Today in 1801, David Glasgow Farragut was born at Lowe's Ferry, Tennessee, a settlement on the Tennessee River not far from the city of Knoxville. A family tragedy would ultimately propel the young man into a career at sea, a life of service which culminated in his becoming the first rear admiral, vice admiral, and admiral in the United States Navy. He is most remembered today for one phrase he uttered in the heat of battle, a phrase that spoke to the man's courage and fortitude under the most dire of circumstances.
The child who would become Admiral Farragut was given the first name James upon his birth. When his mother died in 1808, James' father arranged for him to be adopted by David Porter, a naval officer with two sons who would both become admirals during the Civil War along with their adoptive brother, who took the first name David in 1812 to honor the man who agreed to raise him as his own. It almost seemed inevitable that David Farragut would serve his nation at sea.
Through David Porter's influence, Farragut was commissioned a midshipman in the United States Navy in 1810; he was nine years old. It was not unusual for boys of his age to go to sea on warships, and Farragut had the good fortune to serve aboard the USS Essex, a frigate commanded by his adoptive father, now a captain. There was no naval academy for American naval officers at that time, so young men and boys slated for leadership positions learned their trade on the job. It was a tough school, even under the best of circumstances.
Midshipman Farragut was 11 when the War of 1812 began. By the time of his twelfth birthday, he had held the position of prize master, the temporary captain of a captured ship. In March, 1814, however, he and the crew of the Essex saw the tables turned when they were captured by the British outside Valparaiso Bay, Chile. Farragut was wounded during the engagement, not for the last time during his career.
Promotions were unbelievably slow in the post-war navy and Farragut was not promoted to lieutenant until 1822. Senior officers, some of them so elderly they could no longer go to sea, were kept on the active duty list while younger officers were marooned in lower ranks. As a result of this practice, Farragut was not promoted to commander until 1844 and did not achieve the rank of captain until 1855. By this time, he was 54 years old and had been in the service for 45 years.
Despite the slow pace of promotion, those years were well-spent by Farragut, and his professional experience during that time was extensive and varied. In the early 1820's he helped hunt pirates in the West Indies. During the Mexican-American war, he commanded the sloop Saratoga. But probably his most important contribution to the navy during the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War was his role as the founding commander of the Mare Island Naval Yard at Vallejo, California. Mare Island served for years as the only facility on the west coast of the United States that was capable of overhauling a warship.
Farragut married for the first time in the mid-1820's to Susan Marchant. She suffered years of bad health and ultimately died in December, 1840. The future admiral married Virginia Loyall in 1843; this marriage produced one child, a son named Loyall Farragut, in 1844.
When southern states began to secede from the Union in late 1860, Captain Farragut found himself stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. Although both he and his wife were born in states that would eventually try to secede, Farragut made it clear that he regarded secession as treason and those who aided the movement as traitors. Nonetheless, the navy was initially reluctant to give Farragut a sea-going command once the Civil War began in April, 1861. Assigned to the Naval Retirement Board, it looked as if the 60-year old captain would spend the war behind a desk.
But it was not to be. For the second time in his career, Farragut was helped along by the intervention of his adopted family. His brother David Porter was able to offer him a special assignment, an opportunity to command a squadron. While Farragut was eager for a more active role, he was afraid his assignment would be to retake the naval facilities at Norfolk, Virginia, a town where he had forged many personal relationships in the years preceding the war. But the mission targeted a much more important city: New Orleans. Farragut was to be the man who wrested the south's most important port from Confederate control. His command was the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, and his flagship was the USS Hartford.
Early in the war, Union leaders decided that in addition to using the army to defeat the Confederate Army in the field, the Union Navy would be used to keep foreign goods from entering southern ports. The blockade was called the Anaconda Plan. In addition to active interdiction of ships, the plan called for the seizure of port facilities and sea defense forts from Virginia to the mouth of the Mississippi and up that river all the way to St. Louis, Missouri. New Orleans was the western anchor of the operation and controlling it was crucial to Union success on the Mississippi River.
Beginning on April 18th, 1862, Farragut's squadron bombarded Forts Jackson and St. Philip, two forts downriver from New Orleans. By April 24th he had thirteen ships past the forts and on April 29th Farragut and 250 Marines removed the Louisiana state flag from city hall and raised the Stars and Stripes. Major General Benjamin Butler and his Union force occupied the city on May 1st.
