I am reading ‘The Underground History of American Education‘. It contains this stunning account of David Farragut. I question if I am raising the type of son that could have stood shoulder to shoulder with Farragut (at the age of 12). I am pretty sure that no matter how well I do, the David Farraguts of our world are far and few between. However, I also believe that modern American culture is almost entirely antithetical to the process.
When I was a schoolboy at the Waverly School in Monongahela, Peg Hill told us that David Farragut, the U.S. Navy’s very first admiral, had been commissioned midshipman at the ripe old age of ten for service on the warship Essex. Had Farragut been a schoolboy like me, he would have been in fifth grade when he sailed for the Argentine, rounding the Horn into action against British warships operating along the Pacific coast of South America.
Farragut left a description of what he encountered in his first sea fight:
I shall never forget the horrid impression made upon me at the sight of the first man I had ever seen killed. It staggered me at first, but they soon began to fall so fast that it appeared like a dream and produced no effect on my nerves.
The poise a young boy is capable of was tested when a gun captain on the port side ordered him to the wardroom for primers. As he started down the ladder, a gun captain on the starboard side opposite the ladder was “struck full in the face by an eighteen-pound shot,” his headless corpse falling on Farragut:
We tumbled down the hatch together. I lay for some moments stunned by the blow, but soon recovered consciousness enough to rush up on deck. The captain, seeing me covered with blood, asked if I were wounded; to which I replied, “I believe not, sir.” “Then,” said he, “where are the primers?” This brought me to my senses and I ran below again and brought up the primers.
The Essex had success; it took prizes. Officers were dispatched with skeleton crews to sail them back to the United States, and at the age of twelve, Farragut got his first command when he was picked to head a prize crew. I was in fifth grade when I read about that. Had Farragut gone to my school he would have been in seventh. You might remember that as a rough index how far our maturity had been retarded even fifty years ago. Once at sea, the deposed British captain rebelled at being ordered about by a boy and announced he was going below for his pistols (which as a token of respect he had been allowed to keep). Farragut sent word down that if the captain appeared on deck armed he would be summarily shot and dumped overboard. He stayed below.
So ended David Farragut’s first great test of sound judgment. At fifteen, this unschooled young man went hunting pirates in the Mediterranean. Anchored off Naples, he witnessed an eruption of Vesuvius and studied the mechanics of volcanic action. On a long layover in Tunis, the American consul, troubled by Farragut’s ignorance, tutored him in French, Italian, mathematics, and literature. Consider our admiral in embryo. I’d be surprised if you thought his education was deficient in anything a man needs to be reckoned with.