The Generals and Admirals: David Glasgow Farragut (1801-1870) )
David Glasgow Farragut was the Union Admiral who served most of the war as commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. The Southern-born officer led the Union capture of New Orleans in April 1862 and the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, in which he closed the Confederacy’s last big port on the Gulf of Mexico. He was less successful in operations on the Mississippi River around Vicksburg in 1862 and 1863.
After a controversial period of sea service, Farragut had relocated in 1860 to his wife’s home town of Norfolk, Virginia to await official orders that never came. At the beginning of the Civil War, Farragut was in professional limbo – suspected of Confederate sympathies because of his and his wife’s southern birth and suspected of northern sympathies because of his own public statements.
Farragut was in Virginia when Virginia seceded. Biographer Charles Lee Lewis wrote that the next morning, Farragut went as usual “to the store to talk over the latest developments with the naval officers who had been gathering there for political discussions, [and] he at once sensed a change in their attitude toward him. He soon learned that most of the Southern naval officers had already sent in their resignations, though some had done so with great regret. When Farragut endeavored to defend Lincoln’s call for volunteers to defend government property, he was very bluntly told by a former brother officer that Virginia had seceded and that he must either resign or leave Norfolk. Farragut replied, “I can not live here, and will seek some other place where I can live, and on two hours’ notice.’”1 Naval historian Alfred T. Mahan wrote that Farragut “went to his house and told his wife the time had come for her to decide whether she would remain with her own kinsfolk or follow him North. Her choice was as instant as his own, and that evening, they, with their only son, left Norfolk, never to return to it as their home.”2
The family shipped out for New York and rented a home in a hamlet on the Hudson north of the city. “At first, some of the citizens of Hastings looked askance at the Southern-born newcomer, who often took long walks in the hills surrounding the village. Gossip had it that he was actually a Confederate agent who spent his ramblings concocting a scheme to destroy the Croton Aqueduct, which carried water to New York City,” wrote biographer Robert J. Schneller, Jr.. “But even the worst suspicions soon evaporated as the neighbors got to know the genial, athletic old man.”3
Farragut volunteered for active naval duty, but Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was having difficulty sorting between the loyal and disloyal, fit and unfit officers still on the navy roster. Instead of active service, Farragut was assigned to head a board to determine officer competence. Schneller wrote that Welles had two reasons for not assigning Farragut to sea duty: “Early in the war the Navy had more high-ranking officers than ships for them to command. But more important, Secretary Welles remained wary of naval officers born in the South, for good reason.”4 But there was much to recommend Farragut. As biographer Charles Lee Lewis observed, Farragut was “a remarkable seaman; he had commanded every kind of ship of war, from schooner to ship of the line under sail and the steam sloop Brooklyn, then one of the most powerful ships in the United States Navy; and though he had been confronted with dangerous situations on treacherous coasts, he had never had an accident.”5
But when the Lincoln Administration decided on a plan to attack and capture New Orleans, it was Farragut who was chosen to command the operation after Welles and Assistant Secretary Gustavus Fox reviewed all the options. Both Welles and Fox both claimed credit for making the initial choice. Montgomery Blair claimed that Fox first proposed Farragut’s name, but Gideon Welles claimed that his long-standing good impression of Farragut was enhanced by his departure from Norfolk. Blair recalled that Fox subsequently brought Farragut to his home: “After breakfast, Fox laid before Farragut the plan of attack, the force to be employed, and the object to be attained, and asked his opinion. Farragut answered unhesitatingly that it would succeed. Fox then handed him the list of vessels being fitted out, and asked if they were enough. Farragut replied he would engage to run by the forts and capture New Orleans with two thirds the number. Fox told him more vessels would be added, and that he would command the expedition. Farragut’s delight and enthusiasm were so great that when he left us Fox asked if I did not think he was too enthusiastic. I replied I was most favorably impressed with him, and sure he would succeed.”6
Shortly after New Orleans fell to Farragut’s fleet on April 25, 1862, presidential aide John Hay wrote in a newspaper column that “one of the neatest pieces of news that any Sunday has brought us has been the intelligence to-day of the capture of New Orleans by [David] Porter and Farragut. This furnishes one most important link in the chain which we have been drawing around our revolted provinces, and fastens, to use a played-out metaphor, one more coil of the anaconda around his doomed victim.”7 Two weeks later, Hay noted: “The unparalleled gallantry of the officers and seamen of our Gulf Squadron and the mortar fleet before the guardian forts of New Orleans accounted very satisfactorily for the brilliant and astounding victory there. When officers direct and men fight like Porter and Farragut and the blue jackets under them, probabilities are out of the question, and the possibles become the practicable.”8
