From Naval History and Heritage Command
When we last checked in with legendary Capt. David Porter, he had successfully sailed on USS Essex around Cape Horn Feb. 14, 1814, in shorter time, in worst weather, and with less support than any of his naval heroes had done before him.
Porter and his crew spent the next year whupping up on the British whaling and merchant industry in the Pacific. At least that was how Porter himself described his success in his Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean.
“I had completely broken up the British navigation in the Pacific; the vessels that had not been captured by me were laid up and dare not venture out. The valuable whale fishery there is entirely destroyed and the actual injury we have done them may be estimated at 2 ½ millions of dollars, independent of the expenses of the vessels in search of me.”
Porter gleefully goes on to say how the provisions coming from the ships taken by Essex and her entourage had provided his crew 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 had, in fact, lived on the enemy since I had been in that sea; every prize having provided a well-found store ship for me.”
Porter wasn’t stingy with the largess, paying “considerable” advances to his officers and crew, among them a midshipman who was his 12-year-old adopted son, David Glasgow Farragut, who would become the first admiral of the U.S. Navy.
But Porter longed for more glory. “I had done all the injury that could be done to the British commerce in the Pacific, and still hoped to signalize my cruise by something more splendid before leaving that sea.”
In early February 1814, Porter heard the British sloop of war Phoebe and an escort ship Cherub were being sent to stop Essex’s harassment of the British whaling industry. Porter was familiar with Phoebe’s captain, Commodore James Hillyar, from when they both served in the Mediterranean. He has even at times shared dinner with his British counterpart.
So Porter decided to sail for Valparaiso, Chile to meet up with his frenemy Hillyar. “I therefore determined to cruise about that place, and should I fail of meeting him, hoped to be compensated by the capture of some merchant ships, said to be expected from England.”
Phoebe and Cherub were formidable opponents. Phoebe was loaded with 30 long 18-pounders, 16 32-pound carronades, one howitzer and six 3-pounders for a total of 53 guns with a crew of 320 men, along with Cherub’s 28 guns and 180 men.
Based on armament, Essex was inferior to Phoebe. The frigate’s original long-range 12-pounder cannons had been replaced with short-range 32-pounder carronades, leaving only six “long twelves.”
When accepting Essex as his command, Porter wrote to the Secretary of the Navy to have the frigate returned to her original armament, pointing out “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.”
And Porter loved nothing more than to be right.
Polite and Honorable Warfare
Porter only had to wait a few days before Phoebe and Hillyar arrived Feb. 8 at Valparaiso’s harbor, traveling a bit fast for Porter’s liking. Phoebe was “approaching nearer than prudence or a strict neutrality would justify me in permitting,” he wrote. As Phoebe’s jib-boom came across Essex’s forecastle, Porter noted Essex could have taken the more powerful ship in 15 minutes.
But that didn’t happen. The two captains exchanged pleasantries by letter, with Porter warning Hillyar there would be “much bloodshed” if Phoebe attempted to board Essex in the neutral harbor. Wisely, Hillyar protested that was not his intention. Porter admitted to being “disarmed” by Hillyar’s assurances, and ordered his men to stand down, and later commented: “No one, to have judged from appearances, would have supposed us to have been at war, our conduct towards each other bore so much the appearance of a friendly alliance.”
Porter’s failure to take down an enemy ship when he had the opportunity was justified by him as being the more honorable person for respecting the neutrality of the port at Valparaiso and he would “scrupulously continue to do so,” even though “Captain Hillyar was incapable of a similar forbearance.” And despite the outcome, Porter still felt his decision was correct, that “at no time during the engagement that took place afterwards, or since, would I have changed situations or feelings with that officer.”
Six Weeks of Sassy Songs and Flippant Flags
So while Porter was patting himself on the back for his honorable manners, Hillyar was back out into international waters. And then just as quickly, Porter was the one trapped. With Phoebe and Cherub stalking outside the harbor, Porter had to be content to wage a war by song and fabric.
Essex was flying a flag that stated the ship’s motto: “Free trade and sailors’ rights,” to which Phoebe responded with the motto “God and country; British sailors’ best rights; traitors offend both.”
