Military history


The Far Side of the World

Woman of Nooaheevah (Porter, Journal of a Cruise; courtesy Charles E. Brodine Jr.)

IN THE SUMMER of 1813 the first word reached America of the whereabouts of David Porter and the frigate Essex, not heard from since failing to make their rendezvous with Bainbridge off Brazil the previous fall. In August the Weekly Register printed a short notice of a report that had made its way to São Salvador stating the Essex had “certainly been in the South Sea,” apparently having rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific at some point during the winter. A month later the newspaper carried a report from Rio de Janeiro, dated June 27, that the British frigate Phoebe, carrying forty-six guns, accompanied by the sloops of war Cherub and Raccoon, was about to proceed south to Cape Horn in chase of the elusive American.1

Porter’s orders from Bainbridge had instructed him that if from “some unforeseen cause or accident” he was unable to make any of his rendezvous by April 1, 1813, he could act according to his own “best judgment for the good of the service.”2 David Porter had always been more than a bit impetuous; it was a trait that had more than once nearly ended his naval career, and it had on two famous occasions singled him out as one of the two American naval captains that the British press could never mention without an obbligato passage of derision. (Rodgers was the other.) In 1806 Porter had nearly triggered an international incident by hauling a drunken British sailor aboard the Enterprize in Valletta harbor in Malta after the man had rowed by shouting insulting remarks to the Americans, and when the sailor refused to apologize, Porter ordered him to be given twelve lashes on the spot. A tense exchange of notes between the British governor of the island and Porter ensued, the British threatening to fire on him if he attempted to sail before the matter was resolved, Porter defiantly responding that he had no intention of being detained and would fire back at any attempt to stop him when he departed as he planned to that night. Then he coolly carried out his declared intention, sailing past the silent forts “without molestation.”3

The other incident was not so creditable. Right after the declaration of war, Porter had administered an oath of allegiance to his crew of the Essex in New York harbor, and one of the men, a sailmaker named John Erving, refused on the grounds that he was an English subject. The crew, in a burst of rough enthusiasm, decided to tar and feather him and Porter gave his consent. Erving, turned ashore in New York stripped to the waist and covered with tar and feathers, was pursued by a mob until a shopkeeper took pity on him and sheltered him; the police then arrived and took him into custody for his own protection, cleaned him up, and gave him some new clothes. Secretary Hamilton sent Porter a stern rebuke but nonetheless issued Porter’s promotion to captain two days later. British writers never failed to bring up the incident; the Times referred to “Captain Porter (of tar and feathering memory),” and even years after the war he continued to be vilified in British accounts.4

But Porter’s combativeness had none of the wounded or defensive self-justification that so ate at the spirit of his friend Bainbridge. Porter was as jealous for honor, rank, and money as any of his naval colleagues and carried on feuds with the best of them but seemed to find an outlet for his feelings in extroverted brashness rather than festering resentment. He thought dueling “a practice that disgraces human nature,” and he had the energetic and at times fierce intellect of a self-educated man, which had served him well in his fourteen years since joining the navy in 1798 as an eighteen-year-old midshipman. He came from a seafaring family and had sailed with his merchant captain father out of Baltimore from an early age; keenly aware of his educational shortcomings, he had applied himself tirelessly throughout his life to make up for it. As a prisoner in Tripoli he had studied French well enough to read, write, and speak the language competently, had worked at drawing and become a talented pen-and-ink artist, and had read history. He would later write the finest literary work of the war, his account of his cruise in the Essex, a book whose unguarded openness gave ample ammunition to his English detractors for years afterward but whose vitality came directly from not only its guilelessness but its restless intelligence. Where Bainbridge was reduced to stuttering in moments of emotional upheaval, Porter poured out prose and hatched ideas. His marriage in 1808 to the seventeen-year-old daughter of William Anderson—he was the Pennsylvania tavern keeper who a few years later had the misfortune to become famous as the Republican congressman caught pissing in the British ambassador’s fireplace—was marked by the same tempestuous energy; they had ten children, and many unhappy confrontations, over the years.5

His ideas were as busy and extroverted as his actions, and if he lacked Decatur’s natural charisma or Hull’s natural empathy, he succeeded in keeping a happy ship simply by adding human nature to the list of things he applied his impatient curiosity to intently studying. “My chief care was now the health of the crew,” Porter noted a few weeks into his cruise on the Essex, and to that end he took a number of unconventional steps to improve the working conditions and routines of shipboard life. “Utmost cleanliness was required from every person on board,” and each man was given a half gallon of water daily and advised to bathe at least once a day. Porter enjoined his officers to keep the men constantly employed during work hours but allow them time every day for recreation and amusement “and to be particularly careful not to harass them by disturbing them unnecessarily during their watch below.” He allowed the men assigned to the main deck gun crews to sling their hammocks over their guns rather than in the overcrowded and airless berth deck below, insisting that it took no longer to clear for action and greatly improved health and comfort:

What can be more dreadful than for three hundred men to be confined with their hammocks, being only eighteen inches apart, on the birth-deck of a small frigate, a space seventy feet long, thirty-five feet wide, and five feet high, in a hot climate, where the only apertures by which they can receive air are two hatchways of about six feet square? The situation must be little superior to the retches who perished in the black hole of Calcutta.… From the number confined in so small a space, the whole atmosphere of the ship becomes tainted, and … every person on board, is affected by the pernicious vapours arising from the birth-deck.6

At every port he could he took on oranges, lemons, plantains, onions, green vegetables, fresh meat, live pigs, fowl, sheep, turkeys, in what was practically a one-man crusade against scurvy. At the Cape Verde Islands he had cracked down on the huge trafficking in “bad rum” between the locals and the working parties sent ashore to fill the ship’s water casks—one favorite dodge of the beach vendors was to fill hollowed-out coconuts with liquor—but allowed the men to furnish themselves with pet monkeys and goats, “and when we sailed from thence,” Porter said, “the ship bore no slight resemblance … to Noah’s ark.” At the start of the cruise he had called the crew together and declared a general pardon for all offenses committed to date “and gave assurances that the first man I was under the necessity of punishing should receive three dozen lashes,” but expressing the hope that punishment “would be altogether unnecessary.” He was largely right: the crew returned the trust he placed in them and floggings were few and far between. He had a pet idea that fumigating the ship every day with vinegar poured over red-hot shot would have a salubrious effect, which probably had a talismanic influence at best; but his more practical notions about health had quickly reduced the sick list to 4 of the 319 men aboard. Even after a year at sea the Essex reported only four deaths from illness, one of them the ship’s alcoholic surgeon, who succumbed to “disease of the liver.”7

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ON THE passage south through the Atlantic the Essex had marked the crossing of the Tropic of Cancer with the rough if time-honored ceremony much beloved of the common sailor, and prudently indulged by their captain as a boost to esprit de corps.

