George Farragut: The Epitome of an American Colonial

"George Farragut, Father of David G. Farragut," by William Swain. (Naval History and Heritage Command/National Portrait Gallery)

Jordi Ferragut Mesquida, better known by his anglicized name George Farragut, was the only known Spanish volunteer who fought under the American flag in the War of American Independence. Over one hundred thousand Spanish soldiers and sailors fought against Britain during that war, such as Bernardo de Gálvez in the Gulf Coast, as well as overseas at the Great Siege of Gibraltar. An equal number of French soldiers and sailors also fought Britain during the war, including thousands of volunteers who fought under the American flag, like Lafayette and Fleury. But Farragut’s name, now most closely associated with his son, the Civil War admiral David Farragut, also deserves its place in the pantheon of émigré volunteers who fought side by side with their fellow America colonials, and epitomized the spirit of independence.

Farragut was a native of Minorca, one of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean (along with its better-known neighbor Majorca) which has had a long and complicated history with Spain. The island had been an Islamic territory from the earliest days of Muslim rule in Iberia until January 17, 1287 when it was conqueredby the Spanish Christian state of Aragón y Valencia (January 17 is the island’s Día de Menorca, celebrated much like July 4 in the USA). It remained under Spanish rule until Britain conqueredit in 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and remained in British hands despite a brief French occupation during the Seven Years’ War. Minorca was re-taken in 1782 by Spain during the War of American Independence, ceded to Spain in the Peace of Paris in 1783, and became a permanent Spanish possession under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.

Under the British regime, Minorca had a mixed Spanish-British governing system with two capital cities: Ciudadela (today Ciutadella) in the west, home to the university and the local assembly, and Mahón, the center of British political power and site of its naval base at Port Mahón and military base at Fort San Félipe. The majority of the island’s population were farmers, mostly sharecroppers beholden to a few hundred ruling families. But Minorca’s position in the Mediterranean also meant it had a booming economy in trade, with both Ciudadella and Máhon having a very cosmopolitan flair and filled with craftsmen, lawyers, lawyers, notaries, scribes, doctors, apothecaries, etc. There was also a great deal of migration to and from the island, with inhabitants closely connected to other urban centers in Majorca, Barcelona and Valencia.[1]

Farragut’s family originated in Sineu, Majorca, at least as far back as the mid-seventeenth century, and like many Majorcans, were of Catalan origin (which is why the family name was spelled Ferragut). The family founder was Juan Ferragut Florit, who married Antonia Besset in 1632. The line of descendants went through Antonio Ferragut Besset (married to Magdalena Riutort), then Jordi Ferragut Riutort (married to Ursula Guitard Rossinyol), and then to Antonio Ferragut Guitard. Antonio was of the many émigrés who moved from Majorca to Minorca, marrying Juana Mesquida Bagur in Ciudadela in 1750, and subsequently became a sailor. Their son Jordi Ferragut Mesquida was born in that city on September 29, 1755.[2]

Antonio and Jordi (then barely fifteen years old, although he had been a sailor since age ten) enlisted in 1770 aboard a British privateer which fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, in support of the fleet of Catherine II (“The Great”) of Russia. They fought in the naval battle at Chesma on July 5-7, 1770 in the waters around the Greek island of Chios. This battle led to a defeat for the Turkish navy squadron in the Mediterranean and the beginning of the end of the great Ottoman Empire. After this battle, at seventeen years of age, Jordi Ferragut left the island of Minorca to move to Barcelona, with the intention of beginning his nautical studies. We cannot say with any certainty which studies Jordi undertook while in the Catalonian city, although they presumably included some instruction in shipbuilding and navigation.

Two years later, on April 2, 1772, he followed his adventurous spirit and emigrated from Minorca to North America via Barcelona. At that time, Barcelona was one of the Spanish ports on the Mediterranean that was directly linked to Cádiz on the Atlantic coast, from where most of the ocean vessels departed for the Caribbean ports in the Spanish American empire. Being a young man of twenty, with nautical knowledge, allowed him the opportunity, in 1773, to be appointed captain of a small cargo ship which periodically would make the voyage between Havana and Veracruz, where his name is recorded in port registry books as captain of a merchant ship. This experience allowed him to gain accurate knowledge of sailing the Caribbean Sea. At some point he dropped “Jordi” and began calling himself Jeorge (Jordi is Catalan; he did not call himself Jorge, which is Castilian); over time, “Jeorge” became “George,” and “Ferragut” became “Farragut.”[3]

