on its own. No port would be safe for Essex, and Porter had learned of the presence of a British frigate, Hyperion, that was bound for Rio de Janeiro. Returning to home waters was also dangerous–Porter correctly reasoned that 'our coast would be swarming with enemy cruisers.'

The South Pacific, on the other hand, offered definite possibilities. Porter believed he would be able to safely resupply in the Chilean port of Concepcion, with the captured British gold providing his expense money. Afterward, he would be able to prey upon British whaling ships. The ambitious captain saw in the Pacific both a chance to do serious damage to enemy commerce and an opportunity to earn prize money and personal glory.

But would his crew be willing to undertake the venture? Porter posted a notice. Along the Pacific coastline of South America, he promised, Essex would find 'many friendly ports.' Further: 'The unprotected British commerce…will give you an abundant supply of wealth; and the girls of the Sandwich Islands, shall reward you for your sufferings during the passage around Cape Horne.'

The crew did prove willing. Porter's arguments, especially regarding wealth, were effective and, besides, he was a very popular commanding officer. By early 19th-century standards, David Porter showed an enormous level of concern for the welfare of his men. He kept them occupied with work and training, holding daily boarding and small-arms exercises. But he did not overwork them, setting aside two hours every evening 'for amusement.' He permitted them to sling their hammocks on the open deck, rather than forcing them to crowd into crew quarters below. He stressed cleanliness, establishing a practice of daily bathing, probably the primary reason Essex was to remain a healthy ship. All this, in addition to Porter's strong personality, kept his crew together as a disciplined unit for 1 1/2 years of danger, hardship and boredom.

The voyage to the South Pacific by way of Cape Horn was far from easy. On February 18, 1813, a strong gale blew up, interspersed with unpredictable squalls. Essex reduced sail and rode out both this gale and a second that quickly followed. A huge wave broke over the ship in the early morning hours of March 3, 'and for an instant destroyed every hope,' Porter later wrote. 'Our gun-deck ports were burst in, both boats on the quarters stove, our spare spars washed from the chains, our headrails washed away, hammock-stanchions burst in, and the ship deluged and waterlogged….Many were washed from the spar to the gun-deck, and from their hammocks, and did not know the extent of the injury.' The damage proved to be minor.

As the frigate then progressed northward up the coast of Chile, the weather swiftly improved. Essex had become the first American warship to round Cape Horn.

The gales had driven Essex north past her original destination of Concepcion. On March 14, 1813, Porter brought his ship into the Chilean port of Valparaiso, uncertain of what sort of reception he might receive, since Chile was a colony of Spain, and Spain was an ally of England. Also, Spain and the United States had recently been involved in a dispute regarding Florida.

To his relief, Essex's arrival was a 'most joyful event' to the local populace. Chile had recently declared its independence from Spain; its people showed strong feelings of friendship and sympathy toward the Americans, fellow rebels who had successfully cast off their European yokes. But Porter soon learned of privateers, commissioned by the viceroy of neighboring Peru, who were snatching up American ships bound for Chile.

Essex was reprovisioned and sailed again on March 23. Several days later, the frigate encountered Charles, an American whaler. From Charles' captain, Porter learned that two other whalers recently had been captured by an English ship and a Peruvian vessel working in concert.

It was not long before Essex ran across the Peruvian privateer, Nereyda, with 15 guns. Essex was again posing as a merchantman, this time flying the Union Jack to add to the deception. Nereyda's unsuspecting first lieutenant came aboard Essex, complaining bitterly that Nimrod, a British privateer, had taken Nereyda's two American prizes, leaving the Peruvians with nothing. His chagrin was only heightened when Porter suddenly raised the Stars and Stripes and seized his ship. Twenty-three American prisoners were released. Nereyda was stripped of weapons, ammunition and most of her sails, then was dispatched to Lima, Peru, carrying a letter from Porter to the viceroy that protested the seizure of American vessels and stressed the point that Peru was supposed to be a neutral county.

Essex's good fortune continued as, on March 28, she recaptured Barclay, one of the prize ships that had earlier been captured by Nereyda. The whaler, sailed by her liberated crew and a few of Essex's men, became the frigate's companion.

Now, however, Porter's good fortune seemed to drain away, at least temporarily. For most of April, Essex cruised uneventfully along the South American coast, then around the Galapagos Islands (located west of the continent along the equator), where British whalers were said to congregate. Likely anchorages were found and searched, but were always empty of ships. Both Porter and his crew were discouraged. 'There were few on board,' wrote Porter, 'who did not now despair of making any captures about the Galapagos Islands…but I could not so lightly lay down my opinions…and I determined not to leave the Galapagos so long as there remained a hope of finding a British vessel.'

