The Vidette-Messenger Centennial EditionThe 1936 special edition celebrating Porter County's centennial year . . . .

The following article has been transcribed from the August 18, 1936, issue of The Vidette-Messenger, published in Valparaiso, Indiana. This particular special edition focuses on Porter County's centennial celebration and contains a 94-page compendium of Porter County history up to that time.

Return to the index of articles from The Vidette-Messenger's Porter County Centennial special edition.

Source: The Vidette-Messenger, Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana; August 18, 1936; Volume 10, Section 1, Page 4.



Santiago, Chile

THIS is the story - unknown to most Americans - one of the most gallant exploits in the history of their navy. It goes back to the "Moby Dick" days of blubber hunters and tells of successful Yankee commerce raiding in the remote waters of the south Pacific during the War of 1812 and of a famous sailor's fight against overwhelming British odds in Valparaiso bay.

It was on the afternoon of May 18, 1813, that Capt. David Porter of the United States frigate Essex made his first visit to Valparaiso, Chile, in the course of a cruise that became famous in maritime history.

He sailed from Delaware bay on October 27, 1812, and the original intention was that he should join forces with the Constitution and the Hornet off San Salvador on the coast of Brazil. Not finding either of these ships at the rendezvous, Captain Porter resolved to proceed into the Pacific alone. In the course of his voyage he captured the British Nocton, with $60,000 in specie, before he arrived off Valparaiso.

His frigate, the Essex, was built in Salem, Mass., in 1799. She was the smallest frigate of the United States navy, was of 850 tons, and carried 26 12-pounders on the main deck and 16 32-pound carronades, with two chase guns on the deck above. The crew numbered 328 men. Captain Porter was 31 years old when he took command of the Essex.

At the time of the cruise against British shipping in the South Seas there were 20 English and 23 American whalers in Peruvian waters alone. In those days before the exploitation of petroleum fields there was tremendous Anglo-American competition in the merciless pursuit of the great ---?---. At least 300 blubber-hunting ships were in the south Pacific, and it offered a rich field for the commerce raider.

One of these, the Atlantic, he renamed the Essex Junior and armed her with 20 guns, 6 pounders and 18-pound carronades; manned her with a crew of 95 men, and sent her off under the command of Lieut. John Downes, who also took into Valparaiso the prizes Hector, Catharine, and Montezuma.

Three prizes were sent to the United States and two with the collected prisoners. The Essen then sailed for the Marquesas to refit, returning to Valparaiso with the Essex Junior in January, 1814.

Captain Porter's cruise in Pacific waters had been remarkably successful. The captured British vessels and their cargoes represented a value or not less than $3,000,000 - a large amount of money in those days - while the prisoners numbered 360.

Not a few of these captured Britishers transferred their allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, a fact which considerably added to their anxiety later on when recapture seemed to be inevitable.

On Feb. 8 at dawn the British 36-gun frigate Phoebe, commanded by Capt. James Hillyar, accompanied by the 18-gun ship-sloop Cherub, Capt. Thomas Tudor Tucker, when standing off Valparaiso, spied the Essex and immediately put into the bay and anchored at no great distance from the American frigate.

The Chileans were then suffering the first pangs from the birth of their independence. The rival ships, therefore, for the time being were in a state of "armed neutrality," which, however, did not prevent the exchange of courtesies between the opposing captains when they met ashore.

Before the fight there was a curious interchange of fine sentiments carried on by flags.

The Essex hoisted a white flag with the inscription, "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights." The Phoebe answered by hoisting the ensign of St. George and the motto, "God and Country, British Sailors' Best Rights; Traitors Offend Both."

On this the crew of the Essex manned her rigging and gave three cheers, which the crew of the Phoebe returned.

The controversy was decisively closed on Feb. 12 when the Essex ran up another motto flag, "God, Our Country, and Liberty; Tyrants Offend Them."

Realizing the great odds against him, Porter exhausted his strategy in attempting to lure the British ships out of the bay so that the Essex and the Essex Junior might gain the open sea. the idea was then to rendezvous at the Marquesas.

The last fruitless attempt was made in the early afternoon of March 28 - the day of the battle. the south-southeast wind freshened after noon, and at 3 p. m. the Essex made sail.

As she was rounding the point at the west end of the bay a heavy squall carried away her main top-mast. The Essex now bore up, followed by both British ships, and at 3:40 p. m. anchored in a small bay about a mile to the eastward of Caleta point.

She then hoisted on motto flag at the fore and another at the mizzen topgatlant masthead, one American ensign at the mizzen peak, and lashed another in the main rigging.

Not to be outdone by decorations, the British vessels hoisted their motto flags, along with a handsome displays of ensigns and Union jacks.