“Whenever I hoisted that (Essex’s) flag, he should not fail to hoist the other. I told him my flag was intended solely for the purpose of pleasing ourselves, and not to insult the feelings of others; that his, on the contrary, was considered as highly insulting in the light of an offset against ours; and that, if he continued to hoist it, I should not fail to retort on him,” a peevish Porter wrote in his journal.
So when Phoebe raised its flag the following day, Porter’s flag responded with a new motto: “God, our country and liberty – tyrants offend them.”
At times, the sailors aboard Cherub could be heard singing songs as they worked, appropriate to their situation, of their own composition and almost always a dig at the Americans. And Essex’s Sailors would loudly sing Yankee Doodle Dandy.
The ever-fair Porter admitted “the songs from the Cherub were better sung, but those from the Essex were more witty and more to the point.”
While the sailors sang, Porter and Hillyar battled with hilariously polite letters, mostly over the nefarious comments made by a British prisoner of war who escaped Essex and sought safe refuge on Cherub. The POW spoke of being chained and treated miserably, and so Hillyar requested Porter to liberate the rest of the British prisoners. Porter defended his actions stating the Brit and his mates tried to poison members of the crew.
“I have not perhaps, had as long a servitude as Captain Hillyar; nor was it necessary I should, to learn honor and humanity,” Porter sniffed in his reply to Hillyar’s letter accusing Porter of chaining his prisoners. Pointer added of the many prisoners, British and otherwise, none were confined or punished except when “they deserved it.”
Concerned about how the public might perceive a captain who would mistreat prisoners of war, Porter did “the honor” of sending over letters from the Department of the Navy and British Adm. Sir John Duckworth that made note about prisoners of war who had spoken of Porter’s humane treatment of them.
“I have been induced to do this, from a wish to remove certain impressions that have been made on the public mind, highly prejudicial to the character of an American officer; and I assure you, although I have endeavored to perform, and shall continue to do, my duty to my country, to the utmost of my abilities, I disdain a mean and dishonorable act, whatever advances may result from it.”
Hillyar was having none of it. “The letters from your prisoners must be highly gratifying to your personal feelings – and I hope the individuals who have benefited by your humane attentions will feel themselves bound in honour to rescue your character from every unjust and illiberal aspersion.”
On Feb. 25, Porter sent a note to Hillyar that he had “immediately liberated on parole, the British prisoners” under his command. “My feelings have been greatly roused by the scandalous reports that have been circulated respecting my conduct. Yet I hope I shall always have sufficient control over myself, to prevent any change in my conduct towards those whom the fortune of war may place in my power; for, though such a change might be just, it would not be generous.”
When he wasn’t trying to salvage his reputation, Porter was plotting his escape and possible battle with Phoebe. On a day with a calm sea, Essex towed the prize Hector out to sea and set fire to her within reach of Phoebe’s guns. Essex managed to get back to the neutral harbor, despite the British ships’ attempts to cut them off.
Then came a series of flags-up-man-ship between the British ships and Essex, with each raising, lowering and raising another flag in response to each other like three demented cheerleaders trying to do the wave across a football stadium.
The war of words and prose continued, with Porter complaining to Valparaiso’s citizens on how Hillyar’s crew were writing nasty notes about Essex’s crew, and even more shocking, those nasty-grams appeared not only to have the approval of their captain, but were written by Hillyar.
Incensed, Porter wrote to Hillyar, pointing out the style of the papers, which were encouraging Essex’s crew to abandon ship, proved they were not written by a “common sailor.” Despite credible sources confirming the deed was done by Hillyar, Porter wrote “my knowledge of the character of Captain Hillyar will not permit me to believe him capable of so base an expedient to effect the object of his cruise…”
Porter assured Hillyar that his letter-writing campaign would not shake his men from their mission: “They have given me innumerable proofs of their readiness at all times, to die in support of their country’s cause: They have my unlimited confidence – I have theirs.”
On Feb. 27, the stalemate between the two captains escalated from snippy missives. Phoebe sailed toward Essex in the harbor, hoisting her “God and our country” flag and then fired a gun. Taking the challenge, Essex immediately chased after Phoebe, raising her “God, our country and liberty” flag and fired her gun. As she closed in on the British sloop of war, Essex fired two shots across her bow to bring her to for the one-on-one battle Porter so desperately wanted, but Phoebe continued sailing.
After chasing her as far as was prudent, Porter returned to the harbor, and observed to all who were within earshot, both on and off the ship, that he deemed Hillyar’s conduct “cowardly and dishonorable.”
