The Marine Who Commanded Ships

Historically, one of a kind

The first American ship to carry the name Essex was a 36-gun frigate [Note 1] constructed by Mr. Enos Briggs of Salem, Massachusetts, a design of Mr. William Hackett, and named in honor of Essex County, Massachusetts [Note 2].  United States Ship Essex was launched on 30 September 1799, presented to the United States Navy in December, and accepted for service on behalf of the Navy by Captain Edward Preble, USN, the ship’s first Commanding Officer.  In January 1800, USS Essex departed Newport, Rhode Island in company with USS Congress; their mission was to serve as escorts for a convoy of merchant ships.  The United States was then engaged in the Quasi-War with France [Note 3]; Essex and Congress were ordered to protect these merchant vessels from assault and confiscation by the French Navy.  After only a few days at sea, a storm de-masted Congress and she was forced to return to the American coast.  Essex continued on alone.  USS Essex was the first US Navy ship to cross the equator and the first American man-of-war to make a double voyage around the Cape of Good Hope (March, August 1800).

The second cruise of the Essex took her to the Mediterranean under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, serving in the squadron of Commodore Richard Dale [Note 4].  During this journey, Essex participated in the Barbary Wars through 1806.  Upon return to the United States, Essex underwent refit until 1809 when she was re-commissioned as a patrol vessel along the East Coast of the United States.

Period Note

The Jay Treaty of 1795, more formally The Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America, was the framework of Alexander Hamilton, supported by George Washington, and brokered by John Jay.  The Jay Treaty was intended to resolve certain deficiencies in the Treaty of Paris (1783) whose sole purpose was to avoid further confrontations with Great Britain.  The goals of the Jay Treaty were mostly fulfilled (withdrawal of British Army forces in the Northwest Territory, cessation of US confiscation of property belonging to British loyalists, etc.) but several issues remained unresolved, such as Great Britain’s impressment of American sailors from ships and ports.  From 1803, when Great Britain went to war with Napoleonic France, the British established a naval blockade to choke off trade with France.  The United States disputed this blockade, proclaiming it illegal under internationally recognized laws of the sea.  But to enforce the British blockade, and to make its point of naval supremacy, the British navy increased its impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy.  This behavior, more than any other, inflamed the passions of the American people.  In 1811, USS President closed with a Royal Navy sloop operating off the coast of North Carolina, challenged her, and then fired upon the smaller vessel.  Eleven British sailors were killed.  So now the passions of the British people were inflamed.  As a result of this incident, the British became greatly annoyed and began arming North American Indians and encouraging them to attack American frontier settlements.  The United States declared war against the United Kingdom on 18 June 1812.  It became known as Mr. Madison’s War.

With the outbreak of war, David Porter [Note 5] was promoted to Captain on 2 July 1812 and assigned to command USS Essex.  Sailing his ship to Bermuda, Porter engaged several British transports, taking one of these as a prize of war.  On 13 August, Porter captured HMS Alert, the first British warship captured during the conflict.  By the end of September, Essex had taken ten British merchantmen as prizes.

In February 1813, Porter sailed Essex into the South Atlantic where he sought to disrupt the British whaling fleet.  His first action in the Pacific was the capture of the Peruvian vessel Nereyda.  His purpose in seizing this vessel was that it held captive and impressed American whaling crewmen.   Over the next year, Porter captured 13 British whalers; one of these was a French registry vessel, captured by the Royal Navy, sold to the owner of a British whaling fleet, and re-named Atlantic.  In capturing these ships, Porter also took 380 British seamen as prisoners.  In June, Porter offered parole to these captives, providing that they would not again take up arms against the United States.  Porter renamed Atlantic as Essex Junior and appointed his executive officer, Lieutenant John Downes, to command her.

John Marshall Gamble (1791-1836) was only eight-years old when Essex went into service in 1799.  Born in Brooklyn, New York, Gamble received his appointment to second lieutenant of Marines on 16 January 1809 when he was only 17 or 18-years old.  At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Gamble commanded the Marine Detachment, USS Essex [Note 6].  Gamble was an accomplished Marine Corps officer but he is distinguished as the only Marine officer to command a United States Navy ship of war.  Actually, Lieutenant Gamble commanded two ships, both British prizes pressed into United States service — seized and renamed USS Greenwich [Note 7] and USS Sir Andrew Hammond.  Gamble also distinguished himself during a land action on an island called Nuku Hiva where Captain David Porter established the first US Navy Base in the Pacific Ocean.

