Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes


News had arrived at Valparaiso that three other vessels of war had sailed for the Pacific in pursuit of the "marauder," as Captain Porter had been termed. Their appearance was expected at any moment, and at last, to his disappointment, the American commander determined that it was useless to try to bring the Phoebe to single combat.

The Essex, Jr., was no match for the Cherub, and he determined to slip away and escape immediately. A meeting place was agreed on, where Lieutenant Downes was to join him later, if possible; and everything was made ready to take advantage of a favorable opportunity and get out of the harbor. The 28th of March had arrived, and it was only the previous evening that the determination had been formed to put to sea.

Farragutt and Porter


The wind had been freshening all the day and had blown, for the first time in months, what might be called half a gale. Odenheimer was on the watch. He was the oldest of the midshipmen, and had been acting lieutenant now for some time. He stopped his pacing up and down the quarter-deck and stood still as a statue.

"What's the matter, Odenheimer—I mean, Mr. Odenheimer?" asked David, noticing the action.

"Come here, youngster," was the answer; "take a sight on that first ratline, and the white house on the shore."

He pointed with his finger, which was trembling a little nervously. "Are we moving?" he questioned in a whisper.

David looked. Slowly but surely the Essex was going backward. She had already two anchors out, but it was hard bottom and the wind was increasing every minute.

"We are moving," said David, "and dragging fast!"

"Jump below and tell Captain Porter," Odenheimer said.

David ran into the cabin rather unceremoniously. The captain was writing at the table. He looked up. "Well, sir?" he said.

"We have started both our anchors, and are going out to sea, Captain Porter."

Instantly the commander sprang to his feet and rushed out on deck. He began shouting orders as soon as he reached the air. Not a moment was to be lost in making sail. The men scrambled aloft, and cutting one anchor, the Essex tripped the other, and circled around heading for the mouth of the harbor. All the other moments of excitement were as nothing compared to those which followed now. The enemy were close in, at the point that made out from the west side of the bay. There was only one thing to do, and that was to pass to windward.

The topgallant sails were taker in and the single-reefed topsails were braced about. The frigate dashed along, the rising seas thumping great blows against her bows and dashing spray and scattering showers along the deck.

"Hurrah, Mr. Wilmer, we are outpointing them!" exclaimed Captain Porter, looking at the two Englishmen, who were carrying all the sail they could possibly stagger under.

David was clinging to the shrouds. They were off for home! This was no expedition to test the sailing, or to lure the other one to combat. They were legging it for life and freedom.

Crash! A noise like the explosion of half a broadside sounded from aloft.

A heavy squall that had been whitening the water and that had been seen approaching struck the ship. The topmast carried away, and the men on the yards went off over the side—all hope gone with them. The Essex was now heeling over badly, and it was almost impossible to keep the deck, but axes were plied vigorously to cut away the wreckage and to right her.

Porter endeavored to put about and to reach the harbor, but at last he gave this up. Closer and closer the British ships were approaching. The top-hamper had fallen inboard and the yards refused to swing about properly. There was nothing for it but to get before the wind and run as close inshore as possible.

It was a question whether they could reach neutral waters or not before the Phoebe would be upon them. The men worked like demons, and soon had cleared matters up in such a way that the Essex, even in her crippled condition, ran as fast as her antagonist, and led the way into a small bay about three quarters of a mile from a shore battery. Porter let go his anchor within pistol shot of the shore, and the men, busy as bees, went about repairing damages.

It was hoped that the English would respect the neutrality of the country, and the fact that the Essex had placed herself under Chilian protection, but such, unfortunately, was not the case.

As the Phoebe and Cherub came down they were covered with motto flags and flew jacks at every masthead. Porter was now ripping out torrents of orders and imprecations. But he seemed to have an eye on everything.

"They are going to be at us in fifteen minutes!" he shouted. "Get a spring on the cable, boatswain! We can't use our broadside here."

The men were at work at this when a puff of smoke rolled from the Phoebe's counter.

David Farragut, midshipman, was now to go through the test of blood and flame. He had passed an open port in time to see that first white billowing smoke with a dash of red flame in the midst.

Then there came a crash at his side and a great white splinter jumped out from the bulwarks. It caught a seaman full in the throat and hurled him off across tilt, deck, lifeless: Another man staggered toward the hatchway, the blood spurting from a wound in his head. He tripped on the combing and plunged to the deck below with a horrid sound.

Now, confusion at first seemed to reign; for full five minutes the Essex could not reply. But at last the guns flared on every hand, and those below started the decks trembling and jumping. Hoarse orders were shouted. The air grew thick with stifling, sulphurous smoke. Now and then a block fell from aloft, and the loose end of a rope trailed down and swung to the deck.