“Sail ho!” called the lookout at the masthead, at the appropriate moment.

“Where away?” replied the officer of the deck.

“Small boat on the lee bow.”

“What boat is that?” hailed the officer.

“Neptune’s, the god of the sea’s; permission to come on board with his train.”


Every man who had not before crossed the line had to submit to the initiation; King Neptune and Queen Amphitrite sat on their throne of boards lashed to an old gun carriage, a boat was placed on deck filled with water—and, as one seaman who went through the ritual at the time described the usual practice, “tar, slush, rotten onions and potatoes, stinking codfish, bilge-water, and various other nauseous ingredients improper to mention”—and the uninitiated were blindfolded and called up one by one to answer to Neptune and swear an oath never to leave the pump till it sucks, never to go up the lee-rigging in good weather, never to desert the ship till she sinks, never to eat brown bread when he could get white (unless he liked it better), never to kiss the maid when he could kiss the mistress. Then he was lathered by one of Neptune’s barbers with a mix of paint, grease, slush, and tar and shaved with a rusty barrel hoop, dunked two or three times in the barge water, welcomed as a true son of the ocean, and cast loose.

Officers were allowed to buy an exemption with an allowance of rum; Neptune and his attendants, Porter recalled, “paid their devotions so frequently to Bacchus, that before the ceremony of christening was half gone through, their godships were unable to stand.… On the whole, however, they got through the business with less disorder and more good humour than I expected; and although some were most unmercifully scraped, the only satisfaction sought was that of shaving others in their turn with new invented tortures.”8

On December 2, 1812, the Essex had taken a British packet ship, the Nocton, loaded with $55,000 in specie, a large portion of which was distributed to the crew; and with nothing immediately available to spend it on, the windfall set off a spate of gambling until Porter announced that any amount staked at games of chance would be forfeited to whoever informed on the transaction, the informer’s name to be kept secret. There was also some incipient trouble over rations: Porter had kept the crew on two-thirds rations of salt meat and half rations of bread since leaving the United States to extend their time at sea, a privation the crew had cheerfully accepted in exchange for the shortfall being made up in cash. But when Porter ordered the grog ration cut to two-thirds to make sure it would last too, “every man in the ship refused to receive any … unless he could get the full allowance,” Porter said. The captain tried to argue with them that two-thirds now was better than the “dejection and sickness” that would come later if it ran out altogether, but the crew was adamant. Porter handled the incipient rebellion by announcing that the grog tub would be put out with two-thirds of the rations in it and dumped upside down fifteen minutes later. Every man took his grog.9

On January 19, 1813, they arrived at St. Catherine’s and waited a week for Bainbridge and the Constitution. “I was perfectly at a loss now where to find the commodore,” Porter maintained. He called the purser to give him a report on the stores: there were 184 barrels of beef, 114 of pork, 21,763 pounds of bread, 1,741 gallons of spirits. That would suffice for three months, but Porter was itching for an excuse to carry out the dashing plan he had had his eyes on all along—to sail into the Pacific and cut a swath of destruction through the British whaling fleet. He now argued to himself that since Bainbridge had failed to meet him at four rendezvous, it was “absolutely necessary to depart from the letter of my instructions; I therefore determined to pursue a course which seemed best calculated to injure the enemy, and would enable me to prolong my cruise.” To prolong his cruise he first needed supplies, “and the first place that presented itself to my mind, was the port of Conception, on the coast of Chili.” With the possibility of additional British warships arriving along the Brazilian coast, which might trap him if he attempted to put into a port there, “there seemed no other choice left for me except capture, starvation, or blockade.”10 If it was self-serving it also admirably matched the strategic outlook of Bainbridge, fully shared by the new navy secretary, of keeping the British continually off balance, chasing over half the globe, never knowing where the tiny but highly annoying American navy would strike next.

On January 26, 1813, Porter set a course to the southwest, and three nights later the wind hauled around to south by east, sharp lightning began around midnight, and as the wind rose the crew went aloft in the storm to send down the royal yards and double reef the topsails. Woolen clothes that had been lying about the ship suddenly were being carefully guarded as temperatures began dropping. For the next week the winds would die to a dead calm, then spring back in heavy blows from every point of the compass, and Porter prepared the ship “to meet the worst,” he said, sending down the royal masts, unreaving all unnecessary running rigging, removing every heavy or unnecessary article from the tops, striking down to the hold all the shot except six per gun, running the guns in from their usual positions at the side of the decks and securing them amidships, readying three anchors so they could be let go in an instant in an emergency.11

On February 3 the sun rose on a perfect clear day, the wind steadied from the northwest, and every sail was set for what promised to be an easy run to the straits. Porter issued a notice to the crew formally announcing what all had guessed by now but which sent spirits soaring with its promise of riches and South Seas girls to match the provident weather.

Sailors and Marines:

A large increase of the enemy’s forces compels us to abandon a coast that will neither afford us security nor supplies … We will, therefore, proceed to annoy them, where we are least expected. What was never performed, we will attempt. The Pacific Ocean affords us many friendly ports. The unprotected British commerce, on the coast of Chili, Peru, and Mexico, will give you an abundant supply of wealth; and the girls of the Sandwich Islands, shall reward you for your sufferings during the passage around Cape Horn.

D. Porter12

But by 2:00 p.m. the weather turned worse than ever, the wind head-on from their southwesterly course; then the next day the heaviest blows and worst sea yet, the wind boxing the compass and sending the sea pouring through the canvas shield around the rudder hole and flooding the wardroom. Whales appeared in the distance, and exhausted albatrosses rode on floating masses of kelp on the heaving sea.

The thirteenth found the ship driving south through a thick rain and haze, visibility down to a mile, Porter confident that the eastern end of Staten Island, the easternmost tip of land of the horn, lay thirty-five miles ahead. His plan was to bypass any of the inland passages by going completely around Staten. Late that afternoon a violent ripple appeared in the water close by along with great flocks of birds and masses of kelp. Porter ordered extra lookouts, took in the topgallant sails, double reefed the topsails, furled the mainsail, and instructed the officers to be ready to haul the wind if necessary. At half past six breakers were seen three-quarters of a mile to the southeast. A tremendous sea was running, plunging the forecastle completely under, and the ship was heading for the breakers with no hope now of weathering them and no sea room to wear away from the strong wind impelling the ship eastward. The only hope was to get the ship in stays and tack, and with the lead going constantly taking soundings the mainsail was set in a flash, the ship got around, but the jib was blown to pieces a moment later.

