Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes

A Yankee Trick

The next morning the unusual spectacle was presented of a single vessel tagging along at the heels of the English fleet. Porter had shaken out his flag, hoping to entice the Minerva to come out and meet him.

The English officers who were his guests were loud in their denunciations of the conduct of the Minerva's commanding officer. They expressed their intentions of reporting him to the Admiralty in England, and the crew of the Essex held an impromptu meeting in the forecastle and sent two of their members aft with rather an alarming request. Old William Kingsbury was the spokesman. David could never forget how the old sailor looked as he stood twirling his cap in his hands and speaking earnestly to Captain Porter, who could scarcely restrain his merriment.

What the crew wanted, was in short, to have the Essex sail down and attack the whole convoy! In this madness, of course, Captain Porter did not agree, but nevertheless it was evident that he felt pleased at the spirit of the crew.

There were so many prisoners now on board the Essex that the crew would soon be reduced to half rations; and so, relieving the Englishmen of their arms and placing them on parole, Captain Porter prepared to send them on their way in the captured merchant vessel.

Four or five days after the unsuccessful attempt to lure the English frigate into an engagement the Essex had her first chance to do some fighting, if such it could be called.

A sail was discovered to windward, and from her general outline she was thought to be a British sloop of war. The Essex was sailing under reefed topsails. As soon as it was placed beyond doubt in the minds of the officers that the stranger was one of the enemy, Captain Porter determined to entice her within gun-shot. He dropped two long drags (made of spars and sailcloth) astern, displayed the English flag, and, sending men aloft, mastheaded the yards and apparently made every effort as if to escape.

The ruse was successful and the sloop of war bore 'down upon the Essex. The, huge joke soon spread through the ship. The ports were not opened, and the tompions were in the mouths of the guns; yet every man was at his post waiting for the word.

"David," said Midshipman Ogden, "isn't this the funniest thing you ever saw?"

The boys had made their way up the rigging and they watched the sloop come down closer and closer, and they could see that she was prepared for action, as her ports were dropped and her men at quarters.

It reminded David somehow of the way the hunters used to call ducks in Louisiana. She was coming to the decoy.

"Now, there will be some surprised people on board that ship," said Midshipman Ogden.

"Did you ever see such a broad grin in your life as Kingsbury has on his face?" remarked David, nudging his companion.

The boatswain's mate was passing just below them. As he went about the corner of the galley he met the colored cook, who was nicknamed "Phoebe" by the crew. He was a short, fat darky with a round bullet-head with little or no wool on the top. Kingsbury behaved just as a big boy might in an excess of good spirits. He caught the little negro in his arms and, lifting him, gave him first a squeeze and then lowered him softly to the deck. Then catching hold of one of his legs, he gave him a twirl like a top. Several of the crew had seen it and a titter broke out along the side.

It did not look like going into action. But excitement affects bodies of men often as if they were one person, and fun or merriment is as contagious as fear or courage sometimes.

"They have not taken the stoppers out of the guns," said David.

"Tompions you mean, youngster," corrected Ogden.

"I should have known better," David said to himself, "but then they are stoppers after all."

"Are the guns loaded?" asked another midshipman who met the boys as they descended to the deck.

"Captain Porter's guns are always loaded, young gentleman," said the third lieutenant, with a smile. "You'd better jump to your stations."

The sloop's lower sails could now be seen over the bulwarks of the Essex. She came down, with the water roaring and ' tumbling in front of her, and crossed close under the Yankee's stern, firing a gun, at which the frigate hove to.

"Now we've got you, my son," observed William Kingsbury, slapping his thigh as the sloop of war ranged up on the lee quarter.

No sooner had he spoken than the English flag at the Essex's peak came down to the deck and the. Stars and Stripes went up instead.

It was evident that the English commander had been puzzled, and now he must have received a shock; but the answer to the American flag was a brave British cheer, and the smaller vessel immediately poured in a broadside of grape and canister. They struck harmlessly in the frigate's bulwarks.

