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Biographical memoir of Capt-David Porter online

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David Porter, the eldest son of Captain David Porter, was
born in Boston on the 1st February, 1^80. His father was an
officer in our navy during the revolutionary war, and distinguished
himself on various occasions by his activity, enterprise, and daring
spirit. Being necessarily absent from home for the greater part
of his time, the charge of his infant family devolved almost en-
tirely on his wife. She was a pious and intelligent woman ; the
friend and instructor of her children, teaching them not merely
by her precepts, but by her amiable and virtuous example.

Soon after the conclusion of the war. Captain Porter removed
with his household to Baltimore, where he took command of the
revenue cutter the Active. Here in the bosom of his family he
would indulge in the veteran's foible of recounting past scenes of
peril and adventure, and talking over the wonders and vicissitudes
(hat chequer a sea-faring life. Little David would sit for hours
and listen and kindle at these marvellous tales, while his father,
perceiving his own love of enterprise springing up in the bosom
of the lad, took every means to cherish it, and to inspire him with
a passion for the sea. He at the same time gave him all the
education and instruction that his limited means afforded, and
being afterwards in command of a vessel in the West-India trade,
proposed to take him a voyage by way of initiating him into the
life of a sailor. The constitution of the latter being feeble
and delicate excited all the apprehensions of a tender mother, who
remonstrated with maternal solicitude, against exposing the puny
stripling to the dangers and hardships of so rude a life. Her ob-
jections, however, were either obviated or overruled, and at the
age of sixteen he sailed with his father for the West Indies, in the
schooner Eliza. While at the port of Jeremie, in the island of

Vol. IV. ^'€w Series. 29

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St. Domingo, a pressgang endeavoured (o board the vessel in
search for men: they were bravely repelled with the loss of
several killed and wounded on both sides; one man was shot down
close by the side of young Porter. This affair excited considera-
!)le attention at the time. A narrative of it appeared in the pub-
lic papers, and much praise was given to Captain Porter for the
gallant vindication of his flag.

In the course of his second voyage, which he performed as mate
of a ship, from Baltimore to St. Domingo, young Porter had a
further taste of the vicissitudes of a sailor's life. He was twice
impressed by the British, and each time eff*ected his escape, but
was so reduced in purse as to be obliged to work his passage
home in the winter season, destitute of necessary clothing. In this
forlorn condition he had to perform duty on a cold and stormy
coast, where every spray was converted instantaneously into a
sheet of ice. It would appear almost incredible that his feeble
frame, little inured to hardship, could have sustained so much,
were it not known how greatly the exertions of the body are sup-
ported by mental excitement.

Scarcely had he recovered from his late fatigues when he ap-
plied for admission into the navy ; and on receiving a midship-
man's warrant, immediately joined the frigate Constellation, Com-
modore Truxton. In the action with the French frigate the In-
surgent, Porter was stationed in the foretop, and distinguished
himself by his good conduct. Want of friends alone prevented
his promotion at the time. When Commodore Barron was ap-
pointed to the command of the Constellation, Porter was advanced
to the rank of lieutenant solely on account of his merit, having no
friends or connexions capable of urging his fortunes. He was
ordered to join the United States schooner Experiment under
Captain Maley, to be employed on the West-India station. During
the cruise they had a long and obstinate engagement with a num-
ber of brigand barges in the Bite of Leogan, which afforded him
another opportunity of bringing himself into notice. He was also
frequently employed in boat expeditions to cut out vessels, in
which he displayed much coolness and address. Commodore
Talbot, who commanded on that station, gave him charge of the
Amphitrite, a small pilot boat prize schooner mounting five small
swivels taken from the tops of the Constellation, and manned witK


ii(teen hands. Not long after taking this command he fell in with
a French privateer mounting a long twelve pounder and several
swivels, having a crew of forty men, and accompanied by a prize
ship and a large barge with thirty men armed with swivels. Not-
withstanding the great disparity of force, Porter ordered his vessel
to be laid alongside the privateer. The contest was arduous,
and for some time doubtful, for in the commencement of the action
he lost his rudder, which rendered the schooner unmanageable.
The event, however, excused the desperateness of the attack, for
after an obstinate and bloody resistance the privateer surrendered
with the loss of seven killed and fifteen wounded. Not a man of
Porter's crew was killed; several, however, were wounded, and his
vessel was much injured. The prize was also taken, but the
barge escaped. The conduct of Lieutenant Porter in this gallant
little affair was highly applauded by his commander.

