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The Naval History of the United States - Volume 1 (of 2)
by Willis J. Abbot
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Feeling assured that he should have no further trouble with the natives, Porter now exerted all his energies to complete the repairs on the ships, that he might again take the sea. So rapidly did the work progress, that by the 9th of December the "Essex" and "Essex Junior" were refitted, and stocked with fresh provisions of hogs, cocoanuts, and bananas; the "New Zealander," loaded with oil from the other prizes, was ordered to proceed to New York; while the "Greenwich," "Seringapatam," and "Hammond" were to remain at the islands until the "Essex" should return for them. These arrangements being made, the war-ships made ready to depart.

But now arose a difficulty, ludicrous in its cause, but which threatened to be serious in its effects. The ships had been lying in harbor for about two months; and during that time the sailors, with unlimited shore liberty, had made such ties as bound them closely to the native people. The young girls of the islands, with their comely faces and fair complexions, had played sad havoc with the hearts of the gallant tars of the "Essex;" and deep was the grumbling among the sailors when they heard that the time had come for them to bid farewell to their sweethearts. No openly mutinous demonstration was made; but so old a commander could not overlook the fact that some disaffection existed among his crew, and a little investigation disclosed the trouble. There could be no half-way measures adopted in the case, and Porter at once gave orders that all further intercourse with the shore should cease. That very night three sailors slipped into the sea, and swam ashore to meet their sweethearts; but the wily captain had stationed a patrol upon the beach, and the three luckless Leanders were sent back to the ship in irons. All the next day the native girls lined the shore of the bay, and with pleading gestures besought the captain to let the sailors come ashore, but to no avail. Some fair maidens even swam off to the ship, but were gruffly ordered away by the officers. All this was very tantalizing to the men, who hung over the bulwarks, looking at the fair objects of their adoration. But one man only showed signs of rebellion against the captain's authority; and Porter, calling him out before the crew, rebuked him, and sent him ashore in a native canoe: while the rest of the jackies sprang into the rigging, set the canvas, and the ship soon left the island, with its sorrowing nymphs, far in her wake.

The two vessels turned their heads toward Valparaiso, and made the port after an uneventful voyage of fifty-six days. The frigate entered the harbor at once, and cast anchor; while the "Essex Junior" was ordered to cruise about outside, keeping a close watch for the enemy's ships. The friendship of the people of the town seemed as great as during the first visit of the frigate to the port; and a series of entertainments was begun, that culminated in a grand ball upon the "Essex" on the night of the 7th of February, 1814. For that one night the officers of the "Essex Junior" were absolved from their weary duty of patrolling the sea at the mouth of the harbor. The vessel was anchored at a point that commanded a view of the ocean; and her officers, arrayed in the splendor of full dress, betook themselves on board of the frigate. At midnight, after an evening of dancing and gayety, Lieut. Downes left the "Essex," and returned to his vessel, which immediately weighed anchor and put to sea. The festivities on the frigate continued a little time longer; and then, the last ladies having been handed down the gangway, and pulled ashore, the work of clearing away the decorations began. While the ship's decks were still strewn with flags and flowers, while the awnings still stretched from stem to stern, and the hundreds of gay lanterns still hung in the rigging, the "Essex Junior" was seen coming into the harbor with a signal flying. The signal quartermaster rushed for his book, and soon announced that the flags read, "Two enemy's ships in sight." At this moment more than half the crew of the "Essex" were on shore; but a signal set at the ship's side recalled the men, and in an hour and a half the ship was ready for action; while the "Essex Junior" cast anchor in a supporting position.

The two strange vessels were the "Cherub" and the "Phoebe," British men-of-war. They rounded into the harbor about eight A.M., and bore down towards the American ships. The "Phoebe," the larger of the two Englishmen, drew close to the "Essex;" and her commander, Capt. Hillyar, sprang upon the taffrail, and asked after Capt. Porter's health. Porter responded courteously; and, noticing that the "Phoebe" was coming closer than the customs of war-vessels in a neutral port permitted, warned the Englishman to keep his distance, or trouble would result. Hillyar protested that he meant no harm, but nevertheless continued his advance until the two ships were almost fouled. Porter called the boarders to the bow; and they crowded forward, armed to the teeth, and stripped for the fight. The "Phoebe" was in such a position that she lay entirely at the mercy of the "Essex," and could not bring a gun to bear in her own defence. Hillyar, from his position on the taffrail, could see the American boarders ready to spring at the word of command, and the muzzles of the cannon ready to blow the ship out of water. There is little doubt that he was astonished to find the "Essex" so well prepared for the fray, for he had been told that more than half her crew had gone ashore. Relying upon this information, he had probably planned to capture the "Essex" at her moorings, regardless of the neutrality of the port. But he had now brought himself into a dangerous position, and Porter would have been justified in opening fire at once. But the apologies and protestations of the British captain disarmed him, and he unwisely let the "Phoebe" proceed unmolested.

