David G. Farragut

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David G. Farragut

Born July 5, 1801
Campbell's Station, Tennessee
Died August 14, 1870
Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Navy admiral who commanded successful Union
offensives at New Orleans and Mobile Bay

David G. Farragut is the most famous figure to emerge from the fierce Civil War struggle for control of the seas. A life-long sailor, he was nearing his sixtieth birthday when the war began. But despite his age and his Southern background, Farragut became the best commander in the Union Navy. In fact, his successful naval assaults on the Southern ports of New Orleans and Mobile Bay are recognized as major Civil War victories for the North.

A childhood at sea

Born in Tennessee, David Glasgow Farragut was introduced to sailing at an early age by his father, George Farragut. Young Farragut learned the basics of sailing in all kinds of weather, for his father took him out on the sea in both peaceful and stormy conditions. When Farragut was eight years old, his father died, leaving him an orphan. But he was adopted by Commodore David Porter (1780–1843), a family friend who was also an officer in the U.S. Navy.

On December 17, 1810, Farragut received an appointment as a midshipman. A midshipman is a student enrolled in training to be a commissioned naval officer. The following summer he served on the Essex, a ship commanded by Commodore Porter that sailed as far as the West Indies. One year later, the twelve-year-old Farragut found himself in the thick of the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 was a conflict between the United States and Great Britain that lasted until 1815. This war came about for two reasons. First, the United States became angry with England after it captured some American ships and sailors who were attempting to trade with France (France and England were already at war). Second, the two nations grew upset with one another over American claims on British-held territory in North America's western regions.

As the War of 1812 unfolded and the Essex sailed against British warships, young Farragut proved himself to be a remarkably steady and courageous boy. In addition to serving as an aide to Porter, he also helped the older sailors operate the ship's heavy cannons and massive sails. By the time that America and England reached a truce in early 1815, Farragut knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life in the navy.

Farragut spent the next forty-five years roaming across the oceans of the world. His naval assignments took him as far as the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas, though he also spent considerable amounts of time captaining ships along the coastlines of the United States. Farragut's duties during this time ranged from commanding warships during the Mexican War (1846–48) to supervising the establishment of a naval shipyard in San Francisco Bay in the mid-1850s.

Farragut moves his family north

During the late 1850s, Farragut became concerned about the hostile atmosphere that was building between America's Northern and Southern regions. The two sides had become bitterly frustrated with each other over several emotional issues, including slavery and the concept of states' rights. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong and wanted to abolish it. They also defended the idea that the federal government had the authority to pass laws that applied to all citizens of the United States. But the economy of the South had been built on slavery, and Southerners resented Northern efforts to halt or contain the practice. In addition, they argued that the federal government did not have the constitutional power to institute national laws on slavery or anything else. Fearful that the national government might pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life, white Southerners argued that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. Finally, America's westward expansion worsened these disputes because both sides wanted to spread their way of life—and their political ideas—into the new territories and states.

In late 1860 and early 1861, a number of Southern states became so angry that they finally followed through on their long-time threat to secede from (leave) the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. The U.S. government, though, declared that those states had no right to secede and that it was willing to use force to make them return to the Union. In the spring of 1861, the two sides finally went to war over their differences.

The Southern-born Farragut watched all of these events unfold with great sadness and anger. He and his wife, Virginia Loyall Farragut, had by this time settled in Norfolk, Virginia, a Southern town that they liked very much. But Farragut fiercely opposed secession. Determined to do his part to restore the Union, he quickly packed up his family and moved them north to a cottage in New York. He then reported for duty as a member of the U.S. Navy.

An important mission

During the first few months of the war, Farragut served on naval committees and boards far from any military action. In late 1861, however, the leadership of the U.S. Navy interviewed him for an important mission. They wanted someone to lead a daring assault on the strategically vital Confederate port of New Orleans. According to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (1802–1878), Farragut assured him that he would restore New Orleans to Federal control, or never return. "I might not come back . . . but the city will be ours." When Welles heard Farragut's determination, he decided that he was the right man for the job.

Located in southern Louisiana near where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was used by many Confederate ships looking to obtain supplies from Europe. Farragut's superiors recognized that if he could capture the city, their larger plan to clamp a naval blockade (a line of ships designed to prevent other vessels from entering or exiting an area) over the entire Southern coastline would have a much greater chance of success.

Farragut knew that New Orleans had strong defenses, including a small fleet of ships and two big military outposts (Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip) that guarded New Orleans against attacks from the south. But the veteran naval commander received plenty of support for the upcoming attack. When he set sail for the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 1862, he led a fleet of 46 warships armed with a total of 286 cannons.

The Battle of New Orleans

Farragut's fleet reached the forts in mid-April. Standing on the deck of the flagship Hartford, Farragut promptly ordered an attack on Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip. The two rebel (Confederate) fortresses immediately returned fire. For the next few days, the two sides tried to hammer each other into giving up. By April 22, Farragut realized that he could not get past the two forts and up the river to New Orleans by force. His ships were beginning to run low on ammunition, and the rebel outposts showed no signs of wilting despite suffering severe damage.

Farragut then came up with a bold plan to sail past the forts under cover of darkness and proceed on to New Orleans. Many of his officers tried to convince him not to attempt this strategy, but their commander held firm. He spent April 23 visiting each ship in his fleet in order to encourage his sailors and make sure that everyone understood their orders. By that evening, Farragut wrote, "everyone looked forward to the conflict with firmness, but with anxiety."

Farragut's fleet began their move up the river at 2 A.M. on the morning of April 24, when the night was darkest. As the Union ships sailed up the river, they were met with a hail of cannon fire from the forts and the Confederate warships that had been assigned to guard the city. Some of the rebel ships even pushed flaming rafts down the river to smash into Farragut's ships. But the Union fleet fought back furiously as they pushed their way upstream. As the nighttime battle lit up the sky, one reporter said that "the river and its banks were one sheet of flame, and the messengers of death were moving . . . in all directions."