Shortly after his return to the United States he sailed, as first
lieutenant, in the Experiment, com.manded by Captain Charles
Stewart. They were again stationed in the West Indies, and af-
forded great protection to the American commerce in that quar-
ter. They had several engagements with French privateers, and
were always successful, insomuch that they became the terror of
those marauders of the ocean, and effectually controlled their ra-
pacity and kept them quiet in port. The gallant and lamented
Trippe was second lieutenant of the Experiment at the time.

When the first squadron was ordered for the Mediterranean,
Porter sailed as first lieutenant of the schooner Enterprise, Captain
Stewart. In this cruise they encountered a Tripolitan corsair of
very superior force ; a severe battle ensued in which the enemy
suffered great slaughter, and was compelled to surrender, while our
ship received but little injury. In this brilliant action Porter ac-
quired much reputation from the conspicuous part he acted. He
afterwards served on board of different ships in the Mediterranean
station, and distinguished himself by his intrepidity and zeal when-
ever an opportunity presented. On one occasion he commanded
an expedition of boats sent to destroy some vessels laden with
wheat, at anchor in the harbour of old Tripoli ; the service was
promptly and effectually performed ; in the engagement he receiv-
ed a musket ball through his left thigh.


Shortly after recovering from his wound he was transposed from
the New-York to the Philadelphia, Captain Bainbridge, as first
lieutenant. The frigate was then lying at Gibraltar, when he
joined her in September, 1803. She soon after sailed for the
blockade of Tripoli. No ev^ent took place worthy of mention
until the 31st of October. Nearly a week previous to this ill-
fated day, the weather had been tempestuous, which rendered it
prudent to keep the ship off the land. The 31st opened with all
the splendour of a Sicilian morning : the promise of a more delight-
ful day never appeared. The land was just observed, when a sail
was descried making for the harbour, with a pleasant easterly
breeze. It was soon ascertained to be an armed ship of the enemy,
and all sail was set in chase. After an ineffectual pursuit of seve-
ral leagues. Captain Bainbridge had just given orders to hale off,
when the frigate grounded. Every expedient that skill or courage
could devise to float or defend her, was successively resorted tOf
but in vain. The particulars of this unfortunate affair are too
generally known to need a minute recital; it is sufficient to add
that this noble ship and her gallant crew were surrendered to a bar-
barous and dastardly enemy, whose only motive in warfare is the
hope of plunder. Throughout the long and dreary confinement,
which ensued, in the dungeons of Tripoli, Porter never suffered
himself for a moment to sink into despondency ; but supported the
galling indignities and hardships of his situation with equanimity
and even cheerfulness. A seasonable supply of books served to
beguile the hours of imprisonment, and enabled him even to turn
them to advantage. He closely applied himself to the study of
ancient and modern history, biography, the French language, and
drawing ; in which art, so useful to a seaman, he has made himself
a considerable proficient. He also sedulously cultivated the theo-
ry of his profession, and improved the junior officers by his fre-
quent instructions ; representing the manoeuvres of fleets in battle
by means of small boards ingeniously arranged. He was active in
promoting any plan of labour or amusement that could ameliorate
the situation or dispel the gloomy reflections of his companions.
By these means captivity was robbed of its heaviest evils, that dull
monotony that wearies the spirits, and that mental inactivity that
engenders melancholy and hypochondria.


