Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes

A Capture

Three days after the foggy morning another ad venture took place that was somewhat more exciting.

It was just past midnight. The moon was up full and round and the horizon line could be seen almost as plainly as if it were daylight. The Essex was carrying a good strong breeze abeam, making five or six knots an hour. The harsh outlines of the shrouds and the backstays looked like, "great spiders' webs, and it would strike the imagination that this huge vessel would blow away at a stronger puff of the wind.

David had turned in but was yet awake. One of the midshipmen who had just come off watch was sleepily stowing something in his sea chest when a quartermaster entered the steerage.

"Call to quarters, young gentlemen," he said.

The rousing out of two hundred men makes considerable confusion. The pattering of bare feet and the mumbling of conversation was coming from the berth deck. What could it mean? Only a drill, most probably.

When David had gone below he had been thinking that it hardly seemed possible that such a peaceful-looking spectral thing as the Essex appeared to be could ever be turned into a flaming, death-dealing war ship. But as he hurried up and took his station on the quarter-deck, it was a strange sight he saw.

So plain did the moon's rays make everything that lights were not needed, and only below were the battle lanterns, shaded by tarpaulin covers, ready for use. The men could be seen standing at the guns. Now and then one would bend down and peer out of the open port. Up aloft the topmen were shaking out the royals.

There was not a sound except the booming of the wind in the lower courses. It might have been a crew of ghosts on a ghost ship.

Often at night had the men been called to general quarters before this. It was the commander's intention to make every man perfect in his line of duty, and the sailor or marine who did not know his position in any given emergency was made to suffer, for it was not for lack of practice.

But somehow these preparations on this moonlight night did not appear to be like the usual drill. David and the other midshipmen, who would grumble somewhat at being turned out of their warm hammocks, had at first suspected that it was one of Captain Porter's surprise parties, but seeing one of the officers looking through his night glass over the rail, David clutched the hammock nettings and managed to lift himself until he could obtain a view over the side.

Clear in the moonlight to leeward, sailing straight through the shining silvery path that the moon traced across the water, was a fleet of vessels. All sail was set, and they rose and fell at intervals in a long line. Now and then a light flashed.

The Essex, under the impetus of the new canvas that stretched up high against the little fleecy clouds, was coming down upon the strangers. The water was roaring under her forefoot and feathering off into two great lines of white.

It was all so weird and so beautiful that David could scarcely imagine that it was not a dream. No one had spoken to him. Every one had seemed to be impressed with the same sense of unreality, when suddenly he heard the end of a conversation that Captain Porter had been having with his first lieutenant.

"They are English, Mr. Downes. There's no mistaking that."

"I think the leading vessel is a man-of-war, sir, from the set of her canvas and the way she steps it," returned the lieutenant.

But now it was evident that the approach of the Essex had been noticed. A light wavered and two lanterns crawled up to the yardarm of the leading vessel. There appeared to be some confusion in the fleet.

A small brig well astern broke out into a cloud of new canvas.

She looks like a little chicken strayed from the old hen," said Midshipman Cowan to David.

But there was no mistaking what Captain Porter's intentions were. The ship's boys were bringing up from the magazine the packages of powder. The men were trotting silently to the guns with the wooden trays carrying round shot. The matches were lit and smoking and the guns were loaded and primed carefully.

The only loud order was given by a marine officer, who tramped his little company of sailor-soldiers off to the quarter-deck to take their positions along the taffrail.

A small boat gun had been mounted in the maintop. David was watching them make it secure on the gratings when Captain Porter turned and spoke to him.

"You have sharp eyes, Mr. Farragut." (How strange it seemed to David to be addressed as "Mr." Farragut!) "Climb up aloft and see if you can pick out what vessels carry guns. I think the foremost is a frigate."

David hastened up into the rigging. How huge the top seemed! It was like a great broad floor. There were twenty men there, some armed with muskets and others employed in securing the swivel. He did not pause, however, but crawled up higher and higher until he reached the crosstrees. The mast swayed gently, and down below, the ship looked so long and narrow that it appeared to him that his weight would almost keel her over. The sails bulged out in smooth white shapes. He almost forgot what it was that he had come to look for, but now he could see the fleet more plainly.

There were nine vessels. The largest had come up into the wind and was evidently waiting for the rest to gather closer. It was the sheep dog waiting to protect the sheep; but if such was her intention she had not been taught aright. The Essex was making straight for her when she turned on her heel and crept in among the flock. This action was so unexpected that the officers on the Essex's deck were puzzled.

David had scrambled down from his lookout.

"A frigate and two armed brigs, sir," he said.

"The rest are transports, I take it," put in Lieutenant Downes. "We will pass the time of day before we leave them."

A half hour went by. So close now had the Essex come that she was almost within hail of a large bark near by on the larboard hand. Marvelous to relate, the Yankee vessel passed under the stern but to windward of the large frigate without a shot being fired or a question asked. Sailing close to the wind, she shaped her course and crossed athwart the bows of the bark.

The little brig, scudding along with her wings in the water, had managed to creep up with the rest. There was evidently confusion on board the stranger vessel that was left behind and whose escape was now cut off.

But the Essex did not fire a gun, and she had approached to such near distance that it was hardly necessary to use the trumpet for hailing.

The order to the English captain to back his top-sail was instantly obeyed, as was also the command to lower his flag and surrender.

Without a shot the Essex dropped her boats and took possession, while the fleet to leeward became spectators. The prize proved to be an English transport having on board over one hundred and fifty officers and men destined for the army in Canada.

The English gentlemen were much chagrined. They were invited into the cabin, and loudly expressed their wonder at the actions of the convoy and the guard ships. The latter were now three or four miles off and going down the wind as fast as they could leg it.

From the officers it was learned that the frigate was the Minerva, carrying the same number of guns as the Essex and with a crew and armament complete.