“We have been unfortunate, but not disgraced" - the Capture of USS "Essex" in the Battle of Valparaiso

28 March 1814, off the Chilean coast during the War of 1812, Cpt David Porter’s USS “Essex” was captured by the frigate HMS “Phoebe”, James Hillyar, and the sloop HMS “Cherub” in the Battle of Valparaiso.

“Hence, if some brainless bravo be Captain of a frigate in action, he may fight her against invincible odds, and seek to crown himself with the glory of the shambles, by permitting his hopeless crew to be butchered before his eyes, while at the same time that crew must consent to be slaughtered by the foe, under penalty of being murdered by the law. Look at the engagement between the American frigate Essex with the two English cruisers, the Phoebe and Cherub, off the Bay of Valparaiso, during the late war. It is admitted on all hands that the American Captain continued to fight his crippled ship against a greatly superior force; and when, at last, it became physically impossible that he could ever be otherwise than vanquished in the end; and when, from peculiarly unfortunate circumstances, his men merely stood up to their nearly useless batteries to be dismembered and blown to pieces by the incessant fire of the enemy's long guns. Nor, by thus continuing to fight, did this American frigate, one iota, promote the true interests of her country. I seek not to underrate any reputation which the American Captain may have gained by this battle. He was a brave man; that no sailor will deny. But the whole world is made up of brave men. Yet I would not be at all understood as impugning his special good name. Nevertheless, it is not to be doubted, that if there were any common-sense sailors at the guns of the Essex, however valiant they may have been, those common-sense sailors must have greatly preferred to strike their flag, when they saw the day was fairly lost, than postpone that inevitable act till there were few American arms left to assist in hauling it down. Yet had these men, under these circumstances, "pusillanimously cried for quarter," by the IV. Article of War they might have been legally hung.” (Herman Melville “White Jacket, Or The World on a Man-O-War”)

An almost contemporary image of the engagement's climax from the Beverley Robinson collection at the United States Naval Academy.

Rear Admiral Manley Dixon’s position was really far from being enviable in 1812. Out on the Brazilian Station in Rio he had one positively ancient ship of the line, six frigates and three sloops at his disposal to monitor the entire South American coastline along with the Pacific Ocean. On top of it, almost all of the possessions of Britain’s ally Spain out there were up in rebellion against their colonial master and rather not supporting the British at this point, but quite well disposed towards the United States and usually inclined to provide their cruisers with shelter and supplies. Three of them were the Uber-frigates of the US Navy Dixon and the Royal Navy had standing orders from Admiralty not to engage without significant numerical superiority after USS “Constitution” captured HMS “Java” off Brazil just a few weeks after Dixon had arrived there. He decided to muddle through, somehow, at least trade and diplomatic networks were still in place and Dixon learned quite soon that an American frigate was heading for Pacific waters. It was David Porter’s USS “Essex”, not quite on par with the “Constitution” but still a deadly threat to British whalers out there. Whaling already was a million dollar business in the early 19th century and decades before the Nantucket Oil Barons took over, the British domineered the trade. Porter, on the other hand, proposed several US forays into the Pacific and while his ideas fell on deaf ears before the war broke out, he now was on a more or less independent command and made straight for the Galápagos Islands, basically the base for all British whalers cruising for sperm off the coast of Peru and Chile since the “Emilia” first hunted there in 1788. Dixon’s squadron, however, was basically occupied in the Atlantic and Porter’s “Essex” had a clear field of fire in 1812. He made the best of it.

