Mr. Lincoln’s Admirals: Farragut and Porter

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series The Civil War at Sea

Mr. Lincoln’s Admirals: Farragut and Porter

Abraham Lincoln’s Admirals were a varied group who shaped the United States Navy from a small sailing fleet to a 500-ship naval force. The fleet effectively blockaded 3,500 miles of coastline. It penetrated into the interior of Confederate territory and assisted the Army in the capture of major ports. The navy regularly carried out amphibious operations. U.S. Navy ships hunted the oceans of the world for Confederate commerce raiders.

At the onset of the American Civil War the fleet had a mere 42 active vessels, almost all of which were sailing ships. By the end of 1861 that number had risen to 160, mostly steam-driven, screw propelled vessels. Eventually, the navy would increase to 500 ships, most of which were modern steam vessels. It would introduce ironclad ships to combat and pioneer new and innovative methods of naval warfare.

Admiral David Glasgow FarragutLed by a number of admirals the United States Navy was an important factor in the Union victory. Prior to the Civil War the highest rank that a naval officer could achieve was that of captain. This created problems of equivalency with Army ranks. A naval captain was the equivalent of an army colonel and in joint operations the naval officers were almost always outranked. In the summer of 1862 the Navy Department decided to adopt a system of ranks like those in the British Royal Navy: admiral, vice admiral, rear admiral and commodore would be equal to general, lieutenant general, major general and brigadier general.

The first naval officer to be promoted to rear admiral was David Glasgow Farragut on July 16, 1862. He was also the first officer to receive the rank of vice admiral and admiral. Farragut was a southerner by birth, having been born in Tennessee on July 5, 1801. His birth name was James but after the death of his father in 1808 he was adopted by his father’s friend, naval officer David Porter. He adopted David to honor his adoptive father. His adopted brothers were David Dixon Porter and William Porter, two future Union navy officers.

Farragut went to sea at the age of 9 and served in the United States Navy for his entire life. At the outbreak of the war he was given a position on the Naval Retirement Board. His adopted brother David Dixon Porter offered him a special assignment. It turned out to be the command of of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. In this position Farragut became one of the most famous naval officers in the history of the United States Navy.

On April 29, 1862 he led his naval force up the Mississippi River, past the defending forts and captured the city of New Orleans. He was promoted to rear admiral in July to honor his victory. Farragut had several failures, most notably at Vicksburg in July 1862 and his premature attack on Port Hudson, Louisiana in March 1863.

David Farragut’s most famous action was the attack on Mobile Bay, Alabama on August 5, 1864. Leading his attacking force while lashed to theFarragut at Mobile Bay rigging of his flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford, he pressed the assault on the heavily mined Confederate stronghold. After a Union monitor hit a mine (called torpedoes during the Civil War) the rest of the ships began to pull back. It was at this point that Farragut became famous in naval lore. “What’s the trouble?”, he shouted through a trumpet from the flagship to the USS Brooklyn. “Torpedoes!” was shouted back. “Damn the torpedoes!” said Farragut, “Four bells. Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!” The fleet steamed into Mobile Bay past the heavy land batteries and defeated the naval force of Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan. He was promoted to vice admiral by President Lincoln on December 21, 1864 and admiral on July 25, 1866.

Farragut’s adopted brother David Dixon Porter was the second naval officer to be promoted to the rank of admiral July 4, 1863. Porter was born on June 8, 1813 in Chester, Pennsylvania. His father was a serving naval officer David Porter. After his father resigned from the United States Navy in 1824 he was named the commander of the Mexican Navy. He took his sons David and Thomas and his nephew David Henry Porter with him. They were in a number of naval actions while in the Mexican Navy.

In 1829 Porter was appointed a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. He served in a number of positions until the beginning of the Civil War when he took Admiral David Dixon Porterpart in the aborted attempt to relieve Fort Pickens while commanding the U.S.S. Powhatan.

He was then assigned to the West Blockading Squadron which was under the command of his adopted brother David Farragut. He commanded 20 mortar ships that were assigned to bombard Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip. The attack began on April 18, 1862 but after five days Farragut grew impatient. In the night of April 24th he sailed his fleet past the forts and on to New Orleans. On the 28th Porter received the surrender of Fort St. Philip after the garrison of Fort Jackson had mutinied and surrendered.

After New Orleans, Farragut’s force moved upriver to Vicksburg where they bombarded the city with Porter’s motor squadron to no avail. Without the assistance of the Army Vicksburg could not be taken. Porter was reassigned to the Peninsula to assist in that campaign.

Porter was appointed to command the Mississippi River Squadron in October 1862 with the rank of Acting Rear Admiral, bypassing the intermediate ranks of captain and commodore. He arrived to take up his command in Cairo, Illinois on October 15, 1862. During this phase of the war Porter became closely associated with William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, two Army commanders who would have a great deal of influence on his career.

The Mississippi River Squadron was used both for the bombardment of Vicksburg and the transport of the troops that eventually surrounded and captured the Confederate stronghold. The Vicksburg campaign lasted from April until July 4, 1863. After the fall of Vicksburg Porter’s squadron was assigned to the Red River Expedition, an idea the General Nathaniel Banks. The campaign began on March 10, 1864 and lasted until May 22nd when Banks withdrew back to his base of operations. The Red River Expedition was noted for its lack of cooperation between the Army and the Navy.

In late summer 1864 Porter switched commands with Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee who was in command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles thought Lee was too timorous in his position. The goal of the Federal command was the capture of the lastBombardment of Forts Jackson and St. Philip Confederate ocean port of Wilmington, North Carolina. The harbor was defended by Fort Fisher, the mostly soil fort that defended the channel.

The army forces were initially commanded by General Benjamin Banks who was in command of the Army of the James. He suggested an explosive-laden ship to demolish the fort. This was tried on December 24, 1864 with little effect. Banks withdrew his forces from the assault. Porter was enraged at Banks’ timidity and complained to Grant who looking for an excuse to remove Banks, relieved him from command.

Grant assigned General Alfred H. Terry to command the operation. On January 13, 1865 the naval bombardment began with selective attacks on the fort’s gun emplacements. After two days of steady bombardment Terry’s forces captured Fort Fisher. This was Porter’s last wartime command. In his later career he was to command the United States Naval Academy. Porter was named a vice admiral in 1866 and eventually admiral, though not without some political infighting.

There will be several other posts on other significant admirals forthcoming in the following weeks.




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