Unlike his foster brother, Captain David Dixon Porter, Admiral Farragut seldom visited President Lincoln during the Civil War. He spent much of the late summer and fall of 1863, however, in New York where some of his ships were refitted – and made occasional trips to Washington. Farragut was greatly admired by the often-critical Secretary of the Navy and that admiration was shared by the President. Welles discussed the selection of navy commanders with President Lincoln in early September: “In the selection of Farragut and Porter, I thought we had been particularly fortunate; and Du Pont had merit also. He thought there had not been, take it all in all, so good an appointment in either branch of the service as Farragut, whom he did not know or recollect when I gave him command. Du Pont he classed, and has often, with McClellan, but Porter he considers a busy schemer, bold but not of high qualities as a chief. For some reason he has not so high an appreciation of Porter as I think he deserves, but no man surpasses Farragut in his estimation.”9
Farragut’s public image was fixed when he led a naval attack on Mobile Bay on August 5, 1865. Smoke had already made it difficult for his Union fleet to maneuver when one of his ships struck a mine. Confusion reigned in the fleet. Farragut decided that aggressive action was the only possible course. His response to the threat of mines and Confederate guns from Fort Morgan was to order: “Damn the torpedoes. Four bells, Captain Drayton. Full speed ahead!”10 Navy Secretary Gideon Welles recalled: “On the 29th of August, the day on which the Chicago [Democratic] convention assembled, information was received, through the rebel lines, that Fort Morgan, which guarded the entrance to the bay of Mobile, had surrendered. This intelligence, after a summer of inaction of the great army on the James, was inspiring and invigorating. It cheered the president and the whole administration.”11
Biographer Charles Lee Lewis wrote: “On...August 8, the first news of Farragut’s great victory in Mobile Bay reached Washington through telegrams to President Lincoln and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox from General [Benjamin] Butler. The report was based on an official statement in the Richmond papers of the same day, announcing that Farragut’s fleet had passed Fort Morgan with the loss of the Tecumseh, and that the Tennessee had been captured.”12 While elated by the news of Farragut’s triumph, Welles was disappointed by the President’s reaction: “The President, I was sorry, spoke of it as important because it would tend to relieve [General William T.] Sherman.” Welles blamed this reaction on General Henry W. Halleck who “Halleck never awarded honest credit to the Navy; the President never knowingly deprived them of any merit.” 13
Farragut was physically closer to President Lincoln in the final months of the war after deteriorating health forced the 63-year-old officer to return home in December 1864. In September, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had written in his diary: “Admiral Farragut writes that his health is giving way under the great labor imposed and long-continued service in the Gulf and the Caribbean Sea. Says he must have rest and shore exercise. The Department had ordered him North to command the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and capture Wilmington.”14
Farragut’s feats were also greatly admired and appreciated in New York City – whose business leaders presented him with $50,000 worth of federal bonds when he arrived there in December 1864. Although he was seeking rest and restoration, Farragut was not given much of a chance to enjoy it. Biographer Schneller wrote that “After only four days in Hastings-on-Hudson, the Farraguts traveled to Washington, where they got caught up in another whirlwind of social engagements, including a dinner with Secretary and Mrs. Welles and a night at the opera with President and Mrs. Lincoln.”15 President Lincoln evidently charmed Mrs. Farragut. An aide wrote that Mrs. Farragut “would not tell much that occurred for fear of its getting into the papers, as she said, but one joke I must repeat. She remarked how pleasantly distance softened the music. ‘Yes,’ was the response, it is like time on whiskey.’”16
Lincoln greatly appreciated Farragut’s leadership, telling Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in 1863 that “there had not been, take it all in all, so good an appointment in either branch of the service than Farragut.”17 Historian Craig Symonds wrote: “When Congress established the rank of vice admiral in December of1864, Lincoln at once nominated Farragut for the promotion. Lincoln appreciated and admired Farragut mostly for his success while in command but also for the fact that he knew and understood his role.”18
In his final message to Congress in December 1864, President Lincoln had recommended that the post of Vice Admiral be created. The legislation passed Congress on December and Assistant Navy Secretary Fox immediately sent the White House “in anticipation of the President’s approval, a nomination for Rear Admiral Farragut to fill that position.”19 The next day, worried about the impending adjournment of Congress, New York Senator Edwin D. Morgan sent President Lincoln a short message: “If you can possibly make the nomination of the Vice Admiral to day, I think the Senate will confirm it without a reference. I believe it will be as much approved by the Country at this time – as was the appt. of Lieut Genl. [Ulysses S. Grant in March 1864]. The lashing himself to the rigging, in that illustrious affair at Mobile has rendered Farraguts’ [sic] one of the brightest names in the War.”20 Farragut was speedily confirmed.
