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

At 5.00 p.m. the wind dropped, a phenomenon Gardiner put down to the heat of the firing and it wasn’t until 5.25 p.m. that Hillyar could reengage with a pair of forecastle-mounted long 9s. Returning fire with the long 12s on his quarterdeck, one of Porter’s first shots struck the Phoebe’s taffrail. A cloud of jagged splinters scythed across the quarterdeck. One tore open William Ingram’s scalp. With blood gushing from the wound, the young First Lieutenant was carried below.

The Phoebe’s fire, combined with the occasional shot from the Cherub’s two long 9s, was also causing casualties. Acting Lieutenant Cowell was shot through the leg. Rather than being taken below, he insisted on being ‘placed on the coamings of his hatchway, where he continued to give his orders’. By 5.15 p.m., seeing ‘no prospect of injuring [the enemy] without getting under weigh and becoming the assailant’, Porter ordered his men to set any sail they could. The task proved nigh-on impossible. ‘My top-sail sheets and haliards were all shot away, as well as the jib and fore-top-mast-staysail-halliards’, Porter explained, but ‘after many ineffectual attempts’ the flying-jib was hoisted. Ordering his cable cut, Porter bore down on the Phoebe to board her.

With the Cherub unable to close due to the ‘light and baffling winds’, the Phoebe was taking all the Americans’ fire. A single 12-pounder had hulled her three feet below the waterline, the carriage of a 9-pounder bow chaser had been destroyed, one of the small-bore carronades in the tops had had its slide smashed, the fransom bolt on a gun deck 18-pounder was damaged and the main-masthead was ‘badly wounded’ below the first quarter. Three able seamen had been killed. Several others, including two marine privates, had been badly wounded and carried below and Ingram was barely conscious and still bleeding from his wound. Nevertheless, ‘the Almighty disposer of events’ seemed inclined to grant Hillyar victory. The Essex was crippled and although Tucker was taking little part in the fight, despite ‘using every exertion’, the Essex Junior, at anchor four miles to windward, was equally ineffective. While Porter could only fire a few long 12s, the Phoebe remained broadside-on. Double-shotting, the gun crews began hulling the Essex with every shot.

By 5.30 p.m., American casualties were mounting. ‘The decks were … strewed with dead’, Porter recalled, ‘and our cockpit filled with wounded’. Farragut, racing round like ‘Paddy in the cat-harpins’, witnessed several fall. ‘While … standing near the Captain, just abaft the mainmast’, he recalled, ‘a shot came through the waterways and glanced upward.’ Four men, stood by the side of the gun, were killed instantly. The last was struck in the head. His brains smattered Porter and Farragut with gore. Unable to wear with just the one sail set, the Essex was drifting backwards towards the Phoebe, exposing the stern guns to her fire. At least ten of the men crewing them were killed and a dozen wounded, but by constantly replacing those that fell, lieutenants McKnight and Odenheimer were able to return the British fire.

By 5.45 p.m. it was clear that Porter’s attempt to run aboard the Phoebe was futile. Although victory was now beyond his reach, the Bostonian refused to countenance surrender and decided to run his ship aground instead, thus allowing his men to escape capture. Luck had deserted him, however. With the Essex just a musket shot from shore, the wind began blowing off the land and swung the frigate’s bows round to face the Phoebe, exposing her to a ‘dreadful raking fire’. John Hughes, the fourteen-year-old boy recruited at Tumbez, had his right leg fractured; John Glasseau, a young Scot who had been with the Essex since the Delaware, was hit in the right shoulder with grape; and Able Seaman John Alvison was drilled through the body with an eighteen pound roundshot. He expired with the words ‘“free trade and sailors’ r-i-g-ht-s” … quivering on his lips’. Manning the bow guns, a young Scot named Thomas Bailey had his leg shot off close to the groin. ‘He used his handkerchief as a tourniquet’ and, bidding farewell to his messmates, leaned on the sill of the port and threw himself overboard. Acting Lieutenant Cowell had fainted from loss of blood and been carried below, while Edward Barnewall, his assistant, had been hit for a second time and joined his superior in the cockpit. Farragut, meanwhile, continued to lead a charmed life. ‘An old quarter master, named Francis Bland, was standing at the wheel when I saw a shot come over the fore-yard in such a direction that I thought it would strike him or me’ he recalled. ‘I told him to jump, at the same time pulling him toward me … [but] the shot took off his right leg.’

