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Flag Friday: 6 Weeks of Sassy Songs and Flippant Flags

By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command

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An unnamed ship rounding Cape Horn, a painting by W.N. Wilson. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

For our first installment of Flag Friday in the year 2016, we will harken back to a time when navy skippers could get pretty heated over implied insults to each other’s crew and ship. With no radio, their means of communication often relied on flags to get the message across to friends and enemy.

Few documented fighting by fabric better than U.S. Navy Capt. David Porter. He was a man of equal parts confidence, ego and pride in his honorable ways, which helped him achieve great success. That bravado and pride cost him that same ship.

Words with Frenemies

Shortly after the War of 1812 began, Porter, as captain of the man-of-war Essex , sailed up and down the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, preying on British merchant ships and taking 10 prizes. In February 1813, Porter and his crew successfully navigated Cape Horn in shorter time, worst weather, and less support than any of his naval heroes before him. He then spent the next year in the Pacific Ocean harassing the British whaling and merchant industry.

Despite months of taking prizes against the British, Porter longed for more glory, as he wrote in his Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean: “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.”

That something “more splendid” involved the British frigate HMS Phoebe and her escort sloop-of-war Cherub, sent to stop Essex’s harassment of the British whaling industry. Porter was familiar with Phoebe’s captain, Commodore James Hillyar, having shared dinner with his British counterpart at times while they served in the Mediterranean during the Barbary Wars.

Porter decided to sail for Valparaiso, Chile to meet up with his frenemy, arriving the first week of February 1814. 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.” It was a point of contention for Porter, who protested the change to the Secretary of 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.”

Polite and Honorable Warfare

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USS Essex, the American man-of-war commanded by Capt. David Porter, flies the motto flags “Free trade and sailors’ rights,” and “God, our country and liberty – tyrants offend them” in response to HMS Phoebe’s motto flags “God and country; British sailors’ best rights; traitors offend both.” The two ships exchanged a flurry of flags for several weeks at Valparaiso, Chile, until a southerly wind offered Essex a chance to escape the harbor blockaded by Phoebe and sloop of war HMS Cherub. The wind died too quickly, stalling Essex and forcing Porter to give up the ship March 28, 1814. NHHC photo

The British ships cruised into Valparaiso’s harbor on Feb. 8, a touch fast for Porter’s liking. Phoebe was “approaching nearer than prudence or a strict neutrality would justify me in permitting,” Porter wrote. As Phoebe’s jib-boom came across Essex’s forecastle, Porter noted Essex could have taken the more powerful ship in 15 minutes.

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. “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 wrote.

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.” 

Sassy Songs and Flippant Flags

While Porter was patting himself on the back for his exemplary etiquette, Phoebe and Cherub sailed back into international waters, trapping Porter’s ships inside the harbor.  Thus began 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.

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.

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. 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.”

Fickle are the Winds of War

USS Essex battles HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub off Valparaiso, Chile, March 28, 1814. . Artwork by Captain William Bainbridge Hoff. NHHC Photograph Collection
USS Essex battles HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub off Valparaiso, Chile, March 28, 1814. . Artwork by Captain William Bainbridge Hoff. NHHC Photograph Collection

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.

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. The ship’s three stern-side 12-pounders were useless.

The British ships shot away Essex’ sails, sheets and jib. When Cherub pulled away from the battle, 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,” Porter wrote.

With “flames bursting up each hatchway,” Porter ordered his crew to save themselves before the ship blew. They “entreated me to surrender my ship to save the wounded, as all further attempts at opposition must prove ineffectual,” Porter wrote. At 6:20 p.m., he “gave the painful order to strike the colors.”

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.

“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.”

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.