The Cruise of the Essex

This Sunday the History Channel will air a program on the War of 1812, titled First Invasion.

The War of 1812, a.k.a. 'Mr. Madison's War,' was fought essentially over maritime disputes between Britain and America.  Impressment of American seamen by the British Navy was the proximate cause.  The other grounds involved British—American trade embargo issues.

Domestically, the war pitted the expansionist, Republican congressional 'war hawks' led by Speaker Henry Clay against their majority brethren from the northeast states who did not support President Madison. 

No wonder then that the war is best known for naval actions, whether it be the Constitution defeating Guerrierre or the rockets red glare of the seaborne invasion. 

One of the most dramatic naval feats of that war was accomplished by the USS Essex, commanded by Captain David Porter.

In July 1814, Captain Porter would write Navy Secretary William J. Jones that  ' I had completely broken up British navigation in the Pacific... the valuable whale industry there is entirely destroyed, and the actual injury we have done them may be estimated at two and a half million dollars.'

This tremendous news reached Washington four months after Porter's climactic battle with HMS Phoebe, which signaled an end to the epic cruise of Porter's ship USS Essex.

By the time Porter took command of that 32—gun frigate at the outbreak of the War of 1812, he had proven himself a fearless naval officer and leader in actions ranging from USS Constellation vs. the French frigate L'Insurgente (earning a promotion to Lieutenant) to commanding a boat expedition from USS New York that destroyed enemy shipping in Tripoli harbor.

Launched in 1799, the Essex sailed immediately into harm's way under the command of U.S. Navy icon, Captain Edward Preble.  She had undergone a series of repairs and refits during the intervening years, and just prior to Porter taking command, all but six of her 12 pounder long guns had been replaced with short range 32 pounder carronades.  No one was more aware than Porter of the combat disadvantage this gunnery limitation created.  And yet, his ship's first cruise was highly successful, with nine British merchantmen seized, several American ships retaken, and, on August 13, 1812, capture of the first British warship of that conflict. Nevertheless, due to her carronades and poor sailing qualities, Porter still believed he had 'the worst frigate in the service.'

On October 27, 1812 the Essex sailed from Philadelphia, setting a course that took her into the South Atlantic, where she was to rendezvous with Commodore William Bainbridge's USS Constitution. Unbeknownst to Porter 'Old Ironsides' had returned to Boston after defeating HMS Java off the coast of Brazil.  Believing a rendezvous was still possible, Porter cruised the waters off Rio de Janeiro, snapping up several prizes, including a British packet with 11,000 pounds sterling onboard.

Since Bainbridge's instructions left it up to Porter's discretion to pursue any action he deemed necessary, he 'shaped a course for the Pacific and after suffering greatly from short provisions and heavy gales off the Horn, I arrived off Valparaiso on 14 March 1813.'

After provisioning his ship, he ran down the coasts of Chile and Peru, capturing a Peruvian pirate with the crews of two Yankee whalers imprisoned aboard.  ' I threw its guns and ammunition into the sea and liberated the Americans... then proceeded to Lima, recaptured one of  the whalers, and shaped my course for the Galapagos Islands, where I cruised from 17 April to 3 October 1813.'

During that period in the vicinity of those fabled equatorial archipelago, the Essex captured no fewer than 12 armed British whalers.  Porter sent three of them to Valparaiso and three to America.  Two of them were released to captured British crews and one was kept as a storeship.  Another was equipped with 20 guns and renamed Essex Junior under the command of Lieutenant Downes.  Upon returning from Valparaiso where he'd escorted the captured whalers, Downes reported that a British squadron under Commodore James Hillyar had been dispatched to deal with the Essex.

Hillyar's original mission of harassing the fur trade on America's northwest coast was changed enroute when he received word of the Yankee cat among the British pigeons.  At Rio, the sloops of war Raccoon and Cherub, which had been searching unsuccessfully for the American, joined Hillyar's frigate Phoebe, which was armed with thirty—two 18 pounder long guns, sixteen 32 pounder carronades, one howitzer and six 3 pounders in the tops.

Porter was more than willing to meet the enemy, but after almost a year at sea, he knew he must first seek a place to refit and re—supply, so he sailed west to Nukuhiva Island in the Marquesas, which he promptly claimed as a United States possession.  By January 1814 Porter's ships were back, cruising along the Chilean coast, seeking more prizes and expecting a meeting with British warships.

Porter happened to be in Valparaiso when Hillyar's ships arrived and the American wanted to sail out and meet him.  But the British commodore decided instead sent the Cherub in to blockade the port with his other ships in the offing. 

For six weeks Porter attempted to provoke a ship—ship action, but Hillyar refused to cede his advantages.  Meantime, Porter received word that more British warships were on the way.  He had no choice but to try to escape by sea.  On March 28, 1814 he did just that, Essex Junior in the lead.  But just as Porter rounded the point a heavy squall struck his ship, carrying away her topmast. Thus disabled and separated from her sister ship, Essex was pursued into a small bay, where she anchored in hopes of making hasty repairs.  Hillyar wasn't going to allow that.  He maneuvered into attack position from behind, while Cherub positioned herself off the American's starboard bow.  Finding the gunfire too intense there, the sloop soon joined Phoebe and both ships proceeded to pound the Essex with a 'hot raking fire.'

There were gallantry, bravery and skill aplenty aboard the American frigate as the toll of dead and injured mounted.  As Porter wrote: ' All appeared determined to defend their ship to the last extremity and to die in preference to shameful surrender.'  Yet as the slaughter continued and after a fire began onboard, Porter made the painful decision to strike his colors.  But 'the enemy still continued his fire and four men were killed at my side.  I believed he intended to show no quarter and was about to hoist my colors again when, ten  minutes later, he ceased firing.'   The butcher's bill for the three—hour battle:  58 Americans killed, 31 missing, 66 wounded.  The British lost 5 killed.

Porter's anger at Hillyar was alleviated somewhat by his humane treatment of the wounded and magnanimous attitude towards surviving officers and men, among them a young Davey Farragut.  They were all sent home in the Essex Junior and had every expectation of sailing safely into New York until the ship was stopped off Sandy Hook by a British frigate whose captain refused to honor the parole that Hillyar had given the survivors.  He declared Porter a prisoner of war.  But Porter was having none of that and he soon escaped in a ship's boat, making his way safely ashore to a hero's welcome.

Commodore David Porter ended his career as United States charge d'affaires in Constantinople and died in 1843.  His epic cruise and its achievements opened up the Pacific Ocean to American naval, economic and exploratory ventures, extending continental boundaries beyond anything ever imagined by manifest destinarians, thus setting the stage for America's emergence as a world power.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian, and a frequent contributor to The American Thinker