The End of the USS Essex¸ 27–28 March 1814 Part I

On the morning of 27 March 1814 Captain David Porter [Essex] informed First Lieutenant John Downes he intended to sail early the next day. While Porter drew the Phoebe and Cherub out to sea, where the Essex’s superior sailing would place her beyond Captain James Hillyar’s [Phoebe] reach, the Essex Junior was to escape to the north. The ships would make for a pre-arranged rendezvous before returning to Nuka Hiva, provisioning and sailing for the Horn. After nearly a year and a half at sea, the Americans were heading home. That evening Purser Shaw was sent into town as a decoy where he would remain until the ships had sailed in an attempt to convince Hillyar that the Essex was not yet ready for sea.

After nightfall Porter deployed his second ruse de guerre. John Maury, acting First Lieutenant on the Essex Junior, was ordered to take the fastest boat and slip past the British crew rowing guard. The first part of his instructions successfully completed, Maury turned northwest and heading up the coast beyond Point Piedra. Shortly after midnight he lit several blue flares. Hillyar and Captain Thomas Tudor Tucker [Cherub] were both taken in. Believing the lights to be a signal from their own boat indicating that the Essex had put to sea, they cleared for action and gave chase. At 1 a.m., as the British ships closed with fresh breezes, Maury lit another flare, flashed a signal light and fired a rocket into the darkness. He then spun his boat around and returned to the anchorage as fast as he could.

Hillyar was beginning to smell a rat. At 1.30 a.m. he ordered a signal lantern flashed to the north and when no answer was forthcoming, became convinced he had been duped. Shortening sail, he hauled to the larboard tack and ordered Tucker to follow him back to the bay. The British were in a race against time. Worried that the Essex and Essex Junior were escaping, Hillyar had his men tack and wear repeatedly, beating southwards against the wind. At 1.40 a.m. the frigate’s main topsail split under the pressure. Racing up the ratlines, the men replaced it and by 4 a.m. the Phoebe had regained her station off Angels Point. Unsure if his enemies had fled, Hillyar faced an agonising two-and-a-half hour wait until dawn.

Porter had spent the night preparing for sea. Final checks were made to the sails and rigging and Edward Lawson and the other poison plotters were transferred to the Essex Junior. In the small hours, when the decoy boat returned, Porter summoned Maury to his cabin. Informed that the British were still several miles to leeward, the captain sped up his preparations, but at 6.30 a.m. first light revealed the British ships in their customary position off Angels Point. Porter was as surprised as Hillyar was relieved.

By noon the sun had burnt through the cloud cover and the wind was blowing ever stronger out of the south southwest. Not wishing to lose another sail, Hillyar ordered his men to take down the royal yards and close reef the topsails. Five miles to the east, Porter followed suit. That afternoon the weather deteriorated and by 2 p.m. fresh gales interspersed with heavy squalls were tearing across the bay.

At 2.45 p.m. a particularly violent squall struck the Essex. Her top and mainsails taut under the pressure, the frigate tore her larboard cable and began dragging her starboard anchor across the bay. With the rest of his cables stowed on the orlop deck, Porter had no choice but to put to sea. Ordering Downes to send a boat to take Poinsett on shore, he cut his remaining cable, set the topgallant sails and sailed westwards out of the roads. Downes followed once the trade consul had been taken ashore. By now a crowd of locals had gathered on the hills to watch the drama develop and George O’Brien, who had been working on shore with the Phoebe’s cutter, had himself rowed out to the British ships with Mr N. Murphy, the master of the Good Friends. Both were desperate not to miss out on the action. Porter, meanwhile, was set upon a perilous course. Trusting on his ship’s superiority when hauling close to the wind, he took a line tight round the rocks off Angels Point, intending to run into the open sea to the south before the British could get within range.

At 3.05 p.m. Hillyar ordered his men to give chase and clear for action. ‘[The topmen] immediately made all sail’, Gardiner recalled, while the boatswains beat to quarters. The wardroom partitions were pulled down, the officers’ furniture stowed below the waterline, the men’s mess tables were hoisted to the ceiling and tied off and their hammocks tightly rolled into dense tubes, taken to the quarterdeck and secured round the bulwarks to provide extra protection. The decks were covered in sand to soak up the blood; livestock were hurled overboard; a net, known as a sauve-tete, was rigged to catch any blocks shot out of the tops; and the boats were lowered and towed astern. On the gun deck the men opened the ports, removed the tompions, allowing them to hang by the muzzles and hauled at the breeching ropes to run out the guns. Shot, wadding, matches, match tubs, powder horns, sponges, hand spikes and worms were laid out; Gunner Lawson made up fresh cartridges in the magazine, while Surgeon Smith and his assistant, Adam Simpson, readied knives, bandages and bone saws in the cockpit.

