Book Review: Admiral David Dixon Porter: The Civil War Years (Chester G. Hearn) : ACW

8/11/2001 • Mag: America's Civil War Reviews, War of 1812

Admiral David Dixon Porter: The Civil War Years, by Chester G. Hearn,Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., $35.

To U.S. naval officer David Dixon Porter, army generals who were politicians–and politicians in general–were anathema. He saw them as a dire threat to the Federal government’s plan to subdue the Confederacy. Politicians, he remembered, had called for the court-martial of his father, War of 1812 hero Commodore David Porter. And politicians-turned- generals, namely Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel Banks, wielded great power but rarely displayed strategic sagacity or fighting character.

Appointed a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in 1829, Porter faced lean years in his slow climb to command. Temperamental and impatient, he managed to persevere although often disgusted with the Navy’s policy-makers. When war erupted with the Southern states in 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles attempted to create a blockading squadron. Porter chafed for action, calling his immediate superiors “worn out men without brains.” Never one to mince words, the officer would quickly create numerous enemies in high places.

Proving his fighting worth, Porter pursued the Confederate raider Sumter, under the command of Raphael Semmes, into Carribean and South American waters. Although Porter never engaged the Confederate ship(he came within a day of meeting Sumter), he honed his leadership abilities during the pursuit.

In 1862, Union attention turned to the port city of New Orleans. Porter, serving under the command of his foster brother, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, assembled a specially outfitted flotilla of mortar vessels designed to bombard the fortresses protecting the port. Porter’s mortar schooners pounded Forts Jackson and St. Phillip prior to Farragut’s successful attack on April 14. When General Butler demeaned Porter’s role in the capture of the forts and city, the two became bitter enemies. Though sometimes vitriolic and uncontrollable, the naval commander had proved his worth. As author Hearn notes, Welles “sized him up as a troublesome subordinate, prone to rashness and exaggeration, but a tough-minded fighter who got the job done.”

By the summer of 1862, Porter was in command of a motley collection of ironclad gunboats and wooden paddlewheelers attempting to crack Vicksburg, a tough nut on high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Working closely with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, both of whom he greatly admired, Porter conceived several plans to attack the city through the network of bayous and levees to the east. In the thick of the action on Steele’s Bayou in March 1863, Porter found his flotilla virtually trapped in willow- and root-choked channels as Confederate infantry and artillery raked the vessels. The fortuitous arrival of Sherman’s troops slogging through the swamps helped save Porter’s ships.

In 1864, Porter was ordered to work with General Banks on his attempt to seize the important cotton country surrounding the Red River. Porter’s flotilla of ironclads and wooden gunboats found the water levels of the Red River perilously low. With naval support, Banks marched deep into Confederate territory only to be rebuffed at Sabine Cross Roads. When Banks retreated, the flotilla was left to its own devices. Porter’s tars were forced to withdraw under withering fire from Rebel troops posted on the banks.

Reaching Banks’ new headquarters at Alexandria, La., Porter found that the water level had fallen so low that his fleet was trapped above the nearby falls. Preparations were made to destroy the ships rather than abandon them to the Rebels. Fortunately, engineer Lt. Col. Joseph Bailey managed to construct a temporary dam to build a deeper reservoir above the falls, allowing the fleet to dash through a break in the dam and over the falls to the safety of the deeper water below.

Author Hearn has done an admirable job of utilizing Porter’s notes, letters and official documents to construct the officer’s experiences during the Civil War. Fully documented, the biography creates an image of a tough-minded, often acerbic warrior ready to adopt creative methods to get the job done. David Dixon Porter emerges as a naval hero whose star ascended through the Civil War years and was recognized by a grateful president, Congress and nation.

Kenneth P. Czech