Incensed, Hillyar sent on March 16 an emissary to confirm the scandalous words were coming from Porter. Hillyar’s lieutenant assured Porter that the hoisting of Phoebe’s flag and firing her gun was not a challenge to Essex.
Unrepentant, Porter said his use of the word “cowardly” was justified given Hillyar’s actions, but if his British cohort said it wasn’t a challenge, then Porter “was bound to believe” the captain. He then warned the emissary that if Phoebe or Cherub ever committed a similar maneuver, Porter would consider it a challenge.
After that, Phoebe and Cherub stayed close together to avoid a confrontation with Essex unless they could both engage the American frigate. They didn’t have long to wait.
Fickle are the Winds of War
“To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.” Sir Oliver Wendell Homes Sr.
For a frigate like Essex, the wind was often a blessing or a curse. But after six weeks of being cooped up in Valparaiso’s harbor, Porter had waited long enough. With Phoebe and Cherub blockading him, Porter knew of at least four other ships in pursuit of his frigate.
On March 28, Porter noted a southward wind had blown in, giving his ship the necessary speed to get past the blockade. He ordered sails up, but while rounding the point, those winds turned deadly as a heavy squall carried away the ship’s main top-mast, along with the men setting the sails.
Prudently, Porter gave up on his plan and sailed to the east side of the harbor for repairs, but Phoebe and Cherub closed in, despite the neutrality of the harbor.
“The caution observed in their approach to the attack of the crippled Essex was truly ridiculous, as was their display of their motto flags, and the number of jacks at their mast heads,” Porter said.
As the Essex crew worked feverishly to repair the ship and prepare for battle, at 3:54 p.m., the two British ships hemmed Essex in under her stern and starboard bow, raking her with fire.
Porter’s men responded with the three long 12-pound cannons they were able to secure on deck, forcing Phoebe and Cherub to pull back.
With a deck-filled with wounded and dead crew from the first British assault, Porter’s worse nightmare was about to come true. Phoebe and Cherub placed themselves on the starboard side out of range of Essex’s carronades and where the ship’s three stern-side 12-pounders were useless.
As the British ships shot away Essex’ sails, sheets and jib, the “decks were now strewed with dead, and our cock-pit filled with wounded, although our ship had been several times on fire, and was rendered a perfect wreck, we were still encouraged to hope to save her,” Porter believed, after Cherub pulled away from the battle.
But that might have been a strategic move to give Phoebe the honor of sinking Essex. The British sloop of war “kept a tremendous fire on us, which mowed down my brave companions by the dozen. Many of my guns had been rendered useless by the enemy’s shot and many of them had their whole crews destroyed.”
One gun in particular, Porter noted in his journal, had been manned by three crews – 15 men killed in action – yet the captain of the gun was only slightly wounded.
With winds picking up again, Porter still hoped to avoid capture by running his crippled ship the short distance to shore and destroying her. But yet again, as they limped to within “a musket-shot” of land, the fickle winds shifted, pulling Essex back to within range of Phoebe’s cannons.
Briefly, Porter entertained the thought of just pulling Essex close enough to Phoebe to board her, but she stalled in the water.
With “flames bursting up each hatchway” and no hopes left of saving the ship just three-quarters of a mile from shore, Porter ordered his crew to save themselves before the ship blew. Some did get away, while others were either captured or drowned. Of those who stayed with Porter, they “entreated me to surrender my ship to save the wounded, as all further attempt at opposition must prove ineffectual.” At 6:20 p.m., Porter “gave the painful order to strike the colors.”
Yet Phoebe continued firing. With his “brave, though unfortunate companions” were still falling about me,” Porter ordered an opposite gun to be fired to show they would offer no further resistance.
“But they did not desist; four men were killed at my side, and others in different parts of the ship. I now believed he (Hillyar) intended to show us no quarter, and that it would be as well to die with my flag flying as struck…”
Porter was about to hoist the flag again when Phoebe finally ceased firing, 10 minutes after the flag had been lowered.
Porter was understandably furious.
“We have been unfortunate, but not disgraced – the defence <sic> of the Essex has not been less honourable to her officers and crew, than the capture of an equal force.”
