Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan sometimes fought his friends as fiercely as he fought his enemies.
By Robert M. Browning, Jr.
On April 22, 1861, Captain Franklin Buchanan, one of the most senior officers in the United States Navy, resigned his Federal commission, ending a 46-year career that saw Buchanan rise to the pinnacle of his profession. A native of Maryland, Buchanan felt it his duty to join the Confederate cause, but tried to rescind his decision when his home state remained uneasily in the Union. Craig Symonds’ Confederate Admiral: The Life and Wars of Franklin Buchanan (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 1999, $32.95) gives us the first modern biography of a complex man who had a great impact on American naval history.
When the young Buchanan sought a midshipman’s warrant at the age of 14, he received orders to join the unfinished frigate Java in Baltimore. Not wishing to wait two months for Java to be fitted for sea, he requested a furlough to sign on with a merchant vessel bound for the West Indies. That decision gives a first glimpse of Buchanan’s impetuous spirit, a trait that would sometimes serve him well and at other times cause him trouble.
Buchanan’s early career was varied. After a short tour of duty ashore and later commanding a receiving ship in Baltimore, he went back to sea in command of the side-wheel steamer Mississippi. Later, on the sloop-of-war Vincennes, he proved to bean authoritarian leader, requiring every individual on board the ship to know and understand his place. His was not a spit-and-polish type of discipline, but one that showed little tolerance for individuals–regardless of rank–who failed to meet his high standards.
One of Buchanan’s most important, lasting contributions to the U.S. Navy was the founding of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. Teaching a curriculum in academy classrooms that for generations had been taught at sea was certainly a challenge. Buchanan seemed up to the task, infusing his sense of discipline into the development of the academy. Once classes began, however, his interaction with the faculty and students proved problematic. Confronted with ambiguous administrative situations, he found it difficult to apply his strict black-and-white views of discipline and responsibility.
The Mexican War pulled Buchanan back into active duty. Under the command of Captain Matthew C. Perry, he participated in the capture of Forts La Peña and Tabasco. He renewed his relationship with Perry during a diplomatic cruise to Japan. As the commanding officer of the steam frigate Susquehanna, Buchanan was second-in-command of the expedition and served as the chief negotiator. In July 1853, when the talks were completed, Buchanan led the first contingent of Americans ashore.
Perry and Buchanan later had a falling out when Perry interceded in a court-martial that Buchanan had ordered. Buchanan proved so inflexible that he took his disagreement with Perry all the way to the secretary of the Navy, an action that poisoned his relationship with his commander and undermined his standing in the service.
His next major assignment created further animosity. Buchanan was a constant, outspoken champion of reform and efficiency in the Navy. When the secretary of the Navy introduced an act to promote the efficiency of the service, Buchanan was naturally picked to sit on a board with 14 other officers to make recommendations to improve the Navy. During the deliberations he exhibited his tough-minded commitment to the idea of reform. When the board members suggested that 30 percent of the service’s officers be removed, they had to weather a storm of controversy over the proposal. Buchanan stood by his decisions despite pressure from his peers and their political allies.
When the Civil War began, Buchanan found himself torn between different ideals, and Symonds masterfully analyzes Buchanan’s difficult decision to resign. Over time, Buchanan had developed into an ardent sectionalist while also remaining a passionate patriot and a Union man. When it appeared that the state of Maryland would secede, he acted on instinct and emotion and personally tendered his resignation. When the state did not leave the Union, Buchanan tried to recall his resignation. But Navy Secretary Gideon Welles refused to reconsider his request, and Bu-chanan somewhat reluctantly joined the Confederate Navy.
In August 1861, Buchanan took charge of the Bureau of Orders and Detail, placing him in a position to advise Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen D. Mallory as he formulated some of the early naval strategy for the South. His interaction with Mallory helped him get the command of the Confederacy’s first ironclad, CSS Virginia. Mallory needed a special officer for the position, and the secretary believed him to be aggressive and combative, but not foolhardy, and well-suited to the unique command.
The five days Buchanan spent on Virginia brought him instant recognition. Taking command on March 4, 1862, he received orders to boldly attack the Federal fleet in Hampton Roads. His destruction of Congress and Cumberland was a great victory, but Buchanan’s volatile personality again got the better of him. Believing Union troops on a nearby shore had violated a flag of truce by shooting at Southern sailors, he furiously grabbed a musket from the ship’s armory and began firing at the offending enemy. The foolish act led to his wounding, and he had to transfer command, a move that prevented him from leading the ship into com-bat the next day with USS Monitor in the war’s most famous naval action.
As Buchanan’s wound slowly healed, he received a promotion to full admiral–the only officer in the Confederate Navy to reach that rank. In recognition of his talents, Mallory sent him to command the naval squadron in Mobile Bay. There he oversaw the construction of one of the Confederacy’s most powerful ironclads, Tennessee. During her construction, he worked tirelessly to make his squadron more professional and disciplined. With great energy and creative management, Buchanan completed Tennes-see before the Union Navy attacked Mobile Harbor in August 1864.
During the ensuing Battle of Mobile Bay, Buchanan displayed great bravery and his usual aggressive nature. As the Union ships closed and began hammering Tennessee, he again suffered a serious injury when flying debris broke his leg. Tennessee surrendered after a short fight, and Buchanan sat out the rest of the Civil War as a prisoner.
After the war, Buchanan returned home to a meager existence but remained a military hero. He became president of the Agricultural College of Maryland, but even in the twilight of his life his personality again put him at cross purposes with some of his professors when he exceeded his authority and tried to run the school like a ship.
Symonds has admirably provided a fresh interpretation of one of the most prominent naval figures of the Civil War. This thoroughly researched and first-rate study is a significant contribution to naval literature and will stand for many years as Buchanan’s best biography, a portrait of a difficult man in a difficult time.