The USS Essex, Captain David Porter, sailed from the Delaware on 28 October 1812 with orders to rendezvous with the USS Constitution and Hornet under Commodore Bainbridge.
Porter believed his ship to be ‘the worst frigate’ in the United States Navy. He disliked her armament, which consisted largely of carronades, very powerful but short range guns.
The Essex missed a number of rendezvous with Bainbridge before capturing the Post Office Packet Nocton on 12 December. Porter removed £15,000 worth of specie and sent her back to the USA as a prize, but she was recaptured on the way. On 29 December he took another British merchant ship.
Before the war Porter had proposed that the USN send an expedition to explore and colonise the Pacific. No action was taken, but his planning for it meant that he was well informed about the Pacific.
The Spanish colonies on the Pacific coast of South America had revolted, so might be friendly to a US warship. The Royal Navy had no warships in the region, making the British whaling industry and Britain’s substantial trade in the region, which included shipments of specie and bullion to the UK, vulnerable. He therefore decided to use a section of his orders that gave him discretion to act ‘for the good of the service’ to move to the Pacific.
The RN’s Brazil Station, responsible for protecting British maritime trade from the Caribbean to Chile, was commanded by Rear Admiral Manley Dixon. His most important task was to ensure that the bullion and specie needed to finance the war in Europe was transported safely home from South America. By July 1813 he had one 74 gun ship of the line, eight frigates, three sloops and two cutters to protect a vast area from Bainbridge, Porter and a number of privateers.
Dixon’s force was even weaker than the numbers suggest, since one of his frigates was old and three were sixth rates, too small to fight the larger US frigates. He therefore relied on what Andrew Lambert calls ‘widely deployed, effective British intelligence-gathering assets: with consuls, merchants, ship masters and warships in several key locations the information flow was relatively rapid.'
The Essex took 13 prizes in 1813 and inflicted heavy damage on the British whaling fleet. There were no US bases in the Pacific, so for 17 months she was forced to supply herself entirely from prizes . Anything bought had to be paid for by money obtained from the prizes. Theodore Roosevelt describes this feat as being ‘unprecedented.'
Porter valued his captures at $5,000,000: the exchange rate was then £1=$4.40. However, the only one of them that got back to the USA was the Atlantic, which Porter renamed the Essex Junior and armed with 10 long six pounders and 10 18 pound carronades. This made her a useful commerce raider, but she would be helpless against a British frigate.
On 12 January the Essex and the Essex Junior anchored at Valparaiso. On 8 February the 38 gun frigate HMS Phoebe, Captain James Hillyar, and the 18 gun sloop HMS Cherub, Captain Thomas Tudor Tucker, arrived at Valparaiso.
Roosevelt suggests that the British hoped to take the Americans by surprise, but failed to do so because the Essex was ready for action by the time that Phoebe came alongside her. Lambert argues that they hoped to provoke the Americans into firing first in what was a neutral port.
There then followed a stand-off. Both sides raised provocative banners. The Americans claimed to be fighting for free trade, although their seaman were more likely to be fighting for their ship and shipmates. A British banner referring to traitors would only make the British born members of the US crew fight harder.
Hillyar and Porter had met before when both were serving in the Mediterranean. They had a meeting onshore, at which they agreed to release prisoners, with the proviso that the men involved would not serve in the forthcoming action.
After resupplying his ships Hillyar took them to sea on 14 February. He may have been concerned that the local authorities would prevent the British from sailing for 24 hours if the Americans left the neutral port first.
On 27 February Phoebe fired a gun accidentally. The US officers, including Porter’s 12 year old foster son Midshipman David Farragut, the future Civil War Admiral, thought that this was a challenge. The two US ships set sail, but the British withdrew, refusing to fight a close action.
By the end of March Porter had learnt that two more British frigates were on the way. On the night of 27-28 March the Essex left Valparaiso. An attempt to distract the British by sending out a boat to fire rockets and burn lights failed. The Essex was then hit by a heavy squall, which swept away its main topmast. This cost two of her seamen their lives and made it impossible for her to outrun her pursuers.
At 4 pm the Essex anchored just off the coast. Hillyar argued that she was not in neutral waters because she was out of range of Chilean shore batteries.
Phoebe had a crew of 320 men and a broadside of 13 long 18 pounders, one long 12 pounder, one long 9 pounder, seven 32 pound carronades and one 18 pound carronade, a weight of 255 pounds at long range and 497 pounds at short range.
Cherub had a crew of 180 and a broadside of two long 9 pounders, two 18 pound carronades and nine 32 pound carronades, a weight of 18 pounds at long range and 342 pounds at long range. This made the total weight of the British broadside 273 pounds at long range and 839 pounds at short range.