In his journal, Farragut thus describes this incident: "We were all at quarters, and cleared for action, waiting with breathless anxiety for the command from Capt. Porter to board, when the English captain appeared, standing on the after-gun, in a pea-jacket, and in plain hearing said,—

"'Capt. Hillyar's compliments to Capt. Porter, and hopes he is well.'

"Porter replied, 'Very well, I thank you. But I hope you will not come too near, for fear some accident might take place which would be disagreeable to you.' And, with a wave of his trumpet, the kedge-anchors went up to our yard-arms, ready to grapple the enemy.

"Capt. Hillyar braced back his yards, and remarked to Porter, that, if he did fall aboard him, he begged to assure the captain that it would be entirely accidental.

"'Well,' said Porter, 'you have no business where you are. If you touch a rope-yarn of this ship, I shall board instantly.'"

Notwithstanding Porter's forbearance, the incident came near leading to a battle, through the action of one of the crew, who had come off from shore with his brain rather hazy from heavy drinking. This man was standing by a gun, with a lighted brand in his hand, ready to fire the piece, when he thought he saw an Englishman grinning at him through one of the open ports of the "Phoebe." Highly enraged, he shouted out, "My fine fellow, I'll soon stop your making faces!" and reached out to fire the gun; when a heavy blow from an officer, who saw the action, stretched him on the deck. Had that gun been fired, nothing could have saved the "Phoebe."

The two hostile ships cast anchor within long gunshot of the Americans, and seemed prepared for a long season in port. For the next few weeks the British and American officers and seamen met frequently on shore; and a kind of friendship sprang up between them, although they were merely waiting for a favorable moment to begin a deadly strife. Some incidents, however, took place which rather disturbed the amicable relations of the two parties. At the masthead of the "Essex" floated a flag bearing the motto, "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights." This flag gave great offence to the British, who soon displayed a flag with the inscription, "God and Country, British Sailors' Best Rights. Traitors offend both." To this Americans responded with, "God, our Country and Liberty. Tyrants offend them." Here the debate closed, and seemed to arouse no unfriendly feeling; for Porter and Hillyar talked it over amicably on shore. In the course of this conversation, Porter challenged the "Phoebe" to meet the "Essex" alone; but Hillyar declined the proposition. Shortly after this, the crews of the hostile ships began the practice of singing songs at each other; the Americans beginning with "Yankee Doodle," while the British retorted with "God save the King." Then the poets of the forecastle set to work, and ground out verses that would prove particularly obnoxious to the enemy. One of the American songs recited at full length the capture of the "Guerriere." The character of the poetry may be judged by the first verse.

"Ye tars of our country, who seek on the main The cause for the wrongs your country sustain, Rejoice and be merry, for bragging John Bull Has got a sound drubbing from brave Capt. Hull."

The British responded with triumphant verses upon the capture of the "Chesapeake," news of which had just reached Valparaiso. Their poetry was quite as bad.

"Brave Broke he waved his sword, And he cried, 'Now, lads, aboard; And we'll stop their singing, Yankee Doodle Dandy, O!'"

Porter now wished to get rid of some of the prizes with which he was encumbered. He could not burn them in the harbor, and the British ships kept too close a watch upon him to permit his ships to leave the harbor for an hour: so he was forced to wait many days for an opportunity. On the 14th of February the opportunity came; and the "Hector" was towed out to sea, and set a-fire. Two weeks later, the "Phoebe" came alone to the mouth of the harbor, and, after showing her motto-flag, hove to, and fired a gun to windward. This Porter understood to be a challenge, and he at once put out in the "Essex." But the "Phoebe" had no intention of entering a fair and equal fight; for she quickly joined her consort, and the two then chased the "Essex" back to port. Much talk and a vast deal of correspondence grew out of this affair, which certainly did not redound to the credit of the British.

