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Admiral David D. Porter

IF courage and splendid fighting qualities are inherited, Admiral Porter should be, as he is, one of the best fighting men in the navy, for he is the youngest son of that old Viking, Commodore David Porter, who, in the war of 1812, was the terror of the British marine, and who, while, unlike Semmes of the Alabama, he never let slip an opportunity of engaging a war vessel of the enemy, even if she carried twice his armament, made worse havoc with their mercantile marine, than Semmes did with ours. The career of the frigate Essex, and her untoward fate, made the old commodore a hero for the rest of his life. After the close of the war he served as a member of the board of Navy Commissioners from 1815 to 1823, but the longing for the sea was too strong for him to overcome, and an opportunity occurring for a cruise to destroy the pirates who were infesting the West Indies, be gladly took command, and served two years, when, having punished with some severity an insult offered by the authorities of one of the islands, he was called home, and a naval court martial having decided that he had transcended his authority, he was suspended from command for six months. He resigned soon after, and for the next four years was commander-in-chief of the naval forces of Mexico. Returning to the United States in 1829 he was appointed consul general to the Barbary powers, and thence transferred first as consul general to the Barbary powers, and thence transferred charge and afterward as minister, to Constantinople, where he remained till his death in 1843.

His youngest son, DAVID D. PORTER, was born in Philadelphia in June, 1813, and, while still a child, accompanied his father in his cruise after the pirates in 1823-25. We believe he was also with him in Mexico.

On the 2d of February, 1829, he received his warrant as midshipman, being appointed from Pennsylvania. He was ordered to the frigate Constellation, thirty-six guns, stationed in the Mediterranean, under Commodore Biddle and Captain Wadsworth.

In 1831, the Constellation was ordered home, and laid up in ordinary at Norfolk, and Porter was granted leave of absence, after which, in 1832, he was ordered back to the Mediterranean on the new flag-ship United States, a forty-four gun frigate, under Captain Nicholson, Commodore Patterson having charge of the squadron. On the 3d of July, 1835, he passed his examination, and was recommended for early promotion. During the years 1836 to 1841, he was appointed on the Coast Survey and exploring expeditions, and stood on the list of passed midshipmen at the following numbers :—January 1, 1838, No. 111; January 1, 1839, No. 84; January 1, 1840, No. 61, and January 1, 1841, at No. 48.

On the 27th of February, 1841, he was commissioned a lieutenant, and ordered to the frigate Congress, a forty-four gun vessel-of war he then rejoined the Mediterranean squadron, and after a short time this vessel was ordered on the Brazilian station. He still retained his position on the same frigate, and was on her more than four years; for his name is recorded as one of her lieutenants on the rolls of the Navy Department for the years commencing January 1, 1842, 1813, 1844, and 1845. He had not risen much during these years; for on the first mentioned date his name stood at No, 267 on the list of lieutenants; on the second at No. 258; on the third at No. 245, and on the last at No. 232. At the latter end of 1845 he was attached to the Observatory at Washington on special duty, which position he still held at the commencement and during a part of the year 1846. He then stood No. 228 on the list. On January 1, 1847, after having performed some brilliant exploits in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican war, he is entered as being in charge of the rendezvous at New Orleans, from which he was detached to again join the Coast Survey, on which service his name is recorded on January 1, 1848.  During this year he was appointed to the command of the schooner Petrel, engaged on the survey.

In February, 1849, he left New York as the commander of the steamship Panama, the third of the vessels constituting the line of American mail steamers first established for service on the Pacific. The pioneer passage of the Panama was attended with incidents which displayed on the part of the commander courage, caution, patience, and thoroughly competent qualifications for the post to which he had been assigned. After taking the vessel safely to Panama Bay, he was ordered to New York to the command of the mail steamer Georgia, which command he held during the latter part of 1850, the years 1851 and 1852, and a great portion of 1853.

Amongst the many gallant exploits of Admiral Porter was that of running the steamer Crescent City (appropriately named) into the harbor of Havana, during the excitement between the two countries relative to the ship Black Warrior. The Spanish government had refused to permit any United States vessel to enter that port. Running under the shotted guns of Moro Castle, he was ordered to halt. He promptly replied that he carried the United States flag and the United States mails, and, by the Eternal, he would go in; and he did, the Habaneros fearing to fire upon him. He said afterwards that he intended firing his six-pounder at them once in defiance, after which he would haul down his flag. During the Mexican war, Admiral Porter, then a lieutenant, took a very active part in the naval portion of that conflict. He was the executive officer and first lieutenant under the famous Commodore Tatnall, who had charge of the mosquito fleet in the waters of the Gulf. Their adventures before Vera Cruz are not likely soon to be forgotten.