Farragut first came to New Orleans, the capital of Spanish Louisiana, in 1775. His arrival on the American coast coincided with the outbreak of the American Revolution. There, Farragut learned of this brewing conflict, for that port city had become the center of American espionage for the Spanish Empire. “For the first time” Farragut later wrote, referring to himself in the third person, “he heard of the difficulties between England and her colonies, and immediately determined to assist with his life and his fortune in the struggle for American Independence.” It is not clear what led him to participate in The Cause (as the Americans called the fight), but it is possible that Farragut saw it as a way to launch a blow against the British occupation of his own home island. He sailed from New Orleans to Port-au-Prince, Saint Domingue (notorious for smuggling French-made arms to American colonists) where he traded his cargo for “cannon, arms, powder and ball.” He brought these munitions to Charleston, South Carolina, in March 1776, where he presumably sold them to the Americans preparing their defenses against the forthcoming British siege (later known as the Battle of Sullivan’s Island). His seafaring experience proved valuable to the colonists, for he was soon commissioned as lieutenant aboard the 12-gun sloop Vixen, commanded by Downham Newton. He “gave much satisfaction to his captain,” for Vixen had a particularly successful cruise in the summer of 1777, capturing several prizes and giving a poke in the eye to a larger British squadron.[4]

At the recommendation of Captain Newton, Farragut was appointed as a first lieutenant of the South Carolina navy. There he played a dual role; first, as a builder of shallow-draft oared galleys in Charleston, designed to defend ports; and second, and as a commander of these galleys during the Capture of Savannah (1778) where “he fought a severe action . . . and did not quit the deck of his vessel until it was covered with the dead and the dying.” The battle resulted in an overwhelming defeat for the defending American forces, so Farragut was obliged to bring his galley far up the Sampit River above Georgetown to hide it from the roving British forces. Farragut also participated in the unsuccessful siege of Savannah a year later by American and French forces.

The Battle of Charleston in 1780 was by far a more important strategic loss for the Americans. The amphibious British assault easily penetrated the port of Charleston, in spite of the suicide strategy employed by the Americans. In an attempt to prevent the city from being bombed, they sank eleven available galleys, one of which, Revenge, was commanded by Farragut, with the objective of forming a barricade at the mouth of the river.[5] Meanwhile, the galleys’ cannon were unshipped and were placed with their crews on each side of the port, to reinforce the ground troops. Although a man of the sea, George Farragut exchanged his role for that of a foot soldier. He was assigned to command one of the batteries, defending the position with the same patriotic fervor as any other American officer. During one of the engagements, Col. Richard Parker of Virginia “died in [my] arms,” Farragut later reported. The resistance in Charleston lasted for a month. Even so, the British took the city and captured around 5,000 men. The higher-ranking officers were taken north, to Philadelphia, where a prisoner exchange took place between the two sides. Farragut’s name appears on that list.

Once exchanged, George Farragut returned to the war in South Carolina, but on the return trip aboard a privateer bound for Charleston, his right arm was shattered during an “engagement” by a musket ball (Farragut did not reveal the circumstances of the “engagement”); the arm was set by Doctor Frederick Ridgely. From then on, his arm was largely useless except as a weather barometer, and he could not serve as a fighting sailor; instead, he offered his services to Francis Marion (the Swamp Fox). In January 1781, Farragut joined a rifle militia in South Carolina that was active in the wooded area of Cowpens on the border between the two Carolinas, commanded by Andrew Pickens, positioned to head off the British infantry. There, the British and American armies fought a decisive battle, in which both the infantry and cavalry intervened. The battle ended up being a turning point for the war. If prior to the Battle of Cowpens the advantage had leaned toward the British, now the war was leaning toward the side of the colonies. After this battle, the army of General Cornwallis was left in a very weakened state due to the number of casualties.

The day after the Battle of Cowpens, George Farragut headed to Wilmington, North Carolina, following the course of the war as an artillery gunner, where he was engaged in a minor skirmish at Beaufort’s Bridge across the North East Cape Fear River. He then raised a volunteer company of cavalry, charged with capturing stragglers from Cornwallis’s army as they advanced towards Virginia. Those initiatives earned him the command of a newly formed cavalry unit with the rank of captain, supporting the military operations of Francis Marion.

