David Farragut: The Boy Midshipman

By Kate Dickinson Sweetser

It was a day in late October, in the year 1812. Down the Delaware River, came slowly sailing the frigate Essex, which was one of a fleet being sent to cruise along the Atlantic coast for the protection of American vessels from their English enemies, for 1812 was the year when the war between England and America was declared, and for this reason.

England had for a long time been at war with France. Any vessel going to or from a French port was liable to be attacked by an English man-of-war, and the English government even claimed the right to search American vessels to see whether any English sailors were on board. And worse than that, many American sailors were accused, and falsely, of being English deserters and were taken from their own vessels and forced to serve on English ships. All attempts of America to adjust this matter peacefully were refused, and in 1812 America was obliged to declare war against Great Britain, and in consequence a squadron was fitted out to cruise along the Atlantic coast, to protect American vessels from the English.

The Essex was in command of Captain Porter, and as she was not ready to start when the rest of the fleet did, she sailed alone down the river through the quiet bay, and out into the ocean, and as she sailed, she bore little resemblance to our war vessels of to-day, so clumsily fashioned was she, being made of wood, with only one covered deck, and the open forecastle and quarter-deck above it, and had but two tiers of guns--the largest frigates carried sixty guns, besides a large pivot gun at the bow, and were noted for their speed, though in comparison to modern warships they were as a tortoise is to a hare.

Down the river sailed the Essex to join the sister-vessels of her fleet, with a pennant flying from her masthead, on which were the words, "Free trade, and sailors' rights," for both of which, Captain Porter was ready to fight.

On the deck of the Essex as she swung slowly out to sea, stood Captain Porter, and by his side stood the proudest boy in all America that day, David Farragut, a little midshipman in a shining uniform which boasted more brass buttons than the years of its wearer's life--for David was only ten years old, and this is how he came to be in such an important position on that October day.

Born on a farm near Knoxville, Tenn., on the fifth of July, in 1801, David Glascow Farragut had a rich inheritance of courage and energy, both from his mother and father--one being a Spaniard who had come to America during the Revolutionary war, through his desire to help the Colonists in their struggle for liberty, the other a brave, energetic young Scotch woman.

The little farm was miles away from any other dwelling place, and around it there was only a wilderness of forest trees, so that little David and his brother were not allowed to go out of sight of the house, because of the wild animals prowling through the woods and the Indians who often lurked near. One day while the father was away hunting, the Indians came and tried to force their way into the house, but brave Elizabeth Farragut was too quick for them, with fierce courage she guarded the entrance to the house--axe in hand--first sending the boys up to a loft under the roof, where they crouched in silence for hours, while the courageous mother kept the Indians at bay, and finally they tired of their fruitless attempt and went away.

When David was seven years old his father was appointed sailing master in the navy, and in consequence the family moved to the plantation on the bank of Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, where the father's headquarters were to be. As he was devoted to his children, he generally kept them with him when he was off duty, and many times took them out in his little sail boat on the lake in the fiercest kind of storms, storms so severe that sometimes they could not even get home, but would spend the night on an island, warmly wrapped in a heavy sail, or tucked up under a protecting coverlet of sand. When he was blamed for this, he always answered:

"Now is the time to conquer their fears," and continued to take his boys on such excursions as before.

One day while George Farragut was out on the lake fishing, he saw an old man in a boat alone and evidently sick.

Pulling alongside of him, Farragut found him unconscious, and towing his boat to shore, carried him to the house, where Elizabeth Farragut nursed him with as tender care as if he had been her father. His disease was yellow fever, and in five days he died, and brave Elizabeth Farragut survived him by only a few days, having caught the disease while nursing him.

A sad day that was for the poor widower who was left with five motherless children to care for, and it is small wonder that he scarcely knew where to turn. While he was still dazed by his burden of grief, a stranger came to the desolate little home on the lake, and asked to see Mr. Farragut. He was Capt. Porter, the son of the old man who had been cared for in his last sickness by the Farraguts, and his son had come to express his gratitude for their kindness, and to offer to adopt one of the boys, as a token of appreciation, if Mr. Farragut was willing to give one up.

