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The War of 1812 – Part 7 - Naval War in the Pacific

Updated: Sep 27, 2021



In Part 6, of this series we examined the Naval Campaign in the Atlantic, focusing on the US Navy’s smaller frigates, sloops, and brigs. Many people are not aware that naval warfare between the US and Great Britain also extended into the Pacific Ocean and was, in fact, the inspiration of one of Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey novels (Far side of the World) as well as the movie “Master and Commander: Far Side of the World” starring Russell Crowe.


The USS Essex

The USS Essex was a 36-gun class sailing frigate built in 1799 with funds from the people of Salem Massachusetts and Essex County and presented to the United States Navy on 17 December of that year. Her first commander was Captain Joseph Preble. Her armament consisted of forty 32-pounder carronades and six 12-pounder long guns.


Assigned to rendezvous with and escort a convoy returning from Batavia in the East Indies, Essex left Newport, RI, Captain Preble commanding, on 6 January 1800. She became the first US Naval ship to cross the equator, and the first US Naval ship to double (round) the Cape of Good Hope, doing so in March and August 1800. She finally returned to the United States in November 1800, successfully completing her convoy mission.


On her second cruise, she was sent to the Mediterranean, under Captain William Bainbridge, to join Commodore Richard Dale’s squadron in the First Barbary War. In 1802, she returned to the Washington Navy Yard for overhaul/repairs and then rejoined the Mediterranean Squadron, with Captain James Barron as her Captain. She took part in the Battle of Deme and then remained in the Mediterranean until the conclusion of Peace terms in 1806.

USS Essex
USS Essex

When the War of 1812 broke out, Essex, and her commander Captain David Porter, sailed out of New York harbor on July 2, flying a banner from the foretopgallant mast with the words “Free Trade and Sailors Rights." The Essex was larger, faster, had a larger crew, and was more heavily armed than most British ships and so, in July of 1812, Essex captured her first ship near Bermuda, a British troop ship. As mentioned in an earlier post, on 13 August Porter, commanding the Essex under the pretense that it was a merchant ship, engaged and took the British sloop HMS Alert as prize. This was the first British warship captured by the US Navy in the War. By the time another month had passed, the Essex had seized ten prizes, and was menacing British merchantmen and shipping up and down the Atlantic coast.


Essex Heads South

Captain Porter’s Essex was next assigned to Commodore William Bainbridge’s squadron that was to patrol the South Atlantic off Brazil. Porter had been unable to make a prearranged rendezvous with Bainbridge and had received intelligence that the British naval force had been greatly reinforced along the Brazilian coast. Concluding that he was alone and working against the most powerful navy in the world, Porter decided that “there was no port on this coast where we could procure a supply, without the certainty of capture.” He noted that a sizable part of the British whaling fleet was in the Pacific and that the Spanish colonies were in revolt and might welcome a warship from the United States. Finally, his intelligence told him that the British had no warships in the Pacific, and so, Porter planned to masquerade Essex as the more powerful Constitution until he could “round the horn” into the Pacific.

Vice Admiral Sir Manley Dixon
Vice Admiral Sir Manley Dixon

Porter arrived in Valparaíso on 15 March 1813 where he received a warm welcome from the revolutionary government, and he took advantage of this to take on food, water, and stores for Essex. Unfortunately, the British intelligence network was fully functioning and on April 3, British Admiral Dixon, in Rio de Jannero, received notification of Essex’s arrival. On June 3 he received a letter from British merchants in Valparaiso reporting the welcoming of Essex in the harbor and that Essex had "gone to take and destroy the English whalers on the coast".


Realizing the economic impact of unchecked American raiding of the whaling fleet, 10 June HMS Phoebe and the armed merchant ship Isaac Todd joined Dixon's squadron. Phoebe and Todd had been sent by the Admiralty to destroy the American trading post at Astoria in the Oregon territory. Dixon sent HMS Cherub and HMS Racoon to guard the whaling fishery, while Phoebe's mission was changed, becoming to seek out and capture or destroy Essex. Captain Hillyar of the Phoebe was given complete discretion of action since new intelligence would reach Phoebe much faster than orders from Dixon in Rio de Janeiro would. The single exception being that Phoebe must not violate the neutrality of the Spanish colonies.


