When the British Phoebe, 53 guns, and Cherub, 28, closed the American frigate Essex, 46, in Valparaiso Bay on March 28,1814, there commenced an action which still ranks as one of the most bitterly contested in the Navy’s history. Crippled earlier that day by the loss of his ship’s main topmast in a gale, David Porter fought the Essex until two-thirds of his crew were down and the ship cut to pieces. Only at dark and without the ability to bring a single gun to bear on the enemy did he haul down his ensign and the battle flag “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.” The fight of the Essex became a naval epic familiar to every American schoolboy. Her cruise was equally famous because it marked the first passage of an American man-of-war around the Horn, and its military effects were significant: British whaling in the South Pacific was broken up, and the New Bedford and Nantucket fleets were safeguarded against attack. Less well known but quite as notable in that age of scurvy and widespread pulmonary ailments at sea was the health record which Porter achieved during his eighteen months’ cruise. Least publicized of all, his 31 Marines set the pattern of the Corps’ present day mission by seizing the first advanced base of an American naval force and holding it against attack. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant John Marshall Gamble, further signalized the cruise by becoming the first, and possibly only, Marine to command a warship in battle.
These first Marines reached the Pacific the hard way. While the Essex lay “back- strapped” south of Cape Horn, Porter recorded of his crew that “so great was their desire now for fresh provisions that a rat was esteemed a dainty, and pet monkeys were sacrificed to appease their longings. Our provisions and water still continued good; the bread, to be sure, had been attacked by worms and weevils, but they had only in a slight degree altered its qualities; . . . but on opening the barrels (of peas and beans) ... we found only a mass of chaff and worms.”
Within six months in the Pacific Porter captured a dozen British whalers and paralyzed enemy commerce along the west coast of South America. Some of the prize ships were refitted as armed auxiliaries and one of them, the Greenwich, was put under Gamble’s command. Shortly after, while cruising with the squadron, the Greenwich overhauled a suspicious sail which turned out to be both well armed and hostile. Tacking his ship skilfully, Gamble poured in several raking broadsides and compelled his opponent to strike. She was the Seringapatam, a letter-of-marque and, as Porter put it, “the finest British ship in those seas.”
In late October, 1813, after a year away from the United States, nearly all of which was spent at sea, Porter put into Nukahiva in the Marquesas. During the three months that the squadron lay refitting the Marines and seamen were obliged repeatedly to march through jungle and over mountain in punitive expeditions against the warlike native tribes. When the Essex headed eastward in December, 1813, for the Chilean coast—and her final battle—Porter left her marine lieutenant in command of the Nukahiva base and the three station ships. Gamble, however, had but 21 men, including a half dozen marines, and he soon found his situation desperate.
By the end of April constant expeditions to keep the natives in check had reduced his force to a handful. The British prisoners, seeing their opportunity, now incited a mutiny among discontented seamen whose enlistments had expired, and got away with the largest ship. In grappling with the mutineers Gamble received a permanently crippling shot through the ankle. Next day armed natives attacked and overran the camp and repair sheds on the beach. Gamble was able to set fire to the Greenwich and put to sea in his last ship, the Sir Andrew Hammond, with only seven cartridges on board. Of his crew he had only seven sick and wounded survivors of whom only two could do duty. Yet this American “Flying Dutchman,” without charts or navigational instruments, reached Oahu after fourteen days and went on to Hawaii, but only to fall in with the Cherub three weeks later, on June 13, 1814. As Captain Tucker’s prisoner Gamble learned of the battle off Valparaiso the previous March. He was finally paroled out of the British warship the following January at Rio de Janeiro, and reached the United States in August, 1815, eight months after the war had ended and just two years and ten months after he started his momentous cruise.
JOHN MARSHALL GAMBLE, 1790-1836
Commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marines on July 10, 1809, John was one of four Gamble brothers to serve their country. Thomas had risen to the rank of captain and to command of the USS Erie when he died in the Mediterranean in 1818. Peter was first lieutenant of Macdonough’s flagship and was killed in the battle of Lake Champlain. Francis, also in the Navy, died while in command of a schooner in the West Indies.
This month’s cover picture, reproduced from the painting by Anthony Lewis De Rose 1803-1836 with the permission of the U. S. Marine Corps, shows John Gamble about to mount an Arabian horse which had been sent home to him by his brother Thomas. The gift was in good part motivated by the fact that the wound in his foot which John had received in the Marquesas had left him with a permanent limp and made walking difficult. This month’s Page From The Old Navy gives some details of John Marshall Gamble’s adventures in the Pacific during the War of 1812.