Although it meant final parting with his boy, and that was not easy, George Farragut felt it was a wise thing to do, and as his eldest son, William, was already in the navy, David was the next to accept the offered advantage. Captain Porter was at that time in command of the naval station at New Orleans, and his showy uniform made a great impression on little David, who though sad at leaving his father and brothers, was eager to go with this handsome new guardian, and as soon as the farewells were said, and his slender wardrobe was packed. Captain Porter took him away with him to his home in New Orleans, and from there to Washington where he was placed in a good school.

Farragut was a bright, intelligent boy, with an honest, pleasant face, and though he was short, he stood very erect and always held his head very high.

"I cannot afford to lose any of my inches," he always said.

The Promise

One day he was introduced to the Secretary of the Navy, who after asking him many questions, was so delighted with the boy's quick answers that he patted him on the head, saying:

"My boy, when you are ten years old, I shall make you a midshipman in the navy."

That promise seemed too good to be true to young Farragut, who was then nine and a half years old, but the Secretary of the Navy did not forget it but kept his word, and the appointment came promptly, putting the boy in a seventh heaven of anticipation. Then the arrangement was made that he was to go with Capt. Porter, and on that October day of 1812 when the Essex sailed out of the Delaware river, the young midshipman stood in all his proud splendour of uniform beside the Captain who was already his ideal of a naval hero.

For several months the Essex cruised about in the Atlantic, during which time Captain Porter was able to capture some English vessels, among them the Alert, and the Essex was crowded with prisoners taken from the prize ships.

One night when young Farragut lay apparently asleep, but in reality listening and watching, the coxswain of the Alert came to his hammock with a pistol in hand. Farragut scarcely breathed until he had passed by, then noiselessly the young midshipman crept to the cabin where Captain Porter was, aroused him and told him what he had seen. The Captain sprang from his cot, crying "Fire! Fire!" The sailors rushed on deck at the cry, and the rebels were in irons almost before they knew what had happened, while to young Farragut belonged the credit of having averted a mutiny.

Months passed, and still Captain Porter had not been able to find the American squadron, so he decided to make a trip around Cape Horn, and cruise about on the Pacific, which decision pleased young Farragut, as he was eager for an experience of real sea life. And he certainly had it. The weather was bitterly cold, and for twenty-one days the ship was lashed by terrific gales, by the end of which time the provisions were almost gone, and each man had only a small daily allowance of bread and water, which was not a light experience, with appetites whetted by salt air and hard work. After rounding the cape, Captain Porter sailed north along the west coast of South America and stopped at an island near the coast of Chili, and here all the sailors went ashore with their guns, and killed some wild hogs and horses, and even the horse-flesh they ate with keen relish, after being so long without fresh meat. Then for months they cruised about in the Pacific, and as he had done in the Atlantic cruise, so in the Pacific, Captain Porter captured several English vessels and also warned some American whaling ships of danger. These had been at sea for so long that they had not even heard of the war. Every now and again the Essex stopped at an island where the sailors could kill seals, or when they anchored in a bay, they fished for cod, and at one island where they stayed for quite a while, they found prickly pears to eat, and killed pigeons which the cook on the Essex made into pies, and turtles which they caught were made into soup, and the salt air and the free vigorous life gave them all ravenous appetites, and young Farragut felt the keenest joy of living which he had ever experienced.

On that island where they stayed so long they found a curious post-office--a link connecting whoever should discover it with the outer world of passing men and vessels. It was just a box nailed to a tree, where messages or letters could be left to be picked up by other vessels which happened to be going in the right direction to carry them.

A far cry indeed from that island post-box to the wireless stations of to-day, flashing news from sea to land--from land to sea!

At last in May, 1813, the Essex sailed away from the island, and soon more English vessels were sighted and captured. One of these prizes Captain Porter wished to have taken to Valparaiso, and as through all the long cruise he had kept a watchful eye on young Farragut, he now determined to put the boy's ability to a hard test.