The United States Congress honored Farragut (and eight other senior captains) by creating the rank of rear admiral and promoting them to the position. Before then, there had been no admirals in the United States Navy. When squadrons of ships were sent on a specific mission, the senior captain was referred to as commodore or more generically as a flag officer. This was in sharp relief to European navies, most of whom were heavy with admirals. But the Civil War showed how necessary a clearly-defined chain of command was if the Union Navy were to expand quickly and remain an effective fighting force while doing so.
Rear Admiral Farragut followed up his success at New Orleans by sailing up the Mississippi with a flotilla of 38 ships in an attempt to subdue the artillery batteries at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Some of his ships were able to run past the batteries, but it was a symbolic gesture more than anything else. The guns defending the city and a Confederate ironclad (an iron-plated warship, new to the world at the time of the Civil War) forced Farragut to withdraw his forces back down the river in July, 1862.
The naval bombardment at Port Hudson in March, 1863 also proved unsuccessful. In an attack uncoordinated with Union General Nathaniel Banks' Army of the Gulf, Farragut's force of seven warships was badly damaged after dueling with heavy Confederate artillery ashore. When the smoke cleared, only Farragut's flagship, USS Hartford, and USS Albatross, were able to pass upstream and begin blockading the mouth of the Red River. What the admiral pictured was a pounding from the Mississippi River that would result in the rebels abandoning Port Hudson. What occurred was an initial Union defeat resulting in the port being taken under siege until July 9, 1863. While the Confederate force was eventually badly beaten, it only surrendered after news arrived that Union forces were in control of the fortifications at Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was a painful lesson for both the Union Army and Navy, as the campaign had the highest casualty rate of the war.
By the summer of 1864, the Confederacy had one major port left on the Gulf of Mexico: Mobile, Alabama. The rebels knew this and Mobile Bay was heavily mined except for an unmarked channel used by blockade runners. In the mid-1800's, tethered naval mines were called torpedoes; the self-propelled devices fired by submarines and surface ships today did not yet exist. In his typical aggressive fashion, Farragut ordered his fleet of 18 ships (including four monitors, low-slung ironclad vessels named after the first ship of this type, the USS Monitor) into the lower bay. The wooden-hulled ships were lashed together in pairs and placed to the port side of the monitors. In that formation, they proceeded up the right side of the channel, almost directly under the guns of Fort Morgan. It was hoped the monitors would be able to absorb most of the shots from the fort while protecting the older wooden warships. When the Confederate ships inside the bay appeared, the combined firepower of the entire force would be unleashed on them.
Events proceeded more or less as planned until one of the monitors, the USS Tecumseh, strayed too far towards the center of the channel, struck a torpedo, and sank. The two columns of ships began to slow, now unsure if the assumption about Confederate torpedo placement was correct. Admiral Farragut, who had lashed himself to the rigging of his flagship, yelled at the bridge crew of the USS Brooklyn through his megaphone: “What's the trouble?”. “Torpedoes!” was the response to which an angry Farragut replied, “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells. Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!”
While Farragut's order may seem reckless, the admiral believed that many of the torpedoes in Mobile Bay had been in service for years and were no longer capable of doing damage to an enemy ship due to saltwater corrosion. While we will never know if this calculation was correct, most of Farragut's fleet arrived in the lower part of the bay with little or no damage. The three forts guarding the bay were subdued and the only Confederate ironclad in the area was the ram Tennessee, whose captain tried to engage the entire Union fleet at one time. After a merciless pounding from the surviving Union monitors, the ship was surrendered.
In December, 1864, history was once again made when the rank of vice admiral was created and awarded to David Farragut by President Abraham Lincoln. He was the only officer in the navy to be placed at this rank, making him the highest ranking man in a naval uniform when the Civil War ended in April, 1865. In July, 1866, Congress created the rank of admiral and Farragut was appointed to that rank by President Andrew Johnson. The same bill cleared the way for David Dixon Porter, Farragut's adoptive brother, to be promoted to vice admiral. For the next four years, the brothers remained the two highest ranking officers in the post-Civil War navy.
Admiral Farragut's last active command was as the admiral in charge of the European Squadron, a position he held from 1867 to 1868. He retired that year but was placed on active duty for life, an honor granted to only six other naval officers in the country's history as of 2011.
David Farragut, the man who spent seven decades in the service of his nation, died in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, of a heart attack on August 14, 1870. He was 69 years old. After his death, David Porter was promoted to admiral in his brother's place. After Porter and Vice Admiral Stephen Rowan died, no naval officer held the rank of admiral or vice admiral again until 1915, when Congress authorized one position of each rank for each of the navy's fleets.