On the 1st of January, 1854, he is recorded absent again on leave, and at the beginning of the next year awaiting orders. His name now stood at No. 138. During 1855 he was ordered 
to the command of the storeship Supply, and held this command during the next year, until February, 1857. He was then ordered on shore duty, and on the 1st of January, 1860, was at the Navy Yard at Portsmouth as third in command.

At the beginning of the year 1861, he was under orders to join the Coast Survey on the Pacific, but, fortunately, had not left when the rebellion broke out. His name at this time stood number six on the list of lieutenants. The resignation of several naval traitors left room for his advancement, and the "Naval Register" for August 31, 1861, places him number seventy-seven on the list of commanders, with twenty others between him and the next grade of' rank below. He was then placed in command of the steam sloop-of-war Powhatan, a vessel of about twenty-five hundred tons, and armed with eleven guns. In her he took part in one section of the blockading squadron, and left that ship to take the special charge of the mortar expedition. The active part he took in the reduction of the forts below New Orleans will make his name ever memorable in connection with the mortar fleet, or "bummers," as the sailors term them. After the capture of New Orleans he, with his fleet, went up the Mississippi river, and was engaged in several affairs on that river, including that of Vicksburg. From that place he, was ordered to the James river, and returned in the Octorara. When off Charleston, on his way to Fortress Monroe, he fell in with and captured the Anglo-rebel steamer Tubal Cain. It was at first supposed that he would have been placed in command of the James river flotilla; but from some cause this plan was changed. He was allowed leave of absence to recruit his health, while his mortar fleet was engaged on the Chesapeake and in front of Baltimore.

In October, 1862, he was appointed to the command of the Mississippi gunboat flotilla, as successor to Commodore Davis, with the rank of acting rear-admiral, and was required to co-operate with General Grant in the assault and siege of Vicksburg. His services in that siege form a record of which any man. might be proud. His squadron was a large one, composed of vessels of all sizes, many of them constructed under his own supervision, and a considerable number were armed steamers, plated with from three to four and a half inches of iron and capable of resisting the shot of any but the heaviest batteries. His previous very thorough knowledge of the Mississippi river was of great advantage to him in this service, as well as in his operations previously and subsequently in the lower Mississippi. In General Grant he evidently found a co-worker after his own heart, for imperious and exacting as the admiral's temper is, they had no difficulties, and he entered most heartily into all the general's efforts to find a suitable point for assailing successfully the Gibraltar of the rebellion. Previous to the coming of General Grant's army to Young's Point, Admiral Porter had cleared the lower Yazoo of torpedoes, losing one gunboat (the Cairo) in the attempt; had assisted General Sherman to the utmost of his ability in his attack upon Chickasaw Bluffs; and accompanying General MeClernand in his expedition to the post of Arkansas and the White river, had bombarded the fort (Fort Hindman) till it surrendered, and broken up the other small forts and driven out the rebel steamers on the White river. He also succeeded in blockading eleven rebel steamers in the Yazoo. His activity during the next six months was incessant; now sending gunboats and rams down the river past the batteries of Vicksburg to destroy the rebel rams and steamers and capture the supplies intended for Vicksburg and Port Hudson; then firing at the upper or lower batteries of Vicksburg, cutting the levee at Yazoo pass and endeavoring to force a passage through the Yallobusha and Tallahatehee into the Yazoo; and failing in this, cutting his way through the labyrinth of bayous and creeks to attain the same end. These exercises were varied by sending occasionally a coal barge fitted up as a monitor, past the batteries, greatly to the fright of the rebels, who, after concentrating the fires of their batteries on the contrivance without effect, were so badly scared as to destroy the best gunboat (the Indianola taken from Lieutenant Commander Brown) they had on the river, from fear of its capture by this formidable monitor. Then came the hazardous experiment of running gunboats past the batteries, twice repeated, to aid General Grant in his movement to approach Vicksburg from below and from the rear. The success of these enterprises, only two transports out of sixteen or eighteen, and none of the gunboats, being destroyed, was remarkable, and of itself evinced great skill and caution on the part of the admiral. The fight at Grand Gulf was a severe one, and not successful, but the night following the batteries were run, and the troops ferried over to Bruinsburg, from whence they marched to Jackson and to the rear of Vicksburg. Meanwhile a part of the spuadron had been engaged in aiding Sherman in making a demonstration on Haines' Bluff to draw off the attention of the rebels from Grant's approach by the south.

