Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes

The Cloud of War

Late in the month of June a small squadron of American vessels of war lay at anchor in the harbor of New York the President, a forty-four-gun frigate; the Essex, thirty-two guns; and the Hornet of eighteen.

Midshipman Farragut had once more joined his ship, and on this fine June day he was looking out through the gangway at the busy shipping and watching the shore boats shuttling back and forth. The air was filled with the creaking of block and tackle.

David had made great friends with Kingsbury, the boatswain's mate. He was off duty, and he noticed that the old sailor was also taking things easy, so he made his way up on the forecastle.

There is no reason why a boatswain's mate may not be allowed to tell stories to midshipmen, and many a long tale had David and his friends, Midshipmen Dashiell and Cowan, listened to in the night watches.

As soon as the boy was within earshot the old sailor began to talk. It was only a week or so since the news had reached New York of the declaration of war against England. It was the uppermost thing in everybody's mind, and of course was the only subject of discussion on shipboard.

"This 'ere war," began old Bill as a matter of course, "is a war of shootin' and sailin'. There ain't a-goin' to be no big fleets tyin' up to one another, and boardin' and grapplin'. It's going to be cut and run, and fire fast, I tell you, Mr. Farragut. Ain't they beauties, them two vessels!"

He swept his hand out toward the President off the port bow and then to the little Hornet, swinging a quarter of a mile or so astern.

David turned around and looked back on the deck of his own ship. Although it was in somewhat of confusion owing to the great hurry and bustle incident to getting in commission for a long cruise, any one with half an eye could see that the Essex was commanded by a sailor, that her crew were sailors, and that her officers were able. There was little of bawling or shouting of orders; every man seemed to do his duty and to know his place. All the loose running gear was flemished down and lay in neat flat coils on the deck as if ready for Sunday inspection.

"It's my idea that we can teach them Johnny Bulls something about ships, Mr. Farragut," said old Kingsbury, with an accent of pride. And I tell you what, sir, there ain't a man on board but what would jump into the chain-hold head first for Captain Porter."

On the 21st of June the other vessels sailed out to sea, but the Essex remained a few days in port overhauling her rigging and restowing her hold. These were busy and tiresome times, and everybody on board longed for the hour when she would have put the headlands behind and have the blue sea beneath and behind her.

For three successive days the declaration of war with Great Britain was read by. Captain Porter to the crew assembled in the waist, and 'each time after the reading he inquired if there was any one on board who objected to fighting on the plea of being a British subject.

On the last day there came a sensation. A man stepped forward and declared he was an Englishman. A murmur ran through the crew, and the midshipmen will never forget the dramatic scene that followed. No sooner had the man made his declaration than another sailor stepped to the mast beside him.

"This man lies!" he said. "I know him well. We were brought up together, man and boy, at Barnstable."

The murmur grew louder.

"Step back among the crew," said Captain Porter to both men.

The man who had claimed to be an Englishman paled. He hesitated about obeying the order, for three or four of the foremast hands stepped forward to meet him. It was with difficulty that they could be restrained.



However, Captain Porter allowed them to wreak a little vengeance, for just before the vessel sailed the man was put ashore, as he had requested to be. He was, however, dressed in a unique costume for that season of the year: it was composed of tar and feathers!

But at last the Essex was out on the open sea, and the success which was to attend her during the next three years began almost at once. Several rich merchantmen were taken and sent in under prize crews. The crew drilled at the guns, and when the weather was fine a target would be towed out from the ship; even firing by divisions was practiced. This was not very exciting, and, so far, none of the midshipmen had seen a shot fired in real earnest.

David's station on shipboard in case of action was close to Captain Porter. The admiration that a boy feels for a fine, courageous man, animated him so that he felt sure that, no matter what happened, he could be brave so long as he was near' his adopted father.

One very foggy day about nine o'clock in the morning Midshipman Richard Dashiell, Midshipman Henry W. Ogden, and young Farragut were standing together on the quarter-deck. There was quite a breeze blowing for such thick weather, and the Essex was plowing along through the slow rolling sea when suddenly David Farragut raised his hand.

"Hush!" he said. "Don't you hear a noise?"

"I don't hear anything but the noise up aloft," returned Dashiell, listening.

"No, it's out there," said David, pointing with his finger out across the water to windward.

All the midshipmen strained their ears to listen. Yes, sure enough, they heard it now! And they knew well what it was: the creaking of the yards of some other vessel sailing in the fog close to them. In an instant David stepped across to Lieutenant McKnight, who was officer of the deck.

"There's a ship off there, I think, sir," he said, saluting.

Lieutenant McKnight stopped his measured pacing and listened attentively.

"Go forward, Mr. Farragut, and get down on the bobstay, close to the water, sir," he said, "and see what you can see. The fog may hang high."

Any order that was given in a loud voice would certainly be heard by the vessel off to windward, and it was only the mere fact of her being in that position that had, so far, prevented the noise of the sailing of the Essex being heard by her.

David scrambled over the bowsprit and nettings and slid down the "dolphin striker "almost to the water. The fog was a few feet higher than the surface, and, bending down, he could dimly make out some distance off a great black shape; but he did not hurry back until he made a more careful survey. The white wall of mist lifted an instant and then he saw it plainly. He could see a great line of ports, and catch a gleam of the copper as the hollow of a wave swept by her side. It was a great ship of war carrying a double tier of guns. He counted them carefully.

Crawling up once more on deck, he made his way aft and reported what it was he had seen. Lieutenant McKnight looked at the boy with admiration. It was not usual for a youngster to stop to made such careful observations.

"Go below, sir, and tell Captain Porter," he said, calling at the same time to one or two other officers who, although off duty, were on deck.

"I judge it is the Antelope fifty guns," said Captain Porter. "She is on this station, I hear, off the Newfoundland banks, and probably looking for us."

Without an order being shouted, the Essex was thrown up into the wind, her main topsail backed against the mast, and she was hove to silently.

The Antelope (for it was afterward proved Captain Porter was right) swept on through the fog.

Only four or five persons on board the Essex knew how close they had been to the enemy. The reason that Captain Porter had not taken advantage of the surprise was the difficulty of assuring himself of the character of the other ship, and the knowledge that English vessels generally sailed in companies of two or three. It was seldom the case that a single ship made an independent cruise.