As was noted yesterday, USS Essex was the ship Captain David Porter sailed into history in 1813. She was one of the first U.S. frigates of war, and she was built to withstand just about anything she came up against.
The U.S. Navy was officially formed in 1794 by an act of Congress. She superseded the old Continental Navy that John Paul Jones had led to such resounding success during the Revolution. At the time, individual states began commissioning ships as gifts to the government, knowing that the Congress had not set aside money for the purpose. It was a generous act in a time when the states were very much independent from their one-day Federal overlord (thanks for starting that trend, Al Hamilton).
Knowing that the Navy would not be as well supplied with ships as her potential enemies - which pretty much included every world power at the turn of the 19th century - the ships the states commissioned were built heavy and large of the white oak native only to the Atlantic coast of the new U.S. These ships could carry considerably more guns than their continental counterparts. Essex, named for Essex County, Massachusetts, was one such frigate of war. Built by Enos Briggs of Salem from a William Hackett design, she was launched September 30, 1799. She had a length of 140 feet, a beam of 37 feet and a draft of 12 feet. She displaced 850 tons and carried an armament of 40 32 pound carrronades and 6 18 pound cannon. Her complement was up to 319 men.
Initially Captained by Edward Preble, Essex went straight into action in the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800). She saw action in the Indian Ocean, where she was escorting Dutch merchants home from India. In 1801, she was stationed in the Mediterranean during the first Barbary War. It was Essex, under the command of James Barron, that brought the paroled prisoners from the captured USS Philadelphia - including then Lieutenant David Porter - home to the U.S. from Tripoli.
Essex was laid up in 1806 but was refit in 1809 and called back into action at the start of the War of 1812 (1812-1815). This time her Captain was David Porter and she saw success along the U.S. coast, taking 10 British prizes including the sloop of war HMS Alert. In October, 1812, Essex sailed from Delaware with orders to rendezvous with her sisters Constitution and Hornet off Brazil. The three ships were then to move on to the Pacific to begin taking English ships, whalers in particular.
Typically impatient, Porter made the decision to go on without the other ships after waiting only 30 days. In January of 1813, Essex left Brazil and crossed into the Pacific on February 14th. We've already discussed Porter's unprecedented success in his South Pacific endeavor so I won't rehash it here. By October, Porter was in the Marquesas Islands refitting Essex and her new companion ship Essex Jr., formerly the armed British whaling vessel either Georgiana or Atlantic, depending on which source you read.
In February, 1814, Essex and Essex Jr. pulled into Valparaiso in Chile to refresh their water and stores. They were, unfortunately, followed by HMS Phoebe and her tender HMS Cupid. The British warships initially respected the neutrality of the harbor and set up a blockade. A month later, however, when Porter tried to break the blockade, the British turned very dishonorable indeed.
Captain James Hillyard of Phoebe attacked Essex in the harbor and stood off with his longer range guns, pounding away on the American frigate while staying just out of range of Essex's cannons. The details of the battle are a post in themselves but even Hillyard's First Lieutenant complained to his Captain that the abuse of Essex was both shameful and cowardly. Hillyard simply replied that he was doing his duty.
Porter struck three hours later after trying to put Essex ashore to allow his uninjured men to retreat. 58 Americans were killed, including the First Lieutenant, 31 men drown and 70 were wounded. The Second Lieutenant from Phoebe, a veteran seaman, vomited upon boarding Essex due to the carnage that he confronted on her deck. Porter suffered a concussion.
Perhaps because of the disgraceful misery they were subjected to, Essex's remaining crew, along with Porter and his officers, were immediately paroled and they returned to New York aboard Essex Jr. Despite the loss of their ship, Porter and his men were hailed as heroes upon their return.
Essex was repaired and taken into the Royal Navy. She became a convict transportation in 1823 and by 1837 she was sold into the merchant service. An unfortunate and inglorious end for such a glorious ship.