On 12 July 1813 Hillyar, in Phoebe, gave sealed orders for rendezvous and locations to renew stores for Isaac Todd, Cherub, and Racoon without contact of the South American mainland. While rounding Cape Horn, the ships became separated from Isaac Todd and in October, Hillyar received information that Essex had taken her. Hillyar then detached Racoon to the Columbia River to destroy the trading post at Astoria. She arrived to find that the British North West Company had already taken the fort. Meanwhile, Hillyar found that Essex had been sighted at the Juan Fernandez Islands, Valparaiso, and the Galapagos but his sources did not know where she currently was.


Porter Establishes America's First Pacific Naval Base

Beginning with her departure from Valparaiso in March 1813, Essex captured thirteen British Whalers in five months. One of these whalers, the Atlantic, Porter renamed Essex Junior, armed her with ten 18-pounder carronades and ten 6-pounder long guns, and put a crew aboard her under the command of his Executive Officer John Downes. The two ships and nine of their prizes put in at the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands on 25 October 1813 for repairs.

Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands
Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands

Porter renamed the Island Madison’s Island, claiming it for the United States. He began preparations to set up an American Naval Base there as well as a small colony named Madisonville to house the sailors. The local chieftain, in exchange for rights to build the base, demanded that the Americans become his allies and help fight the war against the Happah, Typee and other tribes. While the Americans and their allies experienced some early victory, they faced increasing resistance until Porter burned the main Typee village.

By December 9, Essex was repaired and ready for sailing. The sailors were not happy about leaving their native girlfriends and the British nationals began trying to stir up mutiny. After suppressing the talk of mutiny, Essex and Essex Junior departed Nuku Hiva in mid-December 1813. The situation was quiet until on 7 May 1814, the British sailors among the garrison mutinied, releasing the six prisoners, and attacking Fort Madison before taking over Seringapatam and getting away. Lt. Gamble was wounded in the foot and was left adrift in a small boat with four others, but they eventually made it to Sir Andrew Hammond. Meanwhile the British interpreter Wilson was arousing trouble with the Te I'i by telling them that Porter would not come back. A few days later six of the American sailors were attacked on the beach by the Te I'i; a sixteen-year-old midshipman was killed along with four sailors while two others escaped, one of whom was wounded.

Typee Warrior Drawn by Porter
Typee Warrior Drawn by Porter

Meanwhile, Gamble was alone on his ship, recovering from his wounded foot, when two war-canoes approached for an attack. The cannon of the ship had been pre-loaded, so single-handedly Gamble limped from gun to gun, firing them as fast as possible, until the enemy fell back. The next morning, he gave the order to evacuate Madisonville, there being only eight men left on shore and all were either wounded or ill. Thus ended the existence of America's first naval base and colony in the Pacific Ocean.


The Blockade

In January 1814, Essex sailed into neutral waters at Valparaíso, only to be trapped there for six weeks by the arrival of HMS Phoebe and the sloop-of-war HMS Cherub on 3 February. Porter knew that British diplomatic support was more useful to the Chileans than American support, and thus he understood that Essex could not stay long in Valparaíso. British merchant George O'Brien in the Emily sailed out of Valparaíso with intelligence about Essex for Hillyar. Hillyar sailed into the harbor at Valparaíso in Phoebe close to Essex, trying to incite Porter to fire first and violate the Chilean neutrality. Essex, however, had rigged kedge anchors at the ends of its yards to grapple Phoebe and engage. Seeing Essex was ready for battle, Hillyar hauled off while Porter held his fire, thus avoiding a diplomatic incident. Nonetheless, Porter missed his opportunity to escape to sea while Phoebe was in port. Essex was faster than Cherub while Phoebe on the other hand could sail up to 13 knots as she was built to a lengthened design for the very purpose of increasing speed.