The Essex had a crew of 255 and a broadside of six long 12 pounders and 17 32 pound carronades, a weight of 66 pounds at long range and 570 pounds at short range if Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that US shot was 7 per cent lighter than its stated size is accepted.
The Essex was outgunned even inside carronade range, even if Roosevelt’s theory about the weight of US shot is rejected, and hopelessly so at longer range. The British also had the tactical advantage of having two ships against one, enabling them to manoeuvre for a better position and keep one ship out of the Essex’s arc of fire.
Hillyar closed to 250 yards before opening fire at 4:20 pm. He initially placed Cherub on the Essex’s starboard bow and Phoebe under her stern, meaning that the US ship could not fire on Phoebe. Three attempts were made to put springs on the Essex cables in order to move her into a position where she could fire, but the springs were shot away. Cherub came under fire from the US bow guns, so moved close to Phoebe. Tucker was wounded but remained at his post.
In the first five minutes of the action the Americans suffered heavy casualties without being able to damage Phoebe, but then moved three 12 pounders to fire from the Essex’s stern, with the intention of crippling Phoebe’s rigging.
At 4:40 pm Hillyar ceased fire and withdrew. After repairing the damage to Phoebe’s rigging the British resumed the attack at 5:35 pm. Hillyar positioned his ship on the Essex’s starboard quarter, where the US broadside and stern guns could not bear. He stayed about half a mile away from his opponent, close enough for the British 18 long pounders to inflict significant damage, but too long a range for the American carronades to be effective.
Porter cut his ship’s cables at 5:50 pm and set all her remaining sails, his intention being to board Phoebe. This was a desperate move because the damage to the Essex’s rigging made her far less manoeuvrable than Phoebe. What little chance it had of success was ended when the wind died away.
Porter, with no hope of victory, now tried to run his ship aground and blow her up, but he was again thwarted by a change in the wind. With many of his crew badly wounded he now had no choice to surrender, but first encouraged the able bodied to abandon ship and head for the shore. The Essex’s flag was lowered at 6:20 pm by Hillyar’s account.
Total US casualties were 58 killed on board, 31 drowned whilst trying to reach the shore, 66 wounded and 76 captured unwounded, with 24 of the 255 crew making it to the shore. Phoebe lost four killed and seven wounded and Cherub one killed and three wounded. Porter offered Hillyar his sword, as was the custom of the day, but Hillyar allowed him to keep it.
Essex Junior, which had played no part in the battle, was also captured by the British. She was disarmed and sent to New York with exchanged US prisoners, including Porter. The Essex was taken into the RN, but was used mostly as a prison ship.
Hillyar reached the rank of Admiral and commanded fleets at sea in peacetime: the RN had far more officers than peacetime jobs for them, so this showed that he was well regarded.
Porter was treated as a hero on his return to the US. He was later court-martialled for exceeding his orders whilst suppressing piracy in the West Indies, commanded the Mexican Navy and became US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire
As with almost all naval actions of the War of 1812 the Battle of Valparaiso was won by the more powerful force. Hillyar acted cautiously, but his duty was to take the Essex with the minimum casualties and damage to his ships, which he achieved.
 A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol ii. p. 1.
 Quoted in A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, locations 5365-68.
 Ibid. Kindle locations 5401-6.
 T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2), p. 201.
 Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle locations 5483-87.
 Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii p. 10.
 Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle locations 5536-40.
 Times quoted are from the British account. The Americans clock was 25 minutes earlier.Ibid. Kindle location 5630-71.
 Crews and armaments are from Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 30
 Ibid. vol. i, pp. 82-83.
4 responses to “The Capture of the USS Essex 28 March 1814.”
Very enjoyable! Didn’t know that Porter got himself court martialed for hunting down pirates or technically exceeding his orders in hunting them down. Sounds a bit political to me.
Great article, Martin. I learn something new every time I come here. Quite typical that the US would honor Porter and then turn around and court-martial him, common stunt on the part of the bureaucracy.
Thanks for the comments. I generally link to the Encyclopedia Britannica ahead of Wikipedia, but Wiki says more than Britannica about Porter’s court martial. @It states that he ‘invaded Fajardo, Puerto Rico (a Spanish colony) to avenge the jailing of an officer from his fleet.’
What most surprises me is that he was later appointed an ambassador. However, he received his first diplomatic post in 1829, the year that Andrew Jackson, a veteran of the War of 1812, became president, so perhaps the politics then favoured him.
Incidentally, as well as being the foster father of David Farragut, one of the two best USN admirals of the Civil War, he was the actual father of the other one, David Dixon Porter. David junior was born in 1813 and served with his father in the Mexican Navy. Hillyar also had two sons who became admirals.
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