When, on the 19th of May, Grant's army made their first, assault on the rear of Vicksburg, and on the 22d of May, when the second assault was made, Admiral Porter maintained a heavy fire in front, to distract the attention of the rebels; and during the whole siege, whenever a ball or shell could be thrown from his squadron either above or below the city with good effect, it was promptly and accurately hurled. The surrender of Vicksburg, on the 4th of July, and of Port Hudson on the 9th, opened the Mississippi to our fleet and to merchant steamers, and thenceforth the fleet on the Mississippi acted only as an armed river patrol. The duties of the squadron in these respects were, however, somewhat arduous for a time. The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, and the Ohio, were included within its cruising ground; and the pursuit of Morgan's expedition to Buffington island, and the repressing of occasional rebel raids, kept them almost constantly on the alert.

Early in March, 1864, Admiral Porter ascended the Red river to co-operate with General Banks in his expedition to break up the rebel posts on that river, and penetrate by that route into Texas. The expedition was at first successful, and captured the forts of the enemy, and their principal towns, in a series of brief engagements. But, as they ascended the river, the greed of gain seemed to take possession of the squadron, and large quantities of cotton were gathered up from both shores of the river and brought on board the gunboats; and they were forced so far up the falling stream, that they were in great danger of being unable to return, and so of becoming a prey to the rebels. The army, too, had been seriously repulsed, and had made a somewhat hasty retreat as far as Grand Ecore. From this point downward the squadron was in constant trouble—the larger vessels getting aground, hard and fast, several times a day, and being compelled to tie up at night; harassed almost every hour by small bodies of rebel troops, whom they could only keep off by a free use of canister and grape shot; not making more than thirty miles a day, and the river constantly falling. At length, thirty miles below Grand Ecore, the Eastport, the largest vessel of the squadron, stuck fast and hard upon the rocks in the channel, and could not be moved; and the admiral was compelled to give orders for her destruction. The attempt made by the rebels to board the Cricket, another of his gunboats, at this juncture, was so severely punished, that they disappeared, and were not seen again until the mouth of Cane river, twenty miles below, was reached. Here was a rebel battery of eighteen guns, and a severe fight ensued. The Cricket, which was but lightly armed (being, as the men were in the habit of saying, only "tin clad"), was very badly cut up, almost every shot going through her, two of her guns being disabled, and half her crew, and her pilot, and chief engineer, being either killed or badly wounded. Here the splendid personal bravery of Admiral Porter proved their salvation. He improvised gunners from the Negroes on board, put an assistant in the place of the chief engineer, took the helm himself, and ran past the battery under a terrific fire, which he returned steadily with such of his guns as were still serviceable. The other gunboats, though sadly injured, at length got by--the Champion, only, being so much disabled as to be unable to go on, and being destroyed by order of Admiral Porter.

On reaching Alexandria, matters were still worse. In the low stage of water, the rapids were impassable by the gunboats, and at first their destruction seemed inevitable. But the engineer o the Nineteenth array corps, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Bailey (afterward promoted to the rank of brigadier-general for this great service), devised a way of floating them over the rapids, by the construction of a series of wing-dams partly across the river at several points. The task was herculean, but it was skilfully and speedily accomplished, and by the 13th of May all the gunboats had passed the barrier and were on their way to the Mississippi river, still one hundred and fifty miles distant. Before this time, however, two small gunboats and two transports, laden with troops, were attacked by the rebels, and both the transports and one gunboat captured, and the other burned. Admiral Porter returned to his patrol of the Mississippi, from whence, soon after, he was transferred to the command of the North Atlantic squadron. Here he was busy, for a time, with the removal of torpedoes in the navigable waters of Virginia and North Carolina ; in capturing blockade runners; and cruising after the pirates who seized our merchant steamers. But his restless activity and energy could not be satisfied without striking a blow at the chief port of entry for which the blockade runners aimed, and into which at least seven out of every ten succeeded in entering. Willmington, North Carolina, had, during the whole war, been one of the chief seats of the contraband trade of the rebels, and the blockade runners had been more successful in eluding the vigilance, or escaping from the pursuit of the blockading squadron 
there, than either at Charleston or Mobile. This was due in part to its position, and the defences of the harbor. Five forts protected the entrance to the estuary of Cape Fear river; and while they were sufficient to prevent any access to the river by the blockading squadron, they effectually shielded the blockade runners, who succeeded in effecting an entrance, by either inlet, to the estuary. Of these works, Fort Fisher, one of the most formidable earthworks on the coast, was the chief; and it was to the reduction of this, that the attention of Rear-Admiral Porter was directed. The Navy Department, which had been instrumental in his transfer to the North Atlantic squadron, heartily seconded his efforts ; and an arrangement having been made with General Grant for the necessary land forces to cooperate with the squadron, a fleet of naval vessels, surpassing in numbers and equipments any that had been assembled during the war, was collected with dispatch in Hampton Roads. Various circumstances delayed the attack until the 24th of December; 1864. What followed, is best related in the report of the Secretary of the Navy.