With night falling there was no choice left but to carry a heavy press of sail to keep off the lee shore, and Porter had her stand to the west-northwest for an hour when suddenly the water began to run smooth and a sharp-eyed lookout spotted land a mile ahead on the bows: it was now beyond doubt that they had gone to the west of Staten and were in the Strait of Le Maire. Porter ordered the helm put aweather and all sail made to southward, and with the tide mercifully with them, they hugged the coast of Tierra del Fuego, clearing the straits at nine o’clock that night.13

By the eighteenth they had made their westing and turned north into the Pacific. The fresh provisions from St. Catherine’s were long gone, and now the pet monkeys vanished one by one, and even the rats that had overrun the ship began to be “esteemed a dainty,” in Porter’s words. Despite the assault of the rats on the bread rooms, the supplies of hardtack were still holding out and, even if full of weevils, were still edible; but the peas and beans proved to be nothing but “a mass of chaff and worms” when the casks were opened.

Once again the weather beguiled them; once again the worst was to come. On the last day of February, now well into the Pacific, the ship was in such a gentle sea and mild weather that Porter planned to get the guns back in position and the spars sent back up that day. By noon the wind “blew with a fury even exceeding any thing we had yet experienced,” and it was touch and go whether they would be dashed to pieces on a lee shore or simply founder first. The ship rolled so violently that the shingle ballast choked the pumps, and so much water was coming in from the opening of the seams of the ship with each heave that she began to wallow like a bloated whale.

“The sea had increased to such a height, as to threaten to swallow us at every instant; the whole ocean was one continued foam of breakers; and the heaviest squall that I ever before experienced, had not equaled in violence the most moderate intervals of this hurricane,” wrote Porter. For three days it blew, the ship able to change tacks but once the whole time; three times, Porter was hurled down the hatchways by violent jerks of the ship. The pumps had been cleared, but so much water had come aboard that everything was afloat between decks.

Then at three in the morning of March 3 an enormous sea broke over the ship that seemed to spell the end. The gun-deck ports were all broken in, the boats stove to pieces, the entire ship deluged. David Farragut, who had joined the ship as a twelve-year-old midshipman, said it was the only time he had seen “a regular good seaman paralyzed by fear at the dangers of the sea—Many of the marines & some of the seamen were sunk on their knees in prayer.” Then through the chaos and wind came the roaring, commanding voice of boatswain’s mate William Kingsbury, who had been the inebriated Neptune at the crossing-of-the-line ceremony. “Damn your eyes, put your best foot forward, there’s one side of her left yet,” he absolutely bellowed. The men at the wheel kept their heads and their station, the sky began to clear, and then the worst really was over.14 On March 14 the Essex rounded the Point of Angels, and looking through his spyglass, Captain Porter saw a drove of loaded mules coming down a mountain on a zigzag path, and then in the next instant the whole city of Valparaíso was in view, the forts bursting out behind the rocks, the harbor crowded with shipping, colors flying. He was uncertain of his reception in Spanish territory, but before the Essex even got to anchor the captain of the port came aboard and to Porter’s “astonishment” offered every assistance the city could offer: Chile was in revolt against monarchical Spain and welcomed the Americans as allies in the fight for republicanism, and liberty.15

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A MONTH later, the Essex, sated with the provisions and almost exhausting hospitality of Valparaíso, rounded the point of Narborough in the Galápagos. Every yard aloft was manned by the officers and crew, every eye straining for the first glimpse of Banks Bay ahead and the crowd of British whalers they expected to see when they weathered the point and opened on the broad, thirty-five-mile-wide bay. The bay was said to abound every March to July in whales that came to feed on the cuttlefish the currents swept in, and if the British were anywhere, this was where they would find them.

Secretly, Porter had a “dread of disappointment”: since leaving Valparaíso on March 23 he had been continually on the trail of his quarry and continually frustrated in his hopes. At Valparaíso the Americans had been feted at huge banquets and balls, stuffed with twenty-course meals, swiftly supplied with wood, water, and provisions “in the greatest abundance, of an excellent quality, and at a more moderate price than any port in the United States,” Porter noted, and assured by all concerned that the coast of Peru and the Galápagos Islands were where all the British whalers surely were. But also in Valparaíso harbor when they had arrived were two Spanish ships that sailed for Lima during their stay, sure to spread the alarm to the British agent there of the presence of an American frigate in Pacific waters. And so the crew of the Essex worked nonstop amid their abundant social duties to get back to sea. “Perhaps no week of my life was ever more actively employed, both in labour and in pleasure,” Porter wrote afterward; and in nine days they were away, soon making all sail northward.16

Two days out of Valparaíso they caught up with a Peruvian privateer, the Nereyda; flying English colors and ordering an American whaler he had fallen in with to hoist an English jack over an American ensign to make her look like his prize, Porter forced the privateer to heave to. He had gotten the officer of the Nereyda into his cabin, listened to his tale of the American vessels he had recently taken, offered to relieve him of his twenty-three American prisoners, and only when that was done did Porter strike the English colors, raise the American flag, and fire two shots over the Peruvian, who immediately struck his flag. Since Spain was neutral in the American–British war, the privateer was little better than a pirate, but Porter decided not to antagonize the royalist viceroy in Lima. Porter ordered the Nereyda’s guns, ammunition, small arms, and even the light sails thrown over the side, and allowed the crew to sail back to Lima carrying a note to the viceroy:

U S Frigate Essex

At Sea 26th March 1813

Your Excellency,

I have this day met with the Ship Nereyda mounting fifteen Guns, bearing your Excellencies Patent and sailing under the Spanish flag—

On examination of said Ship I found on her as prisoners the Officers and crews of two vessels belonging to the United States of America employed solely in the Whale fishery of those seas captured by her and sent for Lima, after being plundered of boats, cordage, provisions, clothes and various other articles …

I have therefore to preserve the good understanding which should ever exist between the Government of the United States and the provinces of Spanish America determined to prevent in future such vexatious and piratical conduct, and with this view have deprived the Nereyda of the means of doing the American commerce any further injury for the present, And have sent her to Lima in order that her commander may meet with such punishment from your excellency as his offence may deserve—I have the honor to be With the highest respect and consideration Your Excellencies Obt. Huml. Servt.


Flying fish appeared as they crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, and the crew spent several days completely altering the appearance of the frigate, painting a broad yellow streak around her hull, rigging false waistcloths as high as the quarterdeck nettings to hide the gunports, painting the quarter galleries different colors, and setting up a false poop deck to make her look like a Spanish merchantman.18 They had heard that whaling ships left letters in a box at the landing place on Charles Island, the southernmost of the Galápagos, and on the eighteenth of April, Porter sent his first lieutenant John Downes in a boat to see what he could learn. Three hours later Downes returned with several not very recent letters from the box, which he had found readily enough, nailed to a post with a painted sign atop it reading HATHAWAY’S POSTOFFICE. The most recent letter was dated the previous June, but it listed six large British whalers on their way to the island of Albemarle, and indicated that they intended to be there for at least a year filling their holds with whale oil.19

And so the Essex headed for Albemarle, whose large crescent shape formed Banks Bay to the northeast of Narborough. And so every eye was straining as they weathered the tip of Narborough on the afternoon of April 23, and not a sail was to be seen across the entire bay.