Answering her helm, the Essex swung off a point and fired a single broadside in answer—tompions and all! It was like a big dog who, attacked by a smaller, gives him one shake and drops him, just for a lesson.

The sloop of war now attempted to run, but, cutting loose the drags, the Essex forereached on her, hand over fist.

A red-coated marine on the Englishman's quarter-deck fired his musket in the air and down came the cross of St. George.

Perhaps it was unkind, but it was hard to restrain the American crew from making some rough jokes upon the others as they came on board, the general opinion being that it was mighty kind to come and pay a visit, Johnnie Bull."

The Essex was now more than ever crowded with prisoners—in fact, she had almost as many prisoners as there were people of her own on board.

The good effect of the continuous drill was shown by a little incident that occurred two days after the capture of the English sloop of war, which had proved to be the Alert of eighteen guns.

The fire drill had been practiced time and time again. Often at the call of fire the men had been turned out at night, every man bringing his blanket and buckling on his cutlass. The pumps would be manned, and on one or two occasions Captain Porter had built a smudge "down in the hold, and the crew had not known whether it was a real fire or not they had been called upon to assist in putting out. So frequently had this drill been held that the men reached their stations without the least confusion.

It had been observed that the prisoners had been holding communication with one another, and there had been much whispering among them during the second day after the capture. The berth deck and hold were filled with them. It was impossible to put them under gratings without much discomfort, and they had mingled with the Essex's crew or sat about in groups, fretting somewhat under the rough joking of their captors.

At twelve o'clock at night, three days after the capture, David Farragut awoke in his hammock. He felt that some one was standing near him, and, without raising his head, slowly he opened his eyes. A tall, tow-headed man was bending over him; a pistol was grasped in his right hand.

David recognized the fellow as one of the prisoners, the cockswain of the captain's gig of the Alert. Instantly the idea crossed his mind that the English were preparing for an uprising to take the vessel. But he knew that if he moved it would be the very worst thing he could do, so he pretended to be asleep, and after a close scrutiny the man passed on.

No sooner had he left than David sprang to the deck; without stopping to put on his uniform, he ran up the ladder, and, running past the man at the wheel, he plunged without knocking into Captain Porter's cabin. He awakened the latter quickly, and breathlessly told him what he had seen.

Captain Porter took in the situation in an instant.

"Run forward to the bell," he said, "and make the signal:"

At the same time he rushed out on the quarter-deck.

"Fire, fire!" he cried, in his loud, commanding voice.

The ship's bell had commenced a loud, continuous clanging. The men tumbled up from below, reaching their stations as quickly as they could, pushing to one side the astonished prisoners, who were so dumfounded by the goings on that their calculations were upset completely. Instead of finding a half-sleeping crew and only the lookout and the watch to overcome, here, at various parts of the ship, were standing armed men ready for duty; and all this in the space of two minutes!

As soon as the bell stopped its clatter, the boarders were called to the hatchways and the discomfitted Englishmen were crowded below into the hold.

It was found that somehow they had broken into a chest of arms. Had it not been for this constant drill and the prompt action of the little midshipman, perhaps the Essex would never have sailed upon the cruise into distant seas, the events of which make up most of this history.

When all the excitement was over, Captain Porter called David to him. He placed his hand on the boy's head. For an instant it seemed that he was going to put his arm about him.

"David," he said, "you are a good lad, and some day you will have a ship of your own; and I trust," he added, that you will have as brave and true people about you as I can count on here in the Essex."

Making a cartel of the Alert and paroling all of the officers and most of the seamen, Captain Porter placed Lieutenant McKnight in charge of the captured vessel, and she was sent to Halifax, for they were not many miles from the coast of Nova Scotia.

One other interesting episode occurred before the Essex returned home to refit.

Off the shore of Long Island, as she was making her way for New York Harbor, the lookout reported three sails in sight dead ahead two smaller vessels apparently in pursuit of a larger one. Through the glass it could be made out that they were not merchantmen. The Essex overhauled them fast, but, becoming a little suspicious, Captain Porter took in his sail and kept his distance.