"On that day (December 24), Rear-Admiral Porter, with a bombarding force of thirty-seven vessels, five of which were ironclad, and a reserve force of nineteen vessels, attacked the forts at the mouth of Cape Fear river, and silenced them in one hour and a quarter; but there being no troops to make an assault or attempt to possess them, nothing beyond the injury inflicted on the works and the garrison was accomplished by the bombardment. A renewed attack was made the succeeding day, but with scarcely better results. The fleet shelled the forts during the day and silenced them, but no assault was made, or attempted, by the troops which had been disembarked for that purpose. Major-General Butler, who commanded the co-operating force, after a reconnoissance, came to the conclusion that the place could not be carried by an assault.  He therefore ordered a re-embarkation, and informing Rear-Admiral Porter of his intention, returned with his command to Hampton Roads. Immediate information of the failure of the expedition was forwarded to the department by Rear-Admiral Porter, who remained in the vicinity with his entire fleet, awaiting the needful military aid. Aware of the necessity of reducing these works, and of the 
great importance which the Department attached to closing the port of Wilmington, and confident that with adequate military co-operation the fort could be carried, he asked for such co-operation, and earnestly requested that the enterprise should not be abandoned. In this the department and the President fully concurred. On the suggestion of the President, Lieutenant-General Grant was advised of the confidence felt by Rear-Admiral Porter that he could obtain complete success, provided he should be sufficiently sustained. Such military aid was therefore invited as would insure the fall of Fort Fisher.

A second military force was promptly detailed, composed of about 8,500 men, under the command of Major-General A. H. Terry, and sent forward. This officer arrived off Fort Fisher, on the 13th of January. Offensive operations were at once resumed by the naval force, and the troops were landed and intrenched themselves, while a portion of the fleet bombarded the works. These operations were continued throughout the 14th with an increased number of vessels. The 15th was the day decided upon for an assault. During the forenoon of that day, forty-four vessels poured an incessant fire into the rebel forts. There was, besides, a force of fourteen vessels in reserve. At 3 P. M., the signal for the assault was made. Desperate fighting ensued, traverse after traverse was taken, and by 10 P. M. the works were all carried, and the flag of the Union floated over them. Fourteen hundred sailors and marines were landed, and participated in the direct assault.

Seventy-five guns, many of them superb rifle pieces, and 1,900 prisoners, were the immediate fruits and trophies of the victory; but the chief value and ultimate benefit of this grand achievement, consisted in closing the main gate through which the insurgents had received supplies from abroad, and sent their own products to foreign markets in exchange.

Light-draught steamers were immediately pushed over the bar, and into the river, the channel of which was speedily buoyed, and the removal of torpedoes forthwith commenced. The rebels witnessing the fall of Fort Fisher, at once evacuated and blew up Fort Caswell, destroyed Bald Head Fort and Fort Shaw, and abandoned Fort Campbell. Within twenty-four hours after the fall of Fort Fisher, the main defence of Cape Fear river, the entire chain of formidable works in the vicinity shared its fate, placing in our possession one hundred and sixty-eight guns of heavy calibre.

The heavier naval vessels, being no longer needed in that quarter, were dispatched in different directions—some to James river and northern ports, others to the Gulf or the South Atlantic squadron. An ample force was retained, however, to support the small but brave army which had carried the traverses of Fort Fisher, and enable it, when reinforcements should arrive, to continue the movement on Wilmington.

Great caution was necessary in removing the torpedoes, always formidable in harbors and internal waters, and which have been more destructive to our naval vessels than all other means combined.

About the middle of February, offensive operations were resumed in the direction of Wilmington, the vessels and the troops moving up the river in concert. Fort Anderson, an important work, was evacuated during the night of the 18th of February, General Schofield advancing upon this fort with 8,000 men, while the gunboats attacked it by water. On the 21st, the rebels were driven from Fort Strong, which left the way to Wilmington unobstructed, and on the 22d of February, that city was evacuated. Two hundred and twelve guns were taken in the works from the entrance to Old river, including those near the city, and thus this great and brilliant achievement was completed."

