David Farragut: One of the Youngest Midshipman in American Naval History

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David Farragut was one of the most well-known Naval Commanders of the Civil War, but his notoriety emerged at a surprisingly early age.

On July 5, 1801, James Glasgow Farragut, later known as David Farragut, was born. His formative years were spent on the Tennessee frontier. During his early childhood, there was conflict between European settlers and Native Americans. In 1807, his father George Farragut, was appointed as a master in the United States Navy. Later that year, the family moved to New Orleans. In June 1808, his mother died from yellow fever. She left behind three sons and two daughters, one being an infant. In 1809, his father, who was stationed at the naval base in New Orleans, purchased 900 acres of land on the Pascagoula River in Mississippi. George was not able to raise all of his children on his own, so he decided to send his sons William and James into the military. William was appointed to the navy and James was adopted by family friend and the commander of the naval station in New Orleans, David Porter. Inspired by his newly adopted father, James decided to change his name to David.[1]

David Farragut then moved with his new caretaker to Washington, D.C. On December 17, 1810, at nine years and five months old, Farragut was appointed as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. After sailing on the USS Essex with his father for almost a year and protecting American commerce near the Atlantic northeast, Farragut found himself in the midst of war. On June 18, 1812, the United States Congress declared war against Great Britain. By the end of the year, the Essex had patrolled much of the east coast and was then ordered to join a squadron to the Brazilian coast. In January 1813, the Essex was ordered to patrol the Pacific coast to protect American whalers. After travelling around Cape Horn, the Essex captured multiple Peruvian and British ships.[2]

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Young Midshipman David Farragut

On April 17, the Essex arrived at the Galapagos Islands. The ship first sailed to Charles Island where whalers and other American allied ships would leave records of their movements in a box that was apparently nailed to a tree. In his memoirs, Farragut wrote about what he ate while visiting the Galapagos. He said the men feasted on doves, turtles cooked in their shells, and large prickly pears. On June 6, two days before leaving the Galapagos, Farragut and his fellows seamen witnessed a volcanic eruption on Narboro Island (modern day Fernandina Island). In reference to his visit to the Galapagos, Farragut said, “These were among the happiest days of my life.”[3]

On June 19, the Essex anchored neared the mouth of the Tumbez River in the Bay of Guayaquil, off the coast of Peru. While gathering provisions for the ship, the men encountered sharks and even killed a sixteen foot long alligator. On July 9, Farragut was sent as “prize-master to the Barclay.” The Barclay was a vessel that had been captured from a Spanish “guarda costa.” At twelve years old, Farragut found himself in charge of a captured ship; an unbelievable accomplishment for any child that age. He was ordered to take the ship to Valparaiso, Chile, with the captured vessels captain navigating. Farragut called the captain “a violent-tempered old fellow” and that “when the day arrived for our separation from the squadron, he was furious, and very plainly intimated to me that I would find myself off New Zealand in the morning’; to which I most decidedly demurred.”

Even as a young boy going up against an angry old sailor, Farragut did not back down. He ordered the captain to have the “topsail filled away, in order that we might close up with the Essex Junior.” The Captain refused, and went below deck to retrieve his pistols. Farragut, once again, stood his ground. He wrote:

“From that moment I became master of the vessel, and immediately gave all necessary orders for making sail, notifying the Captain not to come on deck with his pistols unless he wished to go overboard; for I would really have had very little trouble in having such an order obeyed.”[4]

On October 23, the Essex arrived at Nuku Hiva, an island in the Marquesas group in the Pacific Ocean. During their stay, the men refitted the vessel with supplies, made repairs, and established America’s first Pacific naval base named Fort Madison; in honor of President James Madison. According to Captain Porter’s journal, a conflict arose between the Americans and certain native tribes. He wrote: “from efforts to protect our friends from the aggressions of neighboring tribes, who would have destroyed all the bread-fruit and other provisions upon which we relied so materially.”[5]

Several months later, in February 1814, the Essex had traveled back to Valparaiso, when they were met by the British frigate Phoebe and the sloop Cherub. Chilean neutrality prevented the vessels from entering into conflict. On March 28, the Essex attempted to escape the harbor but its top-mast was severely damaged when a squall struck the ship. At approximately 4:00 pm, the British vessels exchanged fire with the damaged Essex. Farragut’s experience of the battle was intense. He wrote:

“During the action I was like ‘Paddy in the cat-harpins,’ a man on occasions. I performed the duties of Captain’s aid, quarter-gunner, powder-boy, and in fact did everyting that was required of me. I shall never forget the horrid impression made upon me at the sight of the first man I had ever seen killed. He was a boatswain’smate, and was fearfully mutilated. It staffered and sickened me at first; but they soon began to fall around me so fast that it all appeared like a dream, and produced no effect on my nerves. I can remember well, while I was standing near the Captain, just abaft the mainmast, a shot came through the waterways and glanced upward, killing four men who were standing by the side of the gun, taking the last one in the head and scattering his brains over both of us. But this awful sight did not affect me half as much as the death of the first poor fellow. I neither thought of nor noticed anything but the working of the guns.”[6]

Soon after, Farragut was sent below deck to retrieve some gun-primers. When he reached the ward-room ladder, the captain on a gun near the hatchway was hit in the face with an eighteen pound shot and fell on Farragut’s hips. Farragut hit his head and was stunned for a moment. After regaining consciousness, he went back to the deck, forgetting about the gun-primers. Porter reminded him of his objective and Farragut retrieved the primers. At 6:20 pm, the British captured the Essex. When the dust settled, the total loss of the Essex was 58 killed, 66 wounded, and 31 missing. The Phoebe had a loss of 4 killed and 7 wounded, and 1 killed and 3 wounded on the Cherub. The two British vessels fired approximately seven hundred 18 pound shots at the Essex.[7]

At 8:00 am, on March 29, 1814, Farragut was taken aboard the Phoebe as a prisoner of war. He wrote, “I was so mortified at our capture that I could not refrain from tears.” He heard some of the British sailor discussing a “prize”; it was the Essex’s pet pig named Murphy. Farragut claimed the pig as his own but the sailors were not willing to part with Murphy unless Farragut could seize the pig from them. A crowd gathered and Farragut was able to wrestle Murphy from the British. It was a small yet important victory for Farragut. The prisoners were taken ashore and Farragut served as an assistant to a surgeon, helping injured men. On April 27, Porter was able to broker a deal with the British Captain Hillyar, which allowed for the prisoners to travel to New York in order to be exchanged. The men arrived on July 5, aboard the disarmed Essex Junior. Farragut was eventually exchanged in November of that year.[8] At the end of the war, thirteen year old Farragut had commanded his own prize vessel and had been a prisoner of war. By the age of sixteen, he was sailing through the Mediterranean Sea and studying in Tunisia. He had arguably one of the most exciting childhoods in American history.

In the spring of 1816, while visiting Annapolis, Virginia, Farragut had the opportunity to meet President James Madison and all of his cabinet officers. Soon after, he traveled to with the Minister of Naples, Hon. William Pinkney, across the Atlantic. Gibraltar was the first placed they visited. Next, they visited Naples, Sicily, the Barbary States, and finally returned to Gibraltar. That December, they set off from the coast of Algiers. He visited Pompeii, Herculaneum, Malaga. He even witnessed another volcanic eruption, this time it was the infamous Mount Vesuvius! He also visited the Baths of Nero, Sibyl’s Cave, Posilippo, and the Grotto del Cane. He met the Emperor of Austria and the King of Naples. In the autumn of 1817, Farragut studied at the consulate in Tunis. He was exposed to Arabic and Muslim cultures. All of these experiences occurred by the time Farragut was sixteen years old. [9]

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David Farragut as a Young Officer

It was serendipitous for Farragut to be born on a ferry, because he spent a majority of his childhood on the sea, exploring the world. In addition to his invaluable childhood experiences, he had great discipline and work ethic which contributed to his success later in life.

Louie P. Gallo


[1] Loyall Farragut, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1879), 8-10.

[2] John R. Spears, David G. Farragut (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs and Co., 1905), 11.

[3] Farragut, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut, 23-24.

[4] Farragut, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut, pg. 25-26.

[5] Geroge Daughan,  The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the U.S.S. Essex during the War of 1812 (New York: Basic Books, 2013), chapter 16; Farragut, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut, pg. 27-28.

[6] Farragut, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut, pg. 40

[7] Farragut, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut, pg. 37-38, 40-41.

[8] Farragut, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut, 44; Spears, David Farragut, 12.

[9] Farragut, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut, 52-61 passim.

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