He was with his adopted father, Captain Porter, on board the Essex, when war was declared with England in 1812. A number of prizes were captured by the Essex, and David was ordered by Captain Porter to take one of the captured vessels, with her commander as navigator, to Valparaiso. Although inwardly quailing before the violent-tempered old captain of the prize ship, of whom, as he afterward confessed, he was really “a little afraid,” the boy assumed the command with a fearless air.
On giving his first order, that the “main topsail be filled away,” the trouble began. The old captain, furious at hearing a command given aboard his vessel by a boy not yet in his teens, replied to the order, with an oath, that he would shoot any one who dared touch a rope without his orders. Having delivered this mandate, he rushed below for his pistols.
The situation was critical. If the young commander hesitated for a moment, or showed the least sign of submitting to be bullied, his authority would instantly have fallen from him. Boy as he was, David realized this, and, calling one of the crew to him, explained what had taken place, and repeated his order. With a hearty “Aye, aye, sir!” the sailor flew to the ropes, while the plucky midshipman called down to the captain that “if he came on deck with his pistols, he would be thrown overboard.”
David’s victory was complete. During the remainder of the voyage none dared dispute his authority. Indeed his coolness and promptitude had won for him the lasting admiration of the crew.
The great turning point which placed Farragut at the head of the American navy was reached in 1861, when Virginia seceded from the Union, and he had to choose between the cause of the North and that of the South. He dearly loved his native South, and said, “God forbid that I should have to raise my hand against her,” but he determined, come what would, to “stick to the flag.”
So it came about that when, in order to secure the control of the Mississippi, the national government resolved upon the capture of New Orleans, Farragut was chosen to lead the undertaking. Several officers, noted for their loyalty, good judgment, and daring, were suggested, but the Secretary of the Navy said, “Farragut is the man.”
The opportunity for which all his previous noble life and brilliant services had been a preparation came to him when he was sixty-one years old. The command laid upon him was “the certain capture of the city of New Orleans.” “The department and the country,” so ran his instructions, “require of you success. ... If successful, you open the way to the sea for the great West, never again to be closed. The rebellion will be riven in the center, and the flag, to which you have been so faithful, will recover its supremacy in every state.”