Midshipman Henry Gray : The War of 1812 - Epic voyage of the USS Essex

Henry Gray was born in  Wexford, Ireland and was the oldest son of United Irishman Nicholas and Elinor Hughes Gray.  Ellen describes their trip to America as very dangerous.  Nicholas Gray writes Mr. Patten  “I must first tell you that my poor wife children arrived here safe after some narrow chances for their lives, and when they arrived I was gallivanting about two hundred miles from New York and knew nothing of their arrival until by chance I happened to come to Town when your dear sister [ Jane Patten Emmet the wife of Thomas Addis Emmet]  wished me joy of their safe arrival”.[1]  Nicholas Gray along with John Patten, brother-in-law to Thomas Addis Emmet, were state prisoners at Kilmainham Goal in 1804. 

                                                            Wexford Town, Ireland  -  Photo taken on a visit in 2008

 In the the letter below New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins is writing to the Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton for the appointment of the very young Henry Gray, as a Midshipman in the Navy. Nicholas Gray served as Governor Tompkins private secretary and was sent by Tompkins to the Niagara Station at the start of the War of 1812. Daniel D. Tompkins was the fourth governor of New York from 1807 to 1817 and  the sixth Vice President of the United States from 1817 to 1825. 

The Governor’s Special Plea for the Appointment of Master Gray, as Midshipman in the Navy, Albany January 16, 1812.  To the Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton

Sir:  Some time since you were addressed by some gentleman of this City relative to the appointment of Henry Gray, a Midshipman in the Navy.  My friend, Dr Bullus, subsequently took a memorandum of his name and age, which he intended to lay before you on his arrival at Washington with certain verbal recommendations which he received.  General Gray, the father, officiates as my private secretary, and is a gentleman of unblemished reputation, of amiable manners and of good family  The son is a sprightly, intelligent, amiable  youth as any with whom I am acquainted. The protracted sickness of General Gray has excited fears of an approaching consumption, and his great anxiety for the welfare of  his children, whom he will leave in slender circumstances, has created much sensibility amongst his numerous friends.  I do assure you, sir, that no appointment can be made which will yield me equal real satisfaction with that of the above  mentioned young gentle to the berth of Midshipman.[2]


 Henry Gray writes from Albany, New York,  January 22, 1812  to the Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton:

Sir,  I have received the Warrant appointing me Midshipman in the Navy of the United States, together with a copy of the Navy Rules & regulations and copy of the Uniform, and the Oath, which I have taken. I beg leave to inform you, that I feel highly, honored to the confidence in me and accept the appointment with many thanks, the sincerity of which I hope to be able to show when an opportunity shall offer, in the service of the United States. Have the goodness to say when you wish I should join, and what ship?  With reference, My choice would be the Ship President. I have the honor to subscribe myself, with great respect, Sir, your obedient Servant, Henry Gray. [3]

                                                                           USS Essex - Wikipedia

Henry Gray was appointed Midshipman on January 1st, 1812 and was assigned to the U.S. Frigate Essex in 1812.

With the outbreak of the  War of 1812 ,  David Porter was promoted to captain on July 2, 1812, and was assigned as commander of USS Essex. He sailed out of New York harbor with the banner, "Free trade and sailors' rights" flying from the fore top gallant mast. Captain Porter achieved fame by capturing the first British warship of the conflict, HMS Alert on August 13, 1812, as well as several merchantmen. 

In February 1813 he sailed Essex around Cape Horn and cruised the Pacific warring on British whalers. Porter's first action in the Pacific was the capture of the Peruvian vessel Nereida, and the releases of the captured American whalers on board. Over the next year, Porter would capture 12 whale ships and 360 prisoners. In June 1813, Porter released his prisoners, on the condition that they not fight against the United States until they were formally exchanged for American  prisoners of war. Porter's usual tactic was to raise British colors to allay the British captain's suspicions, then once invited on board, he would reveal his true allegiance and purpose.

Porter and his fleet spent October–December 1813 resting and regrouping in the Marquesas Islands , which he claimed in the name of the United States and renamed them the Madison Islands, in honor of then-President  James Madison.

