In Pursuit of the Essex - Heroism and Hubris on the High Seas in the War of 1812, Ben Hughes

In Pursuit of the Essex - Heroism and Hubris on the High Seas in the War of 1812, Ben Hughes

One of the best known features of the War of 1812 was the series of duals between individual British and American naval vessels. These began with a series of famous American victories, but by the end of the war most of the US Navy had either been eliminated or blockaded. The dual between USS Essex and HMS Hillyar was one of the last to involve a US frigate, but was unusual in that it took place on the Pacific coast of Chile, well away from the scene of most other battles, and for ending one of the most unusual cruises of the war.

Captain Porter, the commander of the Essex, seems to have put to sea with every intention of moving into the Pacific, despite having orders to join up with other US warships in the South Atlantic. His Pacific voyage started well - he captured a number of British whalers, but he was obsessed with the idea of a duel with a British warship, and he ended up blockaded in Valparaiso, before eventually having to surrender after an attempt to escape past the British blockade failed. Very few of his prices successfully reached US waters, and his cruise ended up as something of a failure. However in the post-war period President Madison needed to restore his reputation, and so Porter's cruiser was 'spun' into a great US naval triumph, part of a general effort to rewrite the history of the War of 1812.

On occasions Porter does emerge as a bit of a prat - he took sides in a dispute on the South Seas island, and ended up taking one side in a fairly major war. Later he became obsessed with the idea of a 'fair fight' between the Essex and the Phoebe - a one-on-one formal dual that would have greatly favoured his ship, which had a broadside of 676lb, mainly made up of forty 32pdr carronades, compared to the Phoebe, which had a broadside of 502lb with twenty-six long 18-pounders and twelve 32pdr carronades. Unsurprising Captain Hillyar had no interest whatsoever in such a quixotic fight, while Porter appears to have been attempting to compensate for the unbalanced nature of his armament. The battle was eventually decided by Porter's poor tactics on the day, which played into Hillyar's hands, even though his second ship was barely involved in the fight.

Hughes takes a nice approach to the topic, following the two ships all the way from home waters to the final battle, rather than just focusing on the eventual dual itself. This takes us into unfamiliar areas - the scattered outposts of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires at a time when both countries were allied with Britain, at war with France, but neutral in the War of 1812. The voyage of the Essex later became the inspiration for Patrick O'Brian's The Far Side of the World, part of the Aubrey-Maturin series of Napoleonic naval novels, and the story does read almost like fiction (as do so many naval voyages of the age of sail).

1 - 'Yankee Warriors True': Captain David Porter and the Essex, 1 September 1812-25 January 1813
2 - The South Atlantic: USS Essex, 27 November 1812-25 January 1813
3 - 'A finer set of fellows': Captain James Hillyar and the Right Revered HMS Phoebe, 27 December 1812-11 April 1813
4 - Into the Pacific: USS Essex, 26 January 1813-11 April 1813
5 - From Tenerife to Rio: HMS Phoebe, 12 April 1813-9 July 1813
6 - The Galapagos Islands: USS Essex, 11 April 1813-9 July 1813
7 - In the Footsteps of Robinson Crusoe: HMS Phoebe, 10 July 1813-6 October 1813
8 - A Matter of Honour: USS Essex, 9 July 1813-2 October 1813
9 - Tragedy at Tumbez: HMS Phoebe, 3 October 1813-10 December 1813
10 - Death in Paradise: USS Essex, 4 October 1813-13 December 1813
11 - The Valley of the Unknown God: HMS Phoebe, 24 November 1813-8 February 1814
12 - The Standoff, 13 December 1813-28 March 1814
13 - The Battle, 27-28 March 1814
14 - The Aftermath, 29 March 1814-25 December 1814
Epilogue: Loose Ends, 7 July 1814-14 August 1870

Author: Ben Hughes
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 240
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime
Year: 2016

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