All at once one of the vessels broke out into a sheet of flame. The other replied; and soon the three were shrouded in a white cloud of cannon smoke that drifted low across the water and hid all but the topmasts of the vessels that apparently were fighting furiously.

"It's an action!" said Midshipman Farragut, jumping up and down in his excitement. "Oh, why don't we crawl in? It may be an American vessel that is being attacked."

Kingsbury, Joseph Hawley, and another boatswain's mate, were standing quite close by. All of the officers were discussing the situation grouped together on the quarter-deck.

"Action my eye!" said the old seaman, half addressing Hawley and half speaking to the midshipman. "They're trying to do to us what we did to the Alert. That's a Yankee trick. There ain't no real fighting going on."

Owing to the Essex being to windward, the noise of the cannonade could not be heard, but apparently it was a great deal of powder they were burning. The officers had discovered some suspicious appearances also, and Captain, Porter determined to put matters to a test. He displayed the American flag at the peak and fore, fired a gun, and, instead of running down, stood off and away with all sails set. Instantly the surmising and doubts were set at rest. The bogus battle stopped at once.

The three vessels came about on the wind and set sail in chase of the Essex. There were two frigates and a brig. There was no fear of being overtaken in Captain Porter's mind, for his vessel could show a clean pair of heels to anything that floated, the Constitution, perhaps, being the only ship that could sail even with her.

Farragut  on the Essex


One of the approaching Englishman (all doubts of their nationality were set at rest) out-sailed the others, and, as it was growing dark and the weather was very thick, Captain Porter determined upon a bold line of action.

"I tell you what," said Midshipman Cowan, as he was taking off his wet clothes, for it was raining hard and he had just come off watch, there is something going on. "You will see if old Logan (this was Captain Porter's nickname) hasn't got something up his sleeve; we are shortening sail."

"Then that headmost frigate must be close to us," said Midshipman Conover, who was the smallest of the lads next to David.

"Here comes Mary. Let's see what she says," put in Middy Odenheimer, who was bending over his sea chest.

A boy with light brown hair came down the ladder. It was Midshipman Tittermary.

"Say, you fellows," he remarked, "all hands will be called in a little while. I think we are going to have another joke."

In truth warfare had seemed a great deal of a joke to the crew of the Essex so far, for they had not lost a man.

No sooner had he spoken than the call for all hands sounded.

"The Captain is going to make a speech," said Midshipman Cowan.

They found the crew gathered in the waist. Captain Porter was standing near the wheel. It was raining, but no one seemed to mind it. There was dead silence.

"Men," the Captain said, "I think we can take this frigate that is close upon our heels if we work together. My intention is to put about and make straight for her. The other vessels may run past us in the dark. I don't wish to have a light on board this ship. Every man will be provided with a white badge on his cap and his left arm, so we can tell each other in the dark. Are you ready for it?"

The cheer that followed must have made Captain Porter's heart beat high.

Instantly the badges, which had been made in the wardroom, were distributed, and the Essex tacked and stood in the direction of the oncoming Englishman. There was a fever of suppressed excitement.

"Well, Kingsbury," said David, as he passed the old mate, what do you think of this idea?"

"Old William paused. Mr. Farragut," he said in a low voice, "I tell you what, sir, that Britisher's coming at the rate of eight or ten knots. We are traveling three or four. If we strike her we will be upon her before we know it. Mark my word, sir, it will strip us both. We will see them masts coming out like blades of grass, and there'll be a tall amount of slaughter. I don't like it, sir."

He lowered his voice, but he never would have flinched; nor would any one of the crew, even had they seen the great shape of the other vessel loom forth in the darkness.

The Acaster (this was the name of the English ship) must, however, have passed astern of the Essex, and in the morning the three sails were out of sight.

Instead of sailing for the harbor of New York, Porter shaped his course for the Capes of the Delaware, and in ten days came to anchor off the town of New Castle. Not long did he lie idle. In a few days it was "Up anchor" and "Ho! and away" for strange countries to the southward. The Essex was ordered to cruise off South America.