His stubbornness was eventually justified. Late in April, three British whalers were spotted. Essex again raised English colors, then approached the first of the enemy ships, Montezuma. The whaler's captain came aboard Essex, and while he and Porter conversed in Porter's cabin, his ship was quickly boarded and captured.

Essex took off in pursuit of the remaining two whalers. The frigate had closed to within eight miles when the wind abruptly died, leaving all three ships becalmed. But Porter had prepared for this. Knowing that the tricky winds around the Galapagos had a tendency to suddenly fail, he had organized and trained armed boat crews. Soon, a flotilla of tiny vessels was in the water, pulling for the whalers, crossing the last mile under providentially inaccurate cannon fire. The whalers Georgiana and Policy were soon in American hands.

Porter was pleased with the catch, estimating the worth of the prizes and their cargoes of whale oil at $500,000. In addition, he appropriated badly needed supplies and provisions, as well as a number of the huge tortoises native to Galapagos, 'wherewith to furnish our crew with several delicious meals.'

Porter inspected Georgiana and found her to be 'a noble ship.' Ten of Policy's guns were transferred aboard her, adding to the six she already carried. First Lieutenant John Downes was put aboard with 46 men. That Porter could spare them was thanks to the fact that whaling was an international trade and many of the sailors serving on the captured vessels were Americans. Most now volunteered to serve aboard Essex, and Porter could consider 'the sloop of war Georgiana no trifling augmentation to our own force.'

Downes took Georgiana on an independent cruise while Essex, Barclay, Montezuma and Policy continued to search the islands. Another month would pass before the flotilla would encounter British ships again.

It was the afternoon of May 28 when Essex's lookout spotted a sail dead ahead. Essex cast off Montezuma, which she had been towing, and gave chase. The gap between Essex and the stranger soon was narrowed, but the frigate could not close it completely before sunset. Knowing the chase was certain to change course under cover of darkness, Porter spread his tiny fleet out in a wide arc, covering as much of the surrounding waters as possible. Soon after daybreak, Montezuma signaled that she had the pursued ship in sight.

Essex resumed the chase, eventually overhauling and capturing the quarry. The newest prize turned out to be Atlantic, a six-gun whaling ship, though her captain also carried a letter of marque that allowed him to take war prizes as a privateer.

At virtually the moment of capture, another sail was spotted in the distance. As Porter reported, he 'threw some men on board the Atlantic' and sent the newly taken prize ('reputed to be the fastest sailor in those seas') after the newly spotted ship. With Essex accompanying Atlantic, the newcomer, Greenwich, with 10 guns, was overhauled and taken after sunset.

Further patrols of the Galapagos Islands turned up nothing, so Porter's growing fleet returned to the South American coast, hoping for better luck there. On June 19, he anchored off Tumbes, Peru. Five days later, Downes and Georgiana rejoined their commander, with two additional prizes tagging along.

Downes had actually taken three prizes. The whalers Catherine and Rose had been surprised and easily seized, but Hector, which had 11 guns, had put up a fight. Five successive broadsides from Georgiana eventually took the fight out of her. Rose then had been paroled to St. Helena–Napoleon's final home–with all prisoners. Catherine and Hector, sailed by prize crews, were brought to Porter.

Porter now reorganized his fleet. The fast Atlantic was rechristened Essex Junior and given to Downes. Porter kept Georgiana and Greenwich, the latter now acting as his storeship, and turned Essex west again for a return to the Galapagos. Downes would escort the prizes to Valparaiso, where they would be sold. The liberated American whaler Barclay would accompany him, her prize crew commanded by 12-year-old David Farragut. During the voyage, Barclay's navigator, Gideon Randall, threatened mutiny, but backed down when the plucky midshipman threatened to throw him overboard. Farragut later wrote that 'from that moment I became master of the vessel.'

Porter returned to the Galapagos in mid-July. This time, he snatched up more prizes when, after only three days of searching, a trio of sails was spotted. The whaler Charleston was quickly taken by Essex. Nearby, Greenwich confronted the 14-gun Seringapatum and exchanged broadsides, damaging the British ship. Seringapatum tried to run for it, but Essex cut her off and forced her surrender. Then the frigate overhauled New Zealander.

Guns were shifted between the prizes, giving Seringapatum 22 guns. Charleston was paroled to Rio de Janeiro with 49 prisoners.

Porter decided to send Georgiana to the United States, reasoning that she would arrive in the dead of winter and stand a fair chance of avoiding British blockaders. He loaded her with $100,000 worth of captured sperm oil before she took her leave of the fleet. Unfortunately, Georgiana would never reach her goal. Just short of home, she would be captured by HMS Barossa.