With some difficulty Porter located a watering place on Albemarle, and on a rock were scratched the names of American and British ships; nearby were fresh ashes and the bones and shells of a recently butchered turtle and a leaf from an English political pamphlet. But the water source was little more than a damp rock where a few drops collected from a tiny spring. Water was already becoming a problem. The islands they had so far put in at teemed with giant land tortoises that the crew at once developed a passion for; their flavor was said to be like fine veal and their fat more delicious than olive oil. Iguanas by the hundreds were to be had too, and the crew set about clubbing them on the head. But water was barely to be found anywhere.

A few days later, as the Essex sailed north, the lookout’s cry of “Sail ho” sent an electrifying surge coursing through the ship. But it turned out to be only two sand banks, “whose appearance had been so strangely altered by the intervention of the fog,” wrote Porter, “as to assume precisely the appearance of ships under their top-gallant-sails.” The false alarm broke the last dam that had been holding back the feelings of the crew. “The disappointment … occasioned no trifling degree of dejection and despondency,” Porter said. “There were few on board the ship who did not now despair of making any captures about the Gallipagos Islands; and I believe that many began to think that the information we had received,… as well as the flattering expectations which this information had given rise to, had been altogether deception.”

The current was now sweeping them to the northwest, and for several days they fought an unsuccessful battle against baffling winds and the running sea to work back southward, but Porter was determined not to leave the islands “so long as there remained a hope of finding a British vessel among them.” On the twenty-eighth he passed a sleepless and anxious night. At daylight the next day, Porter was roused from his cot by calls of “Sail ho” echoing once again throughout the ship. In a moment all hands rushed to the deck, and there she was, a large ship bearing west, to which the Essex at once gave chase. In an hour, two more sail were sighted. At nine o’clock they came up on the first ship, the British whaler Montezuma, with fourteen hundred barrels of spermaceti oil. Porter put a prize crew aboard and made chase for the other two ships, but at eleven o’clock the wind fell calm with the whalers still eight miles off. Porter was concerned the ships might outrun him when the breeze returned, for the Montezuma’s captain had identified them as the armed letter-of-marque whalers Georgiana and Policy, both reputed to be fast sailers, armed with six to ten guns apiece.20

But this was the moment Essex’s crew had been waiting for. As David Farragut would later recall, “I have never been on a ship where the crew of the old Essex was represented, but that I found them to be the best swordsmen on board. They had been so thoroughly trained as boarders, that every man was prepared for such an emergency, with his cutlass as sharp as a razor, a dirk made by the ship’s armorer from a file, and a pistol.”21 Porter ordered fifty-five men into seven boats, giving them “the most positive orders” to stay together and bring all the boats into action as a single force, and they pulled straight for the larger of the two ships. The boats were a mile away from their quarry when the ships hoisted English colors and fired their guns “to terrify them,” as Porter would describe it, but still they pulled on, and when they were right under the muzzle of the guns of the Georgiana, Lieutenant Downes in the bow of the lead boat ran the American colors out on a pike and asked if they surrendered. The response was three cheers and a shout from many of the men on deck, “We are all Americans!” In fact, a good many of the British whalers were manned by Nantucket whalemen, and while some Nantucketers strongly sympathized with the British in the war, this crew clearly did not. The boats quickly took possession of the Policy, which lay a quarter mile away, and then in the afternoon breeze that sprung up, the sails of the two prizes filled and they majestically bore down for the Essex, greeted by her wildly cheering crew.22

“Fortune has at length smiled on us,” Porter declared to the men of the Essex. “Continue to be zealous, enterprising, and patient, and we will yet render the name of the Essex as terrible to the enemy as that of any other vessel, before we return to the United States.”23

EVEN MORE valuable than the two whalers were the stocks of water the Essex now took from them, and because whalers always counted on being at sea for well over a year, they were veritable floating warehouses of spare naval stores of all description: cordage, canvas, tar, paint, spars. The crew of the whalers had, to the great regret of the Essex’s men, thrown overboard fifty Galápagos tortoises in clearing for action, but a few days later they found them floating in the sea all about the ship, in the same place they had been dropped, and pulled them up. Porter refitted the Georgiana as a cruiser to serve as the Essex’s consort; the men worked for days knocking out her heavy brickwork and iron boilers used for trying out the blubber, and put all sixteen guns aboard her. Five of her crew, all Americans, agreed to sign on as volunteers, and Porter willingly received them.

Back at Charles Island, Porter’s growing squadron loaded two thousand gallons of water, a backbreaking exertion, each man making four trips a day lugging a ten-gallon keg from a spring three miles inland; the water smelled and tasted foul and was full of slime and insects, but “to us it was a treasure too precious to lose,” Porter said. They tried digging two wells, but after getting down “a considerable depth” salt water flowed in. Sailors who frequented the Galápagos had learned that the huge tortoises could survive for a year or more without food or water, and four to five hundred were brought aboard and formed an extraordinary sight, piled on the quarterdeck under an awning to give them a chance to “discharge the contents of their stomachs” before being stowed away live below, “as you would stow any other provisions, and used as occasion required,” Porter said.24

Over the next seven weeks the Essex and the Georgiana took six more letter-of-marque whalers, and by that point Porter had put so many of his officers aboard them as prize captains—he had even pressed the ship’s chaplain and marine lieutenant into this duty—that the only officer left to take charge of an American whaler they had recaptured, the Barclay, was twelve-year-old midshipman David Farragut. The Barclay’s master was an old and violent-tempered American mariner named Gideon Randall whose entire crew, except for the first mate, had jumped at the opportunity to abandon him and had entered as volunteers on the Essex the moment they were recaptured. A draft of men from the American frigate was sent back to work the ship with Farragut in their charge, and the arrangement was that Randall would continue to be in charge of navigating the vessel. But when, on July 9, Porter ordered four of the prizes plus the Barclay to be taken into Valparaíso for sale, Randall furiously came on deck muttering that he would shoot any man who dared to touch a rope without his orders. “I’ll go on my own damn course,” he said, and disappeared below for his pistols.