On March 28, 1814, Porter was forced to surrender to Captain  James Hillyar off  Valparaiso after an engagement which became known as the Battle of Valparaiso with the British frigate HMS Phoebe and the sloop-of-war HMS Cherub , when his ship became too disabled to offer any resistance.[4]   

Captain Porter gives a very detailed account of the voyage of the U.S. Frigate Essex in his journal.

The  Journal of a Cruise made to the PACIFIC OCEAN, by CAPTAIN DAVID PORTER, in THE UNITED STATES FRIGATE  ESSEX, In the Years 1812, 1813 and 1814. Containing Descriptions of the Cape de Very Islands, Costs of Brazil, Patagonia, Chili, and Peru, and of the Galapagos Islands.  The manners, customs, and dress of the Inhabitants

October 6th, 1812. I received orders from commodore William Bainbridge to prepare the Essex for a long cruise and on the day following received his final instructions, appointing places of rendezvous, and the next day a copy of his orders from the honorable  secretary of the Navy.

I consequently directed the ship to be furnished with every requisite supply of stores and ordered for her a new suit of sails and put her in the best possible state for service. 

[Portrait David Porter -   Wikipedia]

In the letter below Captain David Porter writes to Secretary of the Navy Hamilton 

describing the capture of the British ships Montezuma , Policy and Georgiana all in the same day April 29, 1813.  Midshipman Henry Gray was in the second division in the Pinnace commanded by  Lt. Wilmer.  A Pinnace is a light boat, propelled by oars  or sails , carried aboard  war vessels. It was used to carry armed sailors for boarding ships. The men  were armed only with muskets, pistols, boarding axes & Cutlasses!


U S Frigate Essex at Sea July 2nd 1813, Lat: 2026'S Long 82°W.


I have the honor to inform you that on the morning of the 29th April in Lat: 0°40' North, Longde. 91 °15' West, about 20 miles to the northward of the Island of Albemarle  one of the Galapagos in the Pacific Ocean I captured the British ShIp Montezuma, two others being in sight close together distant from us about 7 miles .which we were informed  were the British Letter of Marque Ships Policy and Georgiana, the  mounting 10 Guns 6 & 9 pounders, the other six eighteen pounders 4 SWIVelS and 6 large blunderbusses mounted on swivels; the winds being light and variable and confiding greatly in the bravery and enterprise of my officers and mens , and apprehensive of their escape from the prevalence of fogs 10 that clImate, I dIrected the boats of this ship to be armed & manned and divided into two divisions.  The Second division under the command of Lt. Wilmer 2d Lt. in the Pinnace accompanied by Midshipman  Henry Gray &Masters Mate James Terry, Lt. suitable signals were established, and each boat had her particular station - On posted out for the attack, and every other previous arrangement was made to prevent confusion- the boats 7 in number rowed off in admirable order- Guns were fired from the enemy to terrify them- they rowed up under the muzzles of the Guns and took their stations for attacking the first ship, and no sooner was the American flag displayed by Lt. Downes as a signal for boarding and the intention was discovered by the enemy than the colours were struck without a shot being fired, so much was they daunted by the intrepidity of our brave officers and men, they then left a crew on board the prize and took their stations for attacking the other vessel when her flag was also struck on the first call to surrender, thus were two fine British Ships each pierced for 20 Guns

worth near half a million of Dollars mounting between them 16 Guns and manned with 55 men well supplied with ammunition and small arms surrendered without the slightest resistance to seven small open boats with fifty men armed only with muskets, pistols, boarding axes & Cutlasses![5]

                 Commodore Decatur's Squadron capturing the Algerian Pirate Ship Mashuda on June 17, 1815

