The Essex was splendidly built as a light frigate of 42 guns (later increased to 46) with funds donated by the citizens of Salem, Massachusetts. Completed in 1800, she was finely proportioned, 140 feet long, 36 feet abeam, and displaced 860 tons. She quickly proved herself to be an extremely fast and maneuverable fighting ship.
Captain David Porter assumed command just prior to the American declaration of war against the British in 1812 (in response to King George's move to recapture his former American colonies). Porter had already demonstrated his heroism as a midshipman aboard the Constellation during her running battle with Insurgente, and then aboard the Enterprise when she took the Barbary warship Tripoli.
When war began against Great Britain, Porter was ordered to capture or destroy enemy shipping and to help deny Britain control of the seas. When Essex engaged H.M.S. Alert in the Atlantic on August 13, 1812, she won the distinction of being the first Yankee warship to capture a ship of the Royal Navy during the war. During her first eight weeks at sea, she had taken nine British ships.
After re-provisioning, Porter determined to take his ship around Cape Horn and into the vast reaches of the Pacific. In a stunning feat of naval daring, Porter proceeded to carried off an extended cruise, far from American waters, repairing and provisioning both his own ship and those he had taken as prizes. During 17 months at sea he went on to sweep the Pacific of British merchantmen, whalers, and warships, taking 16 vessels in all.
Finally, a British fleet was dispatched to pursue the Essex, catching up with her in the port of Valparaiso, Chile. During a ferocious storm, Essex lost her topmast, putting her at a serious disadvantage in the gun battle that was to follow. Thereupon, she was pounded mercilessly by two British frigates and finally had no choice but to lower her flag. Of her crew of 255 men, 58 had been killed and 65 wounded. Miraculously, Both Captain Porter and midshipman David Farragut were taken prisoner, but survived. President Madison paid tribute to the Essex with his words "her loss is hidden in the blaze of heroism with which she was defended".