And even though defeated, Porter considered “my situation less unpleasant than that of Commodore Hillyar, who, in violation of every principle of honor and generosity, and regardless of the rights of nations, attacked the Essex in her crippled state, within pistol shot of a neutral shore. The blood of the slain must be on his head, and he has yet to reconcile his conduct to heaven, to his conscience, and to the world.”
Essex lost 58 crew members, another 39 were severely wounded, 27 injured and 31 missing for a total of 154 casualties. The British suffered five killed and 10 wounded between both ships.
Porter took issue that Hillyar “thought proper to state to his government” that Phoebe’s victory over Essex took only 45 minutes, but the “thousands of disinterested witnesses, who covered the surrounding hills, can testify that we fought his ships near two hours and a half; except the few minutes they were repairing damages, the firing was incessant.” He credited “nothing but the smoothness of the water saved both the Phoebe and Essex.”
Well, that and because Essex was held to the use of only the six long 12-pound cannons, “our carronades being almost useless.”
Porter’s desire for “something more splendid before leaving that sea” proved fruitful for Hillyar and Great Britain, with the capture of Essex and Essex Junior, plus the British recaptured three of Porter’s prizes before they reached safe haven in the United States.
Porter grudgingly admitted Hillyar had “shown the greatest humanity to my wounded and had endeavored as much as lay in his power to alleviate the distresses of war by the most generous and delicate deportment towards myself, my officers and crew.”
That deportment would be another craw for the proud Porter to chew: Hillyar ordered Porter’s prize Essex Junior to be disarmed, offering the ship to Porter and his surviving crew to return to the United States with a “passport” to prevent her recapture. Although in true “gift-horse-in-the-mouth” fashion, Porter pointed out Essex Junior was “small and we knew we had much to suffer.”
In his report to the Department of Navy about the affair, Porter noted it cost the British nearly six million dollars in their pursuit of Essex, and yet, “her capture was owing entirely to accident; and if we consider the expedition with which naval contests are now decided, the action is a dishonor to them.” He also got another dig at his adversary, adding if Hillyar had been bold with a force so superior, they should have captured Essex and Essex Junior in “one-fourth of the time they were about it.”
Before Porter and his crew sailed back to the United States, the American captain took one more shot of telling Hillyar that he had cheated.
“I seized the opportunity to tell him, that though I should take every occasion to do him free justice in that respect, I should nevertheless be equally plain making known his conduct in attacking me in the manner he had done.“
“My dear Porter, you know not the responsibility that hung over me, with respect to your ship. Perhaps my life depended on my taking her,” Hillyar responded with tears in his eyes, Porter recalled in his journal.
Porter said Hillyar still had it in his power to clear up the affair to the world, “…and if he can show that the responsibility rests on his government, I shall do him justice, with more pleasure than I now impeach his conduct. Until then, the stigma rests with him.”
Despite his defeat and capture, Porter hoped “our conduct may prove satisfactory to our country, and that it will testify it by obtaining our speedy exchange, that we may again have it in our power to prove our zeal.” Porter achieved that goal. He and his crew were hailed as heroes upon their return to the United States.
Careers After the Surrender
Porter’s sense of justice and vengeance continued later into his career. He gave up his post on the Board of Navy Commissioners in 1822 to fight piracy. While commanding an expedition in the West Indies in 1825, Porter approved the invasion of a small Puerto Rico community after an officer from his fleet was jailed. But the United States did not sanction such an action, so Porter was court-martialed upon his return. He resigned from the U.S. Navy, but became the commander-in-chief for the Mexican Navy from 1826-29.
Following his return from Mexico, Porter was appointed U.S. Minister to the Barbary States. While ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Porter died at the age of 63 on March 3, 1843.
The “stigma” that Porter believed would follow Hillyar ended when he got to England. After service on HMS Revenge and HMS Caledonia during the Napoleonic Wars, Hillyar was knighted the first time in 1834 and promoted to rear admiral in 1837. In 1840, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He died at age 73, on July 10, 1843, four months after his old foe, Porter.
After Essex’s capture, the British commodore sent the frigate to England, where she
was repaired as a 42-gun ship and renamed HMS Essex. By 1819, she served as a troopship, then turned into a prison ship at Cork in 1823 and 1824-34 at Kingston, Ireland. Essex was sold for 1,230 pounds at public auction in 1837, 23 years after her surrender.