Midshipman Henry Gray served on the Schooner USS Torch in Stephon Decatur Squadron during the Second Barbary War. The U.S. Schooner Torch along with the rest of the squadron participated in the capture of the Algerian flagship, the frigate Mashuda.  Decatur learned the arts of naval war under John Barry.  Barry and Henry Gray were both natives of Co Wexford, Ireland.  Barry is credited as “The Father of the American Navy”.  “When Barry's family was evicted from their home by their English landlord, they moved to Rosslare on the coast, where his uncle worked a fishing skiff. As a young man, Barry determined upon a life as a seaman, and he started out as a cabin boy”. [6]


In 1798, John Berry,  obtained Decatur's appointment as midshipman on United States, under Barry's command. Barry was a veteran and hero of the Revolutionary War and was Decatur's good friend and mentor. Decatur accepted the appointment on May 1. During his early naval career Decatur learned the arts of naval war under Barry, and also James Barron, both of whom took a liking to Decatur.

[Image Stephon Decatur - Wikipedia]

Decatur supervised the construction of several U.S. naval vessels, one of which he later commanded. Promoted at age 25, he is the youngest man to reach the rank of captain  in the history of the United States Navy.  He served under three presidents, and played a major role in the early development of the U.S. Navy. In almost every theater of operation, Decatur's service was characterized by acts of heroism and exceptional performance. His numerous naval victories against Britain, France and the Barbary states established the United States Navy as a rising power. 

On May 20, 1815, Commodore Decatur received instructions from President James Maddison  to take command of the frigate USS Guerriere  and lead a squadron of ten ships to the Mediterranean Sea to conduct the Second Barbary War , which would put an end to the international practice of paying tribute to the Barbary pirate states. His squadron arrived at Gibraltar  on June 14. [7]  


In the following letter Nicholas Gray writes President James Monroe. He soliciting for his son Henry to be promoted to Lieutenant in the Navy.  Nicholas Gray’s friend  Daniel D Tompkins is now the Vice President of the United States.

Washington Mississippi Territory 

April 25, 1817

The President of the United States


Permit me to address you on a subject of great interest to me and one for which I trust you will pardon the intrusion, the hopes of a father for the advancement of of a deserving Son, will I know be with you a sufficient apology.

I had the honor to be introduced to you, Sir, in the  year 1815 when I had the appointment of Inspector General of the 3rd Military district. Your kindness at that period command my gratitude.

My eldest son Henry Gray received a Midshipman Warrant dated the first January 1812, and was ordered on board the Essex Frigate, Capt. Porter and remained with him, until the expedition into the Mediterranean,  He has for some time been attached to the Command of Commodore Patterson off New Orleans, and is now  on a Cruiser between the Serbian and Perdido rivers in the Firebrand,  Capt. Cunningham. I believe he has not been off duty from his Ship or been since he obtained his warrant and joined the Vepel in 1810.

Commodore Porter and Rogers and Mr Shields informed me personally that he should not be passed over,  neither would I say that he has but I have seen the promotion of a  Mr. Isacks,  whose warrant is I believe dated on the same day, and who served on board the same Ship with my Son. 

At the same time, Sir, when I acknowledge a sensibility which should supersede the necessity of a application to the  President of the United States, knowing the number of deserving young men attached to the Navy. I feel a confidence that if possible, my Son will receive the appointment of Lieutenant if he deserves it.

I have the honor to be, Sir  with the highest respect and your most obedient servant Nicholas Gray, Register Land Office, West of Pearl River [8] 

                                                 Pirates on the southern coast of the United States - Wikipedia

Firebrand, a schooner, was purchased in April 1815 at New Orleans; and first put to sea in August 1815, Lieutenant T. S. Cunningham in command.

Cruising the southern coast of the United States from New Orleans, Firebrand protected American commerce from pirates and enforced the revenue laws. On her first cruise, in August and September 1815, she recaptured an American sloop and a Spanish ship from the pirates near Isle Cayes, and captured an armed schooner commanded by one of the Barataria  pirates. Late in 1819, she apprehended four smugglers' boats off the Sabine, and took the armed schooner La Maison commanded by a buccaneer from the New Orleans area.

