Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, by Chester G. Hearn, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 800-233-8764, 416 pages, $37.50.
If there was ever a naval officer for whom the term “old sea dog” was apt, it was David Glasgow Farragut. The adopted son of another famous naval officer, Commodore David Porter, Farragut went to sea at the age of nine and saw action in both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. When the Civil War broke out, Farragut was 60 years old and had spent more than a half-century in the navy.
Although born in Tennessee and married to a Virginian, Farragut never wavered in his loyalty to the Union. Still, he might never have achieved high command had he not moved his family from Virginia to New York immediately after Virginia seceded. This action convinced Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles of Farragut’s loyalty and prompted the secretary to put him in command of a fleet with the mission of capturing New Orleans.
Farragut’s command consisted of 8 steam sloops, led by his flagship, Hartford; 14 gunboats; and 19 mortar boats to soften up the two formidable forts on opposite sides of the Mississippi River, south of the city. Transports carried 15,000 Union soldiers, commanded by the soon-to-be-controversial Ben Butler. In the end, however, it was Farragut’s fleet that captured the city. Tired of waiting for his mortar boats to silence the forts, and convinced that ships with sufficient speed could pass them, Farragut ran the gauntlet of the Confederate forts on April 24, 1862, and lost only one ship. After defeating a makeshift Confederate squadron, Farragut steamed up to New Orleans and took control.
Capture of the Confederacy’s greatest city was an immense boost to Northern morale and led to Farragut’s promotion to rear admiral. He subsequently forced his way up the river to Vicksburg, Mississippi, but was unable to defeat the Confederate defenses there. The reopening of the Mississippi would ultimately hinge on Grant’s land operations.
The importance of New Orleans notwithstanding, Farragut is best remembered for his victory at Mobile Bay. Although the bay was protected by forts, much as New Orleans had been, Farragut was no more intimidated by these forts than he had been by those on the Mississippi. On the morning of August 5, 1864, Farragut took 14 wooden vessels and 4 monitors past the largest of three forts at the entrance of the bay. The result was a fierce duel between Yankee ships and Rebel shore batteries, during which Farragut climbed the mainmast of the Hartford to observe the action. When one of his monitors struck a Rebel mine and sank like a rock, the Federal line came to a halt. It was then that Farragut gave the order that went into the history books north of the Mason-Dixon line, roaring words most often quoted as, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
Inside the bay, Farragut’s fleet engaged a scratch Confederate naval force commanded by Admiral Franklin Buchanan. Farragut destroyed or captured virtually the entire Confederate flotilla which, although badly outgunned, included the powerful ironclad Tennessee.
Chester Hearn brings solid credentials to this biography, having previously written a book on Confederate commerce raiders and a biography of Farragut’s half-brother, Admiral David Dixon Porter. His admiration of Farragut has not destroyed his objectivity, and he describes the admiral’s career in workmanlike prose. He is particularly interesting in detailing the competition between the bluff Farragut and his devious (and envious) half-brother, Porter.
Hearn occasionally makes assertions that are questionable or not fully documented. There is no credible evidence that either France or Britain would have recognized the Confederacy had Farragut failed at New Orleans; diplomatic exchanges between Paris and London were marked by much talk and little action. His statement that “few…if any” officers other than Farragut would have continued to advance into Mobile Bay after losing a ship to a mine underestimates the difficulty that any commander would have had in turning the Federal fleet once it had been committed.
Are Farragut’s victories at New Orleans and Mobile Bay somewhat overrated? In each instance Farragut enjoyed overwhelming superiority in terms of ships, and at New Orleans he benefited additionally from a divided and incompetent enemy defense. So the answer is perhaps–but it was Farragut who concluded that forts could not defeat his fleet and who devised a means of protecting his weaker vessels by lashing them to more powerful ships. Gideon Welles wrote that Farragut “does but one thing at a time, but does that strong and well.” Not a bad verdict on the man who damned the torpedoes.
John M. Taylor