Farragut recalled, “I considered that my day of trial had arrived … But the time had come for me at least to play the man.” Mustering his courage, he politely told the first mate that he desired to have the main topsail filled. The man responded at once “with a clear ‘Aye, aye, sir!’ in a manner which was not to be misunderstood,” said Farragut, “and my confidence was perfectly restored.” Farragut sent word to the master that he was not to appear on deck with his pistols “unless he wished to go overboard; for I would really have had very little trouble in having such an order obeyed.”25

Leading the convoy to Valparaíso was Lieutenant Downes in the Atlantic, the largest of the prizes yet; she was carrying one hundred tons of fresh water and eight hundred large tortoises when they took her on May 29, a godsend of a windfall; she was also faster than any of the others, so Porter decided to replace the Georgiana with the Atlantic as his consort, fitted her out with twenty guns and sixty men, and renamed her the Essex Junior. Over the next twelve weeks, while Downes sailed to Valparaíso and back, Porter took four more fat prizes, all British letter-of-marque whalers like the others. He had again shifted the appearance of the Essex, repainting her and adding to the possibilities of bafflement and ruses by repainting one of his prizes to look exactly like the Essex and one of the others to look like a sloop of war. One of the prizes in this final haul was the Seringapatam, which was a more than slightly fantastic vessel with an odd story on several counts. Originally built as a man-of-war for Tippoo Sahib, the maharaja of Mysore, she was constructed of beautiful teak and was reputed to be a very fast sailing ship. Although she had come to the Pacific on a whaling expedition, her master had spent all his time since arriving taking American whalers as prizes. But when Porter asked him for his privateer’s commission, the man, “with the utmost terror in his countenance,” informed him that it had not arrived yet but was no doubt waiting for him in Lima. Porter ordered him thrown in irons and said he intended to send him to America to be tried as a pirate. Porter put twenty guns on the Seringapatam and took her into service as another of his auxiliaries and a possible replacement for the Essex if a calamity befell her.26

Besides his piratical prisoner, Porter had been accumulating during their sojourn in the Galápagos a lot of other baggage he desperately wanted to be rid of, including $100,000 worth of whale oil and an increasingly unstable lieutenant, James Wilson. With extraordinary coolness Porter had faced Wilson down at one point when, inebriated and violently insolent, the lieutenant had grabbed for his pistol after Porter told him he was under arrest. Wilson subsequently insisted he meant only to kill himself, but either way he was hardly someone a captain of a man-of-war wanted to rely upon. Porter solved all three problems by putting the oil, the prisoner, and Wilson aboard the Georgiana with orders for America and hopes they would be able to run the British blockade of the American coast by timing their arrival to midwinter.

At the end of September 1813, Downes returned in the Essex Junior with the news that there was no market for the captured ships in Valparaíso, and he had had them laid up. He also brought a letter for Porter from the American consul in Buenos Aires. It reported that on July 5 the British squadron had sailed from that port in pursuit of him.27

The Essex had now been at sea a year. The rats had multiplied to the point that they were eating not just provisions but clothes, flags, sails, and gun cartridges, even endangering the planking of the hull with their gnawing. When the crew finally reached a sheltered port where they could completely empty the ship and smoke it with charcoal to fumigate the interior, they counted 1,500 dead rats in the basketfuls carried up and thrown overboard when the operation was complete.28 But the copper sheathing was coming loose too, and the bottom was fouled with barnacles and sea grass, and the rigging was in need of complete replacement; and so on October 2, a few days after Downes’s return, the Essex, the Essex Junior, and the three other remaining prizes set sail for the Marquesas Islands, a remote well-watered spot 3,500 miles to the west that had been frequented by American whalers from time to time since Captain Cook visited there in 1774.

“We are bound to the Western islands with two objects in view,” Porter informed the crew in a written notice. “First, that we may put the ship in suitable condition to enable us to take advantage of the most favourable season for our return home: Secondly, I am desirous that you should have some relaxation and amusement after being so long at sea, as from your late good conduct you deserve it.”

For the remainder of their passage, Porter said, the men “could talk and think of nothing but the beauties of the islands,” and he was not talking about the scenery. “Every one imagined them Venuses, and amply indulged themselves in fancied bliss.”29

IT HAD BEEN a long and trying summer of 1813 for William Jones.

In May his burdens had been doubled, more than doubled, when he was named acting secretary of the Treasury in addition to navy secretary. Secretary Gallatin was gone to Europe on what would prove a fool’s errand, an attempt to open peace negotiations with the British under a Russian offer of mediation; the American peace commissioners sat in St. Petersburg for six months, until the very end of 1813, before finally learning that Britain had rejected the czar’s offer. But before leaving Washington, Gallatin had written up a long memorandum of instruction to Jones that basically gave him all the responsibilities and no authority to initiate any actions on his own.

No one wanted to be in Washington in the summer, but especially not that summer of 1813. In June President Madison was struck ill with dysentery and for five weeks lay bedridden at his home, Montpelier, at times not expected to live; then for months afterward he recuperated slowly, trying to manage affairs of government by correspondence as he put off his return to Washington as long as he might. Secretary of State Monroe was in Virginia; Secretary of War John Armstrong was in upstate New York trying and failing to reconcile his warring generals Wilkinson and Hampton; and so William Jones was effectively left to run the whole government in Washington and push a desperately needed and desperately unpopular tax bill through Congress.

Even leading Republican newspapers were now at last acknowledging that there was no choice but to impose a new internal tax to pay for the war. The Treasury had just barely managed to raise a $16 million loan to cover the 1813 budget, but it had been touch and go; only by offering a discount of 12 percent was the loan finally subscribed, and two-thirds of the entire amount was taken by three wealthy merchants, John Jacob Astor among them. The punishing discount rate was a further reminder that there was little future market for United States government paper without some assurance that there would be at least some government revenues to eventually pay back investors.30

But financial reality was one thing, politics another. The Twelfth Congress had refused to even consider a tax measure all through the winter, then just before adjourning in March 1813 it had dumped the problem on its successor, passing a resolution summoning the new Thirteenth Congress to meet six months early, at a special session in late May, to take up the matter.

And so week after week the prematurely summoned congressmen met in their stifling chambers, getting nowhere. “Every one is for taxing every body,” said John W. Eppes, Jefferson’s son-in-law and the chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, “except himself and his Constituents.” At the beginning of the special session it was “hotter, in this house, than purgatory,” remarked one congressman, and by July it was more like hell: “the doors were closed and we were boiled and roasted three hours longer; almost to suffocation.”

Finally, in July, the Republicans passed a $5.5 million tax bill, $3 million of that in the form of a direct tax on land, dwelling houses, and slaves. Still, putting off the evil day as long as possible, they voted it would not go into effect until January 1814 and would last only one year. The rest of the money was to come from excise taxes on stills, sugar, carriages, bank notes, auction sales, retailers’ licenses, and other odds and ends.

Administering the new taxes was an enormous new duty that fell squarely in the lap of the acting Treasury secretary. Writing “to my beloved Wife and friend” in mid-July, Jones complained of the “multiplicity of details and arrangements to be made,” not least the hiring of nearly two hundred revenue agents, one for each congressional district; even months later not only were more than a third of the positions vacant but no applications or recommendations had been received for filling them.31 And almost as soon as the tax bill had passed, Jones had to go back to Congress with a new request for an emergency loan of $7.5 million to cover an unexpected shortfall in the current year and bridge the gap of the following year’s expenditures until the tax revenues started to come in. The loan was approved, and eventually subscribed at an 11.75 percent discount, a small vote of confidence from the market compared with the mood in the spring.

