Wednesday, November 3, 2010
David Farragut's Early Childhood
Farragut lived in Knoxville during only his earliest years, but he had few other distinct memories of childhood. Perhaps for that reason he claimed Tennessee as his home state throughout life. The Farragut family moved from East Tennessee to New Orleans in late 1807, and in the summer of 1808 David's mother died of yellow fever. With his father obligated to military duty, Farragut and his four siblings were scattered to the homes of friends and relatives. He was 7 years old at that time.
Farragut lived briefly with Commodore David Porter and his wife in Washington, D.C. in a traditional home environment and attended school. But this life on land lasted less than a year. He enlisted in the Navy on December 17, 1810, six months before he reached his 10th birthday, and served for the next few years aboard his foster father’s ship, The Essex.
Although he received little formal education, he studied when and where he could. He kept a journal from a very young age--this was required by his foster father as part of his shipboard education. Whenever he had the opportunity he also attended lectures at such places as Yale University and the Smithsonian. As an adult, he was reported to be able to speak at least five languages; he had a quick wit, was very confident and not afraid to speak his mind, and yet was described as very humble.
He experienced more at a young age than most people do in a lifetime. At age 11 he sailed around Cape Horn in a storm so bad it made seasoned sailors get on their knees and pray for survival. He saw battle firsthand at the age of 12 as a midshipman onboard The Essex. Out of the 255-man crew, 58 were killed, 66 were wounded, and 31 were missing at the end of one particularly bloody battle.
Although he had a long military career, he didn't achieve widespread recognition until quite late in life--He was 65 when Congress established the rank of full admiral in order to honor him. He was 63 when he climbed into the rigging at the Battle of Mobile Bay and had one of his crew tie him to the mast. He later said this was not because he was particularly brave. He said that he just wanted to have a better view from above the smoke, so that he could shout commands to the crew on deck below him. This was also the famous battle where he said, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"
He was given the name of James Glasgow Farragut at birth, but was known as "Glasgow" to family and friends throughout his life. He took the honorary first name of David as a tribute to Commodore Porter.
One of Porter's relatives wrote about what Farragut was like when he was a young boy: “He was the life of the midshipman's mess, full of fun and as agile as a cat. He liked nothing better than to climb to the top of the mainmast and sit curl-legged, gazing out to sea.” ‘Where's Glasgow?' the commodore would ask, missing him. ‘Up on the mainmast, sir, looking for fresh air,' the quartermaster would reply."