Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes

Practical Instruction

It was Christmas eve, four months after our little reefer had joined his ship. There was no vessel that was smarter or better manned in the navy at that time. During those four months Captain Porter had accomplished wonders, and David Farragut, Midshipman, had fallen easily into the duties that were expected of him.

The Essex was particularly happy in having a mutual feeling of confidence and respect among the officers. The midshipmen liked them, the sailors liked them, and that meant happy days. From Lieutenant Downes, the first officer, to Purser Shaw, they were men kind and considerate of others, and anxious to attract and hold the admiration of those under their orders.

So efficient had the crew become that they had been divided into three watches instead of four. Few complaints were heard in the forecastle. Everything was reduced to such a system, and the work so evenly divided, that, wonderful to relate, grumblers were scarce. There was plenty to do and time to do it in. It was a maxim of the commander that "steady work means steady comfort."

But to return to the Christmas eve. It was very cold, and the day had been what sailors call "a weather breeder." As the Essex was trying to make Newport harbor early in the evening, the slight wind suddenly died away, and she was forced to come to anchor off the bluffs.

The thermometer kept falling lower and lower, and, unfortunately, the barometer also. But the midshipmen were endeavoring to have a little jollification in the steerage, and it was so cold that they had obtained permission to have some "hot shot" brought in. This was not a nickname for anything good to eat, as might have been supposed. It was a species of portable stove, being nothing more or less than two or three solid cannon balls heated red hot in the galley fire and carried about in buckets filled with sand. But even this failed to make the steerage warm, and the game of blindman's buff was given up at last for double blankets in the hammocks.

At about four o'clock in the morning David and all the watch below were awakened by feeling that the Essex had begun to jump and toss spasmodically; then the boatswain's pipe shrilled down the hatchway, and the hoarse bawl of his mates rang through the 'tween-decks."

All hands on deck! Tumble up lively, there!" was the call that stirred the midshipmen out of their warm nests. Few had undressed at all, and it only remained for them to jump into their boots and draw on their great coats and they were ready.

When they made their way to the spar deck they found themselves in the midst of an exciting scene. The great yards were straining and swaying, and straight across the deck and through the rigging howled the sleet and snow. It banked up against the guns; it weighted every rope and stay, and forward on the top-gallant forecastle a small army of men were bending on a new hawser to a great black anchor ready to let it go at the command. An officer with a trumpet shouted some orders from the quarterdeck. The wind blew the words away, and a boatswain's mate, standing near, came up with his hand making a hollow back of his ear. He caught the order, and, sliding and scrambling, carried it to the officers on the forecastle. There was a sudden blow of an axe, and a plash as the great anchor dropped into the sea. Then the men sought shelter behind the bulwarks, and some, dripping and half frozen, plunged down the hatchway.

Looking out across the stern, the midshipmen saw a wonderful sight. They could just make out the dark shape of the bluffs and the spray playing up in the air like a row of fountains. Suddenly a voice exclaimed close to them:

"You are right, Mr. Wilmer; we are drifting, sir." It was Captain Porter speaking. "Call all hands again, sir! Let go the other anchor and be quick about it," he added.

Now all was excitement once more, and there was no rest that night. The Essex still dragged nearer to the shore where the waves broke and leaped high against the points of the great sharp rocks. At three o'clock a fourth anchor was let go, but she dragged the whole of them. Nearer and nearer she drifted toward the line of heavy surf. Suddenly there came a shock that sent a tremor through her stout timbers and through the heart of every man on the slippery, sleet-covered deck. The ship had grounded! David, who had crept under the break of the poop deck, gave a gasp; he knew something had happened that meant great danger.

There were two men standing by the wheel. One of them was an old boatswain's mate, William Kingsbury, a type of what was best in a seaman. The midshipmen looked upon him as knowing everything that could be known by any one who followed ships. Marvelous tales could he spin and marvelous knots could he tie. When he shook his head they shook their heads also, for they knew that was the proper thing to do. He was a story book and a barometer, a prophet and a hero.

David had been joined in his place of shelter by Midshipman Jack Cowan, who swung next to him. It only needed a glance at old Kingsbury's face for the boys to determine that things were serious.

"Mark me, messmate," said old Kingsbury, bellowing in his companion's ear, our to'gallant masts will go, if this keeps on, I tell you; mark my word!"

No sooner had he spoken than a sharp snapping report rang out above the roaring of the wind in the rigging. Down came the main top-gallant mast, swinging dangerously close to the deck. Then a sudden gust, harder than the rest, caught it, and it swung clear of the side and tangled happily in the starboard shrouds. Another snap and the mizzen top-gallant mast went over the side.

It was blowing so hard by this time that it was impossible to keep the deck. The men crawled along under the lee of the bulwarks, and from their position of security the two boys saw there was only one living figure now in sight an officer holding fast to the hammock nettings on the quarter-deck. It was Captain Porter.

It had been impossible to house the masts, as everything was frozen stiff. There was only one thing more left to do, and soon preparations were made to carry the last hope out. Standing in the galley were a score of men with axes, ready at a word to rush out on the deck and hack away the stays and let the great masts go overboard.

But just at this critical moment the wind changed a few points, and old Kingsbury's face relaxed.

"We're safe," he said. "It's blown its worst and hardest."

Now almost as quickly as it had arisen the storm died down, and the exhausted crew sought sleep and rest. But it was broad daylight, and so cold had it been that it was found that one of the powder monkeys—a black boy—had frozen in his hammock.

By good handling the Essex was worked off the bank, and on the afternoon of Christmas day she anchored in the inner harbor.

Again was David sent to school—this time to a Mr. Adams in Newport, but he had for his companions all the midshipmen of the Essex and of two other vessels which were then in port. There was little time for skylarking; it was mostly work, work, and study, study, from morning until nightfall. For five long months the boys saw no more of shipboard life. Then it came to be rumored that they would soon be ordered to sea again, and the prospect of a change was hailed with joy by all.