Anchored near Pass Christian, Miss.,  July 28,1819 to take on provisions from Bay Saint Louis, Firebrand was wrecked on Square Handerkerchief Shoal in a heavy gale that night. Thirty-six of her crew, all of those who were not ashore on provisioning and other ship's business, were lost with their ship. [9]

Midshipman Henry Gray is assigned to the U.S. Schooner FireBrand at the New Orleans,  Naval Station. In the letter below he is writing to,  Benjamin W.  Crowninshield Secretary of the Navy about his promotion to Lieutenant in the Navy. Gray writes - I have had the honor of sailing  with Porter in the  Frigate Essex.

U.S. Schooner Fire Brand

Palize  August 18th 1817


I take the liberty of addressing you relative to the late promotions made last April in the Navy of the United States.  From Midshipman to Lieutenants, by which I find there are not only a number of my date for promotion , but some six and one nine months junior to me in service. But this I know full well Sir,  that rank is not considered at the Department as it respects promotion.  Yet Sir my feelings were truly hurt when I found myself thought unworthy. of confidence  being placed in me by my Country. I am now five years and seven months in the service of the U. States and during that time never had a furlough. — I have had the honor of sailing with  Porter in the Frigate Essex, in Commodore Decatur  Squadron up the straights. And the residue under the Command of Master Comm at Elton and Captains Patterson and Morrison the New Orleans Station. I must refer you to the appreciably  of those Officers for my character and capacity, but let me tell you Sir that if I am not fit for promotion now, I never will be:  I hope Sir you will not think this is presumptuous in me for I declare candidly to you that if I had a friend at the Department I should write to you through him, but being without one I am compelled address you myself and being convinced that you will have justice showed me and that you I should appeal. Knowing you to be in a manner the father of a young an influential Officer.

I have the Honor to subscribe myself 

With great Respect your obedient Servant

Henry Gray [10]

The two letters below to Benjamin W. Crowninshield Secretary of the Navy

New Orleans June 3rd, 1818


Having understood from a letter written to me by the Honor Daniel D. Tompkins that I was nominated for promotion and before the Senate for confirmation and also from my being recommended to you by Commander D. T.  Patterson.  I am induced to think that I have been Promoted  the list of Navel Promotion not arriving here I am inclined to believe that both it and my commission have miscarries as the mails here are very irregular by informing me of my promotion you will oblige.

Your Obedient Servant with Respect

Henry Gray

Midshipman U.S. Navy [11]


U.S. Schooner Fire Brand New Orleans

June 9th, 1818


I have the honor to inform you of my having received a commission as Lieutenant  in the Navy and Believe me Sir it will always be my duty to merit the confidence and encouragement  of my Country.

I have the honor to subscribe myself Sir with the most respect

Your Obedient servant

Henry Gray [12]


From the reports of Commodore Daniel T. Patterson to the Committee on Naval Affairs.

Lieutenant James M McIntosh was on boat duty at the time of the hurricane and exposed his life in his endeavors to reach the Schooner Fire Brand. The records of the Navy Department show him to be a highly meritorious and distinguished officer.

Lieutenant James M McIntosh, Bay of St. Louis to Commander Daniel T. Patterson  Naval Forces, New Orleans

August, 1819

Lieutenant Henry Gray was in Command on board. None of her Officers have as yet been found. The bodies of Seven of her crew have this morning been interned.  Sir, It has fallen to my lot to inform you of the circumstance of the total loss of the U.S. Schooner Fire Brand her Officers and crew with the exception of her Commander who left in the “Commander Patterson” for New Orleans taking with him the Launch and five men.

On Wednesday Morning Lieut. Commander Cunningham left the U.S Schooner FireBrand for New Orleans leaving the Schooner at the anchorage of Pass Christian.

I hope Sir, this will convince you that attending to duty has been the means of my being preserved from the dreadful devastation which was made with her Officers and Crew

I therefore at daylight started to her. She proved to be the unfortunate remains she lays on her starboard broadside, her stern completely gone together with her trunk and her main mast had been cut away. I was in the hurricane of 1812 but I am convinced this was much more severe. I describe my feelings, when I assure you there is not the least vestige of hope that one individual who was on board at the time was saved.