HMS Phobe
HMS Phobe

Porter agreed to exchange his British prisoners aboard Essex with Hillyar's American prisoners aboard Phoebe. At this point, all ships were docked in Valparaíso. By agreeing to this exchange, Hillyar was able to confirm that Essex was only armed with short-range carronades, a vital piece of intelligence. Having renewed stores, Phoebe and Cherub returned to sea on 14 February as Hillyar feared that if Essex sortied, Porter would have Phoebe and Cherub detained for 24 hours as not to violate Chilean neutrality. Lying just outside the range of the Chilean coastal guns (which was a common marker of the end of the neutral range) Phoebe and Cherub could still send boats into the harbor to receive fresh beef and water.


On 25 February, Porter had the prize Hector towed to sea and burnt in Valparaíso harbor. This being a violation of Chilean neutrality, the Chilean governor was insulted and angry and sent dispatches to Hillyar saying he would ignore the action if Essex were taken in the harbor. Despite his permission, Hillyar did not engage as such a violation of neutrality might be beyond the power of the governor to ignore as the United States would protest. On 27 February Essex and Essex Junior had set sail. Phoebe was denying Porter the opportunity for a close-range engagement where his carronades would be effective. Porter fired a signal gun to Essex Junior and fired two shots at Phoebe. Hillyar did not return fire, and the American ships returned to port.


Porter made complaints about Hillyar violating neutrality to the Chileans hoping to create a situation that would allow Essex to sortie. Hillyar asserted that Porter violated neutrality three times. First by burning Hector on 25 February, by firing two shots at Phoebe on 27 February, and by trying to board Phoebe on 12 March: a plan that failed because Hillyar had received dispatches with information about the boarding plan. Porter would then write a challenge to Hillyar offering a single ship duel. Hillyar declined this challenge–unlike all other frigate captains in the War of 1812, Hillyar had already proved himself in the Battle of Tamatave in 1811 and felt there was no need for heroics on his part.


Porter received information of HMS Tagus and HMS Nereus, both more powerful than Essex, transiting to the Pacific, and it became clear that Essex must escape before reinforcements arrived. On 27 March, Porter sent his Purser ashore, making sure Hillyar received information about this in an attempt to mislead Hillyar into thinking he would not sortie. That night, Porter sent Lieutenant Maury out to sea in one of Essex's boats carrying blue lights and launching rockets. Porter hoped that Hillyar would follow this display to leeward allowing Essex to escape at daybreak. Hillyar spotted the lights but sighting no ships he realized this was a decoy. He sent both Phoebe and Cherub to windward of where Essex was moored anticipating Porter's plans.


The Battle of Valparaiso

The next morning, 28 March 1814, Porter was disappointed to find Phoebe and Cherub close to the southern point of the bay. The wind picked up from the south-southwest and Porter struck his royal masts and yards around 2:45 PM. Soon after, one of Essex's cables parted and Porter then made a break for the sea. Hillyar acted to sail at once to cut Porter off. A sudden squall took down Essex's main topmast which broke off at the lower cap taking two men with it.

Captain David Porter
Captain David Porter

Porter, having lost his topmast, had no hope of escape. He held Essex to starboard and cut away the wreckage. Due to the wind direction, and the positions of the British ships, Porter was unable to sail back into the port and so, around 3:45 PM, dropped anchor in a small bay out of sight of the nearest Chilean fort about 60 feet from shore. In defiance, Essex hoisted three ensigns, "FREE TRADE AND SAILORS RIGHTS" to the foretop, "GOD OUR COUNTRY AND LIBERTY. TYRANTS OFFEND THEM" to the mizzen top and the United States colors to the mizzen peak.


