At an age when most boys today are playing video games, David Farragot was a midshipman in the United States Navy. By his third year, the war of 1812 broke out, and he found himself aboard one of the most successful and daring sea Captains America produced David Porter.
Porter led a series of highly successful raids on English commerce, so successful that he soon ran out of crew to man them; each ship he captured needed a ‘prize crew’ to take it back into a port where it could be sold off. Thus was his dilemma when he captured the whaler Barclay.
Captain Porter surveyed his officers. He couldn’t spare his lieutenant, but on the other hand, he needed someone responsible. He thought of Farragut. Farragut’s ability to carry out orders had impressed Captain Porter.
Farragut is Given Command
“Very well Mr. Farragut”, Porter said. “The command of the Barclay is yours”. Certainly Farragut must have been thrilled…and frightened.
Porter could only spare a couple of sailors and a first mate would be the only Essex crew on board other than Farragut. The majority were crew from the captured ship. He appointed the Barclay’s former captain, Gideon Randall, the navigator, and made him swear that he would obey Farragut, now in command of the ship. Randall had little choice but to agree, but was in no mood to take orders from a twelve year old, especially in what was only a few days earlier, his own ship. The Barclay was to follow the Essex and two other captured ships into a Chilean port of Valparaiso, two hundred miles away. While this might seem easy today, in the age of sail, it was not. The ships had no engines and were completely subject to the forces of nature. A strong wind could come and scatter the ships hundreds of miles apart. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, could take several hours just to turn a ship around and get back to a point they had sailed over not ten minutes before; Going to close to the shore could mean the ship would crash on a shoal.
As the long line of ships got under weigh, David Farragut assumed the weather side of the rear, or poop deck. Almost as soon as they got under weigh, Randal was thinking of ways to sabotage Farragut. Randall knew, as everyone else did, that command of the ship was rightfully Farragut’s and any overt attempt to challenge his authority would be considered mutiny. But he could undermine his confidence and perhaps convince the crew that they would be in danger with so young and officer. So he loudly complained and criticized the position of the sails to other men on the crew, especially his former crew mates. “Look at how slowly she sails”, he would say.
Farragut ordered different sails set, but the ship moved awkwardly and slowly. He again looked at the sails. He suspected that they were not the right combination of sails for the ship to keep up with the convoy.
“Should we add more sail?”, Farragut asked Randall.
Randall shot back that it was all the sail the ship could handle and doing otherwise would damage the ship. If they put more sail on they would spring a mast and they wouldn’t be getting anywhere. Farragut looked over the horizon…the ships were fading away as was his first and last command! He thought about Randall. Could he trust him? Was he sincere?
Farragut looked at the rest of the ships slowly fading, gaining distance. He knew that if he did not do something, he would lose sight of the convoy. Randall would not doubt try to take control of the ship. Farragut was the only navy man other than two other crew members from the Essex. The rest were all Randall’s men and probably loyal to him. They were not pirates, but they were desperate, angry men. Would they throw Farragut and his men overboard and take control of the ship?
If the fleet slipping away was a cause of worry to Farragut, Randall was overjoyed and could barely contain the smile on this face. “We’ll be in New Zealand before we’ll catch up to that fleet” Randall laughed.
Farragut knew he had to act. “Perhaps we should set the top sail” he said out loud. These are not words that men like to hear from their commander. If a commander needs more information, he asks for it, he does not wonder and doubt aloud. Randall, who knew this seized the opportunity. “Anyone touches a rope, they will be shot” Randall said. He went below. Farragut knew where he was going, Randall was going to fetch pistol’s from the captain’s cabin!
Farragut had to act and had to act quickly. He thought about how Captain Porter would act on deck. He didn’t think he could do it but nevertheless he did he took a deep breath and closed his eyes and imagined he was Porter for a moment. Even if he was scared on the inside he wouldn’t let people know it. Could the Barclay handle another topsail, or was Randall telling the truth? There was only one way to find out.
Mustering all the confidence he could, and turned to his First Mate. “Set the main topsail”
For what seemed like an eternity, the First Mate did not answer. Would he listen to Farragut? Or was he too scared?
“Aye Aye Mister Farragut” the First Mate replied. He turned to his men and barked a command to head aloft and set the sail. “You heard Mister Farragut!”
The men began to move but stopped when they heard the heavy footsteps of Randall coming up the gangway. Farragut heard the clanking metal and the sound of a cocking pistol. He had no pistol himself, only his short dirk, which was issued to all midshipman.
Farragut looked at the men. All eyes were on him. He had been unsure of himself and that rubbed off in the rest of the crew. He had to show them he wasn’t afraid.
“Anyone touches a rope and I will blow his brains out!” Randall roared again.
“Mister Randall” Farragut said in a loud voice. “If you come on to this deck with pistols I’ll have you thrown over board!”
The steps continued…but then stopped. All the crew looked at Farragut apprehensively. . He could hear Randall’s footsteps receding back down the stairs. The men stared at each other in disbelief.
The First Mate again barked orders. “What are you all standing around for! You ‘eard Mr. Farragut! Set the main tops’l!”. This time the men sprung aloft. As he watched the sailors climbing the ratlines, David Farragut felt triumphant…and he realized that he was no longer scared! Somewhere, in acting brave he had become brave.
Once the sail was set, the ship picked up speed with no damage to the masts, and Farragut knew that Randall was lying. The Barclay soon caught up with the rest of the fleet, and Randall received a stern warning to obey orders, or he would be put on trial for mutiny, a serious charge at sea.
“From that moment I became the master of the vessel” Admiral Farragut would later recall. Getting the command was not enough, he had to act the part, even if he felt he couldn’t. Courage is not the absence of fear, but acting in it!
Farragut would go on to become the first full admiral in the United States Navy, and victor in the Battle of Mobile Bay, best known for his famous command “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead” *.
Some might argue that Farragut was ‘robbed’ of his childhood. Considering the state of western males today, it’s more likely that our current attitudes rob men of their adulthood.
More On Farragut:
A. T. Mahan’s biography (Gutenberg.org).*Like many historical quotes, while it’s gist is accurate, it’s likely a paraphrase. Tags: Americans, civil war, great lives, navy