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Chronicles Farragut's early naval career, from his commission as a midshipman through early exploits aboard his first ship, the Essex.
Prison Ship Valparaíso, Chile
Tuesday, March 29, 1814—Day One of Our Captivity
I begin this letter not knowing if it will reach you. I often think of you, especially now, as I have much time on my hands. I am a prisoner of the English in Valparaíso. I was captured after a fierce battle on Valparaíso Bay.
I think, too, of Mama and miss her. For the year we were together Mrs. Porter loved me like her own son, but it was not the same. And then I went to sea.
I hope you read this letter with patience and understanding. I know I have been wayward in not writing you for more than two years, but you'll see much has happened to me in that time. In this letter I hope you will see that the boy you sent to be cared for by Captain Porter has grown into a man.
Now as a man I must suffer this imprisonment. We hope to be paroled soon. If so, we will be exchanged for British officers and returned to the United States. I do not look forward to the parole. Parole means I may not fight the English again until I am exchanged for a British midshipman. If we are not paroled, however, we will be shipped to England. There we will rot in another dreadful prison ship.
As with my other challenges, I must face this one with courage and determination.
I shall write daily to you long letters, just as a midshipman I wrote daily in my log. I will tell you my adventures to the best of my memory, beginning with my posting to the Essex.
The Essex, having been shattered by cannon fire, is now in the hands of the English. Yet the day I first walked her decks, her black paint was fresh, her tall masts stood firm, her white sails were furled, her crew was eager to engage the English enemy.
I was the last new midshipman to climb the Essex 's rope ladder.
I will continue in my next entry, for I am tired after this harrowing day.
Good night, Papa.
Wednesday, March 30, 1814—Day Two of Our Captivity
I still remember the day I left you in Louisiana to join Captain Porter's family. Mama's death was so sudden. So painful to endure. But now I understand better why I had to leave you. Perhaps then I could not understand that, alone, you could not care for me and all my brothers and sisters.
Like a flapping sail, I was pulled in two directions. I envied brother William in his glorious midshipman's uniform. I so wished to follow in his footsteps. Yet I longed to remain with you. Not to be torn from my family. Little did I understand the challenges I would face when I left that sunny day with Captain and Mrs. Porter. Every day since, I have taken a moment to bring a picture of you and Mama to my mind. Now as you read this letter, I hope you will see me in your mind. I have done much and experienced many things following the wind and the waves aboard the valiant Essex. When Captain Porter was ordered to Washington, I followed.
I first set foot on the Essex on August 9, 1811. Commander Bainbridge had posted Captain Porter to the Essex. Much to my delight Captain Porter desired I should serve him and our country as one of the Essex 's midshipmen. Anchored in Newport News, Virginia, we awaited Captain Porter's orders to sail. The Essex, carrying forty-six cannons, was prepared for war against England. We called this our Second War of Independence. Just as you fought in the first war, I was to fight in the second.
I berthed with the eleven other midshipmen. At ten years of age, I was the youngest. And the smallest. Like you, Papa, I fear I will never grow outwardly big, but must grow large within myself.
John Fittermary is the eldest midshipman. His spirits always seem bright. Even now, imprisoned as we are, he finds something for us to laugh at. The other middies tease him, calling him Mary, which brings color to his face. I have learned much from him, including how to better hold my temper in check. Fittermary calls me a firecracker, always ready to explode. Such a fiery temper must come from our ancestors, Papa, for in this way, as in my size, I am much like you.
Captain Porter says I am the youngest midshipman ever to serve in the United States Navy. This also means I am the youngest midshipman ever captured. I remember the pride I felt when, nine months earlier, Captain Porter read my midshipman's warrant out loud. I have read it so many times myself that it remains in my memory to this day, as does the oath of allegiance I swore to the navy.
JAMES MADISON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. To all who shall see these presents, GREETINGS; KNOW YE, That reposing special Trust and Confidence in the Patriotism, Valor, Fidelity, and abilities of David Farragut, I do appoint him a Midshipman in the NAVY OF THE UNITED STATES. He is therefore carefully and diligently to discharge the duties of a Midshipman. And I do strictly charge and require all Officers, Seamen, and others under his command to be obedient to his orders as Midshipman. Given under my Hand, at the city of Washington this seventeenth day of December in the year of our Lord one Thousand eight hundred and ten, and in the thirty-fourth year of the Independence of the United States.
Now the sun sets. Across the water I hear English bells ringing a change in the watch.
How well I remember my first watch. Midnight until four in the morning. I found it difficult to stay awake, though the stars dazzled me. To fight sleep I walked from bow to stern and back again, treading those decks I would come to know so well. Here I tread the same number of steps, imagining the Essex beneath my feet.
