Saturday, March 28, 2015


28 March 2015: On this date, in 1814, Captain David Porter surrendered his severely damaged ship, USS Essex, in Valparaiso Harbor, Chile. His antagonists, the British ships HMS Cherub and Phoebe, had chased his ship to sea from the main harbor in neutral Chile but a lost topmast forced Porter to seek shelter in a bay right next door and the Brits followed him in, taking him under fire after he had anchored. More on that in a moment, but first, a bit about Essex.

She was built in Salem MA in 1799 and paid for by the citizens of Salem and Essex Counties. Several ships had been built around the country in those turbulent times in the same manner and donated to the government; they became known as "subscription frigates" and included among others USS Philadelphia which went on to fame for being captured in the Barbary Wars. Essex was armed with shorter range carronades that fired a 32 pound iron shot. She protected US shipping (it was the merchants mostly, who paid for her) and during the Barbary Wars (1800-1805) saw action in the Med.

When the War of 1812 began, she was assigned to a squadron including Constitution and Hornet. They sailed in late 1812 for the southern reaches of the Atlantic, cruising for merchant or navy ships to attack. Essex was delayed in sailing (from Boston) and the plan was they would rendezvous in one of a series of locales to the south. That was the plan, but reality got in the way and Porter never hooked up with Bainbridge (in Constitution) or Lawrence in Hornet. On 31 December 1812, Porter took his ship around Cape Horn and into the Pacific and in so doing, became the first American naval vessel to do so.
He decided the British whaling fleet working the whale-rich Pacific would be plum targets, especially since most of them had no idea their country was at war with America! Essex did well: in just over a year, they captured 20 British whalers, helped resolve a native dispute in Indonesia, and put a major hurt on the economics of the British interests there. But he had to reprovision and where better than neutral Chile. He arrived in January of 1814.
As with all good things, they come to an end and in February of 1814, 2 British frigates showed up in response to messages sent back to England of the depredations Porter was causing. Since he was in a neutral port, they could do little and since there were two of them, Porter wasn't eager to head out and take them both on.
Valparaiso Chile before the battle (Essex on right)

So, during some bad weather and after six weeks of being trapped, he tried to slip out, but a broken main topsmast forced him into a bay just outside the harbor. Where he was quickly joined by Phoebe and Cherub.
With the short range guns (he had tried to convince the Navy department to give him long guns to no avail) he stood little chance but for 2 1/2 hours he managed to resist.

Finally, he had little choice but to strike and Essex became a British prize. Porter was sent home on his parole and reached Baltimore in time to help Commodore John Rodgers set up the defense of that city  (remember, Ft. McHenry, Star Spangled Banner!) in September.

So, that's the sad tale of USS Essex and her unfortunate meeting with two British warships ... in a neutral country. On this date, 201 years ago!

 Until next time,      
                                 Fair Winds,
                                  Old Salt

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