War of 1812 bicentennial: Cruise of the USS Essex

By Mr. Egon Hatfield (RDECOM History Office)March 14, 2013

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(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

By the time the USS Essex reached Valparaiso, Chile March 14, 1813, it was one-third of its way through an 18-month cruise. The ship's exploits in the War of 1812 may bring to mind the epic voyages of the USS Bonhomme Richard in the American Revolution and the CSS Alabama in the Civil War.

The USS Essex, built in 1799 and commanded by Capt. David Porter Jr., was the smallest frigate in the US Navy at the beginning of the War of 1812.

It was armed mainly with short-range 32-pound carronades. This short-barreled, lighter-weight weapon, developed in the 1780's, allowed ships to carry more guns (especially on upper decks). Deadly in a close fight, they sacrificed range for less weight.

After a successful cruise earlier in 1812, the USS Essex departed Philadelphia Oct. 27, 1812 with a crew of 328 men, enroute to rendezvous with the USS Constitution and the USS Hornet in the South Atlantic to raid British shipping. Since he couldn't find either ship, Captain Porter continued south, transited Cape Horn (the first U.S. ship to do so) and entered the South Pacific, being buffeted by storms. He proceeded north to Valparaiso to make repairs and to re-supply.

Once again mission-ready, the USS Essex sailed north for the Galapagos Islands, in search of British whaling vessels. During the next six months, Porter captured 12 whalers and approximately 360 seamen, scattering the remainder of the British whaling fleet. The captured ships with their cargoes of whale oil were valued at approximately $3 million (1813 currency).

Since he was at sea for nearly a year, Porter knew in October that he had to find a sanctuary to refit and rest. He sailed west to Nuku Hiva Island, part of the Marquesas island chain, 3,000 miles southwest of Galapagos Island. There, Porter overhauled the rigging, scraped the ship's bottom, smoked out the rats infesting the ship and rested the crew.

In mid-December 1813, the USS Essex departed the island and arrived back at Valparaiso in early February 1814.

The ship ran into some of the British ships which had been combing the oceans since March 1813, searching for it. On Feb. 8, the frigate HMS Phoebe (36 guns) and sloop HMS Cherub (28 guns) arrived and blockaded the USS Essex inside the port.

On March 28, Porter, wanting to take advantage of a strong wind, decided to make a run past the British and escape. However, a squall tore off the main-topmast, which impacted on the ship's maneuverability. Additionally, the British ships, carrying more conventional, long-range cannon, could stay out of range of the USS Essex' guns, while firing from two directions.

After a short, uneven fight, Porter had to strike the U.S. colors. About 155 of the crew were killed, wounded or missing. As a result of the battle, the USS Essex was transferred to the British Navy and Porter with the surviving crew members were paroled and sent back to the United States on a previously captured ship. One of the surviving crew members was Porter's adopted son, a 12-year-old midshipman named David Farragut, destined for fame during the Civil War, becoming the first admiral in United States naval history.

Although ending in surrender, the approximately 27,000-mile cruise of the USS Essex showed the ability of a warship in the age of sail to operate independently for a long period of time and over long distances. The cruise also showed the impact that a single warship could have on maritime trade and the difficulty an enemy fleet could have finding and defeating a commerce raider.

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