At the end of my watch I slept for four hours, until eight bells, then the day began anew. I dozed during my lessons that day, earning a sting from Lieutenant Downes's "starter," the rope he snapped to urge along slackards. Never again was I to feel its bite!
If I were aboard the Essex, I would be hanging my hammock now, which is not such an easy thing to do. That first night I battled my hammock, spilling myself onto the gun deck. I fought two other middies when they laughed at me. Fittermary showed me how to balance properly so I would stay in the hammock. I was pleased, for I feared I would have to fight every midshipman that night before I could sleep.
The hard deck of a prison ship is my bed these nights.
Good night, Papa.
Thursday, March 31, 1814—Day Three of Our Captivity
Another dawn. I write early today to spare our few candles so we can tend the wounded in this damp gloom. The English supply us with ink, quills, and paper, for they treat us like gentlemen and officers, but they will give us no more candles.
Captain Porter ordered me to tally our losses from the recent battle against the Phoebe and the Cherub. Two English ships against our one. We lost fifty-eight men to cannon fire and thirty-one to drowning. Sixty-six men lie wounded. The Phoebe is as damaged as the Essex. My temper flares. The English flag flies from the Essex 's mainmast. How I long once again to see the Stars and Stripes flutter there as it did when I first joined the Essex.
My early days aboard the Essex passed in a maze of activities.
"Mr. Farragut, report to deck. Mr. Farragut, do your sums. Mr. Farragut, fetch the carpenter. Mr. Farragut, calculate our position. Mr. Farragut, Mr. Farragut, Mr. Farragut ..." In my dreams I heard calls for Mr. Farragut. Yet I was pleased to hear the Mr. before my name, as it meant I truly was an Essex officer.
Now I long for those duties. In captivity boredom is our greatest enemy, not the English. As I sharpen my quill this morning I am reminded of my first knife, the midshipman's dirk Captain Porter presented to me.
How I envied him his long, strong sword. A dirk is a puny weapon, yet it was all we middies were allowed to carry. Swords we had to earn through skill, courage, and luck, all of which would lead to promotion. I vowed to someday have a sword as grand as Captain Porter's.
Yet today his sword and mine are in the hands of the English, tokens of our surrender.
Yes, Papa, even though it is months before my thirteenth birthday, I have earned and worn my own captain's sword.
My greatest fear those early days on the Essex was that I could not meet the challenges before me. Captain Porter would not, and still will not, tolerate anything less than perfection in each man under his command. Those not meeting his standards were dismissed. I hoped never to suffer such disgrace. I met the daily schooling with pleasure, as each new lesson I mastered moved me closer to earning my sword. The mathematics drill, the endless navigation calculations, the tedious grammar, all I faced with determination. I gained on the older midshipmen, for such learning comes easy to me. I helped other middies with their studies, earning friends as well as knowledge.
Yet, try as I might, I could not make friends with Will Odenheimer. He was my tormentor, finding ways to upset me, or spoil a completed task, or make me look foolish in front of the men. He was sixteen years old and much larger than me, so fighting him was out of the question. More than once I used my wits to turn his schemes astray, but then he would simply find another way to torment me. Then one time I truly bested him.
As the youngest midshipman, I had to obey the orders of anyone my senior. Will challenged me to climb to the lookout's post atop the mainmast.
He did not know I love to climb. I remembered the towering pine by our home on Lake Pontchartrain. I scampered up that tree like a monkey. From the deck the mainmast seemed no taller than my pine.
I was proved wrong. Climbing a tree anchored in earth is ever so much different from climbing one anchored in water.
With my companions watching, I climbed to the boom with no difficulty. I looked up. I seemed no closer to the crow's nest.
Then I made a mistake. I looked down. The mast swayed as the Essex rocked. I almost lost my grip.
But the ring of challenging faces far below spurred me on. A wave of dizziness washed over me. I closed my eyes.
Hand over hand I climbed. Up and up and up until I thought I must soon touch a cloud. Not once did I look down until I reached the top.
Newport News lay before me like a miniature town. Churches were dollhouses. People, horses, cows, and pigs, like toys.
Lieutenant Downes's fierce command brought me sharply to my senses. "Mr. Farragut, report to the deck. Immediately!"
Back on deck Lieutenant Downes appeared angry. He was in charge of the midshipmen at the time. His word was law to us.
"Mr. Farragut, why did you climb the mainmast?" he asked.
"I wished to see if Captain Porter had a fire burning in his lodgings, sir," I replied.
His gaze traveled over the faces of the other midshipmen. Behind his stern glance he seemed to be smiling at me. Turning on his heel, he went below deck.
Will Odenheimer, who would have lost his midshipman's privileges if I had reported him to Lieutenant Downes for ordering me to do such a dangerous task, grasped my hand in newfound friendship.