An incident which occurred during his confinement deserves to
be mentioned, as being highly creditable to Lieutenant Porter.
Under the rooms occupied by the officers was a long dark passage,
through which the American sailors, who were employed in pub-
lic labour, frequently passed to different parts of the castle. Their
conversation being repeatedly heard as they passed to and fro,
some one made a small hole in the wall to comFnunicate with fhem.
For some days a constant intercourse was kept up, by sending
down notes tied to a string. Some persons, however, indiscreetly
entering into conversation with the seamen, were overheard, and
information immediately carried to the Bashaw. In a ^ew minutes
the bolts of the prison door were heard to fly back with unwonted
violence, and Sassi (chief officer of the castle) rushed furiously in.
His features were distorted, and his voice almost inarticulate with
passion. He demanded in a vehement tone of voice by whom or
whose authority the wall had been opened; when Porter advanced
with a firm step and composed countenance, and replied, " I alone
am responsible." He was abruptly and rudely hurried from the
prison,|and the gate was again closed. This generous self-devo-
tion, while it commanded the admiration of his companions, height-
ened their anxiety for his fate ; apprehending some act of violence
from the impetuous temper and absolute power of the Bashaw.
Their fears, however, were appeased by the return of Porter, after
considerable detention ; having been dismissed without any further
severity through the intercession of the minister Mahomet Dghies,
who had on previous occasions shown a friendly disposition towards
the prisoners.

It is unnecessary here to dwell on the various incidents that
occurred in this tedious captivity, and of the many ingenious and
adventurous plans of escape, devised and attempted by our officers,
in all which Porter took an active and prominent part. When
peace was at length made, and they were restored to light and liber-
ty, he embarked with his companions for Syracuse, where a court of
inquiry was held on the loss of the Philadelphia. After an honour-
able acquittal he was appointed to the command of the UniJed
States Brig Enterprise, and soon after was ordered by Commodore
Rodgers to proceed to Tripoli, with permission to cruise along
the shore of Bengazi, and to visit the ruins of Leptis I>Iagna, an-


ciently a Roman colony : He was accompanied in this expedition
by some of his friends, and after a short and pleasant passage, an-
chored near the latter place. Thej passed three days in wander-
ing among the mouldering remains of Roman taste and grandeur;
#and excavated in such places as seemed to promise a reward for
their researches. A number of ancient coins and cameos were
found, and, among other curiosities, were two statues in tolerable
preservation; the one a warrior, the other a female figure, of
beautiful white marble and excellent workmanship. Verde an-
tique pillars, of large size, formed of a single piece, and unbroken,
were scattered along the shores. Near the harbour stood a lofty
and elegant building, of which Lieutenant Porter took a drawing :
from its situation and form it was supposed to have been a Pharos.
The awning under which the party dined was spread on the sitd,
and among the fallen columns of a temple of Jupiter, and a zest
was given to the repast, by the classical ideas awakened by sur-
rounding objects.

While in command of the Enterprise, and at anchor in the port
of Malta, an English sailor came alongside and insulted the offi-
cers and crew by abusive language ; Captain Porter overhearing
jhe scurrilous epithets he vociferated, ordered a boatswain's mate
to seize him and give him a flogging at the gangway. This well
merited chastisement excited the indignation of the Governor of
Malta, who considered it a daring outrage, and gave orders that
the forts should not permit the Enterprise to depart. No sooner
was Captain Porter informed of it, than he got his vessel ready for
action, weighed anchor, and with lighted matches and every man
at his station, with the avowed determination of firing upon the
town if attacked, sailed between the batteries and departed unmo-

Shortly after this occurrence, in passing through the Straits of
Gibraltar, he was attacked by twelve Spanish gun boats, who
either mistook, or pretended to mistake, his vessel for a British
brig. The calmness of the weather, the weight of their metal,
and the acknowledged accuracy of their aim, made the odds
greatly against him. As soon, however, as he was able to near
them, they were assailed with such rapid and well directed vol-
leys as quickly compelled them to shear off. This affair took


place in sight of Gibraltar, and in presence of several ships of
the British navy; it was, therefore, a matter of notoriety, and
spoken of in terms of the highest applause.

After an absence of five years, passed in unremitted and
arduous service, Captain Porter returned to the United States, and
shortly after was married to Miss Anderson, daughter of the mem-
ber of congress of that name, froju Pennsylvania. Being ap-
pointed to the command of the flotilla, on the New Orleans sta-
tion, he discharged, with faithfulness and activity, the irksome
duty of enforcing the embargo and non-intercourse laws. He
likewise performed an important service to his country, by ferret-
ting out and capturing a pirate, a native of France, who, in a small
well-armed schooner, had for some time infested the Chesapeake ;
and who, growing bolder by impunity, had committed many acts
of depredation, until his maraudings became so serious as to attract
the attention of government.