Nuku Hiva is the largest of the Marquesas Islands (French Polynesia).  Captain Porter arrived at Nuku Hiva at a time when island natives were at war with one another.  Shortly after landing his shore party, Porter claimed the island on behalf of the United States and ordered the construction of a fortification and an adjacent village, which he named Fort Madison and Madisonville, respectively, after President James Madison.  He also constructed a dock that was needed to facilitate repairs to his growing fleet of ships.  For reasons known only to himself, Porter involved himself in the tribal conflict —possibly to curry favor with the majority of the warring natives.

Porter’s first expedition into the interior was led by Lieutenant Downes.  He and forty others, with the assistance of several hundred native islanders called Te I’is, captured a redoubt held by as many as 4,000 Happah warriors.  Afterwards, the Happah joined the Te I’is and Americans against another island group called Tai Pi.  Captain Porter led a second expedition, which involved an amphibious assault against the Tai Pi shoreline.  This second expedition, with Captain Porter in overall command, included 30 American sailors and Marines (with artillery), under Lieutenant Gamble, and 5,000 native warriors.  From this point on, however, Captain Porter’s fate took an unfortunate turn.

On or about 13 July 1813, following a sharp naval engagement, Lieutenant Gamble, commanding USS Greenwich, captured the British armed whaler Seringapatam. [Note 8]  The engagement was significant because, at the time, Seringapatam posed the most serious British threat to American whalers in the South Pacific.  Subsequently, Captain Porter wrote to Lieutenant Gamble, stating, “Allow me to return to you my thanks for your handsome conduct in brining Seringapatam to action, which greatly facilitated her capture, while it prevented the possibility of her escape.  Be assured sir, I shall make a suitable representation of these affairs to the honorable Secretary of the Navy.”

Captain Porter reported Gamble’s conduct to the Navy Department: “Captain Gamble at all times greatly distinguished himself by his activity in every enterprise engaged in by the force under my command, and in many critical encounters by the natives of Madison Island, rendered essential services, and at all times distinguished himself by his coolness and bravery.  I therefore do, with pleasure, recommend him to the Department as an officer deserving of its patronage.”

During the sea battle between Greenwich and Seringapatam, which took place off the coast of Tumbes, Peru, damage to Seringapatam was not particularly significant, but did necessitate repairs to return the vessel to a state of sea worthiness.  There were no human casualties on either side.  Once the Americans repaired Seringapatam Captain Porter assigned Masters Mate James Terry of the USS Essex as prize master, and Seringapatam joined Porter’s squadron.

In September 1813, Porter returned Essex to Nuku Hiva (along with four prizes) for repairs.  Around mid-December, Porter ordered Essex re-provisioned and readied for sea.  With Essex Junior as an escort Porter began a patrol of the Peru Coast.  Seringapatam, Hammond, and Greenwich remained at anchor under the guns of Fort Madison and Gamble assumed command of the garrison.  Many of the crewmen of the captured ships were American; they and several British crewmen volunteered to serve under Porter.  There were also six British prisoners of war who refused to serve the United States.  Not long after Porter set sail, local natives became so troublesome that Gamble was forced to land a detachment of men to restore order.  At this point, Gamble’s mission was to maintain order, guard the captive ships, guard prisoners of war, and do so with but a hand full of men.

Four months later, Lieutenant Gamble despaired of Porter’s fate [Note 9] and ordered repairs and rigging for sea of Seringapatam and Hammond.  When signs of mutiny appeared among the men, Gamble ordered all arms and ammunition placed aboard Greenwich.  Despite these precautions, mutineers freed the British prisoners of war and captured Seringapatam on 7 May, wounding Lieutenant Gamble in the scuffle.  Mutineers placed Gamble in an open boat and Seringapatam sailed for Australia.  

Gamble, returning to Hammond, set sail with a skeleton crew bound for the Caribbean Leeward Islands but was intercepted en route by the British sloop HMS Cherub.  As it turned out, Gamble’s capture served the interests of the United States.  At the time of his capture, Gamble was in possession of gifts intended for the King of the Leeward Islands.  Captain Tucker of HMS Cherub seized these gifts as prizes of war.  More than that, Tucker, having discovered several American ships in the Leeward Islands harbor, sent demands to the king to surrender these ships to him at once.  When the king refused, Tucker landed a detachment of Royal Marines to enforce his demands.

Upon landing, the Royal Marines discovered that it was literally impossible to enforce their captain’s demands while surrounded by very angry Caribs [Note 10].  Captain Tucker wisely withdrew his force and sailed away.  Meanwhile, when the king learned that his gifts had been confiscated by the Royal Navy, he was incensed and diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the Leeward Islands deteriorated.

At the conclusion of the War of 1812, Gamble returned to his duties as a Marine officer.  He was promoted to captain on 18 June 1814, advanced to Brevet Major on 19 April 1815, and to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel on 3 March 1827.

