Today is the 231st anniversary of the birth of one of my personal heroes, David Porter. The U.S. Navy Captain who single-handedly shut down British whaling in the Pacific during the War of 1812 was paid back handily in Valparaiso Harbor off the shore of Chile by Royal Navy commander James Hillyar. One of my novels, The Heroes of New Orleans, features the battle as it occurred historically. The only license is the addition of Midshipman Danton Flynn, the son of one of my fictional heroines. In honor of Porter’s birthday, I offer a bit of this scene. I hope you enjoy it:
The roar of the cannons had continued for the last two hours, turning the clear air thick with gray smoke and making the sun appear as a hazy, red ball overhead. The bowl that was Valparaiso Harbor magnified and repeated each blast; the echoing thunder was deafening. There was no time to worry about seeing or hearing or even the outcome of the battle though, not with so many men bloodied on the deck of USS Essex.
Despite promises to the contrary, and an inclination of friendship toward Essex’s Captain, British Captain James Hillyar of HMS Phoebe along with her consort Cherub had attacked the American ship earlier in the afternoon. Phoebe’s long guns, capable of accuracy at a distance, allowed her to stay out of Essex’s range and pummel her most atrociously. The two British ships danced around the American frigate, cutting her masts, spars and ropes to pieces and killing and maiming the men on deck with indiscriminate abandon. Most of Essex’s warrant men were dead or wounded and of her six officers only her Captain, Third Lieutenant and two midshipmen were still unscathed. The deck was a shameful, sickening soup of brains, guts and blood and men slipped and moaned and fell overboard to drown.
In the midst of the horror, Quarter Gunner Adam Roach lost his nerve. Roach was a seasoned sailor who had seen two years of action with Captain Porter aboard Essex and more before that and he had been one of the most vocal and eager when plans for battle were announced. Now, while seeing his mates loose limbs and heads to enemy balls, he was overcome. He screamed that he could not – would not in fact – stay to be slaughtered like a sheep and ran from his post at the starboard guns.
The news of this critical desertion reached Captain Porter almost instantly and his rage could not be controlled. He turned his handsome, blood-smeared face to the waist of his frigate and let his voice be heard. “Lieutenant! Lieutenant Kearny, sir!”
Larry Kearny had been knocked unconscious by the foremast’s splintered yardarm and he lay sprawled on the gory deck near the mangled bowsprit.
“That’s Captain Porter,” David Farragut, one of the two midshipmen aboard Essex, said to his companion. They stood not far from where Kearny lie, their job now to run up and down the length of their ship and encourage the men at the guns. “Where’s Kearny, Flynn?”
“Kearny’s hurt,” Danton Flynn replied. He was the least senior officer aboard Essex, but he was almost a year older then Farragut. “He’s been struck by a spar, or I think he has.” Dan looked about, his unusually blue eyes wide and his head ringing with the incessant noise. Although he had seen action and a good deal of it in his time with Captain Porter, no experience in his thirteen years on Earth prepared him for this unimaginable carnage.
“Well, there’s nothing for it then.” Farragut straightened his stock and headed for the quarterdeck.
“Where are you going, Gatty?” Dan grabbed his friend’s arm to stay him. “The Captain called for a Lieutenant. Surely there must be one to hand.”
“Look around you, Flynn. There is no one to hand but you and me, and that only by the grace of God.” Farragut freed his arm and tugged at his waistcoat. He was a tall, lanky young man with sad blue eyes and brown, curly hair. He looked older than his twelve years and he bore an interesting resemblance to his Captain. In fact, David Farragut was Porter’s adoptive child and it was whispered quietly among the men that young Gatty was actually the Captain’s natural son. “I will go. You stay here until I get back.”
Dan watched David Farragut disappear into the gray smoke that hovered over the frigate like a sickly mist. He shook his head, pulled his hat down and turned back to his work.
* * * * *
David Farragut scurried up the companion ladder and headed in the direction of his Captain, a tall, unscathed figure standing near what was left of Essex’s mizzenmast. “Sir!” David said as loudly as he could, touching his hat to Captain Porter dutifully.
“Farragut,” Porter bellowed. “I called for Kearny.”
“He’s unconscious, sir. Struck by a spar, I think.”
Porter turned his gaze to the bow and the pinched look of frustration on his face grew graver. “Damn!” He turned back to David. “Very well then, Farragut. I must apologize but I am afraid this dirty job falls to you.”