I had met his challenge. Since then we have been as close as brother William and I used to be.
Papa, I never knew I could write so much! Tomorrow I will tell of giving my first order.
Friday, April 1, 1814—Day Four of Our Captivity
There is no tomfoolery today. Even Fittermary is quiet as we await word of our fate. Captain Hillyar of the Phoebe will tell Captain Porter at noon what is to become of us. We must obey Hillyar's orders, be they parole or prison.
Thinking of orders reminds me to tell you, Papa, of giving my first order to a sailor. I had worried much about giving someone a command, for I was so young and the sailors so old.
It came about this way. Lieutenant Downes needed Boatswain's Mate Kingsbury. I asked Kingsbury to report to deck. He looked as if he'd squash me like a weevil from a biscuit.
"I am not obeying any pip-squeak," he bellowed at me.
I was frightened—he was so large and old, old enough to be my grandfather.
I asked him again. Once more he refused.
I then ordered him, saying, "Kingsbury, report to deck. Immediately!" in my best imitation of Lieutenant Downes.
With a grumble, Kingsbury obeyed.
I feared I had made an enemy of Kingsbury. Now that Will was my companion, would another foe take his place? Why can't we just fight the English, not ourselves? I wondered. If I could not order a man to deck without a struggle, how would I ever become a captain? Was I really too young to be a midshipman, as I had overheard some claim?
The following day Kingsbury again challenged me. I ordered him forward to help the boatswain. Cupping his ear, he pretended not to hear me. I sternly commanded him. Shuffling his feet, he slowly obeyed.
I was frowning outside but grinning inside, Papa. This time Kingsbury had followed my order after only the second request. I hoped my next order would need to be issued but once.
Captain Porter is to report to Captain Hillyar within the hour. Will we ever see the distant shores of America again? Or will we be taken captive of England to rot to death on prison ships? Papa, I shiver as I remember the tales you told of your captivity on a prison ship during the Revolution.
Saturday, April 2, 1814—Day Five of Our Captivity
Our greatest fear has passed. We will not be sent to England! The Essex Junior will take us to the United States where we will be exchanged for an equal number of English prisoners. The officers had their swords returned. I polished mine until it gleamed like a dolphin slicing through the sea.
Now that our last battle has been fought, I will tell the story of my first fight. And it was against our own countrymen!
This battle happened before we left American shores. We remained anchored at Newport News. Barrels of food, casks of fresh water, rope, tar, sails, and hundreds of other supplies were brought daily to the ship. Each day Captain Porter attended the ship's business ashore.
Knowing my skills in a small boat, for he had sailed with us many times in Louisiana, Captain Porter placed me in command of his gig. Each morning a small crew of men and I were to take the captain to shore and return him to the Essex when his business was concluded.
That fateful morning we rowed to the dock to wait for the captain. I was afraid, for my enemy, Kingsbury, was steering. I feared he would not obey my orders.
We tied to the dock to await the captain's return. A crowd of townsfolk gathered idly to watch us.
My face burned red when one said, "Here's a pint-sized captain dressed in his prettiest uniform.
He even has a toy sword to protect us from the English." I tried to ignore him. Soon his companions taunted me.
Kingsbury suggested that we go to another dock.
"No," I said in a voice loud enough for the townsfolk to hear. "These idlers are on navy property. If they are looking to fight the United States Navy, we will give them a battle!"
One idler picked up a bucket of dirty water. He poured it on me! Before I knew what had happened, Kingsbury snagged the culprit with a boat hook and spilled him into the gig. No matter his dislike for me, Kingsbury was not going to allow an Essex officer to be ridiculed.
Having recovered, I leaped from the boat, yelling, "At them, men!"
Armed with oak oars, we battled the unruly townspeople, who hurled rocks at us in return. We fought them off the dock and into the town square, where a shrill whistle ended the battle. The town police corralled us and led us to the courthouse. As the officer in charge, I signed a peace warrant, pledging us to keep the peace or go to jail.
Captain Porter must have known of the fight, but he said not a word until we returned to the ship. There he explained our adventure to Lieutenant Downes, saying "I could use more midshipmen like Mr. Farragut. That lad is three pounds of uniform and seventy pounds of fight!"
Kingsbury, his left eye black, grinned at me. I had met another challenge.
Wednesday, April 6, 1814—Day Nine of Our Captivity
Papa, I have not written for several days, as the wound in my arm pains me so. Please do not worry. It is but a scratch received in the battle with the Phoebe. Dr. Hoffman assured me the wound was properly cleaned; it will heal with only a scar to remind me of the fight.
Excerpted from Take Command, Captain Farragut! by Peter Roop, Connie Roop, Michael McCurdy. Copyright © 2002 Peter and Connie Roop. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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