Hillyar considered that because Essex was out of the range of Chilean cannon, she was in international waters. At 4:10 Hillyar signaled Cherub to fight at anchor roving extra cables to the anchor so the ship could be skewed around, and the broadside brought to bear. He sailed Phoebe intent on bringing her broadside to bear on Essex's stern. The battle began just before 4:30 PM at a range of a half-gunshot (250 yards) while Phoebe was still underway. Phoebe opened fire on Essex's stern and starboard quarter. Cherub fired on Essex's bow. Heavy fire from Essex's long 12-pounder chase guns gravely wounded Commander Tucker of Cherub and caused him to move alongside Phoebe. Tucker nevertheless remained on deck throughout the action.


Porter was desperate to bring his guns to bear. He tried to have a spring rove into his anchor cable and Essex skewed around, but they were shot away before they could be used. Essex's 32-pounders, despite Porter claiming they were of no use, were of devastating effectiveness against Phoebe. Phoebe's popular first lieutenant was mortally wounded by splinters and Hillyar was forced to increase the range at which he fought to take advantage of the range of his long 18-pounders over the 32-pounder carronades. Hillyar had not seen that his firing was effective, but Essex had effectively fired bar shot and chain shot from the long 12-pounders and Phoebe's topsails were flying loose as their sheets had been cut, the mainsail cut up, the jib boom damaged, and the fore main and mizzen stays shot away. Once out of carronade range, Hillyar had his crew mended the rigging and furled the mainsail.

Captain Hillyar of HMS Phobe
Captain Hillyar of HMS Phobe

Before Hillyar engaged again, he hailed Tucker to keep Cherub underway instead of fighting at anchor. Hillyar approached again in Phoebe around 5:30 PM, engaging with his 9-pounder chase guns, and received steady fire from Essex. At this point the wind died down, occasionally becoming completely calm. Hillyar anchored at a greater range of a 1⁄2 mile than he had done the first time and Phoebe's long 18-pounders were effective against Essex while Essex's carronades were not against Phoebe because of the distance.


When the wind picked up, Porter cut his cable and sailed toward Phoebe to board her. A little before 6:00 PM, Hillyar set sail and avoided Essex, whose rigging had been shredded by Phoebe, making her hard to control while underway. Phoebe continued to devastate the drifting Essex with her continuing fire cutting down her crew, damaging the standing rigging and upper deck throughout the battle. Many of the guns aboard Essex had been disabled and a small pile of powder exploded near Essex's main hatch. Essex's crew began to lose morale.


Porter ordered Essex to be run ashore and blown up as James Lawrence had said about USS Chesapeake when HMS Shannon took her. Porter was forced to surrender when the wind died down again and there was no hope of sailing on shore while so many of the crew were wounded that they could not abandon ship. Nevertheless, 60 or 70 Americans abandoned ship and took boats to the shore. Some swam and drowned, but most were collected by British boats. Approximately 40 escaped to the land. At 6:20 Porter struck his colors. Unfortunately, the chaos of Essex's rigging and the many banners, flags, and ensigns that Porter hoisted caused the firing to continue for ten minutes before the British realized that Essex had struck and sent a boat to secure the prize.

Battle of Valparaiso
Battle of Valparaiso

Essex had been hit with more than 200 shot and had her stern smashed in, a hole in her counter, her wheel and rudder damaged, all three masts damaged, the figurehead shot away, 15 guns disabled, fifty-five gun crew killed, sixty gun crew wounded, and the upper works and rigging severely damaged. Porter was traumatized by the casualties, humiliated by defeat, and overwrought by his exertions that he openly wept as he offered his sword to Hillyar.


Phoebe suffered four killed and seven wounded, Cherub had one killed and three wounded. Phoebe had holes below the waterline as well as her rigging severely cut.

Throughout the whole battle Essex Junior was not engaged by the British as they considered her too weak to be a threat.


We hope you enjoyed Part 7 of our examination of the War of 1812, found it to be interesting, and hopefully learned something new. Please join us again in two-weeks for our final look at the War of 1812 as, in Part 8 we discuss the diplomatic negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war and ushered in 200+ years of amity and peace between the United States and Great Britain.


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