Just as it did for commissioned officers, service on the high seas during the War of 1812 provided opportunities for petty officers to distinguish themselves and thereby earn promotion, as the experiences of sailors in frigate Essex illustrate.
Violent weather in rounding Cape Horn in late February and early March 1813 tested Essex’s crew. By 1 March “the sea had increased to such a height, as to threaten to swallow us at every instant.” Captain David Porter recalled, “the whole ocean was one continued foam of breakers, and the heaviest squall that I ever before experienced, had not equaled in violence the most moderate intervals of this tremendous hurricane.” The storm’s climax came in the wee hours of the morning of the gale’s third day.
About 3 o’clock of the morning of the 3d, the watch only being on deck, an enormous sea broke over the ship, and for an instant destroyed every hope. Our gun-deck ports were burst in; both boats on the quarters stove; our spare spars washed from the chains; our head-rails washed away, and hammock stanchions burst in; and the ship perfectly deluged and water logged, immediately after this tremendous shock.
When the sea broke over the ship, one of the prisoners, taken in a British packet captured by Essex, cried out in a panic that the ship’s side had been stove in and the frigate was sinking. The torrent of water cascading down the hatchways lent credence to this statement and increased the crew’s alarm, especially of those men who had been “washed from the spar to the gun-deck, and from their hammocks.” “This was the only instance,” in which future admiral David Glasgow Farragut, then a midshipman, “ever saw a regular good seaman paralyzed by fear at the dangers of the sea.”
Fortunately for all, several men, including those at the wheel, held fast and maintained their stations, and most of the men below responded promptly to the call for all hands on deck. Boatswain’s Mate William Kingsbury, whom Farragut remembered as the “trusty old son of Neptune” who played the role of Neptune when Essex crossed the line earlier in the cruise, led the men and heartened them, roaring with the voice of a lion, “Damn your eyes, there is one side of her left yet!”
The petty officers who “distinguished themselves by their coolness and activity after the shock” Porter advanced one grade by filling up posts vacated by men sent away in prize ships. Since the boatswain’s post was occupied, Boatswain’s Mate Kingsbury’s recognition had to wait. In May, when Porter converted a captured British whaler into a cruiser rechristened Essex Junior, he appointed Kingsbury its acting boatswain.