The battle of Valparaiso (28 March 1814) saw the defeat of the Essex and Essex Junior by HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub and was one of the more controversial naval encounters of the War of 1812, taking place in neutral Spanish waters.
The American frigate Essex entered the South Pacific in the spring of 1813. She had originally been part of a larger squadron, but the Constitution had run into HMS Java and despite defeating the British warship had been forced to return home for repairs. Captain David Porter, on the Essex, decided to continue his cruise alone, and on 14 March 1813 reached the port of Valparaiso in Chile. His target was the British whaling fleet, then active in the southern ocean, and over the next few months he captured twelve or thirteen whaling ships. One of these ships, the Atlantic, was renamed the Essex Junior and armed with twenty guns.
The British were also planning an expedition into the Pacific, in this case to the American North West, where they planned to destroy a fur trading post on the Columbia River. The frigate Phoebe and the sloops Cherub and Racoon were allocated to this task, all under the command of Captain James Hillyard. This small British naval force entered the South Pacific in the summer of 1813, and also visited Valparaiso. The Racoon was then sent on to deal with the fur trading post, while Phoebe and Cherub attempted to track down the American ships.
The four ships came together back at Valparaiso. Essex and Essex Junior arrived first, on 3 February 1813. The British arrived five days later, on 8 February. All four ships spent a tense time together in the harbour while the British took on fresh supplies, before Phoebe and Cherub put to sea and blockaded the American ships in port.
The status of Spanish waters was a little complex in 1814. Spain and Britain were allies in the war against Napoleon, but Spain was neutral in the War of 1812. The two British ships respected the neutrality of the port of Valparaiso, but once the Essex attempted to escape from the port the British considered the Americans to have relinquished the protection of neutrality.
The Phoebe carried a mix of guns in 1814. She was armed with twenty-six 18 pdr long guns, fourteen 32 pdr carronades and four long 9 pdr guns. The Cherub carried another eighteen 32 pdr carronades, six 18 pdr carronades and two long 6 pdr guns.
The Americans could match the British in the weight of their broadside, but not in range. The Essex Junior carried ten 18 pdr carronades and ten 6 pdr long guns, but she had not been built as a warship and her structure was thus not strong enough to withstand much punishment. The Essex carried forty 32 pdr carronades but only six long 12 pdrs. If the Essex could get close to the Phoebe then she had a chance of victory, but if the battle was fought at longer ranges the British had the advantage.
The blockade lasted for six weeks, but eventually an accident forced Porter to put to sea. On 28 March one of the Essex's two cables snapped in a fierce squall. Porter was forced to cut the other cable and attempt to get past the blockade. At first the same fierce winds that had caused the damage helped the Americans, and the Essex found herself to the windward of the British ships. At this point her luck changed - another fierce squall carried away her main topmast, meaning that there was no way she could escape from the British. The Essex sailed north along the coast for a short distance, before anchoring in a small bay.
The two British ships gave chase, and when they found the Essex at anchor decided to attack. The first clash came at around 4pm, and was a short long range engagement. Although the Essex could only use her long guns in this fight, she was able to inflict some damage on the British ships before they were forced to abandon the attack to get some more sea room.
The fight was renewed at around 5.30. Once again the British took advantage of their longer range guns and pounded the Essex from a distance. Porter attempted to run the Essex onto the shore to allow her men to escape, but yet another unlucky gust of wind prevented this. The Essex caught fire twice, and on each occasion the fire was controlled, but finally, at around 6.20, she was forced to strike her flags and surrender.
Captain Porter reported his losses during the battle as 58 dead, 39 severely wounded and 27 lightly wounded. British eyewitnesses also reported seeing around 100 men attempt to swim to shore - all British sailors captured earlier in the cruise of the Essex who had changed sides, and were now eager to escape British captivity. British losses were much lower, at five dead and ten wounded between the two ships, indicating just how much the battle was fought on Hillyard's terms. Hillyard's report on the battle emphasised the skill and bravery of the Essex's crew and of Captain Porter.
In the aftermath of the battle the Essex was repaired and taken to Britain, where she was later used as a prison ship before being sold off in 1837. The Essex Junior was used to return the captured American sailors to the United States, where she was seized and auctioned off.