Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision. — G. K. Chesterton

Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes




A Midshipman of the Essex

It was the early part of August in the year 1811. The weather was very warm. The dust covered the grass and the leaves of the trees until the lower branches had turned a silvery gray.

Four sweltering horses were tugging a lumbering coach along a rough Virginia road. The wheels jolted and rattled noisily, and the people inside appeared too hot and uncomfortable for indulging in conversation.

Seated back of the driver was a tall man in the uniform of an officer of the navy. His face was red, and he had tucked his handkerchief inside of the stock that came almost up to his ears; the shirt frill that hung out of his unbuttoned coat was as wilted as if it had never known starch. A little boy was seated close beside him with his feet swinging loosely from side to side his legs were too short to reach even to the top of the driver's seat. He had on trousers which the day before, when he had left school, had been white and new. Occasionally he would endeavor to brush the dust from his sleeves, and he was bitterly regretting that he had not saved his best uniform against the time he should be on shipboard. The small blue jacket with brass buttons had been the envy of all the lads at the Chester Academy.

David Glasgow Farragut was the youngest officer in the United States service, having received his appointment as midshipman when he was but nine years and five months old. Now, at the age of ten, he was on his way with his adopted father, Captain Porter, to join his ship, the Essex, lying at anchor in the harbor of Norfolk. And thus we find the two making the long trip together by coach on this hot August day, a year after the events of the preceding chapter.

As the lumbering, clumsy vehicle tottered down a steep run that led to the ford of a half-dry stream bed, one of the horses, that was slipping and holding back, with the collar almost over his eyes, missed his footing and fell. To avoid running over him, the driver hauled the leaders sharply across the road. The front wheels cramped, and, without a word of warning being given, the coach spilled every one on top into the mud and shallow water of the brook. Captain Porter was the first to get to his feet. Little David was kneeling waist deep looking about for his hat. The mud and the water had about completed the spoiling of his pride-inspiring uniform.

"No one hurt!" cried a fat merchant, brushing off his spattered cord breeches.

"Then all on board again!" laughed Captain Porter. Soon the coach was, so to speak, on its legs and moving along; late in the afternoon it rumbled into Norfolk. Even above the house tops and the trees, looking to seaward, the tall masts of the Essex could be seen. Captain Porter pointed the vessel out with pride.

"There is our home, my son," he said, "I hope, for the next three years."

When they reached the dock the tall officer walked out to the end of the string-piece and waved his handkerchief. He had been seen, however, before this, and the sailors were tumbling out on the boat yards and sliding down into the gig. Soon they were pulling toward shore.

David had involuntarily reached as if to take the Captain's hand for an instant, but had checked himself. The tall figure bent over him.

"Son," he said, softly, "you are a midshipman of the Essex now and I am her commander. Don't think that I am harsh or unkind, or that I do not love you, if I speak hard and sharp to you. You must, like the others, obey orders and be a little man."

David drew himself up as he had seen one of the midshipmen on the Vesuvius do. His small fingers sought the brim of his cap.

"Aye, aye, sir!" he answered steadily; but as they rowed out to the ship he never felt so lonely in his life, and not even on the first night at the school in Chester had he felt such a sense of homesickness as he did when he crawled into his hammock in the steerage only a short time after darkness had set in. The trip on the stage coach had been very wearisome; he was sore and tired.

David had not been surprised to find that he was the very smallest and the youngest of all the midshipmen whose hammocks swung close to his, and he felt a little strange as he lay there doubled up in the hollow of the canvas bag that was much too big for him. The sounds of feet overhead on the deck, the shrilling now and then of the pipe, and the calling away of the boats kept him awake until almost midnight. When at last he fell asleep he dreamed that he was once more sailing with his real father in the pirogue across the sunny waters of Lake Pontchartrain. He could hear the shrill laughter of the little negro boys, and imagined that he and Eugene had captured an alligator that could talk French after the manner of old Madame Dupont's green parrot.

For three or four days now David remained on ship-board. It took some time to find out which was the stern and which was the bow, and often when he came out of the steerage he became twisted and started in the wrong direction.

But to relate rather a curious thing that happened during the stay in harbor. On the police court records of Norfolk, Virginia, appears the following entry:

"David Farragut, Midshipman, of the frigate Essex, bound over to keep the peace. Bonds furnished."

And hereby hangs a story. David had been sent ashore in charge of the first cutter, and was waiting at the end of the pier for the appearance of some officers whom he was to take off to the ship. The usual crowd of loafers and rowdies had collected along the shore. David's diminutive size (he was dressed in his cocked hat and brass buttons) attracted their attention, and they began to poke fun at the "baby officer." For a long time he ignored these insults, but his crew was getting angrier every minute, and suddenly something happened that started the finest kind of a row. A low-visaged fellow had obtained possession of a watering pot, and, leaning over the pier head, he carefully watered the little midshipman, at the same time expressing the hope "that he might grow."

This was too much. A sailor named Hawley loosened one of the boat's stretchers and hurled it at the offender. It caught him on the head and laid him low. A stone was thrown in return. The Jack-tars at this jumped out of the boat, and, swinging improvised weapons oars and boat hooks about their heads, they waded into the crowd. All the way up the main street of the town they fought, David Farragut following close in their wake, now and then, it must be told, encouraging them by shrill, half-tearful shouts.

The appearance of some constables on the scene interrupted matters, and the whole party, including the ringleaders of the rioters, were marched to the station house. But the only notice taken on board ship of this episode was that the other midshipmen ceased teasing "the youngster," and Captain Porter remarked to Lieutenant Downes at breakfast that young Farragut was "three pounds of uniform and seventy pounds of fight"