“I am at your service, of course, sir.”
“Gunner Roach of the starboard watch has deserted.”
“That’s what I said,” Porter snapped. “The useless bastard. We’ve no time for niceties in this, you understand Farragut, and no room for cowardice neither.” The Captain pulled a pistol from under his uniform’s coat and handed it to the midshipman.
Farragut stared at the pistol a moment, and then looked up at his imposing superior office and father.
“Take it, Farragut,” Porter bellowed over the blast of cannons. “Do your duty, sir!”
The tone of the Captain’s voice brought David to his senses and he took the pistol, touched his hat to Porter, and hurried back down the companion ladder to search for the missing gunner and dispatch him as ordered.
* * * * *
“Gatty!” Dan met his friend near one of the hatchways and saw the determination on his face. “Lord, man, what are you doing with that pistol?”
The order had been given to cut Essex’s last cable and, with the wind in her only viable sail, she was inching closer to Phoebe. The sound of the cannon’s became deafening, and Farragut shook his head and narrowed his eyes at his friend.
Flynn put his mouth to his fellow midshipman’s ear and repeated the question as loud as he could.
“A deserter,” Farragut replied and then motioned as if he were shooting the pistol.
Flynn’s jaw dropped for he could not believe the situation at all. That a man had deserted his post was unthinkable, and that Farragut had been ordered to kill him was unimaginable.
“Com’on,” Farragut managed over the din, and the two boys headed below.
* * * * *
“Well, that will never work, Porter,” James Hillyar, standing on the quarterdeck of his Phoebe, said to himself after giving the order to drop away from Essex. “You’ve only your jib boom left in tact; what ever are you thinking, sir?”
“What was that, sir?” William Ingraham, Phoebe’s First Lieutenant, asked as he returned to his Captain’s side after reluctantly giving the order to feint.
“Just a stray comment, Mr. Ingraham,” Hillyar replied and closed his glass. “Are we out of Essex’s range once again?”
“We are too, sir.”
“Good; then continue firing at will.”
Ingraham hesitated and looked at his Captain. Hillyar was now fifty years old but, despite his gray hair and his craggy face, he still had a fine figure with only a moderate belly and jowls to show for his many years as a sedentary sea Captain. He had been given specific orders to burn, sink or take as prize USS Essex and, despite his familiarity with her Captain, Hillyar was not at all the sort of man to go against his orders.
“What is it now, Ingraham,” Hillyar said after a time, turning to his Lieutenant with a look of frank exasperation.
“Sir, if I might have permission to speak freely at all,” Ingraham began.
“Permission is granted.”
“Captain Hillyar, it is my opinion that this battle has gone on long enough.”
“Is it indeed, Lieutenant Ingraham,” Hillyar said with a smirk as he put his glass back to his eye. “And tell me, what would you do were you wearing my boots?”
“I would move into range and give the order to board her, sir.”
“Why is that now? Why would you risk your own men unnecessarily?”
“Sir, our men are one thing of course, but there are men aboard Essex as well. Why you can hear the screams of the dying even at this range. The sea around her is red with her blood.”
“What is that to me, Mr. Ingraham?”
“Captain Hillyar,” Ingraham continued, this time with even more indignation than before. “You will certainly forgive me, sir, but it is deliberate murder to lie off at long range and fire at that ship as though she were a target!”
Hillyar turned back to his First Lieutenant at last, his steely gray eyes narrowed and his thin lips set in an angry frown. “Mr. Ingraham, sir. I have gained my reputation by several single-ship combats, and I expect to retain it on this present occasion only by an implicit obedience to orders,” the Captain took in a deep breath through his prominent nose and looked the Lieutenant up and down. “Viz, to capture the Essex with the least possible risk to my vessel and her crew. As I have a superior force, I have determined not to leave anything to chance, as I believe that any other course would call down upon me the disapprobation of our government.”
A long silence followed this speech and Ingraham stood still and straight, looking out toward Essex rather than at his Captain.
“Do I make myself clear, Mr. Ingraham?”
“Quite clear, sir.”
“Very good then. The order is given Lieutenant. Carry it out.”
Ingraham touched his hat to Captain Hillyar and proceeded down the companion ladder to the gun deck.
* * * * *
A half an hour later the favorable wind had shifted once again and Essex was headed away from Phoebe. Cherub had ceased her fire, but it mattered very little to the overwhelmed Americans. Captain Porter at last gave the dreaded order to point Essex toward shore and run her aground. This would give his men time to climb onto land before the wreck that had been his ship sank into the blue-green water of Valparaiso Harbor.