Your Obedient Servant  James M. McIntosh  [13]

Captain Cunningham  Bay of St. Louis August 10th, 1819 to 

Commander D. T. Patterson  Naval Forces, New Orleans

I have visited the remains of the late U.S. Schooner Fire Brand and find her almost in pieces and am fully convinced she must have upset and turned over once if not often. There is nothing standing above deck. One of her quarter deck guns is down in cabin, her mast has been entirely shifted  and lays up in the starboard. She lays nearly on her beam ends.

With Sentiment of Esteem

Respectfully  Sir,  I have the honor to be

Your Obedient Servant

 Captain Cunningham  [14]

Letter from Daniel T. Patterson  New Orleans  August 14th, 1819 To Smith Thompson  Secretary of the Navy  Washington 


I do myself the honor to enclose you copy of a letter this day received from Commander Thomas S. Cunningham he provided to the wreck of the late U.S. Schooner  FireBrand for purpose of ascertaining as accurately as he could from appearances the immediate cause of her loss and that of her crew. The opinion advanced by him of her being upset at the commencement of the hurricane and which is supported by his appearance and the direction in which he states the wreck to lay - that she was upset before she could  tend to the wind and that she immediately rolled and sunk by the force of the sea having then a much larger surface than deck frame to act upon.

Several gentlemen of intelligence who were on shore at the Pass Christian and Bay of St Louis inform me that the whole force of the Wind Burst was out at once without previous warning that the Sea rolled in with it overwhelming everything in its course rising in a few minutes to the level to the settlements, a height of at least 20 feet sweeping away all the houses.

I have the honor to be with great respect your out. Servant  Daniel T. Patterson [15]

Louisiana Gazette,  August 4, 1819

We have very distressing accounts of the ravages of a hurricane which raged on the night of the 28th.

The U.S. schooner Firebrand now lies bilged on the shoal the Four Handkerchiefs, opposite the Bay of St. Louis. Captain Cunningham, her commander, had fortunately left her before the gale began. Lieutenant Macintosh, Midshipman Luker, and five men, were also on shore. The officers on board the FireBrand were Lieutenant Gray, Dr. Wardle,  Midshipman Adams and Perkins, thirty-nine seamen and marines, were on board and all perished. Five men were lost from on board of the schooner Thomas Shields, in consequences of her upsetting.[16]

Lieutenant Henry Gray survived the War of 1812 and the second  Barbary War. He did not survive the hurricane of 1819, that hit the Bay of St. Louis, Mississippi,  while he was in Command of the Schooner Firebrand.  While stationed at the New Orleans, Naval Station, Henry Gray would have been able to be in contact with his family living in Natchez, Ms.


1. Letter from Nicholas Gray to Mr. Patten. Trinity College Library Dublin. Ref Ms 873, [276] researched by Paula Hayes

2. Public Papers of Daniel D. Tompkins, Governor of New York, Volume 2

3. Fold3: Letters Received by The Office of The Adjutant General. 1805 - 1821

4. David Porter [ Naval Officier]  Wikipedia


U S Frigate Essex at Sea July 2nd 1813,

6. Wikipedia

7. Wikipedia

8. National Archives

9. Naval History and Heritage Command

10. Fold3 Navy Officers’ Letters 1802-1884  Honorable Benjamin W.  Crowninshield Secretary of the Navy

11. Fold3 Navy Officers’ Letters 1802-1884.  Honorable Benjamin W.  Crowninshield Secretary of the Navy

12. Fold3  Navy Officers’ Letters 1802-1884.  Honorable Benjamin W.  Crowninshield Secretary of the Navy

13. Fold3 Letters Received by the Secretary of Navy [“Captains Letters”]

14. Fold3 Letters Received by the Secretary of Navy [“Captains Letters”]

15. Fold3 Letters Received by the Secretary of Navy [“Captains Letters”]

16. Louisiana Gazette,  August 4, 1819


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Tags: Genealogy, History of Ireland, Military History, United States


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