The battle on the river was horribly violent. But as the Federal fleet pressed on, it became clear to everyone that Farragut's bold strategy was working. His fleet successfully glided past the guns of Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, then manhandled the smaller Confederate flotilla (small fleet of ships). By dawn, Farragut's path to New Orleans was clear. He captured the city on April 25, and the soldiers at Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson surrendered three days later.

News of Farragut's great triumph delighted President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry), Secretary Welles, and other Union leaders. Down in the Southern capital of Richmond, meanwhile, the loss of New Orleans stunned Confederate military leaders. "The capture of New Orleans ranks as one of the strategic milestones of the war," wrote Ivan Musicant in Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War. "At a blow, the South's largest city, premier [main] port of entry, and the mouth of the Mississippi, fell to the Union."

Sailing on Vicksburg

Farragut's bravery and skill at New Orleans made him a celebrity in the North. But his next assignment did not end in victory. In the weeks following his capture of New Orleans, he tried to convince his superiors to approve an attack on Mobile Bay, Alabama. He wanted to move against Mobile Bay because it was one of the last Confederate harbors that remained open to rebel ships. But he was instead told to take his fleet further up the Mississippi River to the city of Vicksburg.

Vicksburg, Mississippi, was another strategically important Southern city that remained under the control of the Confederacy. But Farragut's voyage up the river proved to be a dangerous one. His lack of familiarity with the river's currents and layout made passage very difficult, and shortages of supplies hurt the fleet's effectiveness as well. Farragut later admitted that "the elements of destruction in this river are beyond anything I ever encountered."

In May 1862, Farragut reached Vicksburg. But a lack of adequate Union ground troops in the area made it impossible to take the city, and Farragut soon retreated back to New Orleans. A few weeks later, Farragut received orders directing him to make a second attempt on Vicksburg. But this midsummer effort also ended in failure for Farragut. He finally ordered his fleet to return to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter. Vicksburg remained under Confederate control until July 1863. The troops defending the city finally surrendered when an extended Union siege (surrounding a city in order to prevent supplies from entering) organized by Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) threatened them with starvation.

The Battle of Mobile Bay

In 1863, Farragut supervised the Union ships operating along the Gulf coast. He also moved against a number of targets along the Texas coastline, capturing Galveston and Corpus Christi. In addition, he helped the Union take Port Hudson, a rebel fortress that stood near Vicksburg. Farragut occasionally requested permission to attack Mobile Bay, which had become the only port on the coast still open to Confederate blockade-runners (ships that attempted to slip past the Union naval blockade to deliver supplies to the South). But other military plans always seemed to have a higher priority. Farragut did not receive orders to move on Mobile Bay until mid-1864.

On August 5 of that year, Farragut led a fleet of fourteen ships and four special warships known as monitors into Mobile Bay. He knew that the mission was a dangerous one. After all, Confederate defenses in the bay included Fort Morgan, three gunboats, an armored vessel called the C.S.S. Tennessee, and an underwater minefield. As Farragut's fleet cruised into the bay, the gunfire between the Union and Confederate forces became so heavy that smoke drifted across the water in thick clouds. Farragut finally lashed himself to a mast high above the deck of the Hartford so that he could see what was going on.

"Full speed ahead!"

As the Union fleet sailed into the bay, one of its four monitors—the Tecumseh—struck an underwater mine. The mine (then known as a torpedo) blew a huge hole in the ship, and it quickly sank to the bottom of the bay with its captain and ninety-two sailors still trapped on board. The other Union vessels hesitated when the Tecumseh went down, but Farragut ordered them forward, shouting "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"

Farragut's flagship charged into the heart of the bay, even though it drew heavy fire. One of Farragut's lieutenants remembered that sailors on the Hartford "[were] being cut down by scores. . . .The sight was sickening beyond the power of words to portray. Shot after shot came through the side, mowing down the men, deluging [flooding] the decks with blood, and scattering mangled fragments of humanity." But Farragut pressed forward, and he successfully guided the Hartford and the rest of the Union ships through the minefield and out of the range of Fort Morgan's guns. Farragut quickly turned his cannons on the bay's small Confederate fleet, and the rebel vessels surrendered a short time later.

Farragut's mission to seize control of Mobile Bay had succeeded, though he later admitted that the battle was "one of the hardest-earned victories of my life." Over the next three weeks, Union forces took control of Fort Morgan and two other rebel strongholds on Mobile Bay. The city of Mobile remained in Confederate hands, but Farragut's capture of the bay effectively ended its usefulness as a blockade-running port.

America's first admiral

In November 1864, Farragut returned home to New York because of health problems and his desire to take a break. He was given a big public reception and presented with a gift of $50,000 so he and his wife could buy a home of their liking. Farragut also received recognition from the U.S. Navy for his wartime exploits. In 1866, one year after the Confederacy finally surrendered and the Union was restored, he became the first man in American history to hold the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy. He died of a heart attack in 1870, midway through an inspection tour in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Where to Learn More

Duffy, James P. Lincoln's Admiral: The Civil War Campaigns of David Farragut. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997.

Hearn, Chester G. Admiral David Glasgow Farragut: The Civil War Years. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Latham, Jean Lee. David Glasgow Farragut: Our First Admiral. Champaign, IL: Garrard, 1967. Reprint, New York: Chelsea House, 1991.

Lewis, Charles Lee. David Glasgow Farragut: Admiral in the Making. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1941. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Musicant, Ivan. Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Reynolds, Clark G. Famous American Admirals. New York: Van Nostrand, 1978.

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