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American Civil War: Admiral David Dixon Porter

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American Civil War: Admiral David Dixon Porter

Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, USN

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

David Dixon Porter - Early Life:

Born at Chester, PA on June 8, 1813, David Dixon Porter was the son of Commodore David Porter and his wife Evalina. Producing ten children, the Porters had also adopted the young James (later David) Glasgow Farragut in 1808 after the boy's mother had aided Porter's father. A hero of the War of 1812, Commodore Porter left the US Navy in 1824 and two years later accepted command of the Mexican Navy. Traveling south with his father, young David Dixon was appointed a midshipman and saw service aboard several Mexican vessels.

David Dixon Porter - Joining the US Navy:

In 1828, Porter sailed aboard the brig Guerrero (22 guns) to attack Spanish shipping off Cuba. Commanded by his cousin, David Henry Porter, Guerrero was captured by the Spanish frigate Lealtad (64). In the action, the elder Porter was killed and afterwards David Dixon was taken to Havana as a prisoner. Soon exchanged, he returned to his father in Mexico. Unwilling to further risk his son's life, Commodore Porter sent him back to the United States where his grandfather, Congressman William Anderson, was able to secure him a midshipman's warrant in the US Navy on February 2, 1829.

David Dixon Porter - Early Career:

Due to his time in Mexico, the young Porter possessed more experience than many of his midshipman peers and the junior officers above him. This bred a brashness and arrogance than led to clashes with his superiors. Though nearly dismissed from the service, he proved a capable midshipman. In June 1832, he sailed aboard the flagship of Commodore David Patterson, USS United States. For the cruise, Patterson had embarked his family and Porter soon began courting his daughter, George Ann. Returning to the United States, he passed his lieutenant's exam in June 1835.

David Dixon Porter - Mexican-American War:

Assigned to the Coast Survey, he saved sufficient funds to allow him to marry George Ann in March 1839. Promoted to lieutenant in March 1841, he briefly served in the Mediterranean before being ordered to the Hydrographic Office. In 1846, Porter was dispatched on a secret mission to the Republic of Santo Domingo to assess the new nation's stability and to scout locations for a naval base. Returning in June, he learned that the Mexican-American War had begun. Assigned as the first lieutenant of the sidewheel gunboat USS Spitfire, Porter served under Commander Josiah Tattnall.

Operating in the Gulf of Mexico, Spitfire was present during the landing of Major General Winfield Scott's army in March 1847. With the army preparing to lay siege to Veracruz, Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet moved to attack the city's seaward defenses. Knowing the area from his days in Mexico, on the night of March 22/23 Porter took a small boat and mapped a channel into the harbor. The next morning, Spitfire and several other vessels used Porter's channel to run into the harbor to attack the defenses. Though this violated orders that Perry had issued, he applauded his subordinates' boldness.

That June, Porter took part in Perry's attack on Tabasco. Leading a detachment of sailors, he succeeded in capturing one of the forts defending the town. In reward, he was given command of Spitfire for the remainder of the war. Though his first command, he saw little subsequent action as the war moved inland. Seeking to improve his knowledge of emerging steam technology, he took a leave of absence in 1849 and commanded several mail steamers. Returning in 1855, he was given command of the storeship USS Supply. Coming ashore in 1857, Porter held several positions before being appointed to the Coast Survey in 1861.

David Dixon Porter - Civil War:

Before Porter could depart, the Civil War began. Approached by Secretary of State William Seward and Captain Montgomery Meigs, US Army, Porter was given command USS Powhatan (16) and dispatched on a secret mission to reinforce Fort Pickens at Pensacola, FL. This mission proved a success and was a demonstrative show of his loyalty to the Union. Promoted to commander on April 22, he was sent to blockade the mouth of the Mississippi River. That November, he began advocating for an attack on New Orleans. This moved forward the following spring with Farragut, now a flag officer, in command.

Attached to his foster brother's squadron, Porter was placed in command of a flotilla of mortar boats. Pushing forward on April 18, 1862, Porter's mortars bombarded Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Though he believed that two days of firing would reduce both works, little damage was inflicted after five. Unwilling to wait any longer, Farragut ran past the forts on April 24 and captured the city. Remaining by the forts, Porter compelled their surrender on April 28. Moving upstream, he aided Farragut in attacking Vicksburg before being ordered east in July.

His return to the East Coast proved brief as he was soon promoted directly to rear admiral and placed in command of the Mississippi River Squadron that October. Taking command, he was tasked with aiding Major General John McClernand in opening the upper Mississippi. Moving south, they were joined by troops led by Major General William T. Sherman. Though Porter came to despise McClernand, he formed a strong, lasting friendship with Sherman. At McClernand's direction, the force attacked and captured Fort Hindman (Arkansas Post) in January 1863.

Uniting with Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Porter was next tasked with supporting Union operations against Vicksburg. Working closely with Grant, Porter succeeded in running most of his fleet past Vicksburg on the night of April 16. Six nights later he ran a fleet of transports past the city's guns as well. Having assembled a large naval force south of the city, he was able to transport and support Grant's operations against Grand Gulf and Bruinsburg. As the campaign progressed, Porter's gunboats ensured that Vicksburg remained cut off from reinforcement by water.

With the city's fall on July 4, Porter's squadron began patrols of the Mississippi until being ordered to support Major General Nathaniel Banks' Red River Expedition. Beginning in March 1864, the endeavor proved unsuccessful and Porter was fortunate to extract his fleet from the river's receding waters. On October 12, Porter was ordered east to take command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Ordered to close the port of Wilmington, NC, he transported troops under Major General Benjamin Butler to attack Fort Fisher that December. The attack proved a failure when Butler showed a lack of resolve. Irate, Porter returned north and requested a different commander from Grant. Returning to Fort Fisher with troops led by Major General Alfred Terry, the two men captured the fort in the Second Battle of Fort Fisher in January 1865.

David Dixon Porter - Later Life

With the end of the war, the US Navy was rapidly downsized. With fewer sea-going commands available, Porter was appointed Superintendent of the Naval Academy in September 1865. While there, he was promoted to vice admiral and embarked on an ambitious campaign to modernize and reform the academy to make it the rival of West Point. Departing in 1869, he briefly advised Secretary of the Navy Adolph E. Borie, a novice in naval affairs, until his replacement by George M. Robeson. With Admiral Farragut's death in 1870, Porter believed that he should be promoted to fill the vacancy. This did occur, but only after a protracted fight with his political enemies. Over the next twenty years, Porter was increasingly removed from the US Navy's operations. After spending much of this time writing, he died at Washington, DC on February 13, 1890. Following his funeral, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Selected Sources

  • CWPT: David D. Porter
  • Arlington Cemetery: David D. Porter
  • US Naval History & Heritage Command: David D. Porter

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