While commanding on the Orleans station, the father of Cap-
tain Porter died, an officer under his command. He had lived to
see the wish of his heart fulfilled, in beholding his son a skilful
and enterprising sailor, rising rapidly in his profession, and in the
estimation of his country.

The climate of New Orleans disagreeing with the health of
Captain Porter and his family, he solicited to be ordered to some
other station, and was, accordingly, appointed to the command of
the Essex frigate, at Norfolk.

At the time of the declaration of war against England, the
Essex was undergoing repairs at New-York, and the celerity with
which she was fitted for sea reflected great credit on her com-
mander. On the 3d of July, 1812, he sailed from Sandy Hook
on a cruise, which Avas not marked by any incident of conse-
quence, excepting the capture of the British sloop of war 'Alert,
Captain Laugharne. Either undervaluing the untried prowess of
our tars, or mistaking the force of the Essex, she ran down on her
weather quarter, gave three cheers and commenced an action.
In a few minutes she struck her colours, being cut to pieces, with
three men wounded, and seven feet water in her hold. To re-
lieve himself from the great number of prisoners, taken in this
and former prizes, Captain Porter made a cartel of the x\lert, with


orders to proceed to St. Johns, Newfoundland, and thence to
New- York. She arrived safe, being the first ship of war taken
from the enemy, and her flag the first British flag sent to the seat
of government during the present war.

Having returned to the United States and refitted, he again
proceeded to sea, from the Delaware, on the 27th of October,

1812, and repaired, agreeably to instructions from Commodore
Bainbridge, to the coast of Brazil, where different places of ren-
dezvous had been arranged between them. In the course of his
cruise on this coast he captured his Britannic majesty's packet
Nocton, and after taking out of her about 11,000 pounds sterling
in specie, ordered her for America. Hearing of Commodore
Bainbridge's victorious action with the Java, which would oblige
him to return to port, and of the capture of the Hornet by the
Montague, and learhing that there was a considerable augmenta-
tion of British force on the coast, and several ships in pursuit of
him, he abandoned his hazardous cruising ground, and stretched
away to the southward, scouring the coast as far as Rio de la
Plata. From thence he shaped his course for the Pacific Ocean,
and, after suffering greatly from want of provisions, and heavy
gales off Cape Horn, arrived at Valparaiso, on the 14th of March,

1813. Having victualled his ship, he ran down the coast of Chili
and Peru, and fell in with a Peruvian corsair, having on board
twenty-four Americans, as prisoners, the crews of two whaling
ships, which she had taken on the coast of Chili. The Peruvian
captain justified his conduct on the plea of being an ally of Great
Britain, and the expectation likewise of a speedy war between
Spain and the United States. Finding him resolved to persist in
similar aggressions. Captain Porter threw all his guns and ammu-
nition into the sea, liberated the Americans, and wrote a respect-
ful letter to the viceroy explaining his reasons for so doing, which
he delivered to the captain. He then proceeded to Lima, and
luckily recaptured one of the American vessels as she was enter-
ing the port.

After this he cruised for several months in the Pacific, inflict-
ing immense injury on the British commerce in those waters. He
was particularly destructive to the shipping employed in the
spermaceti whale fishery. A great number with valuable cargoes


were captured ; two were given up to the prisoners ; three sent
to Valparaiso and laid up; three sent to America; one of Ihem he
retained as a storeship, and another he equipped with twenty
guns, called her the Essex junior, and gave the command of her
to Lieutenant Downes. Most of these ships mounted several guns,
and had numerous crews; and as several of them were captured
by boats or by prizes, the officers and men of the Essex had fre-
quent opportunities of showing their skill and courage, and of ac-
quiring experience and confidence in naval conflict.