There was one thing that struck David as a strange thing. When that death-dealing first shot was fired he had seen Captain Porter take his watch quietly from his pocket and note the time. The lieutenants were bawling orders and the captains of the guns were shouting to the frantically working crews. These were the first moments of battle before the men get settled down to that fierce steadiness from which emerges victory or well-contested combat.

David had reached Captain Porter's side. He had noticed, before the smoke obscured everything, that three flags were flying in the mizzen rigging and that the motto "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights" had been thrown out at the foremast.

The Phoebe had taken a position under the stern and the Cherub was on the starboard bow, and they were raking the Essex fearfully.

The long, white splinters, sharp as the edges of a sword, were now common things to see, and screams and hoarse oaths arose on all sides. David's heart stopped as he saw two seamen bend over and pick a figure up from the deck. They stumbled toward the after-hatch. The midshipman saw that their burden was poor Lieutenant Wilmer. He was mangled frightfully.

"It's all up with me, David, lad," he said as they carried him past.

David looked at Captain Porter's face to see if he had noticed it. He appeared to notice nothing but the way his ship was handled and the manner in which she was replying to the fire of the enemy. He was grinding his teeth together and occasionally shot an order across the deck through his trumpet fiercely.

During all this confusion the boatswain, Linscott, and three men were over at the side in a small boat trying to make fast a spring on the cable. At last they succeeded, and the Essex, answering to the tugging of the capstan, swung so as to bring her guns to bear to better advantage. A cheer sounded from the close, reeking deck below, for the breeze had blown the smoke over the water, and it was seen that the Cherub was finding out that it was too hot for her where she was lying. One of her yards was crippled; she tried to spread her sails and get away.

David had overcome his horror now. Though he kept near the captain, he was assisting in serving one of the after-guns. He handed the powder up as the gun was run in, and even on one occasion he took up the match that had been dropped and fired the piece himself.

It all appeared to him like a dream. Then his nerves grew steady.

"Mr. Farragut!" he heard his name called, and ran to the captain, who was just abaft the mainmast. What he was going to say David did not hear, for at that instant a shot came through the waterways and, glancing upward, killed four men within a few feet distance. Porter and the midshipman were deluged with blood.

Little Isaacs here ran up from below. He was bare-headed and his face was grimy and black. The hand he lifted to his forehead in salute was red, and the sleeve of his little jacket was in shreds from the shoulder. Porter had to bend to listen to what the lad was saying.

"Mr. Colwell has been killed, sir," he said, "and Kennedy, the boatswain's mate, has lost both legs."

Porter stood for a moment with his hand resting on Isaac's shoulder. The lad was shouting:

"And there's a quarter-gunner down there named Roach who has deserted his post! He says he will not fight longer. What shall we do?"

Porter turned to David, and, to the latter's astonishment, the order he received he took as if it were the most matter-of-fact thing in the world. Porter reached in his belt and extended a pistol.

"Go below, sir; find this man, and do your duty!" Porter said sternly.

It must have been a strange sight to see the little midshipman, with the great pistol in his hand, stepping among the dead and wounded on the deck and inquiring everywhere if any one had seen Roach; but, search high and low, he could not find him, and once more he made his way up to the freer air and reported.

The two after-guns, which were now among the few that could be brought to bear, had ceased firing. The powder monkey who had been serving them was stretched below in the cockpit, and the guns had no primers. David ran below, intending to go to the magazine and fetch them. As he ran down the wardroom ladder the captain of the gun at the port directly opposite was struck by an eight-pound shot. It hurled him backward with such force that his body fell against the midshipman, and the two came down to the foot of the ladder together. David lay there stunned. At last he regained consciousness and rushed up on deck. Porter saw him covered with fresh blood:

"David, son," he cried out anxiously, extending both his hands, "are you wounded?"

"I believe not, sir," said David, steadying himself by the aid of a belaying pin. Then he remembered for what he had gone below, and without another word he hastened to the magazine and brought back the primers. Soon the after-guns were growling steadily.

As David turned for a minute, he saw that Captain Porter was lying on the deck. He ran to him and lifted one of his hands. Porter looked up.

"Are you hurt, sir? Are you hurt?" David asked, a sob breaking his voice.

"Something struck me on the head," the captain replied, getting on his feet.

His cocked hat, crushed into an indistinguishable object, was lying in the scuppers.

The spring that the boatswain had got upon the cable had been shot away now for the third time, but such good work were the after-guns doing that both the Phoebe and the Cherub hauled off to repair damages and ceased their fire.