On the 28th of March the wind blew with such force that the larboard cable of the "Essex" parted; and the ship, drifting before the wind, dragged her starboard cable out to sea. Knowing that the British ships were in waiting outside, Porter lost no time in getting on sail and trying to beat back into the harbor. But, just as the ship was rounding the point, there came up a heavy squall, which carried away the main topmast, throwing several topmen into the sea. In her disabled state the frigate could not regain the harbor; but she ran into a little cove, and anchored within half pistol-shot of the shore. Here she was in neutral waters; and, had Capt. Hillyar been a man of his word, the "Essex" would have been safe: for that officer, on being asked by Porter whether he would respect the neutrality of the port, had replied with much feeling, "You have paid so much respect to the neutrality of the port, that I feel bound in honor to respect it." But he very quickly forgot this respect, when he saw his enemy lying crippled and in his power, although in neutral waters.

Hardly had the "Essex" cast anchor, when the two British ships drew near, their actions plainly showing that they intended to attack the crippled frigate. The "Essex" was prepared for action, the guns beat to quarters; and the men went to their places coolly and bravely, though each felt at his heart that he was going into a hopeless fight. The midshipmen had hardly finished calling over the quarter-lists, to see that every man was at his station, when the roar of the cannon from the British ships announced the opening of the action. The "Phoebe" had taken up a position under the stern of the American frigate, and pounded away with her long eighteens; while the "Essex" could hardly get a gun to bear in return. The "Cherub" tried her fortune on the bow, but was soon driven from that position, and joined her consort. The two kept up a destructive fire, until Porter got three long guns out of the cabin-windows, and drove the enemy away. After repairing damages, the British took up a position just out of range of the "Essex's" carronades, and began a rapid and effective fire from their long eighteens.

Such an action as this was very trying to the crew of the "Essex." The carronades against which Porter had protested when his ship was armed were utterly useless against an enemy who used such cautious tactics. On the deck of the frigate men were falling on every side. One shot entered a port, and killed four men who stood at a gun, taking off the heads of the last two. The crash and roar of the flying shots were incessant. As the guns became crippled for lack of men, the junior officers took a hand in all positions. Farragut writes, "I performed the duty of captain's aid, quarter-gunner, powder-boy, and, in fact, did every thing that was required of me.... When my services were not required for other purposes, I generally assisted in working a gun; would run and bring powder from the boys, and send them back for more, until the captain wanted me to carry a message; and this continued to occupy me during the action." Once during the action a midshipman came running up to Porter, and reported that a gunner had deserted his post. Porter's reply was to turn to Farragut (the lad was only twelve years old), and say, "Do your duty, sir." The boy seized a pistol, and ran away to find the coward, and shoot him in his tracks. But the gunner had slipped overboard, and made his way to the shore, and so escaped.

After the "Essex" had for some time suffered from the long-range fire of the enemy, Capt. Porter determined to make sail, and try to close with his foes. The rigging had been so badly shot away that the flying jib was the only sail that could be properly set. With this, and with the other sails hanging loose from the yards, the "Essex" ran down upon the British, and made such lively play with her carronades, that the "Cherub" was forced to haul off for repairs, and the tide of war seemed to be setting in favor of the Americans. But, though the gallant blue-jackets fought with desperation, their chances for success were small. The decks were strewn with dead, the cock-pit was full, and the enemy's shot were constantly adding to the number of dead and dying. Young Farragut, who had been sent below after some gun-primers, was coming up the ladder, when a man standing at the opening of the hatchway was struck full in the face by a cannon-ball, and fell back, carrying the lad with him. The mutilated body fell full upon the boy, who lay for a time unconscious; then, jumping to his feet, ran, covered with blood, to the quarter-deck. Capt. Porter saw him, and asked if he was wounded. "I believe not, sir," answered the midshipman. "Then," said the captain, "where are the primers?" Farragut remembered his errand, and dashed below to execute it. When he emerged the second time, he saw the captain (his adopted father) fall, and running up asked if he was wounded. "I believe not, my son," was the response; "but I felt a blow on the top of my head." He had probably been knocked down by the wind of a passing shot.

But the end of the action was now near. Dreadful havoc had been made in the ranks of both officers and men. The cock-pit would hold no more wounded; and the shots were beginning to penetrate its walls, killing the sufferers waiting for the surgeon's knife. Lieut. McKnight was the only commissioned officer on duty. The ship had been several times on fire, and the magazine was endangered. Finally, the carpenter reported that her bottom was so cut up that she could float but a little while longer. On learning this, Porter gave the order for the colors to be hauled down, which was done. The enemy, however, kept up their deadly fire for ten minutes after the "Essex" had struck.

