The Generals and Admirals: David Dixon Porter (1813-1891)
David Dixon Porter was a Union Navy admiral and son of War of 1812 naval hero David Porter. At the beginning of the war, Porter's loyalty was questioned, given his close association with southerners like Jefferson Davis. Porter himself said he was headed to California to captain a mail boat and wait out the war. Instead, he commanded federal warship Powhatan that was sent by President Lincoln to relieve Fort Sumter in April 1861, but he was diverted to Fort Pickens in Florida by a mix-up in orders caused by Secretary of State William H. Seward and abetted by Porter. Porter was in the thick of the diversion, working closely with Army Captain Montgomery Meigs to devise the operation in conjunction with Secretary Seward, Porter continued the diversion even after Seward had reversed his position.
Porter's determination to take the Powhatan to Fort Pickens led him to overcome all obstacles—including a last-minute message from Secretary Seward recalling him. He was especially persuasive in having Commander Andrew Foote desist from wiring Navy Secretary Gideon Welles for further orders. Porter himself quoted another naval commander on Porter's devious conduct: "You ought to have been tried and shot; no one but yourself would ever have been so impudent."1
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in his diary: “Although Lieutenant Porter had gone with the Powhatan to Pensacola, there was no order or record in the Navy Department. He was absent without leave; the last sailing orders to the Powhatan were to Mercer. The whole proceeding was irregular anc could admit of no justification without impeaching the integrity or ability of the Secretaries of War and the Navy.”2 Welles wrote: “Porter had some of the qualities of Barron with more dash and energy, was less plausible, more audacious and careless in his statements, but like him was given to intrigues.”3
Historian Craig L. Symonds wrote: “Porter was something of a free spirit in the navy, a confident, even brash individual who was not averse to self-promotion. Lincoln’s secretary John Hay described him as ‘a ready offhand talker [with] a slight dash of the rowdy.’ For his part, Welles acknowledged that Porter had ‘dash and energy,’ but he was concerned that...he was ‘given to intrigues.’”4 Symonds wrote that “Porter was talented and energetic but he was also self-promoting, boastful, casual with the truth, and lacking in what Welles called ‘high moral qualities.’”5
On one of his frequent visits to the White House later in 1862, Porter recorded the aftermath of the Fort Sumter episode and how he came to be appointed to head a Mississippi River squadron:
I thought I would call, before leaving Washington, and pay my respects to the President. I found him in company with Mr. Seward, and both gentlemen seemed glad to see me.Under Flag Officer David Farragut, Porter helped return New Orleans to Union control in April 1862. Smart and loyal but brash and impulsive, he was often at odds with superiors in the Navy, especially Secretary Gideon Welles and all Union generals like Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel Banks. However, working with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, he had a key role in recapture of Union control of Mississippi River. The three military officials held a strategy conference with President Lincoln in Virginia in March 1865, shortly before the end of the war.
Porter later recalled that he “knew the President as an honest, faithful worker in his country's cause, who did the best he could to bring the war to a speedy close, while at the same time he showed a determined spirit to yield nothing that would militate against the Republic of which he was the head. Although painted by his enemies in the blackest colors, President Lincoln had a heart capable of the greatest sympathy and the keenest emotions for the carnage and destruction he saw going on in every direction, and if necessary he would have sacrificed his life to avert these horrors. If Mr. Lincoln had never done more than the one act of abolishing slavery and wiping out that blot on our civilization, it would have been enough to immortalize him but if his biography is publicly written when prejudices are laid aside, so that the man can be seen in his greatness and integrity, no nobler character will adorn the pages of American history. The last days of President Lincoln's life, except the two final ones, were passed in my company and mostly on board my flag-ship, and I take great satisfaction in the knowledge that he considered them the happiest days of his administration. He came to City Point, unaccompanied by any of his Cabinet, to witness what he knew was about to take place in the downfall of the Confederate stronghold. He was anxious for peace and was willing to extend the most liberal terms to those who had made war upon us. I kept from the President all those who would have annoyed him or disturbed the tranquillity he enjoyed on ship-board, and I think he was grateful for- my consideration."7
After the war, Porter served as superintendent of the Naval Academy (1865-1868).