At 5.50 p.m. Lieutenant Downes arrived from the Essex Junior. ‘[As] he could be of no use to me’, Porter recalled, ‘I directed him to return to his … ship, to be prepared for defending and destroying her in case of an attack. He took with him several of my wounded, leaving three of his boat’s crew on board to make room for them’. Downes’ acting lieutenant, William Kingsbury, was amongst those who ‘had insisted on ‘shar[ing] … the fate of his old Ship’. Downes also took some specie to the Essex Junior. Having captured considerable treasure during the cruise, Porter was determined it would not fall into Hillyar’s hands. The Bostonian then had one last attempt at confounding his enemy ordering Lieutenant Wilmer to deploy the sheet anchor with a spring in an effort to turn the Essex broadside on. No sooner had the young lieutenant succeeded, however, than he was knocked overboard by a splinter and drowned.

By 6.00 p.m. the situation on the Essex was appalling. ‘Many of my guns had been rendered useless by the enemy’s shot’, Porter recalled, ‘and many … had their whole crews destroyed’. The hold was filling with water, fires had broken out both forward and aft and loose cartridges were exploding on the gun deck. Daniel Gardner was ‘blown up with powder’, ‘flames were bursting up each hatchway’ and several men’s clothes were set ablaze. Some were stripped by their comrades while William Kingsbury leapt overboard to douse the flames. Others continued to fall victim to the Phoebe’s guns. William Whitney, captain of the foretop, had his thigh broken and was wounded in the side; Peter Coddington was hit in the head; John Ripley, having lost a leg, apologised to his comrades that he could be no more use and hopped out of the bow port; and Able Seaman John Lazarro had his leg pierced with a dozen shards of shrapnel when the gun he was serving was struck by an 18-pound shot. To make matters worse, the cable Wilmer had set had parted and the Essex was drifting away from the shore.

By 6.10 p.m. discipline had collapsed. Lieutenant Odenheimer had hidden deep in the hold and Quarter-Gunner Adam Roach had deserted his post. Found ‘skulking on the berth deck’, he was chased by Able Seaman William Cole dragging the ‘shattered stump’ of one of his legs behind him. Hearing of the incident, Porter ordered Farragut to execute Roach before his example spread, but the quarter-gunner escaped on the ship’s pinnace with six others before the midshipman could reach him. Moments later, Farragut saw ‘the Captain of the gun directly opposite the hatchway … struck full in the face by an eighteen pound shot … [He] fell back on me’, the twelve-year-old recalled, ‘[and] we tumbled down the hatch together. I struck on my head and … he fell on my hips’. As Farragut returned to the quarterdeck, Porter was knocked down by a shot passing narrowly overhead. Fortunately for the Bostonian, the only injury received was to his hat.

At 6.15 p.m. Porter convened an officers’ meeting on the quarterdeck. Lieutenant McKnight and Carpenter Langley were the only ones able to attend. ‘[The former] confirmed the report respecting the condition of the guns on the gun-deck’, Porter recalled, ‘[and] I was informed that the cock-pit, the steerage, the ward-room and the birth-deck, could contain no more wounded … and … unless something was speedily done … the ship would … sink from the number of shot holes in her bottom…. [Langley] … informed me that all his crew had been killed or wounded and that he had been once over the side to stop the leaks, when his slings had been shot away and it was with difficulty he was saved from drowning.’ Seeing no other options left open, Porter decided the game was up and gave the survivors permission to abandon ship. Roughly eighty men complied. The Essex’s three remaining boats were soon full. The rest leapt overboard. Braving the icy water and strong currents, they struck out for the beach three-quarters of a mile away.

At 6.20 p.m. Porter gave the order to strike. The ensign was hauled down, but as a motto flag was still flying, the Phoebes fired ‘several more broadsides’. Meanwhile, Farragut was ordered to ensure Lieutenant Odenheimer had destroyed the ship’s signal book. ‘I could not find him … for some time’, he recalled, ‘but at last saw the [book] … lying on the sill of a port and dashed it into the sea.’ Farragut and Midshipman Isaacs then began throwing small arms overboard to prevent them falling into enemy hands, while Porter destroyed several parts of his journal and the ship’s log and muster roll. All the while the Phoebe’s shot came crashing in. Four men were killed at Porter’s side after the order to strike and eleven others fell below decks. Eventually, a man was ordered to scramble up the rigging and haul down the offending banner. ‘A shot took him, Flag & all, just as he was in the act of striking it’, Samuel Thornton recalled. It was 6.30 p.m. The Battle of Valparaiso was over.