Farragut was then only twelve years old, just think of it,--twelve years old, but the Captain put him in charge of the captured vessel, while its grey-haired old captain was required to navigate it to Valparaiso under Farragut's command.

The charge of such a vessel on such a trip was no light matter for a boy to undertake, and Farragut's joy and pride fairly oozed from every inch of his alert figure, beamed from every feature of his face. The old captain of the ship, in none too good a humour at having been captured by the Americans, was still more angry at being obliged to take orders from a mere child, and tried to ignore him, but as Farragut paid no heed to his snubs, he tried a different method. When Farragut gave orders that "the maintop-sail be filled away," the captain answered that he would shoot any man who dared to touch a rope without his orders, and then went below to get his pistols. There wasn't a moment to lose. Instantly Farragut called one of his men, and told him what had happened and what he wanted done, and his frank manner and words accomplished what no amount of commands would have done.

"Aye, aye, sir!" answered the faithful seaman, and at once prepared to obey the order, while Farragut sent down word to the rebellious captain not to come on deck with a pistol if he did not wish to go overboard.

There was no question from that moment as to who was master of the vessel, while the boy was greatly admired for his bravery which had been equal to such an emergency, and the vessel was brought safely into port by the young commander, who then went back to the Essex, proud in the fact of having accomplished the task assigned him.

On his return, Captain Porter had decided to go at once to some islands far out in the Pacific, where he could refit the Essex, and so they sailed in that direction, and when near the islands they were sighted by some of the natives who paddled out in a canoe to meet them, and eagerly invited the sailors ashore, promising them fruit and other provisions. The natives were indeed a strange sight to the eyes of the American boys, for their bodies were heavily tattooed, and gaily ornamented with feathers in true barbaric fashion, but they were very friendly and during the six weeks while the ship was being refitted, although the American sailors were given lessons daily by the chaplain of the Essex, when the lesson was over, they were allowed to mingle freely with the islanders, and Farragut learned many new things from them, things which were afterwards invaluable to him. To the islanders, swimming was as natural and as easy as walking, and although David never became as proficient in this as his new friends, still he learned to swim easily and fast, and too, they taught him how to walk on stilts, and how to use a spear with skill and ease, and in such sports and occupations, time passed quickly and the Americans were most regretful when the day came for them to say farewell to their island friends. But the Essex was ready to sail for Valparaiso, so off they went and when they sailed away, young Farragut was almost as much developed in muscle, and as bronzed by the sun and wind, as were the friends he left behind him on that island to which he always looked back as an enchanted land.

Two months later when the Essex was lying quietly at anchor in the harbour of Valparaiso, and many of her crew happened to be on shore, two English war vessels bore swiftly down upon the Essex in a very menacing way, and Captain Porter was afraid they would attack him, which they had no right to do, for Chili was not at war with either England or America, and so an American vessel should have been safe within that port.

One of these English vessels was a frigate called The Phoebe and the other a sloop named The Cherub. The Phoebe passed within fifteen feet of the Essex, when Captain Porter, who was standing on deck, hailed her, saying:

"If you touch a single yardarm I shall board you instantly!"

The Phoebe passed by without a reply and then both English vessels anchored at the entrance of the harbour, by doing which they kept the Essex a prisoner. In this position the vessels remained for several weeks, when there was a tremendous gale, in which the cables of the Essex gave way, and she at once began to drift towards the English ships. Captain Porter decided that this was his chance to escape, and setting all sail he made for the open sea.

Suddenly something snapped. Down crashed the main topmast, carrying sails, rigging and even some of the crew into the water. In such a crippled condition escape was impossible, and the Essex was driven back again to shore, where she was brought to anchor within pistol shot of the beach.

The Essex had only four guns that could shoot as far as the cannon of the English. The Phoebe and the Cherub took a position out of range of almost all of the guns of the Essex, and then poured broadside after broadside into the unfortunate American.