Having now a little squadron under his command, Captain Por-
ter became a complete terror in those seas. As his numerous
prizes supplied him abundantly with provisions, clothing, medi-
cine, and naval stores of every description, he was enabled for a
long time to keep the sea, without sickness or inconvenience to
his crew ; living entirely on the enemy, and being enabled to
make considerable advances of pay to his officers and crew
without drawing on government. The unexampled devastation
achieved by his daring enterprises, not only spread alarm through-
out the ports of the Pacific, but even occasioned great uneasiness
in Great Britain. The merchants, who had any property afloat
in this quarter, trembled with apprehension for its fate ; the un-
derwriters groaned at the catalogue of captures brought by every
advice, while the pride of the nation was sorely incensed at
beholding a single frigate lording it over the Pacific, roving about
the ocean in saucy defiance of their thousand ships; revelling in
the spoils of boundless wealth, and almost banishing the Brilish
flsg from those regions, where it had so long waved proudly pre-

Numerous ships were sent out to the Pacific in pursuit of him;
others were ordered to cruise in the China seas, ofiT New Zedand,
Timor and New Holland, and a frigate sent to the River La Plata.
The manner in which Captain Porter cruised, however, completely
baffled pursuit. Keeping in the open seas, or lurking amor/g the
numerous barren and desolate islands that form the Oallipagos
groupe, and never touching on the American coast, he left no
traces by which he could be followed ; rumour, while it magnified
his exploits, threw his pursuers at fault; they were distracted by
vague accounts of captures made at different places, and of friga(eu

Vol. IV. ISeiv Series. 30


supposed to be the Essex hovering at the same time ofF different
coasts and haunting different islands.

In the mean while Porter, though wrapped in mystery and uncer-
tainty himself, yet received frequent and accurate accounts of his
enemies, from the various prizes which he had taken. Lieutenant
Downes, also, who had convoyed the prizes to Valparaiso, on his
return, brought advices of the expected arrival of Commodore Hill-
jar in the Phoebe frigate rating thirty-six guns accompanied by two
sloops of war. Glutted with spoil and havoc, and sated with the
easy and inglorious captures of merchantmen. Captain Porter now
felt eager for an opportunity to meet the enemy on equal terms,
and to signalize his cruise by some brilliant achievement.
Having been nearly a year at sea, he found that his ship would
require some repairs, to enable her to face the foe ; he repaired,
therefore, accompanied by several of his prizes, to the Island of
Nooaheevah, one of the Washington groupe, discovered by a
Captain Ingraham of Boston. Here he landed, took formal posses-
sion of the island in the name of the government of the United
States, and gave it the name of Madison's Island. He found it
large, populous and fertile, abounding with the necessaries of life ;
the natives in the vicinity of the harbour which he had chosen
received him in the most friendly manner, and supplied him with
abundance of provisions. During his stay at this place he had
several encounters with some hostile tribes on the island, whom
he succeeded in reducing to subjection. Having calked and com-
pletely overhaled the ship, made for her a new set of water casks,
and taken on board from the prizes provisions and stores for up-
wards of four months, he sailed for the coast of Chili on the 1 2th
December, 1813. Previous to sailing he secured the three prizes
which had accompanied him, under the guns of a battery erected
for their protection, and left them in charge of Lieutenant Gamble
of the marines and twenty-one men, with orders to proceed to
Valparaiso after a certain period.

After cruising on the coast of Chili without success, he pro-
ceeded to Valparaiso, in hopes of falling in with Commodore
Hillvar, or, if disappointed in this wish, of capturing some mer-
chant ships said to be expected from England. While at anchor
at this port Commodore Hillyar arrived, having long been search-

Captain david porter. 235

ing in vain for the Essex, and almost despairing of ever meeting
with her. Contrary to the expectations of Captain Porter, how-
ever, Commodore Ilillyar, beside his own frigate, superior in
itself to the Essex, was accompanied by the Cherub sloop of war,
strongly armed and manned. These ships, having been sent out
expressly to seek for the Essex, were in prime order and e(|uip-
ment, with picked crews, and hoisted flags bearing the motto " God
and country, British sailors' best rights : traitors offend both.^*
This was in o{)positioa to Porter's motto of " Free trade and
sailors' rights,'' and the latter part of it suggested doubtless, by
error industriously cherished, that our crews are chiefly com-
posed of English seamen. In reply to this motto Porter hoisted
at his mizeo, " God, our country, and liberty : tyrants offend