Blinking through the gun smoke, their ears ringing from repeated concussion, it took the Phoebes a moment to realise they had won. Hillyar ordered the small bower deployed to stop the frigate drifting further off shore, had the sails furled and sent Second Lieutenant Pearson and Acting Midshipman Thornton with twenty men and two petty officers to take possession of the prize. ‘Nothing was to be seen all over [the Essex’s] decks, but dead, wounded & dying’, Thornton recalled. ‘We threw 63 overboard … & there were several wounded that it would have been a mercy to do the same to. One poor fellow, who had his thigh shot off, managed to crawl to a Port, & tumble himself into the water.’ Several others decided to take their own lives. Dressing himself up in ‘a clean shirt and jerkin’, Able Seaman Benjamin Hazen, a married man from ‘Groton[,] … addressed his remaining mess-mates … telling them he could never submit to be[ing] a prisoner of the English, [and] threw himself into the sea’, while Ruff, Lieutenant Wilmer’s ‘negro boy, deliberately jumped [overboard] and was drowned’. After berating Porter for allowing his men to flee the ship, Lieutenant Pearson demanded the Bostonian’s sword. ‘That sir’, Porter replied, ‘is reserved for your master.’

Meanwhile, the eighty Essexes who had abandoned ship were struggling to reach shore. One of the three boats launched had swamped under the frigate’s stern drowning all on board, while the pinnace, ‘in the most deplorable condition’, was intercepted by a British boat. Several dead were lying in the bottom and of the seven survivors, two were seriously wounded. The third boat reached the shore. The swimmers were also ‘struggling’. The officer of a British boat had his crew rescue as many as they could safely take on board and promised to return for the others. ‘When the men in the water expressed their doubts that the promise would be kept, a British sailor jumped … into the water … “I will remain with you,” he promised, “if they forget you they will not forget me.”’ Nine swimmers were rescued. Thirty-one others drowned. With the muster roll destroyed and Porter unwilling to provide details, estimates of those who reached the shore vary. Hillyar believed that thirty to forty men made it. Those that were uninjured, such as John Swayne, the twenty-year-old Scot who had served on the Seringapatam, disappeared into the scrub-covered hills. The rest were carried to the Hacienda de la Viña del Mar, where they were treated by Antonio Carrera’s nine daughters. With ‘scarcely a square inch of his body which had not been burned’, William Kingsbury was amongst the fortunate recipients of their charity.

At 7 p.m. Porter was rowed on board the Phoebe with a number of his officers and crew while a boat sent by Captain Tucker took several others to the Cherub. Porter was in tears as he surrendered his sword and told Hillyar of the ‘brave fellows’ killed after he had struck. The British captain countered by stating that the men who had fled the Essex at the moment of her surrender should have been his prisoners. Porter insisted he had been forced to give the order to save them from the fire on the gundeck and Hillyar decided not to press the point further. In the Phoebe’s cockpit, Surgeon Smith cared for the wounded. Eight men awaited his attention, the most pressing case being Lieutenant Ingram. The 27-year-old remained unconscious and little hope was held out for his recovery.

On the Essex the prize crew were already making repairs. The shot holes below the waterline were plugged, cables were bent to the anchors and a jury mast rigged. In the cockpit, the grim work of Doctors Hoffman and Montgomery went on. Splinters were pulled from sucking flesh wounds; cuts bandaged; burns doused with ointment. Forty-four limbs were amputated with knives and bone saws and thrown through the ports. The stumps were cauterized in the fire and bound. Farragut grew ‘faint and sick’ at the sight. Collecting himself, the twelve-year-old asked after the shipmates he had seen fall. Quartermaster Francis Bland had bled to death for want of a tourniquet, while Acting Lieutenant Cowell ‘had lost a leg just below the knee’. Doctor Hoffman had wanted to amputate as soon as he had been bought in, but Cowell had insisted on waiting his turn. ‘One man’s life is as dear as another’s’, the father of two from Marblehead, Massachusetts had explained. ‘I would not cheat any poor fellow out of his turn.’

At 8 p.m. Farragut was rowed to the Phoebe: ‘I went on board … and was ushered into the steerage … [and] was so mortified at my capture, that … I laid down and gave vent to my tears.’ In the cockpit, Ingram was close to the end. At midnight, as the baffling winds that had marked the day settled to a dead calm and a thick fog descended, the frigate let go her stream anchor in 34 fathoms and the 27-year-old ‘was … happily released from his pain’.

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