John M. Gamble died on 11 September 1836 at the age of about 44-45 years.  In terms of the family’s legacy, the destroyer USS Gamble (DD-123) and Port Gamble, Washington were named in honor of John Gamble and his brother, Peter, who served as a Navy lieutenant during the War of 1812.  USS Gamble served as a destroyer in World War I and a minesweeper in World War II.  Owing to the ship’s condition after two world wars, the Navy scuttled the ship in July 1945.

Sources:

  1. 1.Daughan, G. C.  The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the USS Essex During the War of 1812.  Basic Books, 2013.
  2. 2.Captain David Porter, USS Essex, and the War of 1812 in the Pacific.  U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, 2014.  Online.
  3. 3.Porter, D. D.  Memoir of Commodore David Porter of the United States Navy.  Albany: J. Munsell, 1875.
  4. 4.Toner, R. J.  Gamble of the Marines: The Greatest U.S. Marine Corps Stories Ever Told.  I. C. Martin, 2017.
  5. 5.Turnbull, A. D.  Commodore David Porter, 1740-1843.  New York and London: Century Press, 1929.

Endnotes:

[1] A frigate in the days of sail was a warship that carried its principal batteries on one or two decks.  It was smaller in size than a ship of the line (which is to say, smaller than the warships that were used in the line of battle), but full rigged on three masts, built for speed and maneuverability and used for patrolling and escort duty.  They were rated ships having at least 28 guns.  The frigate was the hardest-worked warship because even though smaller than a ship of the line, they were formidable opponents in war and had sufficient storage for six-months service at sea.  A “heavy frigate” was a ship that carried larger guns (firing 18-24 pound shot) developed in Britain and France after 1778.

[2] Essex County, Massachusetts was created by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony on 10 May 1643.  Named after the county in England, Essex included the towns of Salem, Lynn, Wenham, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, Gloucester, and Andover.  Essex County was the home of Elbridge Gerry, known for creating a legislative district in 1812 that gave rise to the word gerrymandering, which suggests that politicians in Massachusetts have been corrupt for at least the past 208 years.

[3] An undeclared war between the US and France from 1798 to 1800.  John Adams was president.  When the US refused to repay its debt for the Revolutionary War, American politicians argued that after the French overthrew their king, the nation to whom this debt was owed no longer existed; accordingly, said certain members of the US Congress, the debt was null and void.  In response, France began seizing US flagged ships and auctioning them for payment.

[4] After 1794, the US Congress was unwilling to authorize more than four officer ranks in the Navy.  These were Captain, Master Commandant, Lieutenant, and Midshipman.  Commodore, therefore, was a title only, temporarily assigned to a U.S. Navy captain who, by virtue of seniority, exercised command over two or more U.S. naval vessels, and the rank Master Commandant was later changed to Commander.

[5] David Porter (1780-1843) was a self-assured naval officer who served on active duty with the U.S. Navy from 1790-1825, and as Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican Navy from 1826-1829.  He later served as Chargé d’Affaires of the United States to the Ottoman Empire (1831-1840) and United States Minister to the Ottoman Empire (1840-1843).  Porter was the adoptive father of David G. Farragut, the U.S. Navy’s first admiral.

[6] Gamble was promoted to Captain USMC in June 1814.

[7] Captain Porter later decided to burn Greenwich to keep the ship from being recaptured by the British South Atlantic squadron; it was a sensible decision because destroying the ship deprived the British of valuable whale oil, which at the time, was in high demand in England.

[8] Seringapatam was constructed in 1799 as a warship for Tippu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore.  The British stormed his citadel at Seringapatam, and Sultan was killed.  The British then sailed the ship to England where it was sold to British a whaling merchant.  The ship made six voyages to the Southern Atlantic and Pacific until captured by Greenwich.

[9] Gamble’s concern was well-founded.  On 28 March 1814, Royal Navy Captain James Hillyar forced Captain Porter’s surrender at the Battle of Valparaiso.  HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub disabled Essex to the point where he could no longer resist.  Following the battle, Captain Hillyar provided care and comfort to Porter’s wounded crew, disarmed Essex Junior, and gave Porter his parole to return to the United States.  Captain Hillyar sailed the Essex to England, where it was used as a transport ship, prison ship, and then ultimately sold at public auction for £1,230.

[10] The Caribs (now called Island Caribs) for whom the Caribbean was named, inhabited the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles.  They were noted for their aggressive hostility and fiercely resisted European colonization.  They identified themselves with the Kalina people, or mainland Carib of South America.  They continue to exist within the Garifuna people, also known as black Caribs in the Lesser Antilles.