Meanwhile, the normal vexations of public duty continued without relent. Jones told Eleanor that at his office he was “like a public pump kept constantly wagging by every one who thirsts after honors or emoluments which they run off with whilst I am left dry.” With the passage of the tax and loan bills he hoped to beg off his double duty; but, he wrote, “A day or two since I expressed to the President my earnest wish to be relieved from the immense responsibility of the Treasury Department added to the laborious and highly responsible duties of the Navy, but he received it with so much repugnance … that I shall find great difficulty in renewing the attempt … No! There is no hope of Comfort or domestic peace, until Heaven shall turn the hearts or humble the pride and malice of our Enemy.”32

Eleanor had come to Washington in May for a short stay before the worst of the Washington summer hit; her sister back in Philadelphia had written her shortly after her arrival, already missing her company, but adding, “Altho you have left your relatives and friends here, what sweet consolation you have in the society of your best and invaluable friend, in him you can find consolation in any situation in life.” She returned to Philadelphia in July, leaving Jones again “a hermit & slave” in his lodgings, as he put it; but when she came again to Washington in September they at last would be able to move into their house. He figured it would save them $120 a year in rent and also allow them to save half what he was spending for the board of their three servants.

Add to all this we shall both be infinitely happier. For myself—my wife my few friends and my home are the greatest solace that kind Heaven can bestow with the moderate means of enjoying those blessings. My spirit, naturally good and disposition cheerful (for Heaven and you well know that had they not my heart must have long since bowed down) has really had but little to preserve their natural tone.… The little recreation I get is a ride to the Navy Yard where I mount my hobby horse and feast my eyes upon the noble ships that are building and their little children the beautiful barges which I have constructed after my own fancy. These little excursions have in a great degree sustained my spirits and my health which is excellent.33

He indulged himself with a few visions of their domestic comforts to come, sending Eleanor a list of delicacies he hoped she could purchase in Philadelphia, or on her way through Baltimore: a hogshead of Snowden & Fishers pale ale (“particularly if they have any such as they put up for India”); a barrel of good last year’s cider; a keg of nice pickled tripe; mustard, two bottles of cayenne pepper, spices, herbs; raisins, almonds, currants, filberts; twenty pounds of macaroni and a dozen pounds of vermicelli; a few pounds of good chocolate (“as we shall have a cow”). He hoped they could be moved in by October 1 so that they would have at least a month to be fully settled before they needed to plunge into their social duty of entertaining members of Congress returning to town for the regular session.

Before Eleanor could arrive, the “lashing” that he had told her she must be prepared for as his price of taking public office arrived first. “Before this reaches you in all probability as calumny travels fast,” he wrote her in early September, “you will have seen your husband denounced as a ‘Villain and base Coward’ in the Georgetown Federal Republican. Though I know this may wreck your heart for the moment your own experience independent of your love will pronounce it a base calumny. Let it not give you any moments thought.”34

The incident bordered on the absurd but was nonetheless potentially deadly. To organize the harbor defenses of Baltimore, Jones had named Joshua Barney, a veteran of the Continental navy and a successful privateer captain, to take command and organize a flotilla of shallow-draft rowed barges that Barney himself had developed. After reading an announcement of Barney’s appointment in the newspaper, an old Baltimore enemy of Barney’s, Lemuel Taylor, sent Jones a letter denouncing Barney as “a most abandoned rascal, both as to politics and morals,” and asserting that “he is despised by nine-tenths of all that have taken an active defence of Baltimore.” After Jones showed the letter to Barney, to give him “the opportunity of vindicating his reputation,” Taylor challenged the secretary to a duel, claiming he had committed a “flagrant breach of trust” in thus making the letter public. “As every man of honor and common sense in my position would have done,” Jones replied, “I declined the invitation,” sarcastically adding that since “every Editor in Baltimore” had shown the decency and good sense not to publish Taylor’s subsequent public letter declaring Jones a coward, Taylor had had to deliver it “through the common sewer,” meaning the anti-administration Federal Republican. But meanwhile Barney himself challenged Taylor to a duel and shot him in the chest, seriously wounding him, ending the episode. “It is very difficult for a public man to defend himself against calumny,” Jones wrote Eleanor.35

It was also difficult to defend himself against the constant irritations of job seekers and others with claims to advance. James Barron—living in Denmark since his ignominious surrender of his ship in the Chesapeake–Leopard debacle, supporting himself with royalties from a few inventions, and working as master of a brig plying between Lisbon, Gothenburg, and Copenhagen—wrote Secretary Jones a strange and paranoid letter in July 1813 asking to be reinstated now that his five-year suspension was up. “I never can, nor never will, acknowledge that the sentence under which I have laboured was just, or that it was not the result of malice,” he insisted. He said the officers who testified against him at the court-martial were guilty of perjury yet had got off scot-free. If the secretary would look into the mater fairly, “the strength of your mind and the justice & liberality of your disposition” would discover a matter “treated with as much Injustice & Inhumanity as any that ever came under your inspection.” He did not wish to impose too much on the secretary’s time, but “my only wish in life is to have an opportunity to prove to the world in general and my Country in particular that I have suffered without Just cause for there are circumstances known to those intimately acquainted with the particulars of that affair, that would in my humble opinion convince the world, that I was, to say the least of it, cruelly sacrificed.”36

Secretary Jones declined to respond.

AFTER SLIPPING out of New York on June 8, 1813, and shaking off the British blockading squadrons in a fog bank off the coast, the United States brig Argus proceeded on “the special service” that the president had ordered her to stand at the ready to perform: she was to deliver the new American minister to France, William H. Crawford, to the first port they could make on the French coast, “without deviating for any other object.” In command was Henry Allen, just promoted to master commandant for his part in the Macedonian victory, and he cracked on with all sail the small ship would carry, keeping his distance from the strange sails they passed, logging eight or nine knots, an escort of porpoises following alongside. For the first few days a variable and contrary wind kept the ship almost constantly tacking and running across the swell, and Minister Crawford observed in his diary that he “cascaded copiously.”

But their wind and luck held; even a raging mid-Atlantic storm that forced them to scud on bare poles blew them in the right direction, propelling the Argus 525 miles in three days, and in four weeks they arrived at L’Orient, dropping anchor on July 11. A week later, ready for sea again, Allen called his officers together and read them the rest of Secretary Jones’s orders now that the minister had been safely delivered:

It is exceedingly desirable that the enemy should be made to feel the effect of our hostility, and of his barbarous system of warfare; and in no way can we so effectually accomplish that object, as by annoying, and destroying his commerce, fisheries, and coasting trade. The latter is of the utmost importance, and is much more exposed to the attack of such a vessel as the Argus, than is generally understood. This would carry the war home to their direct feelings and interests, and produce an astonishing sensation. For this purpose the cruizing ground, from the entrance of the British Channel, to Cape Clear, down the coast of Ireland, across to, and along the N.W. Coast of England, would employ a month or six weeks to great advantage.