The failure of General Butler to make the attack when expected, though it would seem to have been justified by the dictates of prudence, and to have been in no respect due to any want of personal courage or daring on the part of the general, was very annoying to Rear-Admiral Porter, and led to an acrimonious correspondence between the two parties, neither of whom were at all chary in their abuse of each other.

The termination of the war soon after the capture of Wilmington, left little more. active service for the North Atlantic squadron, and its reduction and consolidation with the South 
Atlantic squadron followed in June, 1865. Before this, however, on the 28th of April, Rear-Admiral Porter had been relieved, at his own request, of the command of the squadron, and Acting Rear-Admiral Radford succeeded him. In the few months' leave of absence granted him, he visited Europe.

In September, 1865, when the Naval Academy was brought back to Annapolis, and partially re-organized, Rear-Admiral Porter was appointed its superintendent, and has remained in that position since that time. He has infused new energy and character into the instruction there, and the Academy is now a worthy counterpart of the Military Academy at West Point. On the 25th of July, 1866, Vice-Admiral Farragut being promoted to the new rank of Admiral, Rear-Admiral Porter was advanced to the Vice-admiralty.

Vice-Admiral Porter remained in charge of the Naval Academy, though devoting a considerable portion of his time to the details of the Navy Department management, till the commencement of President Grant's administration, when he resigned the superintendency of the Academy, and was for some months, while the department was in charge of Mr. Boric, the Secretary of the Navy de facto, though not de jure. When, soon after, Admiral Farragut set out upon his European tour, Vice-Admiral Porter's presence at Washington was, in some sort, a necessity, as many of the questions which come up for decision in the Navy Department require for their proper solution the judgment and knowledge of naval affairs of a high officer of the Navy. Admiral Farragut died August 14, 1870, and as the rank of Admiral in the Navy had been created expressly to honor him, and it had been the intention to abolish it after his death, there seemed to be a probability that he would have no successor. This probability was very galling to Vice- Admiral Porter. His ambition could be satisfied with nothing short of the highest position, and he immediately initiated measures to ensure his appointment. He had received from President Grant, on the 20th of September, 1870, the temporary promotion, until the next session of Congress, when it was expected that his name would be sent to the Senate for confirmation as Admiral in place of Farragut deceased. He was on terms of friendship and intimacy with the President; and though there might be some objection on the part of the Senate, he considered his confirmation a certainty. At this juncture a letter written by Admiral Porter, January 21, 1865, and addressed to Hon. Gideon Welles, then Secretary of the Navy, was published by Mr. Welles. In that letter Porter, whose temper is none of the sweetest, had made very severe strictures on General Grant, who had, as he supposed, under-rated the part taken by the Navy in the capture of Fort Fisher. The letter was unjust, and written evidently under the impulse of wounded pride and sensitiveness; but while it bore very hardly and unwarrantably on the motives and conduct of the general, it was easy to see that jealousy for the honor of the Navy had led him to write it. The true course for the admiral to have pursued would have been to have explained in a note to the President, that the letter, evidently a confidential one, was written under a misapprehension of the real circumstances of the case, and was a natural ebullition of wounded pride and vexation at what, he afterward learned, was a misstatement of the general's real course, that he had subsequently done him justice, and that the bringing forward of this letter now was simply a pie, of petty malice. Instead of this, Admiral Porter went to the President, and after expressing his regrets, denied all recollection of the matter, and sought to mollify the President's displeasure by such disavowal. We think that the President must have laughed in his sleeve at the trepidation and humiliation of the gallant admiral; but he passed over the offence, nominated the vice-admiral to the Senate for the rank of Admiral, and he was confirmed a few days later. But though the President would not deprive the admiral of what he believed to be a promotion to which he was justly entitled, their intimacy was not subsequently renewed.

Admiral Porter is a man of commanding personal appearance, of medium height, good features, a spare but muscular figure, of great physical power and capacity for endurance. He is an accomplished linguist, speaking fluently most of the European languages, and is a skilful performer on several musical instruments. Though of imperious and exacting temper, and intolerant of the slightest disobedience to his orders, he has always been able to rouse the highest enthusiasm in the men under his command. The secret of this is probably his extraordinary physical courage. He never asked any man in his squadron to incur any risk which he was not himself willing to face, and often in times of the greatest peril, he would be found in the most exposed position. This perfect fearlessness is the one trait in which he most nearly resembles the noblest of our Naval heroes—FARRAGUT.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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