The breeze swept away the smoke toward the shore and it drifted close to the water across the mouth of a small inlet.

It was seen then that the heights of land were crowded with people watching the contest. But the attention of all on board was soon brought back to the English ships again. The Phoebe, leading, and the Cherub close astern of her, came down once more in silence and renewed the attack, choosing their positions, slowly Captain Potter was almost frantic now. From where the enemy was he could not bring a single gun to bear upon either ship!

David stood at his side. He looked back at the deck. Two big men, standing by one of the useless guns, were sobbing with anger and vexation; before he knew it, David was sobbing also. To stand by idly was something awful, and it was a welcome relief when Captain Porter's voice rang out:

"Cut that cable! All hands make sail! We'll close with them, the cowards!" he thundered.

The flying jib was the only sail that could be raised. Every other serviceable rope was shot away.

As the wind caught the rag of a sail the crippled Essex bravely came down upon the other ships and burst into a roar that almost seemed like exultation as she brought her guns to bear again and returned the deadly thrusts.

The smoke now hung so close about the three vessels that accurate gunnery was almost impossible. From the shore only the upper spars could be seen; but the tongues of brilliant red that leaped through the white, obscuring cloud, and the continuous thundering and roaring of the guns, showed that deadly work was being done.

Phoebe,  Cherub vs Essex.


Captain Tucker, of the Cherub, concluded to choose his distance; close quarters were not his style of fighting, and the sloop of war drew off. Porter ceased firing at the Cherub as she drifted out of range of his carronades. He devoted all his attention to the Phoebe, and for an instant it was hoped that he might get close enough to board. But Tucker had now got the range of the Essex with his long eighteen-pounders. At a safe distance he shot gun after gun, slowly, deliberately, as if he were at target practice. At every steady report there was a crash, and a shower of splinters on the Essex's defenseless side.

Now Porter's hope of boarding the Phoebe disappeared. She apparently determined to adopt the same tactics as her smaller consort, for she sailed off, and, choosing the proper distance, began firing slowly by divisions. Not a shot of the Essex could reach her. With some difficulty Porter wore ship and once more stood in toward the shore. He then ceased replying to the English vessels' fire entirely. It was his intention to ground his vessel, order the crew to save themselves, and set the brave old timbers afire.

The Cherub had ceased her target practice for a time, and the Phoebe was firing only two of her bow guns alternately. Almost every puff and flash was answered by a shock of the torn hull, and many of the men employed in carrying the wounded from the slippery decks were killed.

A strange remembrance came to David's mind. In his search for the cowardly gunner he had noticed two things. One was Murphy, the pig, squealing and running hither and thither across the deck. The other sight was a seaman dragging himself on hands and elbows up the hatchway. He carried a pistol in his hand. Both his legs were crushed at the knees.

"Where is he? Where is he?" he groaned.

It was McColl, the captain of the gun next to Roach's, and the mangled sailor's quest was the same as David's. Woe betide the Essex's only coward if he had been caught!

The despair that filled all hearts almost took courage with it, as the breeze that had carried the frigate in toward shore shifted two or three points, and once more the poor Essex drifted into range of the enemy.

But a sight that David never could forget now drew his attention. A boat was being pulled straight toward them across the harbor, passing within a quarter of a mile of the Phoebe. The men at the oars were hitting up the stroke as if it were a race of a hundred yards instead of a good mile pull that was before them.

The man in the stern sheets was standing up, motioning with his arms and swinging his body in time to the quick sweep of the oars. It almost seemed beyond human powers to keep such an exertion up for any length of time, but not once did it slacken.

"Here comes Downes!" shouted Captain Porter.

There was no one near him to hear this cry but a little midshipman, quivering with excitement, blackened with powder and red with blood, holding himself with his face over the bulwarks, and his fingers twisted into the hammock nettings. Not an officer was in sight on the deck!

On came the cutter. The figure in the stern was now made out to be Lieutenant Downes himself. He had never ceased shouting encouragement from the time his boat had put out from the side of the Essex, Jr., lying up the harbor.

Half a bushel of grape ripped up the water close behind him and a round shot cut directly in front, skipping along much as a stone thrown from a small boy's hand crosses a mill pond. The water rose in little fountain jets from every side, but not once did the sailors lessen their steady stroke. And now Lieutenant Downes was at the chains amidships. Followed by ten of the Essex, Jr.'s, crew, he jumped on deck. Porter met him as he climbed over the bulwarks.

"What can I do, sir?" were Lieutenant Downes's first words.