The unequal battle began about 4 o'clock. It was well described by a young midshipman 13 years old who was on board the Essex. This boy, who had been adopted by Captain Porter in New Orleans and was loved by him as a son, became a famous American seaman, known to the world in later years as Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. In after life Farragut spoke of his first battle in this way:

"I well remember the feeling of awe produced in me by the approach of the hostile ships; even to my young mind it was perceptible in the faces around me as clearly as possible that our case was hopeless. It was equally apparent that all were ready to die at their guns rather than surrender. At 3:45 they commenced firing, the Phoebe under our stern, the Cherub on our starboard bow; but the latter, finding out pretty soon that we had too many guns bearing down on her, likewise ran under our stern. We succeeded in getting the three long guns out of the stern ports and kept up as well directed a fire as possible in such an unequal contest."

The memory of the famous young midshipman and the accounts of Captain Porter and the British Captain Hillyar, as well as Chilean eyewitnesses ashore, all agree as to the course of the battle and bravery of the American officers and men.

There were most gallant but ineffectual attempts to close with the enemy, but the fates seemed against them. At one time the British were driven off to refit for half an hour. The Essex cut her cable and attacked both her opponents at once, but they withdrew again to a safer distance, where they could use their long guns.

Captain Porter then determined to beach and destroy his ship, but the baffling winds blew her back when within half a miles of the shore. He then anchored, hoping the enemy would drift out of range but the cable was cut by a shot and his ship again drifted along with the foes that were destroying her.

She now was at the mercy of the enemy. The boats of the Essex were by this time all destroyed, but with three from the Essex Junior sent by Lieutenant Downes, the specie and valuables on the ship were removed to the shore.

The two British ships bored the Essex through and through with incessant shots until its condition was pitiable. But the brave Americans fought on till after 6 o'clock, when the flag still proudly flew.

Her colors were twice shot away and twice were they quickly restored in the fury of the battle.

The Essex at last caught fire, and the men came rushing up from below. Many of them were already on fire, and their clothes were stripped off as quickly as possible. Those for whom this could not be done were ordered to jump overboard to quench the flames.

Many of the crew and some of the officers, hearing the order to jump overboard, took it for granted that the fire had reached the magazine and that the ship was about to be blown up, so they leaped into the water also.

British historical accounts, which hitherto have not been corrected, erroneously state that the Americans leaped overboard and attempted to swim ashore to avoid being taken prisoners.

At last it became evident that the Essex was out of action and in danger of sinking with all her wounded aboard, and the painful order to haul down the colors was given at 6:30 p. m.

No better praise was spoken of Captain Porter's exploit than by the British Captain Hillyar, commanding the Phoebe. He said:

"The defense of the Essex, taking into consideration our superiority of force, the very discouraging circumstances of her having lost her main topmast, and being twice on fire, did honor to her brave defenders and most fully evinced the courage of Captain Porter and those under his command. Her colors were not struck until the loss in killed and wounded was so awfully great and her shattered condition so seriously bad as to render further resistance unavailing."

In this fight the Phoebe, from the crew of 300, lost her first lieutenant, William Ingrum, and three seaman killed, four seamen and marines severely and three slightly wounded. She received seven 32-pound shot between wind and water and one 12-pound shot below water level. Her main and mizzen masts and her sails and rigging were shot to pieces.

The Cherub lost one marine killed, her commander severely and two marines slightly wounded.

The damage to the Essex, as testified by Captain Porter, was 58 killed and mortally wounded, 39 wounded severely and 27 slightly. The Essex was transferred to the British navy, where she remained until 1837. Her subsequent history has been lost sight of.

It is to be noted that the whole fight took place within a neutral port, well within the three-mile limit. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first diplomatic agent of the United States to any of the new states of South America, happened to be in Valparaiso at the time. He witnesses the fight from the shore.

The British action was undoubtedly a flagrant breach of neutrality of the port, and Poinsett did his utmost to persuade the governor of Valparaiso to open fire on the Phoebe and the Cherub from the forts. He continued his protest before the Chilean government in Santiago, but little could be done. The patriots were too busy at the time fighting the Spanish loyalists who were trying to reconquer the country.

David Porter, the hero of the fight in Valparaiso bay, had a distinguished naval career. He served for some time in the Mexican navy when that country was at war with Spain. In payment of his services he received a grant of land at Tehuantepec, and he was among the earliest advocates of an interoceanic canal.

President Andrew Jackson appointed him counsel general to Algiers in 1836 and in the following year made him charge d'affairs in Constantinople. He became minister there and 1841. He died in Pera, March 3, 1843.

David Dixon Porter, the famous son of a famous father, also distinguished himself highly in the American naval service, especially during the Civil war, while three other sons also figure in history.

Admiral Farragut was adopted by Captain Porter, who regard him as a son. All his subsequent life the admiral remained in close tough with his foster brothers, especially David Dixon Porter.

Article transcribed by Steven R. Shook


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