It was two months before Porter found another prize. Sir Andrew Hammond was cutting up whales when spotted. Essex, again disguised as a merchantman, approached to within three miles before Hammond cut the whales loose and tried to escape, only to be quickly overhauled. This would prove to be Essex's last prize. Hammond became the only ship ever to be skippered by a U.S. Marine when Porter put Marine Lieutenant John Gamble in charge of her crew.

Essex Junior rejoined the fleet in late September. Downes had been unable to sell the prizes because war between Peru and Chile had brought commerce in Valparaiso to a standstill. He had sent Policy to the States with a cargo of sperm oil and left his other prize moored in the harbor. Like Georgiana, Policy would fall into British hands off the North American coast.

Downes also brought dramatic news: The British frigate Phoebe, along with the slopes Cherub and Racoon, had been dispatched to the Pacific to hunt down Essex.

Porter had already decided on a voyage to the Marquesas Islands, lying nearly 3,000 miles to the south and west of the Galapagos. Several factors figured in this decision. First, he needed a harbor safe from British eyes to overhaul Essex's rigging, scrape her bottom and smoke out the rats that infested her. These vermin were threatening to overrun the ship. They already outnumbered the crew by 4-to-1 and were getting into provisions, eating through water casks, and even venturing out on the open deck at night. Second, his crew badly needed a rest.

On October 25, Essex and her companions anchored off the island of Nukahiva, where Porter soon managed to establish reasonably friendly relations with the Taiis, one of several tribes living on the island. During the weeks that followed, a small village was built ashore to house the crew. Then the frigate was emptied of all stores, and over a thousand rats were smoked out. Repairs and refits were done thoroughly and the copper bottom was scraped clean of barnacles, grass and moss.

This activity all would have been fairly straightforward had not other factors complicated the situation. Porter allowed himself and his men to be drawn into local tribal wars as allies of the Taiis. He sent his Lieutenant Downes and 40 men on an expedition against the neighboring Happahs. They were met with spears and slings, but a volley of musketry put the Happahs to flight. Soon after, the defeated tribe sued for peace. Other tribes also agreed to peace, but the Typees, acknowledged as the strongest tribe on the island, responded to peace overtures with insults. Porter was eventually pressured by his allies into launching an expedition against the Typees.

The first such expedition was a dismal failure. Porter, Downes and 35 of their men, accompanied by a large force of Taiis and Happahs, were ambushed and driven back. Downes was struck by a slung stone that broke his leg.

A second, better-planned expedition, this time employing 200 Americans, captured and burned a large Typee town. A Typee delegation sued for peace. Several of Porter's men and a number of Nukahivans had been killed in the interim. On November 19, Porter 'annexed' the island in the name of the United States, rechristening it 'Madison's Island.' Upon his return home, Porter tried to convince the government to follow up, but nothing would ever come of it.

Essex, accompanied by Essex Junior, sailed for Valparaiso in mid-December. New Zealander was sent to the States, only to follow Georgiana and Policy back into British hands. The three remaining prizes remained at Nukahiva, along with Lieutenant Gamble and 21 volunteers.

Gamble was to wait until May for Porter's return, then sail for Valparaiso. But lacking Porter's strength of personality, Gamble soon found himself dealing with a mutinous crew and rapidly deteriorating relations with the Taiis. Eventually, the mutineers deserted aboard Seringapatum. A wounded and ill Gamble was forced to crawl from gun to gun aboard Hammond, beating off attacking Taiis, before he and seven others could burn Greenwich, then set sail on Hammond and escape from the island. They were later captured by HMS Cherub near Hawaii.

Meanwhile, Porter had arrived in Valparaiso on February 3, 1814. He had returned to the port knowing that the British squadron was almost certain to find him there. True, he could have done harm to the British war effort by avoiding confrontation and remaining at large in the South Pacific. By threatening to turn up anywhere at anytime, he would have forced the British to assign more and more ships to the Pacific to protect their commerce and hunt him down, thereby leaving them with that many fewer ships in the more critical Atlantic theater.

But Porter instead chose to confront a superior enemy force because, as he admitted, he was 'in search of glory.' It had been 1 1/2 years since Essex's cruise began. In that time, he had taken only 13 prizes, compared to the 10 he had seized during the mere two-month duration of his first cruise. And those captured had fallen to him without any serious fighting. Porter was a fighting captain, eager to finally meet in battle a warship at least equal to his own, anxious to end the cruise 'by something more splendid' than he had yet achieved. Thus, he would earn for himself the fame and advancement such a victory would bring.

Porter kept Downes and Essex Junior on patrol outside the harbor, keeping an eye out for the expected British squadron. And sure enough, on February 8, Phoebe came barreling into the harbor, her deck cleared for action.

Porter was waiting, equally prepared. Phoebe abruptly found herself sandwiched at close range between the two American vessels, at their mercy.