For two hours and a half the battle raged, The Phoebe throwing seven hundred eighteen-pound shots at the Essex. Captain Porter and his crew fought bravely until one hundred and twenty-four of their men had been killed or wounded, and during all this terrible battle, the first which David Farragut had ever seen, there was no braver officer on the ship than the little midshipman, who hurried here and there, carrying messages for the captain, bringing powder for the guns, and helping wherever he was needed. Years later in discussing this scene, Farragut said:

"I shall never forget the horrid impression made upon me at the sight of the first man I had ever seen killed. It staggered me at first, but they soon began to fall so fast that it all appeared like a dream, and produced no effect on my nerves.... Some gun-primers were wanted and I was sent after them. In going below, while I was on the ward-room ladder, the Captain of the gun directly opposite the hatchway was struck full in the face by an eighteen pound shot, and fell back on me. We tumbled down the hatch together. I lay for some moments stunned by the blow, but soon recovered consciousness enough to rush up on deck. The Captain seeing me covered with blood, asked if I were wounded, to which I replied, 'I believe not, sir.'

"'Then,' said he, 'where are the primers?' This brought me to my senses and I ran below again and brought up the primers."

When Captain Porter had been forced to surrender, the wounded men were carried to shore, and young Farragut volunteered his services to help the surgeons, and worked tirelessly, rolling bandages and waiting on the injured men, whose admiration he won by his devoted service; and so pleased was Captain Porter with his bravery throughout the whole battle, that he mentioned it in his official despatches to the government. Farragut himself in speaking of the battle later said:

"I never earned Uncle Sam's money so faithfully."

All of the American prisoners of war were put on board an unarmed vessel, and made to promise that they would not take up arms against the English until they had been exchanged for an equal number of English prisoners, after giving which promise the Essex was allowed to sail for the United States. When Farragut, the plucky little midshipman was taken on board the prison-ship, tears of mortification rolled down his cheeks.

"Never mind, my little fellow," said the Captain, "perhaps it will be your turn next."

"I hope so," was David's answer and his tears turned into a smile as he saw "Murphy" his pet pig being brought on board, and at once rushed to claim him, but the English sailors refused to allow that it was his, saying:

"You are a prisoner and your pig too."

"We always respect private property," answered David, seizing hold of the sailors, and of Murphy, with unyielding determination, and after a vigorous tussle he won his beloved pig.

Now prisoners of war, the Captain and crew of the Essex arrived in the harbour of New York on July 7th, 1814, and young Farragut, while waiting to be exchanged, went to Captain Porter's home at Chester, Pa., and while there was under the tuition of a Mr. Neif, a quaint instructor who had been one of Napoleon's celebrated Guards. He gave the boys in his care no lessons from books, but taught them about plants and animals and how to climb, taking long walks with them and giving them military drills as well, all of which Farragut enjoyed.

In the following November, the English and Americans, having made an exchange of prisoners, Farragut was free to return to the navy, but as a treaty of peace was made only a few weeks later between the Americans and English, he did not have to serve against the latter again, and during the next two years he made only one short uneventful cruise, being quartered the rest of the time on a receiving ship, or a vessel stationed at the navy yards, where recruits are received into the service.

But in the Spring of 1816, he went on a cruise which proved most interesting, on the Washington, a beautiful new ship carrying seventy-four guns, which was to take the American minister to Naples. Before leaving for the cruise, the President of the United States, James Madison, visited the Washington, and among his suite was Captain Porter, then a naval commissioner, who had come to say good-bye to the boy whom he loved devotedly.

Farragut was sad to say good-bye, but full too of the desire for change and adventure, and the new trip was a great experience for him.

The Washington cruised all summer in the Mediterranean, stopping at many places, which gave Farragut an opportunity to study geography in the finest way possible. The great volcano Vesuvius was in eruption when he visited it, which was an experience he never forgot, and another of a very different kind was when the King of Naples and the Emperor of Austria visited the Washington and were entertained with great display and elegance. After stopping at the coast towns of Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers, the Washington finally put up for the winter in a Spanish harbour, and then, as during the entire cruise, the boys were taught by the ship's chaplain, Mr. Folsom, who was so devoted to David that when in the fall of 1817 he was appointed consul to Tunis, he wrote to the Captain of the Washington asking permission to take the boy with him, because, he said to the commodore "he is entirely destitute of the aids of fortune and the influence of friends, other than those whom his character may attach to him," and the request was granted.

