The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the U.S.S. Essex during the War of 1812
George C. Daughan
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In The Shining Sea, award-winning historian George C. Daughan tells the full story of Porter’s thrilling, action-packed voyage, revealing the heights of Porter’s hubris and the true depths of his failure on this fateful cruise. Intent on achieving personal glory, Porter made the treacherous journey around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean, where he planned to capture a British man-of-war. From Valparaiso to the Galapagos to the Marquesas, the Essex roamed the South Seas, seizing British whaling and merchant ships, wreaking havoc on British commerce, and earning Porter and his men wealth and acclaim. Flush with his victories, Porter welcomed the news that a British frigate—the HMS Phoebe—was on his tail, and he resolved to capture her. But Porter could not overcome the Phoebe’s superior firepower. Over the course of a desperate, bloody battle, he lost the Essex and over two-thirds of her crew—a shocking end to a daring journey.
A swashbuckling tale of risk and ruin on the high seas, The Shining Sea brings to life the monomaniacal quest of one of the most misunderstood commanders of the War of 1812. Porter’s singular voyage, Daughan shows, stands as a cautionary tale for any leader who would put personal glory and ambition ahead of cause and countrymen.
developed into a crisis. As was their duty, they planned an escape. Captain Laugharne’s coxswain took the lead. On the night of the planned breakout, the cox suddenly appeared standing beside the hammock of Midshipman David Farragut with a pistol in his hand. He stared down at Farragut, who luckily had spotted him approaching and remained perfectly still with his eyes shut. Satisfied that Farragut was asleep, the cox moved on. As he did, Farragut slipped out of his hammock and crept noiselessly
was the only instance in which I ever saw a real good seaman paralyzed by fear at the dangers of the sea. Several of the sailors were seen on their knees at prayer.” Miraculously, the men at the wheel stood firm, and others held their stations as well. The crew, it seemed, was not ready to give up. “Most were found ready to do their duty,” Farragut observed. They were called on deck, and they came promptly, led by William Kingsbury, the boatswain’s mate who had earlier played King Neptune.
Islands and off the Peruvian port of Paita. Porter was more anxious than ever to be underway. Adding to his sense of urgency were the two Spanish ships he had seen when first entering the harbor. They had departed during the week—presumably traveling to Lima—where they would bring news of the Essex to the viceroy. Porter wanted to get along to the Peruvian coast and the Galapagos Islands before his enemies had time to react to his presence. On March 23, just before leaving Valparaiso, Porter
spirited fight with inferior weapons. During the bloody mêlée, young David saw a comrade right next to him shot dead. The Porters and their men fought with a ferocity that shocked the attackers. Resistance was so strong, the British raiders retreated. This was young Porter’s first encounter with impressment, and it left a lasting impression. He had another set-to with the British on his next voyage when he was seventeen and first officer aboard a merchant brig bound from Baltimore to Santo
in his characteristically impetuous way, punched him in the face during an argument and knocked him to the deck. The surprised lieutenant rose, called for the sergeant of the guard, and grabbed a cutlass. He was about to slice up Porter when Captain Truxtun appeared. The lieutenant froze, as Truxtun took charge. After hearing what had happened, Truxtun had Porter arrested and sent below. Normally, a captain would have then ordered a court martial, and Porter would have been dismissed from the