Phoebe’s cannon fire continued, and it was noted by those still in their senses that it seemed Hillyar was practicing his gunnery on a beef barrel. As the wind shifted yet again, and then died all together, Essex became nothing more than a sitting duck. Still the merciless bludgeoning continued.
Flames became visible at two of the hatchways and any sailor who could move abandon what he was doing and went to work extinguishing them. Many of their mates were below decks, in the orlop or nearby with Dr. Blunt and his assistants. The last thing any man wanted was to see his friends trapped in a hellish inferno and burned to death. In the midst of this mayhem were Danton Flynn and David Farragut, who had given up his useless search for the deserter Roach. They carried buckets like foremast jacks, and their fine uniforms were soon black with soot.
“MacKnight,” Porter was calling to his remaining Lieutenant while he stood near his crippled mizzen mast glancing back and forth from Phoebe to the flames in Essex’s waist.. “MacKnight there.”
Stephen Decatur MacKnight, Essex’s Third Lieutenant, turned from where he was calling out to the bucket crews in the waist and trotted to his Captain. “Sir?”
“This is futile, Mr. MacKnight,” Porter called. “Give the order now, sir. Any man who cares to may go overboard and swim for shore. After that I need you to mark the time if you please.”
MacKnight knew exactly what Captain Porter was saying and, although he also knew that this was the only rational decision, he felt his heart sink. He touched his hat to his Captain and turned back to the men in the waist.
Porter watched as the order was given and his square jaw set angrily. This was not the end he had imagined for his beloved Essex, but a ship was only a ship he told himself and his men needed at least a chance. He looked down into the waist too and saw his midshipmen scurrying about with their buckets. Neither seemed to take note of MacKnight or his order and Porter could not contain a little smile. “Brave boys,” he said to himself before looking up to the top of the mizzen where an unusual pendant still flew.
“Flynn! Farragut!” He called out to his mids. “Come here, gentlemen.”
Dan and David jumped to without hesitation. Both boys were on the quarterdeck in a heartbeat.
“I’ve a job for you sirs, albeit unpleasant.”
Dan touched his hat to his Captain and said: “Anything at all, sir, of course,” and he did not lie by half. He idolized David Porter and thought him a veritable Sinbad reborn. After cruising under Porter’s command for the last two years, there was nothing that Dan Flynn would not do for his Captain. “I am at your service.”
“We both are sir,” David added.
“Here,” Porter pulled a pristinely white neckerchief, the size of a common flag, from the pocket of his trousers.
“Oh, sir, no,” Dan stammered. He and his companion immediately grasped the meaning of this piece of cloth and their eyes grew wide.
“Not you sir,” David shook his head. “Not surrender.”
“Listen gentlemen,” Porter said in as calm a tone as he could muster over the din around them. “Essex is in tatters both above and below. She is taking on more water than her pumps can handle, her sails, rigging and masts are useless and hardly a man can be found without some injury or other. Phoebe can stay out of our fire and still hit us again and again with her guns of long range and here we are now, dead in the water between she and Cherub with her swift tacking and deadly accuracy.” Porter looked over first his larboard gunnels and then his starboard and shook his head angrily as he saw Phoebe continue her unremitting barrage. “We must get our wounded to a ship afloat, and Dr. Blunt needs help with them as well.”
“But, surrender sir?”
“It is the only way Flynn,” Porter managed an unconvincing smile. He handed his neckerchief to his midshipmen and then put his hands reassuringly on their shoulders. “I know Captain Hillyar. He is a personal friend of mine. Rest assured that we will be treated honorably.”
Dan choked back his urge to plead further and turned to his companion. David nodded and the two moved to the mizzen mast. They looked up, and to their surprise the flag that Captain Porter had made at the start of the engagement still fluttered overhead. It read quite clearly, in the Captain’s neat hand: God, our country and liberty: tyrants offend them all.
Dan sighed and looked at his friend, his eyes sad and his face sallow.
“Nothing offends me so much as the need for this order that we must carry out,” David said.
“Amen to that, brother.”
With that, they pulled down Captain Porter’s challenge, and hoisted the white flag of surrender while behind them the Captain himself lowered the American flag.
Header: Essex, Phoebe and Cherub in Valparaiso Harbor by George Ropes