David Farragut narrates some interesting incidents of the surrender. He was sent by the captain to find and destroy the signal book before the British should come aboard; and, this having been done, he went to the cock-pit to look after his friends. Here he found Lieut. Cornell terribly wounded. When Farragut spoke to him, he said, "O Davy, I fear it's all up with me!" and died soon after. The doctor said, that, had this officer been operated upon an hour before, his life might have been saved; but when the surgeons proposed to drop another man, and attend to him, he replied, "No, no, doctor, none of that. Fair play's a jewel. One man's life is as dear as another's; I would not cheat any poor fellow out of his turn." Surely history nowhere records more noble generosity. Soon after this, when Farragut was standing on the deck, a little negro boy came running up to inquire about his master, Lieut. Wilmer, who had been knocked over by a shot. On learning his master's fate, he leaped over the taffrail into the sea, and was drowned.

After the "Essex" had been formally surrendered, boats were sent to convey the prisoners to the British ships. In one of these Farragut was carried to the "Phoebe," and there fell into a second battle, in which the victory remained with him. "I was so mortified at our capture that I could not refrain from tears," he writes. "While in this uncomfortable state, I was aroused by hearing a young reefer call out,—

"'A prize! a prize! Ho, boys, a fine grunter, by Jove.'

"I saw at once that he had under his arm a pet pig belonging to our ship, called 'Murphy.' I claimed the animal as my own.

"'Ah,' said he, 'but you are a prisoner, and your pig also!'

"'We always respect private property,' I replied; and, as I had seized hold of 'Murphy,' I determined not to let go unless 'compelled by superior force.'

"This was fun for the oldsters, who immediately sung out,—

"'Go it, my little Yankee. If you can thrash Shorty, you can have your pig.'

"'Agreed,' cried I.

"A ring was formed in an open space, and at it we went. I soon found that my antagonist's pugilistic education did not come up to mine. In fact, he was no match for me, and was compelled to give up the pig. So I took Master Murphy under my arm, feeling that I had in some degree wiped out the disgrace of the defeat."

When the British ships with their prize returned to the quiet waters of the harbor, and began to take account of damages, it was found that the "Essex" had indeed fought a losing fight. On the "Phoebe," but four men were killed, and seven wounded; on the "Cherub," one killed and three wounded, made up the list of casualties. But on the "Essex" were fifty-eight killed, and sixty-six wounded; while an immense number of men were missing, who may have escaped to the shore or may have sunk beneath the waves. Certain it is some swimmers reached shore, though sorely wounded. One man had rushed on deck with his clothing all aflame, and swam ashore, though scarcely a square inch could be found on his body which was not burned. Another seaman had sixteen or eighteen scales of iron chipped from the muzzle of his gun driven into his legs, yet he reached the shore in safety.

After some delay, the "Essex Junior" was disarmed; and the prisoners, having given their paroles, were placed on board her, with a letter of safe-conduct from Capt. Hillyar to prevent their capture by any British man-of-war in whose path they might fall. But this letter availed them little; for, after an uneventful voyage to the northward, the "Essex Junior" found herself brought to by a shot from the British frigate "Saturn," off Sandy Hook. The boarding-officer took Capt. Hillyar's letter to the commander of the "Saturn," who remarked that Hillyar had no authority to make any such agreement, and ordered the "Essex Junior" to remain all night under the lee of the British ship. Capt. Porter was highly indignant, and handed his sword to the British officer, saying that he considered himself a prisoner. But the Englishman declined the sword, and was about to return to his ship, when Porter said, "Tell the captain that I am his prisoner, and do not consider myself any longer bound by my contract with Capt. Hillyar, which he has violated; and I shall act accordingly." By this Porter meant that he now considered himself absolved from his parole, and free to escape honorably if an opportunity should offer.

Accordingly at seven o'clock the following morning, a boat was stealthily lowered from the "Essex Junior;" and Porter, descending into it, started for the shore, leaving a message, that, since British officers showed so little regard for each other's honor, he had no desire to trust himself in their hands. The boat had gone some distance before she was sighted by the lookout on the "Saturn," for the hull of the "Essex Junior" hid her from sight. As soon as the flight was noticed, the frigate made sail in chase, and seemed likely to overhaul the audacious fugitives, when a thick fog set in, under cover of which Porter reached Babylon, L.I., nearly sixty miles distant. In the mean time, the "Essex Junior," finding herself hidden from the frigate by the fog-bank, set sail, and made for the mouth of the harbor. She was running some nine knots an hour when the fog showed signs of lifting; and she came up into the wind, that the suspicion of the British might not be aroused. As it happened, the "Saturn" was close alongside when the fog lifted, and her boat soon came to the American ship. An officer, evidently very irate, bounded upon the deck, and said brusquely,—

"You must have been drifting very fast. We have been making nine knots an hour, and yet here you are alongside."