Jones emphasized to Allen that destruction was his object; he was to burn the prizes he took except in the most exceptional circumstances. “There are very few cases that would justify the manning of a prize; because the chances of reaching a safe port are infinitely against the attempt, and the weakening of the crew of the Argus, might expose you to an unequal contest with the enemy.”37

This was the first solid test of Jones’s strategy of striking at Britain’s commerce with small, fast, solitary-cruising vessels, and Allen proceeded to carry out his instructions with gusto. For four weeks, on the very doorstep of the enemy, the Argus left a trail of burning hulks. At the mouth of the English Channel, Allen took three homebound British merchantmen, then repainted his ship to resemble a British man-of-war with a broad yellow stripe along the gunports and shifted his ground to the west and stood off the coast of Ireland. Slipping unnoticed in the night within musket shot past a British frigate escorting a ninety-ship convoy sailing home from the Leeward Islands, he dropped to the back of the convoy and began picking off stragglers. By the time a British warship finally caught up with the Argus in the early morning hours of August 14, she had taken twenty prizes, twelve of them in just the last three days.

Already exhausted from the rampage, Allen’s crew had worked through most of the night removing a valuable cargo, wine and fine Irish linens, from the last prize they had taken and had not been in their hammocks more than ten minutes when they were called to quarters at 4:00 a.m.; the Argus could easily have outrun the British brig Pelican that now was approaching in the predawn gloaming, but this was where Secretary Jones’s pragmatic strategy and his officers’ still-unsatisfied search for honor parted company. Allen had told his crew that the Argus could “whip any English sloop-of-war in ten minutes,” and he gave the order to shorten sail and let the enemy come up. In the short, murderous action that followed, Allen was struck by a thirty-two-pound shot above the left knee just minutes into the battle as the ship’s rigging was cut to pieces. The Pelican was a larger and slightly more heavily armed ship, but there was no comparison in the accuracy of her fire, which was deadly. A quarter of the Argus’s crew was killed or injured. Lieutenant William Watson had his scalp taken off down to the skull by a grazing grapeshot and was knocked unconscious; Midshipman William Edwards’s head was torn off by a round shot; a thirty-two-pound ball carried away both of Midshipman Richard Delphey’s legs; and forty-five minutes after the battle began, as British boarders swarmed over the sides of the American ship, most of the Argus’s demoralized crew ran below while the one surviving lieutenant hauled down the colors. Surgeon Inderwick amputated Allen’s leg at the thigh, and for a while it seemed he might survive, but gangrene set in and four days later he died ashore in a prison hospital at Plymouth.38

John Rodgers in the frigate President led the Royal Navy on a much longer wild goose chase through the summer of 1813, like Allen sailing defiantly straight through British home waters, taking and burning prizes as he went; he reached Bergen, Norway, on June 27, outrunning two British warships in an eighty-hour chase off the North Cape, returning to intercept trade passing in and out of the Irish Channel, finally running right through the British blockading squadrons and into Newport harbor on September 26, snapping up Admiral Warren’s tender, the schooner High Flyer, on the way in; the American boarders took possession so quickly, immediately placing a guard over the captain’s cabin, that the crew did not have time to destroy the squadron’s signal book.

Rodgers returned with a logbook filled with sarcastic and cantankerous observations about the enemy. On May 28 he had chased, boarded, and released an American ship bound from New York to Lisbon and from her obtained a newspaper with an account of the British sack of his hometown of Havre de Grace. No other reason was offered for this attack by “the Mild, the Philanthropic, the Eloquent, the Seasoned, & the Brave Right Honourable Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, Knight Baronite &c. &c. &c.,” Rodgers said, than “because it gave Birth to a Captain of the American Navy.” Halting an American ship returning from Cádiz to Boston, the Acteon (John H. Rogers, master), Rodgers adopted the familiar ruse of flying British colors and passing for the British frigate Acasta, “which gave me an opportunity, I am sorry to say, of discovering that my name sake, John Rogers, is not overburthened with patriotism.” In all he had taken twelve prizes, a meager and disappointing showing, he felt, for five months at sea; he was also disappointed that he had been unable “to add any additional luster to the character of our little Navy” with any glorious victories against the Royal Navy.39

But Jones was full of praise and wrote back at once:

The effects of your Cruize however is not the less felt by the enemy either in his Commercial or Military Marine, for while you have harassed and enhanced the dangers of the one, you provoked the pursuit & abstracted the attention of the other to an extent perhaps equal to the disproportion of our relative forces, and which will not cease until his astonishment shall be excited by the Account of your arrival.40

In fact, it was a perfect demonstration—notwithstanding Mahan’s later theories about concentration of force to the contrary—of how a single marauding commerce raider at loose on the vastness of the ocean could tie up a huge portion of the enemy’s navy just hunting for him. At one point, Warren had 25 ships, including 6 seventy-fours and 10 frigates, patrolling the Atlantic from the banks of Newfoundland, Cape Sable, and Georges Bank to the entrance of the Chesapeake in an attempt to block Rodgers’s return to port. Warren once again found himself writing to Croker like a penitent schoolboy: “It is with extreme regret I am under the necessity of communicating for their Lordships information that Commodore Rodgers has effected his arrival in the United States Frigate President at Newport, I had made the best disposition in my power to intercept his return into Port and I am sure that every Captain was anxiously vigilant to fall in with him.”

Warren’s fleet had now grown to 129 ships, including 15 seventy-fours and 28 frigates, but still it was not enough. Even as he was preparing to obey an Admiralty order to extend the declared blockade to the northern approaches to Long Island Sound and all “Harbours, Bays, Rivers, Creeks, and Sea Coasts” south, a hurricane hit Halifax on November 12, 1813, driving 50 to 60 ships in the harbor aground, including 30 warships that required major repairs, some of which were still incomplete the following March. The seventy-fours, including Warren’s flagship San Domingo, were especially hard hit.41

Warren’s blockaders had sent in 225 prizes to Halifax during the year 1813 and privateers sent in another 112; at least 300 more prizes taken by Royal Navy ships were sent into Bermuda, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands, for a total of more than 600 American merchantmen captured during the second year of the war. American exports had fallen to $28 million in 1813, down from $61 million in 1811. But American warships and privateers had still been able to get to sea, taking 435 prizes themselves during 1813. And as if to end the year with a final thumbing of their nose at the blockade, the Congress sailed back into Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on December 14 and the Constitution put out to sea from Boston on the last day of the year; neither encountered any British opposition.42

On December 30, 1813, Warren wearily sent another request to Croker for reinforcements in a letter that had more than a bit of the air of a defeated commander, dwelling completely on his fears and problems rather than his plans for bringing the war to the enemy. “The rapidity with which the Americans, build and fit out their Ships, is scarcely credible,” he wrote in exasperation. At New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore “every exertion” was being made to prepare vessels of war, including “a very large Class of Corvette Ships,” some of which were already launched and many others nearly ready. Two ships of the line, one at Portsmouth and one at Boston, were to be finished and launched in March. The southern coast around Charleston had become a refuge for privateers. Several large clipper schooners managed to escape from the Chesapeake, “nor can any thing stop these Vessels escaping to Sea in dark Nights and Strong Winds.”