Phoebe was commanded by Captain James Hillyar, a gray-haired man of 50 years. He and Porter had known and liked one another when both had served in the Mediterranean. Now they met again, each duty-bound to destroy the other.

They politely and calmly inquired after one another's health. Porter warned the Englishman that 'if he did fall on me there would be much bloodshed.' Not surprisingly under the circumstances, Hillyar assured him that his intentions were not hostile.

Porter accepted the pledge rather than violate the neutrality of the port. He allowed Phoebe to sail clear and anchor in a separate part of the harbor, but Hillyar soon was back outside the harbor. For the next six weeks, hostile intentions fully evident, he kept Porter bottled up inside Valparaiso. The Englishman was careful to always keep Phoebe and her ally Cherub close together, refusing to allow himself to be drawn into a single-ship duel. Hillyar was not at all a glory-seeker, but a clever and methodical officer who would take every advantage he could get to accomplish his goals. 'He was not disposed,' wrote Porter, 'to yield the advantage of a superior force which would effectively blockade me until other ships arrived.'

On March 28, a strong wind blew up from the south. Essex's port anchor cable snapped and the starboard anchor began to drag. Rather than bemoan the accident, Porter decided to use the wind to make a run past the British ships. Under close-reefed topsails and topgallants, Essex sailed from Valparaiso. But a squall blew up, tearing off the main-topmast and hurling it, along with several men, into the sea. The frigate was no longer a graceful sailor, but a cripple at the mercy of the weather and the British. Porter anchored a quarter-mile from shore, hoping that Hillyar would respect the arguable neutrality of Chilean waters.

Unfortunately, Hillyar was not about to let such a golden opportunity pass. Phoebe and Cherub quickly closed in.

The battle began at about 4 p.m. Phoebe took position to rake Essex's stern, while Cherub was off the starboard bow. Essex was virtually helpless.

Porter fought back as best he could. A few guns would bear on Cherub, and the British sloop was soon forced to shift position, joining Phoebe off Essex's stern. Three times, a spring was placed on the anchor cable so that Essex could be swung about and her guns brought to bear. Each time, the spring was shot away before it could be used. Three of the few long guns aboard were shifted to the stern gunports, allowing the Americans to return fire, albeit with a mere fraction of the firepower directed at them.

The long guns proved effective enough to force both British ships to back off and repair damage, but Essex had herself suffered heavy damage to her rigging, as well as many casualties.

The British soon resumed their attack, this time taking position off the port quarter, out of both carronade range and the stern guns' fields of fire. Porter ordered the anchor cable cut and the flying jib, the only remaining workable sail, set. Essex began to close with the enemy. Porter had decided his only chance lay in boarding Phoebe.

Essex passed close enough to Cherub to drive the sloop off with carronade fire, but Phoebe, skillfully handled by Hillyar, remained out of carronade range and continued to pound the American vessel with her long guns. Porter's attempt to board the British ship never came close to success.

By now, conditions aboard Essex were hellish. The deck was littered with bodies, and space belowdecks was overflowing with wounded. 'One gun, in particular,' wrote Porter, 'was three times manned–15 men were slain at it in action, but, strange as it may appear, the captain of it escaped with only a slight wound.' Fires had broken out in several places, forcing men to abandon their guns to battle the flames. Seven men deserted in the only intact boat.

Porter turned his battered ship toward shore, hoping to beach and destroy her. The wind betrayed him again, however, by shifting and forcing Essex away from land, again to expose her to 'a dreadful raking fire' from Phoebe. Fires still raged aboard, and only one of Porter's officers was unwounded. Two and a half hours after the first shot was fired, Porter struck his colors.

Essex's casualties numbered 58 dead, 65 wounded and 31 missing, or about 60 percent of the crew. British losses were 5 dead and 10 wounded.

The seized Essex would be repaired and would serve in the Royal Navy for 19 years. Porter and his surviving crewmen were paroled home in Essex Junior, arriving in New York on July 6, 1814. The end of Porter's cruise had been far from a roaring success–he had lost his ship, and nearly all of his prizes had been recaptured or destroyed. Despite all, though, he and his remaining men received a hero's welcome upon their return home. After all, theirs really had been an epic voyage, a war patrol to have few rivals for endurance, innovation, self-reliance and early successes. *


This article was written by Tom DeForest and originally appeared in the June 1994 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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3 Responses to “War of 1812: Commodore David Porter and the Essex in the South Pacific”


  1. 1

    [...] final battle with a special Brit squadron. You can read more about David S. Porter and his story on HistoryNet. Graham King's GK Films and Monahan will produce The Essex, though they haven't decided whether to [...]

  2. 2
    Iggy says:

    this website is the only useful website about commodore david porter-a big help- thanks a lot!!!

  3. 3
    Iggy says:

    a big help-thanks!!



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