"So it appears," responded the American lieutenant coolly.

"We saw a boat leave you, some time ago," continued the Englishman. "I suppose Capt. Porter went in it?"

"Yes. You are quite right."

"And probably more of you will run away, unless I cut away your boats from the davits."

"Perhaps that would be a good plan for you to adopt."

"And I would do it very quickly, if the question rested with me."

"You infernal puppy," shouted the American officer, now thoroughly aroused, "if you have any duty to do, do it; but, if you insult me further, I'll throw you overboard!"

With a few inarticulate sounds, the Englishman stepped into his boat, and was pulled back to the "Saturn," whence soon returned a second boat, bearing an apology for the boarding-officer's rudeness. The boarders then searched all parts of the ship, mustered her crew on the plea that it contained British deserters, and finally released her, after having inflicted every possible humiliation upon her officers. The "Essex Junior" then proceeded to New York, where she was soon joined by Capt. Porter. The whole country united in doing honor to the officers, overlooking the defeat which closed their cruise, and regarding only the persistent bravery with which they had upheld the cause of the United States in the far-off waters of the Pacific.

Before closing the account of Porter's famous cruise, the story of the ill-fortune which befell Lieut. Gamble should be related. This officer, it will be remembered, was left at Nookaheevah with the prizes "Greenwich," "Seringapatam," and "Hammond." Hardly had the frigate disappeared below the horizon, when the natives began to grow unruly; and Gamble was forced to lead several armed expeditions against them. Then the sailors under his charge began to show signs of mutiny. He found himself almost without means of enforcing his authority, and the disaffection spread daily. The natives, incited by the half-savage Englishman who had been found upon the island, began to make depredations upon the live-stock; while the women would swim out to the ships by night, and purloin bread, aided by their lovers among the crews. To the lieutenant's remonstrances, the natives replied that "Opotee" was not coming back, and they would do as they chose; while the sailors heard his orders with ill-concealed contempt, and made but a pretext of obeying them. In the middle of April three sailors stole a boat from the "Greenwich," and, stocking it well with ammunition and provisions, deserted, and were never again seen. One month later, mutiny broke out in its worst form. Lieut. Gamble and his two midshipmen, being upon the "Seringapatam," were knocked down by the sailors, gagged, bound, and thrust into the hold. The mutineers then went ashore, spiked the guns in the fort, and then, hoisting the British colors over the captured ship, set sail. Lieut. Gamble was badly wounded in the foot by a pistol-shot fired by one of his guards. Notwithstanding his wound, he, with the two lieutenants and two loyal seamen, was turned adrift in an open boat. After long and painful exertions, they reached the shore, and returned to the bay, where the "Greenwich" still lay at anchor. The mutineers, thirteen of whom were Englishmen who had enlisted in the American service, steered boldly out to sea, and were nevermore heard of. The half-savage Englishman, Wilson, was supposed to be at the bottom of this uprising, and some days later a boat's crew from the "Greenwich" went ashore to capture him. Soon after, Gamble, anxiously watching the shore, saw a struggle upon the beach, the natives rushing down on all sides, the boat overturned in the surf, and two white men swimming towards the ship, making signals of distress. Mr. Clapp, with two men, sprang into a boat, and put off to the aid of the swimmers, leaving Gamble alone on the ship. Two large canoes loaded with savages then left the beach, and swiftly bore down towards the "Essex;" but Gamble, lamed though he was, seized a lighted brand, and hobbled along the deck of the ship, firing her guns with such effect that the savages were driven back, the beach cleared, and Mr. Clapp enabled to save the two struggling men. When the boat returned to the ship, it was learned that Midshipman Feltus and five men had been basely murdered by the savages. There were now left but seven Americans; and of these but two were well, and fit for duty. Setting the "Greenwich" on fire, this little band boarded the "Hammond," and made their way to sea. But between the Sandwich Islands and Honolulu they fell in with the "Cherub," by whom they were captured, and kept prisoners for nine months, when, peace being declared, they were released.

So ended the last incident of the gallant cruise of the "Essex." History has few more adventurous tales to relate.

THE END

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