At 3.10 p.m. the Essex luffed round Angels Point, the wind howling round the rocks from the open sea. With his mainmast creaking under the pressure, Porter ordered the topgallant sails taken in. The topmen clambered up the ratlines, edged along the spars and gathered in the courses, but the order had come too late. ‘Scarcely had the … sails been clewed down, when a squall struck the ship.’ Resigning themselves to losing the sail, the topmen let the halyards slip through their fingers, but the yards jammed. The Essex heeled over with the strain. With waves crashing over her gunwales, for a moment it seemed as if she might founder. Then, with a terrible splintering, the lower cap snapped and the main topmast, trailing ropes and torn canvas, crashed into the sea, pitching Ordinary Seaman Samuel Miller and Able Seamen Thomas Browne into the brine. As they struck out for the ship’s lifebuoy, the Essex righted and sailed on. Realising he could no longer escape, Porter decided to return to the roads. Dragging the wreckage of the maintop and mainsail through 225 degrees, he wore the ship and hauled to the wind on the starboard tack. The debris was cut away, but the frigate was crippled and driven north eastwards by the gale. At 3.20 p.m. Porter gave up on his attempts to regain the roads and bore up for a small bay on the far side of Point Piedra instead. As a Spanish 24-pounder had been set up on a bluff to the east, the bay was technically neutral ground. Whether Hillyar would respect the convention remained to be seen.

As the Essex struggled eastwards with the Essex Junior in her wake, Hillyar moved in for the kill. Lieutenant Burrow noticed Miller and Browne clinging to the Essex’s lifebuoy as the Phoebe swept past, but Hillyar was in no mood to delay. At 3.30 p.m. a Saint George’s Ensign bearing the motto ‘God & Country, British Best Rights, Traitors offend both’ was hoisted on the Phoebe’s main. The Cherub did likewise. Hillyar then went down to the gun deck to address his men. Samuel Thornton Junior thought his captain’s icy demeanour ‘peculiarly impressive … [He] implored the Divine assistance in [his crew’s] endeavours’, the sixteen-year-old recalled, ‘after which he addressed them in a short but spirited speech which concluded with these words, “Do your duty my Lads & you can’t be afraid.”’ After giving the watchword as ‘God Save the King!’, Hillyar returned to the quarterdeck to a rousing three cheers.

At 3.40 p.m. the Essex anchored with her best bower in 9½ fathoms half a pistol shot from shore. Seeing his opponents raising their banners, Porter ran up three White Ensigns over his usual motto flags and gave the order to clear for action. The partitions were knocked out and the guns run out of the ports. Chaplain Adams joined Doctor Hoffman, the acting surgeon and his mate, Alexander Montgomery, in the cockpit while those on the quarterdeck watched the British ships’ casual approach. Some believed themselves safe, protected by Chilean neutrality, yet Farragut thought it ‘evident … the enemy … intended to attack … We made arrangements to receive him as well as we possibly could’, he recalled. ‘Springs were got on our cables [to turn the frigate broadside on] and the ship was … prepared for action … Even to my young mind’, he continued, ‘it was perceptible in the faces of those around me … that our case was hopeless … [but] it was equally apparent that all were ready to die at their guns rather than surrender.’

At 3.50 p.m. Hillyar signalled his intention to fight at anchor off the Essex’s stern to the Cherub. The topmen took in the courses, the frigate inched closer under topsails, while the waisters prepared to deploy the springs. One mile from Point Piedra, O’Brien and Murphy caught up. As they scrambled aboard, their boat was swamped by a wave. At 4.00 p.m. the Phoebe entered the bay. Hillyar was about to deploy his anchor and spin on his cables to rake the Essex when a squall blew in from the south. The Phoebe was blown alongside the Essex’s larboard quarter about half a gun shot off while the Cherub sailed round onto the Americans’ starboard bow. At 4.10 p.m., his efforts to close to pistol-shot having been frustrated, Hillyar opened fire. On the gun deck, the command was repeated by Lieutenant Pearson and Acting Lieutenant Gardner to their divisions, the gun captains pulled their lanyards and the frigate’s starboard broadside rippled flame. The cannon leapt back on their breeching ropes and thirteen 18-pound roundshot hurtled towards the Essex. Five minutes later, Tucker fired a volley of grape from his 32-pounder carronades.

On the Essex the men fell in droves. Roundshot smashed through the hull, tore the rolled hammocks from above the bulwarks and burst in the windows of the great cabin. Skipping along the gun deck they disabled several carronades, scything off ring bolts and carrying away tackle and blocks. Others killed or maimed the crews while grape shot swept the quarterdeck. Employed as ‘Captain’s aid’, Farragut was ‘sickened’ to see ‘a boatswain’s mate [named Henry Kennedy]’ killed beside him. ‘His abdomen was taken entirely out’, he recalled, ‘and he expired in a few moments.’ Lieutenants McKnight and Odenheimer busied themselves returning fire. Loading the carronades on the larboard quarter, the only ones which could be brought to bear, with round and grape, they alternated their fire between the British hulls and rigging while Acting-Lieutenant Burr formed a squad of marines on the quarterdeck to snipe at the British officers. Porter was trying to get a spring rigged to his anchor cable to bring his broadside into action. Acting Sailing Master Barnewall and Boatswain Linscott attached a hawser to the anchor ring, but before it could be fastened to the capstan and hauled taut, it was shot through by the Phoebe’s long 18s. At 4.20 p.m. Barnewell and Linscott tried again, while lieutenants McKnight and Odenheimer ran three long 12s out of the stern ports. Hauling them down the centre of the gundeck, their crews opened fire.

