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.
(such as enemy fire) that affected her ability to sail, could make the Essex a sitting duck. “Was the ship to be disabled in her rigging in the early part of an engagement,” Porter complained to Secretary Hamilton “a ship much inferior to her in sailing and in force, armed with long guns, could take a position beyond the reach of our carronades, and cut us to pieces without our being able to do her any injury.” Porter knew that if the Essex tangled with an enemy frigate, he would be forced to
easy, but this time it was particularly difficult. David was about to begin a voyage of indeterminate length that promised to be more dangerous than any he had undertaken before. Evelina understood to a degree the requirements of a navy wife in wartime, but this assignment would demand more of her than any had in the past. She had no idea when he would return, or, indeed, if he would; whether he would cover himself with glory or be disgraced. His courage and cunning in battle were legendary; he
work at hard labor on public projects around Callao. Porter believed that the capture of the Nimrod was of the greatest importance to his mission. She was a serious menace to the American whale fishery. There was no doubt in his mind that London was trying to eliminate American competition in these waters. Porter resolved to thwart them by capturing or destroying all the British armed whalers and privateers he could find, and forcing the rest to stay in port. Captains Gardner and West had
in one-on-one battles with the British navy. As encouraging as this news was, Porter was even more interested in the intelligence provided by the American consul at Buenos Aires. The consul informed him that on July 5, 1813, the 36-gun British frigate Phoebe (Captain James Hillyar), accompanied by the 24-gun Cherub (Captain Thomas Tucker), the 26-gun Racoon (Captain William Black), and the 20-gun storeship Isaac Todd, had departed Rio de Janeiro with orders, it was rumored, to sail around Cape
would judge him on whether or not he got rid of the Essex, not on how he did it. His orders from Admiral Dixon required him to destroy a menace to British interests, not to engage in a one-on-one frigate duel. Dixon would not quibble about Hillyar’s methods, nor would the Admiralty. But they certainly would if Hillyar relinquished his advantages in order to accommodate Porter. And, of course, if he lost a single-ship duel under these circumstances, he would be subject to severe penalties.