Admiral Farragut and Gideon Welles went to the White House on January 7, 1865. Welles wrote on January 14: “Admiral Farragut came a week since and called on me. After half an hour or more of conversation on affairs connected with his command, the capture of Mobile, and matters generally, I went with him to the President.”21 Ten days later, Welles wrote: “President sent for me this evening. Found Stanton with him, having a dispatch from General Grant desiring him to request me to remove Commander Parker, the senior officer on the upper James. After some conversation, informing them that we had two gunboats above, and that the Atlanta and Ironsides had been ordered thither. I mentioned that Farragut was here, and the President sent for him. On hearing how matters stood, he at once volunteered to visit the force. The President was pleased with it, and measures were at once taken.”22
When a problem developed in late January over the command of the Union naval squadron operating near Richmond, President Lincoln was advised by Secretary Welles that Admiral Farragut was still in Washington at Willard’s Hotel. Biographer Charles Lee Lewis wrote: “Hearing how matters stood, he volunteered to go down and investigate the situation. Lincoln was pleased, and Farragut at once began preparations to depart.”23 The problem was handled by the time Farragut arrived at the Union headquarters and he quickly hurried back to Washington.
Captain Percival Drayton “followed him everywhere as a private nursemaid,” wrote biographer Chester Hearn.24 Biographer Charles Lee Lewis wrote that “the Farraguts continued to enjoy themselves at dinner parties, one of which was at the White House. ‘The Admiral is most certainly going through almost as much risk of life with all his dissipation as he has in his battles,” Drayton wrote ruefully, ‘and I am really afraid that he will seriously impair his health before the winter is over. I have written to tell his wife that because I am away she must not permit him to run wild, and get back to the late hours which through constant lecturing I thought to have somewhat broken in on.’”25
Farragut attended President Lincoln’s second inaugural and was almost crushed while entering the White House levee that evening . Journalist Noah Brooks wrote of the White House reception on March 12, 1865: “[S]pace will not permit me to tell...all about the Inauguration Ball; how such another display of laces, jewelry, silks and feathers, gold lace and things was never seen, no, not since the world began. The President was there, also Mrs. President, and the Cabinet, and Joe Hooker, and Farragut, and such another mob of hungry people I am ashamed to say that when supper was announced and the big wigs had fed and gone, they rushed in, pushed the tables from their places, snatched of whole turkies, pyramids, loaves of cake and things, smashed crockery and glassware, spilled oyster and terrapin on each other’s heads, ruined costly dresses, tore lack furbelows, made the floor all stick with food, and behaved in the almost invariably shameful manner of a ball-going crowd at supper. The ball in the great unoccupied Hall of Patents, Interior Building, and three similar halls were thrown open, making a complete quadrangle of four lighted and decorated halls, a fine sight, but all spoiled by the disgusting greediness of this great American people.”26
Farragut and his wife went to Norfolk to visit relatives at the end of March and he visited Richmond shortly after it fell – and toured Richmond shortly before President Lincoln and Admiral David Dixon Porter did later the same day. Their paths crossed on the James River. Presidential bodyguard William H. Crook recalled: “Beyond Drury’s Bluff, at a point where a bridge spans the water, the tug was sent back to help a steamboat which had stuck fast across the stream. It seems that it was the Allison, a captured Confederate vessel, and Admiral Farragut, who had taken it, was on board. The marines, of course, went with the tug. In the attempt to help the larger boat the tug was grounded. Then we went on with no other motive-power than the oars in the arms of the twelve sailors.'27
When Richmond fell, Farragut entered the city a short time before President Lincoln, Tuesday, April 4th. Charles C. Coffin, war correspondent of the "Boston Journal," wrote: "The Capitol, outside and in, like the Confederacy, is exceedingly dilapidated. The windows are broken, the carpets faded, the paint dingy, the desks rickety. The members of the Legislature had left their letters and papers behind. General Weitzel was in the Senate Chamber, issuing his orders. General Shepley, military governor, was also there; also General Devens. The door opened, and a smooth-faced man, with a keen eye and a firm, quick, resolute step, entered. He wore a plain blue blouse, with three stars on the collar. It was the old hero who opened the way to New Orleans, and who fought the battle of the Mobile forts from the mast-head of his vessel—Admiral Farragut. He was accompanied by General Gordon, of Massachusetts. They heard the news yesterday noon, and made all haste up the James, landing at Varina, and taking horses to the city. It was a pleasure to take the brave Admiral's hand, and answer his eager questions as to what Grant had done. Being latest of all present from Petersburg, I could give him the desired information. 'Thank God, it is about over!' said he, meaning the rebellion. I was standing on the bank of the river, viewing the scene of desolation, when a boat pulled by twelve sailors came up stream. It contained President Lincoln and his son, Admiral Porter, Captain Penrose, of the Army, Captain A. H. Adams, of the Navy, and Lieutenant W. W. Clemens, of the Signal Corps."28
Farragut’s naval service began before the War of 1812 when he was just nine years old. It effectively culminated when he was named the nation’s first full Admiral in 1866.