Half a gunshot away, the British were also suffering. Captain Tucker had received a ‘severe contusion’ to both legs soon after firing his first broadside. Whipping across the quarterdeck, the roundshot had also hit several marines. Private William Derbyshire was killed. Corporal John Edwards and Ernest Rafferty suffered minor injuries and joined their captain on Surgeon Ramsey’s operating table in the cockpit below. In Tucker’s absence the sloop drifted to leeward and passed out of carronade range. The Phoebe was also in difficulties. Burr’s marines were peppering the forecastle, spar and quarterdeck. Seven 32-pound shot had hulled the frigate between wind and water and several others had drilled through the waist. The sails and rigging had been badly torn by grape and the Essex’s long 12s were bringing accurate fire down on the frigate’s quarterdeck. Hillyar was concerned. The Phoebe was being blown close to shore, his shot appeared to be producing ‘no visible effect’ and, despite the fact that his gun captains had demonstrated accurate fire in cutting both of the Americans’ springs, the close range seemed to be playing towards his opponent. At 4.30 p.m. Hillyar ceased fire and gave the order to wear.

Porter was pleased with the opening exchanges. Considering his disadvantageous position, the first twenty minutes had gone well. Both the Phoebe and the Cherub had received damage to their sails and rigging; although Captain Tucker had remerged from the cockpit, his sloop’s ‘top-sail sheets were flying away’ and the frigate’s mainsail was ‘much cut’, her jib boom was ‘badly wounded’ and her fore, main and mizzen stays had been ‘shot away’. To make matters worse, just as the Phoebe was coming to the wind on the larboard tack, a shot from one of the Essex’s long 12s ‘passed through several folds of … [her] mainsail’. Given the strong winds howling out of the south, the course could not be reset for several moments and with the jib similarly disabled, the Phoebe drifted out of contact while firing ‘a few random shot’. As Hillyar was forced to admit, ‘appearances were a little inauspicious’.

The Essex had also received her fair share of damage. Over a dozen roundshot had gone through her hull, ‘the gaff, with the ensign and motto flag at the mizzen, had been shot away’, a number of guns had been disabled and ‘several men had been killed and wounded’, the majority in the first ten minutes before McKnight and Odenheimer had deployed the long 12s. In the cockpit, Doctors Hoffman and Montgomery and the ‘indefatigable’ Chaplain Adams were already up to their elbows in gore. Acting Lieutenant Cowell, who had been hit in the breast and his assistant Edward Barnewall, soon regained their positions on the quarterdeck, but others were killed by flying splinters while under the surgeons’ hands. Nevertheless, Farragut thought they had ‘suffered less than might have been expected’ and the officers and men ‘were nowise discouraged’, as Porter recalled. ‘All appeared determined to defend their ship to the last … and to die, in preference to a shameful surrender.’ A second ensign was ‘made fast in the mizzen rigging …, several jacks were hoisted in different parts of the ship’ and Porter had a third spring attached to the anchor cable. Tying it off at the capstan, the marines hauled the Essex broadside on. The Americans were ready for the second round.

To the north the British were making repairs. In a feverish ten minutes, spare courses were set, torn rigging spliced and new spars hoisted to replace those damaged in the tops. At 4.40 p.m., Hillyar tacked and the Phoebe turned through the wind to face her opponent. The mainsail was furled and Tucker was signalled to come within shouting distance. Putting his speaking trumpet to his lips, Hillyar announced his intention to close to within long-range of his 18-pounders, anchor on a spring cable and pound the Americans into submission, while the Cherub was to keep under weigh ‘and take a convenient station for annoying’ the enemy. First Lieutenant Ingram was appalled. Believing ‘it was deliberate murder to lie off at long range and fire at [the Essex] like a target’, he ‘begged [his] Captain … to bear down and board [her]’ instead. Hillyar was unmoved. He refused to risk the lives of his men to satisfy a youngster’s lust for glory and at 4.50 p.m. the Phoebe began her second, measured approach towards the Essex’s starboard quarter.

By now a crowd of locals had gathered on the bluff to watch the battle. As well as the nine daughters of Antonio Carrera, a cousin of José Miguel who owned a nearby hacienda, Acting Governor Formas and Joel Poinsett were present. At some stage, the American trade consul asked the acting governor to order his artillerymen to engage the British ships for contravening Chilean neutrality. With the United States’ influence declining with every shot, Formas refused to act.

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