Porter could hardly find his voice, and David did not hear the reply he made to Lieutenant Downes's question, as he was ordered to see about the bending of a new hawser on the sheet anchor that was being prepared to let go in order to bring the ship's head around.

The sea was nearly calm and the breeze was going down. The anchor plashed overboard, and the Essex, feeling the strain, swung about. The men on the gun deck fired three or four despairing shots. But no sooner had the hawser come taut, than there was a rending sound, and it parted at the bitts.

To all this havoc another horror was added just at this moment. The sulphurous, choking smoke became strongly impregnated with an odor of burning wood.

A man rushed up from below screaming shrilly. His words could hardly be distinguished, but one glance at him was enough. His trousers and jacket were aflame.

"We're all on fire below!" he cried. "It's near the magazine!"

He made one leap of it, and David, who followed to stop him, was just in time to see him go head first over the side into the water.

Lieutenant Downes had left the ship, in pursuance of Captain Porter's orders, and was rowing back to the Essex, Jr., his boat loaded to the gunwales with the wounded.

Even this was not respected, and the Phoebe opened fire upon him, luckily without result.

Now the grimy, half-naked men were pouring up from below. A score of them followed the man who had gone overboard.

The guns on the spar deck, slewed hither and thither, some of them dismounted and all silent, were deserted. Except for three figures standing near the mainmast, and a confused huddle on the forecastle, no one was to be seen.

"Avast there! Steady, men!" roared a voice as two men ran up the after-hatch and leaped to the forecastle. The first, a huge figure stripped to the waist, felled one of the runaways to the deck. It was Pumpkin Billy! His face did not look human. His features were indistinguishable; the blood had run over his chin in a broad stream down his great muscular chest. His jaw was partly shot away, and he was making inarticulate sounds like the roar of a goaded bull. David had recognized the voice of the other man who had shouted.

Old William Kingsbury, of the Essex, Jr.'s crew, had stayed on board to share the fate of his comrades! One arm was supporting Pumpkin Billy on his feet. He was urging him to go below. The giant was shaking his head from side to side weakly. David approached, and when within almost an arm's length of the two men, a sharp splinter swept across the deck. Down went old Kingsbury and Pumpkin Billy, the latter never to rise again pierced, javelin fashion, by a white-oak splinter. David, who had also fallen, but found himself unwounded, assisted Kingsbury to rise.

"Where is the captain, Mr. Farragut?" he asked.

Porter was not to be seen, but as David looked around, he saw him coming out of the cabin. The captain dropped formality.

"David, my boy," he said, call all the officers. "We must strike our flag God help us!"

Kingsbury, though badly wounded, followed David below.

"All officers on quarter-deck!" he shouted.

There was no response. But one grimy figure came forward through the dense smoke. The crackling of the flames below could now be plainly heard.

Lieutenant Stephen Decatur McKnight was the only officer left to answer the order! His words, though calm, were full of terror:

"We are all down by the head, Captain Porter, and sinking fast. The fire has eaten through the forward bulkhead, sir!"

"I can't watch it!" sobbed old William Kingsbury, back on deck once more, and David also turned away his face. Down came the torn Yankee flag that had been flying at the peak.

Whether by some mistake or not it is not known, but for some minutes afterward the Phoebe and Cherub kept up their fire. Four men who had come up from below and had not jumped overboard were killed after the Essex surrendered. Kingsbury received three more wounds!

"Hoist that flag again! They mean to show us no quarter!" shrieked Captain Porter.

Lieutenant McKnight stepped to the halyards. But at this moment the firing ceased, and all was dead silence except for the wailing and groaning from below and the crackling of the flames, which, however, were being overcome by the water which had poured into the hold and by the brave men who were fighting it with buckets down in the stifling smoke.

There is no use of giving a list of the killed and wounded. The action had lasted two hours and a half. Fifty-eight were killed, sixty-six wounded, and thirty-one were missing probably drowned. The cockpit was so filled with the maimed that there was no room even to place them, and they lay stretched across one another in a moaning huddle.

A boat rowed out from the Phoebe, and a lieutenant came on board.

Now, David was faint and felt like hiding his head in his arms and sobbing great dry sobs like a broken-hearted child. But, nevertheless, he was engaged in throwing overboard pistols and small arms. In this he was assisted by Midshipman Isaacs, who had been below during most of the action, and somehow had escaped being wounded. David also threw overboard the signal book, weighted with lead, which he saw lying on the sill of a port.

Porter had refused to give his sword up to the boarding lieutenant, saying that it "was reserved for Captain Hillyar."