Warren concluded his plea, “I take the liberty likewise to represent that as all American Men of War, Privateers and even Traders, are particularly good Sailing Vessels, such of his Majesty’s Ships as are appropriated to my Command, should be of the same description.”

Even Henry Hotham, the man the Admiralty had sent out to help put some order and steel into Warren’s command, was ready to give up by the end of the year. Inasmuch as “your Lordship’s intentions and my expectations have been disappointed,” he wrote Melville in a private letter, he begged to be relieved of his duty as soon as arrangements for that purpose could be made.43

WITH THE end of 1813 came the final gasp of chivalry in the naval war between Britain and America. Master Commandant William Henry Allen was given a funeral with full military honors at Plymouth; his coffin was attended by eight Royal Navy post captains as pallbearers and preceded by an honor guard of two companies of Royal Marines. All of the British navy’s captains in port followed the procession.44

An even more poignant display of mutual respect took place a month later in Portland, Maine. The morning of September 8 every business in town was shuttered as two barges, each bearing a coffin, slowly rowed to shore and a minute gun sounded alternately from the two warships standing in the harbor, one the captured British brig Boxer, the other the American brig Enterprize. Three days earlier, just north of Portland, the two ships had maneuvered to within half a pistol shot, a mere ten yards from each other, before opening fire. The outfought British ship surrendered half an hour later; again a British court-martial would admit that the enemy’s “greater degree of skill in the direction of her fire” was responsible for the outcome. But both captains were mortally wounded in the first broadside, Samuel Blyth of the Boxer cut in two by an eighteen-pound shot, William Burrows of the Enterprize blasted with canister shot in the thigh, and their deaths had cast a solemn pall over the news of the American victory when the ships reached Portland the next day.

From the Union Wharf, a military escort led the procession of the two captains’ coffins, Isaac Hull and other American officers following with the entire surviving crews of the two ships, British prisoners and American victors alike. At the Second Parish Meeting House the coffins lay side by side, and then the two rival captains were buried next to each other. It was, wrote C. S. Forester, “a civilized gesture in a war that threatened to become uncivilized.”45 Beyond the mutual accusations of barbarity and atrocity was a settling sense on both sides that only a war of grimly determined destruction could now bring the other to terms. By the end of 1813 the Admiralty had decided to replace Admiral Warren with a man made of sterner stuff.46 He was Vice Admiral Sir Alexander F. I. Cochrane, who had commanded successful amphibious landings in Egypt and Martinique and who possessed a deep personal loathing of Americans, in part because his brother had been killed at Yorktown in 1781.

The loss of the Argus had meanwhile left Madison and Jones more determined than ever to stamp out any remaining inclinations on the part of American captains to place honor above the dispassionate calculus of destruction; there was no other way to bring the war home to the enemy. The president wrote Jones lamenting Allen’s death and the loss of the Argus but adding:

It proves also the great capacity of that species of vessel to make the war an evil to G.B. and particularly to the class of her subjects who promoted it. Would it be amiss to instruct such cruisers positively, never to fight when they can avoid it, and employ themselves entirely in destroying the commerce of the Enemy.47

Jones’s sailing instructions became even more emphatic in stressing commerce destruction and forbidding challenges: there were to be no more affairs of honor on the high seas, even when the odds were equal. “The Character of the American Navy stands upon a basis not to be shaken, and needs no sacrifices by unequal combat to sustain its reputation,” he wrote in what by the end of 1813 had become a typical instruction to his captains. “You will therefore avoid all unnecessary contact with the Cruisers of the Enemy, even with an equal, unless under circumstances that may ensure your triumph without defeating the main object of your Cruise.”

That object was destruction, pure and simple; American warships were to burn every British ship they took; the old game of spoils, of taking prizes and sending them into port, was incompatible with the cold strategic dictates of this increasingly modern war. “A Single Cruiser, destroying every captured Vessel, has the capacity of continuing in full vigour her destructive power, so long as her provisions and stores can be replenished,” Jones stated in another order to a captain about to depart on a cruise. “Thus has a Single Cruiser, upon the destructive plan, the power perhaps, of twenty acting upon pecuniary views alone; and thus may the employment of our small force, in some degree compensate for the great inequality compared with that of the Enemy.”

There was another “great object” too, Jones began emphasizing to his commanders. It was one likewise dictated by the end of the chivalrous rules with which the war had begun. American captains were now instructed to seize as many British prisoners as they could—not release or parole them, not send them home in sea cartels, which the British government in any case refused to recognize—and bring them back to America “in order to exchange against our unfortunate Countrymen who may fall into his hands.”48 It was all about evening the body count. The anonymity of numbers was beginning to speak louder than the exploits of heroes.

The funeral of James Lawrence in Salem on August 13, 1813, brought out the vice president of the United States and a host of other dignitaries to honor the slain captain of the Chesapeake. (Belcher, Account of Funeral Honours; courtesy U.S. Naval Academy Nimitz Library)

British commander in chief John Borlase Warren, an experienced naval man and diplomat, was hampered by contradictory orders and a lack of support from London as he tried to enforce the blockade of America. (Painting by James Fittler, National Maritime Museum, U.K.)

Warren’s replacement, Alexander F. I. Cochrane, had the aggressive instincts the British government was seeking—as well as a visceral hatred of Americans. (Painting by William Beechey, National Maritime Museum, U.K.)

A day after assuming command, Cochrane gave notice of Britain’s intensifying economic warfare against America with a proclamation encouraging slaves to flee their owners. (The National Archives, U.K.)

David Porter sketched this view of his ship Essex with her prizes in the harbour of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands: a respite in his remarkable cruise against British commerce in the Pacific in 1813. (Porter, Journal of Cruise; courtesy Charles E. Brodine Jr.)

David Porter (Painting attributed to John Trumbull, Naval History & Heritage Command)

More than six thousand captured American seaman were held in the notorious Dartmoor Prison, a veritable fortress surrounded by eighteen-foot-high solid granite walls and miles of uninhabited moorland in southwest England. (Library of Congress)


William Henry Allen (Naval History & Heritage Command)

Oliver Hazard Perry (Library of Congress)

James Barron (Naval History & Heritage Command)

Thomas Macdonough (Library of Congress)

Macdonough’s crucial defensive victory on Lake Champlain in September 1814, effectively ended the threat of British invasion from the north. (Library of Congress)

The Battle of New Orleans was one of the most lopsided engagements ever fought, affirming America’s ability to hold off the disproportionate might of the British empire. (Library of Congress)

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