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Farragut spent nine delightful and valuable months with his old friend, who gave the boy every opportunity, not only for study, but to gain such polish and worldly experience as he would need in later life and David eagerly profited by every advantage given him. Then the Danish consul, who was also an admirer of the bright sturdy boy, invited him to visit him. Farragut was now sixteen years old, and it was at that time that the first real hardship of his life came to him, when as the result of a sunstroke, his eyes were weakened, and never entirely recovered.

Soon it was time for him to go on duty on the Washington again, and Mr. Folsom, tearful with regret at being obliged to part from the boy, took him in his arms and gave him his blessing and their paths in life parted, although forty years later, when Farragut had become a famous Admiral he sent a token of respect and love to Mr. Folsom, showing that he had never forgotten his old friend.

When Farragut was eighteen years old, he was called to America to take his examination for a lieutenancy, which he took and passed successfully, but as there was no vacancy just then in the navy, he was obliged to wait, and although he spent the time happily with the Porters in their Virginia home, he was glad indeed when the chance came to cruise again, for he was a thorough sailor, and the love of the sea ran hot in his veins.

For years both the American and English had been waging war against bands of pirates who infested the coast of the West Indies. These robbers had small fast ships, and would attack unarmed merchantmen, seize all the valuables they could carry away or destroy, and sometimes kill the crew or put them ashore on some desert island. Ever since peace with England had been declared, Captain Porter had been a commissioner of the navy, and made no sea voyages, but now he offered to resign this position and attempt to drive the pirates away, only demanding that the government should give him a fleet of small vessels which could follow the pirates into their retreats.

The government accepted his offer, and gave him orders to fit out such a fleet as he chose, and he bought eight small schooners, similar to those used by the pirates, and also five large row-boats or barges, which were called the "mosquito fleet" and Farragut was assigned to one of the vessels named the Greyhound, and in command of it he had many exciting encounters with the pirates. At one time when off the Southern coast of Cuba, some of the Greyhound's crew who had gone ashore to hunt game, were fired on by the pirates, and returned this fire without effect, then went back to their ship. Farragut was ordered to take a party of men to capture the pirates, and at three o'clock the next morning, they set out in the barges, and after landing on the island, had no easy time to find the pirate camp, as they had to cut their way through thickets of trailing vines, thorny bushes and cactus plants and in such intense heat that some of the men fainted from exhaustion. They found the camp, but their prey had fled! Evidently the approaching vessels had been seen, and the pirates were gone. The sailors at once searched their camp, which was protected by several cannon, and there they found some houses a hundred feet long, and also an immense cave filled with all kinds of goods taken from plundered vessels.

The sailors burned the houses, and carried off the plunder and the cannon to their boats, while David carried away a monkey as his prize. Just as the men were returning to their boats, they heard a great noise behind them, and thought surely that the pirates had come back to attack them, and Farragut stood still and made a speech to the sailors, urging them to fight bravely and to stand their ground like men. Imagine their surprise and amusement when they found their foes were not pirates, but thousands of land-crabs scurrying through the briars!

This was only one of the incidents that young Farragut had while on his first cruise as acting lieutenant. During the entire cruise to the West Indies, the American sailors suffered much from yellow fever and from exposure, and in alluding to the voyage in after days, Farragut said:

"I never owned a bed during my cruise in the West Indies, but laid me down to rest wherever I found the most comfortable berth."

The pirates were finally driven from the seas, their boats burned or captured, and their camps entirely destroyed, and Farragut's first and most exciting cruise as a youthful commander came to an end. The honours which were his at a later day were such as come to the man of years of training and experience, but from the day when the little midshipman stood on the deck of the Essex beside Captain Porter as she sailed down the Delaware river, to the time when he stood in the proud glory of his title, the first admiral of America, his is the story of a man who won his fame by a never varying attention to detail, a never ending effort for self-improvement, and a never relaxed adherence to duty.

All honour to Midshipman Farragut--the Admiral-to-be!

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