For George Farragut, the war ended there as the peace negotiations dragged on from 1782 through 1783. Now back in North Carolina, with hardly a penny to his name, he found himself in a precarious situation, which he protested to the authorities. Nevertheless, the state was nearly broke and could not pay even a portion of his arrears for several years. In light of this, Farragut returned to his prior occupation as a seaman for a decade, coming home to North Carolina in 1792 and engaging in surveying and farming in the newly-formed Southwest Territory (now Tennessee). The Territory’s governor William Blount appointed him as a major of the militia in 1793, during which time he fought against the Cherokee nation. Farragut continued to serve the nation he helped create, being appointed a sailing master of a gun boat in New Orleans in 1807, and again fighting the British during the War of 1812.

George Farragut also started a family in his adopted land. He married Elizabeth Shine in 1795, and together they had five children before she died in 1808. The most famous of his sons was James Glasgow Farragut, who was only seven years old when his mother died. George Farragut had befriended a naval officer, David Porter, who died the same day as Farragut’s wife. Bereft and broke, George Farragut agreed to let David Porter’s son, David Porter Jr. (also a naval officer), take young James into his charge. James Farragut soon changed his first name to David in honor of his adopted father, and David Glasgow Farragut went on to become one of the most effective admirals in the Union Navy during the Civil War.

George Farragut continued to serve the United States after the War of 1812 was over. Rejected from further service the navy, he enlisted as a volunteer companion to Gen. Andrew Jackson’s troops, defending the coast around New Orleans from any possible British incursion. But within a few years, the toll of his service caught up with him and on June 4, 1817, George Farragut passed away at age fifty-six in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Like many soldiers and sailors, he was interred in an unmarked grave. His son David, who did not see his father again after he left home in 1808, returned to his father’s home island of Minorca in 1815 as a midshipman, and again in 1868 as commander of the European Squadron, the first American naval officer with the rank of full admiral.[6] It is has often been remarked that the Civil War achieved the unification that the Revolutionary War had begun; so it is perhaps fitting that the father George Farragut, who helped create the United States, was followed by the son David Farragut who helped to make it one nation.

Translation: Larrie D. Ferreiro

 

[1]John Armstrong, The History of the Island of Minorca (London: C. Davis, 1752); Juan Llabrés Bernal, De la marina de antaño: Notas para la historia de Menorca, 2 vols. (Palma de Mallorca: Antigua Imprenta Soler / Imprenta Alfa, 1955/1967); Llabrés Bernal, La estación naval norteamericana en Mahón. 1815-1826: Durante los mandos de los comodoros John Shaw, Isaac Chauncey, Charles Stewart, William Bainbridge, y John Rodgers (Palma de Mallorca: Imprenta Bristol, 1969); Llabrés Bernal, Menorca y la escuadra norteamericana en el siglo pasado 1825 – 1830 (Palma de Mallorca: Imprenta Bristol, 1971).

[2]Archivo Diocesano de Ciudadela: Llibre de baptismes de la parroquia de Ciudadela, D. L. 039 (Cuidadela, Minorca).

[3]Jaime Sastre Moll, “David Glasgow Ferragut,” in Francesc Riera i Montserrat (ed.), Amèrica, l’altra història de les Balears (Palma de Mallorca: Gràficas Miramar, 1992).

[4]The following information on the service of George Farragut in the United States is from: George Farragut, Letter to Secretary of the Navy William Jones, New Orleans, May 20, 1814, Naval History and Heritage Command (Washington, DC), Navy Department Library, Personnel files ZB-F Box 095; Marshall DeLancey Haywood, “Major George Farragut,”The Gulf States Historical Magazine 2/2 (September 1903), 90-98; Moll, “David Glasgow Farragut,” 1992; Robert L. Caleo, “‘A Most Serious Wound’: The Memorial of George Farragut,” The Journal of East Tennessee History 79 (2007), 63-79; Robert L. Caleo, Farragut and Family: The Making of an Elder Hero (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2015), 27-39.

[5]John J. Sayen Jr., “Oared Fighting Ships of the South Carolina Navy, 1776-1780,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine 87/4 (October 1986), 213-237.

[6]Eva M. García, ed., Farragut y Menorca: el legado español en la U.S. Navy: the Spanish legacy (Madrid: Ministerio de Defensa, 2017).

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1 Comment

  • This was very informative. I have read a lot about Spain’s role in the American Revolution but there is not much on George Farragut.

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