USS "Essex" capturing the sloop HMS "Alert",
a few weeks before Porter began his cruise in the Pacific

might not have been Porter’s strong side. One of the captured whaleships he equipped as a second commerce raider was just called “Essex Junior”. Organisation and seamanship was, though. Friendly neutral or not, the South American ports would supply him only for hard cash and Porter decided to live off the land, so to speak. Making the Galápagos Islands his own base of operations, he captured 13 prizes, virtually destroying the British whaling fleet in the Pacific and inflicted an economic damage Porter estimated to be 5 million Dollars - in buying power a sum worth up to half a billion in today’s money. And nobody less than Theodore Roosevelt himself, summarising the naval aspects of the War of 1812 in his influential study some 70 years later, praised his ingenuity to the skies and indeed, keeping his frigate in fighting trim for over 17 months on his returns to the Galápagos Islands just with supplies taken from the prizes was “unprecedented”, as Roosevelt put it. By the end of the year 1813 it was finally time to seek out a real port, though, and he decided to make for Valparaiso. He arrived in January 1814, “Essex” was refitted, Porter paid from the funds he had captured, but on 8 February the Royal Navy finally appeared on the stage off the Chile coast in form of the frigate HMS “Phoebe” and the sloop HMS “Cherub” and promptly bottled him up. Porter never overestimated the fighting capacity of his frigate. Nominally rated 36 guns, she was armed with 34 32-pounder carronades and only12 long 12-pounders. At short range, “Essex” could throw a considerable broadside weight of 570 pounds, but she was hopelessly outgunned at mid and long range by the two British men-of-war. Porter knew his numbers, besides being able to outmanoeuver him when they acted in concert, Captain James Hillyar of “Phoebe” would bring, together with the sloop, 839 pounds of iron into play against “Essex” at short range and more than 200 against the American’s meagre 66 in a long distance gun duel. Valparaiso, however, was a neutral port and Porter decided to wait for an opportunity to slip away.

Contemporary illustration of Valparaiso Bay

For six weeks, “Phoebe” and “Cherub” lay in sight of “Essex” and “Essex Junior”, anchoring in the harbour of Valparaiso. Porter had hoisted his motto to the top of the main mast, “Free trade and sailors’ rights” and Hillyar flew “God and country; British sailors’ best rights; traitors offend both”, and “Essex” answered with “God, our country and liberty – tyrants offend them.” basically the casus belli since the “Chesapeake-Leopard” affair of 1807, songs were sung along these lines, Porter, unsurprisingly, had to concede that the Cherubs, the British sloop’s crew, had the better voices but noticed that his men’s improvised lyrics were wittier and more to the point. A courteous exchange of letters between the two captains took place as well until Porter accused Hillyar of instigating Chilean authorities to expulse him from port. But he was about to slip his cable anyway. On the morning of 28 March, “Essex” made sail, tried to slip around the southern point of the harbour entrance and promptly, the wind freshened up, suddenly changed his direction and carried the American frigate’s fore top away while Hillyar’s two ships closed in on her. After a few broadsides, “Phoebe” decided to play every tactical advantage she had against her now almost unmanoeuverable opponent, trapped between the Chilean shore and her long guns. Positioned against “Essex’” back, she pounded away at mid range, out of the Yankee carronades’ reach. In a last desperate attempt, Porter tried to run his frigate aground and blow her up to avoid capture, failed and finally, at 6 pm, had to strike his colours. He had lost one third of his crew in his hopeless attempt of gallantry to British shot, Hillyar sailed “Phoebe” and her prize back home to England to celebrate his second victory in a ship-to-ship duel and the American frigate was taken into service as HMS “Essex”, no longer as a man-of-war but as troopship and, finally, as a prison hulk in Ireland. Her mooring anchor was discovered in Dún Laoghaire harbour the other day. In the meanwhile, HMS “Cherub” sailed on towards the Pacific and the Galápagos to mop up after Porter’s cruise. Until the end of the war, the sloop recaptured all of “Essex’” prizes except one, from “Essex Junior” to “Sir Andrew Hammond”, a whaler manned by just a few US Marines after Lieutenant John Gamble, USMC, had saved her from her former crew’s mutiny and sailed her for more than 2,000 miles, just to get caught by the Cherubs.

And more about the capture of USS “Essex” on: