David Dixon Porter



Occupation 1

Naval officer


Civil War


NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Heroic Age of Sail (1816-1865)








...was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, the son of David Porter, a distinguished U.S. naval officer who had served in the Quasi War, the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812, and Evelina Anderson. Porter spent his youth in Washington, D.C., while his father served as naval commissioner. In 1824 he went with his father on the frigate John Adams, cruising the West Indies to suppress piracy. As a result of a controversial incident at Fajardo, Puerto Rico, Porter's father angrily resigned his commission in 1826 and entered the Mexican navy, taking his son with him. In the ensuing months the younger Porter saw action against the Spanish, was wounded in battle, and eventually ended up a prisoner at Havana. He returned to the United States and in 1829 obtained a midshipman's appointment in the U.S. Navy. For the next eighteen years Porter enjoyed an active if somewhat humdrum career. He served in the Mediterranean Squadron as well as in the U.S. Coast Survey. In 1839 he married George Ann Patterson, daughter of Commodore Daniel T. Patterson... In 1841 Porter was promoted to lieutenant. Like his brother officers, Porter yearned for promotion, but in a service with a surplus of officers and a shortage of ships, advancement was agonizingly slow.
At the outbreak of the Mexican War, Porter was posted to New Orleans for recruiting duty. Subsequently, he was transferred to the gunboat Spitfire, assigned to blockading duty off Veracruz, as first lieutenant. With seventy sailors from Spitfire, Porter led a successful attack against an enemy fort at Tabasco. In recognition of his bravery, in 1847 he was promoted to command Spitfire.
During the 1850s Porter applied for and received extended leave to command vessels in the merchant marine. During a two-year period he commanded the steamer Panama on a voyage through the Strait of Magellan, had charge of the mail steamer Georgia, and later commanded the Crescent City. Porter's enviable reputation as an able skipper brought him to the attention of the owners of the steamer Golden Age, a vessel engaged in the trade between England and Australia. He set new sailing records as its commander.
Porter returned to U.S. naval service in 1855, when he accepted command of the Supply for an unusual mission. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis had arranged for the Supply to sail to Turkey to take on board a cargo of camels bound to Texas for service with the U.S. Army. Following this voyage Porter accepted the post of executive officer at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Dissatisfied with the slow progress of his career, by 1860 Porter was once again giving consideration to leaving the service for more promising civilian pursuits. Abraham Lincoln's election and the ensuing crisis altered the situation dramatically, however. In the spring of 1861, as the Union disintegrated, Porter, brash and ambitious, concocted a plan for reinforcing Fort Pickens at Pensacola and presented it to Secretary of State William Seward. Seward persuaded Lincoln to endorse the plan, and Porter was given command of the steamer Powhatan with orders to sail to the relief of Fort Pickens. When Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles learned that his department had been completely bypassed in this venture, he took immediate steps to stop the expedition. Porter boldly pushed ahead, defied his recall orders, sailed to Pickens, and provided reinforcement. Not surprisingly, from this point on Welles was always suspicious and distrustful of Porter. Thanks to his abilities and aggressiveness, Porter nonetheless soon became one of the darlings of the naval service and was promoted to commander.
In 1862 Porter was among those urging an attack on New Orleans. To command the expedition Porter recommended David Glasgow Farragut, his adoptive brother. Farragut was given the command with Porter in charge of the mortar flotilla, whose task was to level Forts Jackson and St. Philip guarding the approaches to the city. Farragut triumphed and New Orleans fell, although it is debatable how much Porter's mortar boats contributed to the final victory.
Following the victory at New Orleans, Porter was given command of the Union gunboat forces on the Mississippi. He worked with Farragut in an unsuccessful attempt against Vicksburg. During the spring and summer of 1863 he joined Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman in a combined operation against Vicksburg. Although arrogant, prickly, and much given to playing politics, Porter worked well with Grant and Sherman and seems to have earned their genuine admiration. The fall of Vicksburg in July 1863 was a credit to the close cooperation between the army and navy. Under Porter's direction the Union gunboats steamed past Vicksburg on 16 April. Once down river the Union squadron covered the crossing of Grant's army to the east bank of the river, where it began operations against Vicksburg. Porter was promoted to rear admiral from the date of the fall of Vicksburg (4 July 1863).
Porter's last major operation in the West involved a combined expedition up the Red River in Louisiana. Ill planned and ill led, the campaign came close to disaster. Falling water in the river nearly trapped Porter's squadron, and only through some clever work by experienced loggers did Porter manage to escape with most of his gunboats.
Following the Red River expedition, Welles sent Porter to command the blockading squadron off Wilmington, North Carolina, the only major port left open to the Confederacy. Rear Admiral Porter had at his disposal an imposing fleet. His mission was to cooperate with the army in seizing the forts guarding the approaches to Wilmington, thereby stripping Robert E. Lee's army of its last hope for resupply. In the first attack against the forts in December 1864, Major General Benjamin Butler (1818-1893) commanded the land forces. Porter heartily disliked Butler, and the feeling seems to have been mutual, hampering cooperation. When the army failed in an attack on the forts after a long naval bombardment, Porter was quick to blame Butler. The next assault, in January 1865 with Major General Alfred Terry in command of the land forces, succeeded. In the waning days of the war Porter spent most of his time aboard his flagship Malvern in the James River, where he met with Lincoln and Grant as they watched the noose tighten on nearby Richmond.
The postwar years were difficult for Porter and the navy. Once the war was over economy became the watchword, and the service saw its budget reduced dramatically. In 1865, at his own request, he was assigned as superintendent of the Naval Academy at Annapolis. It was a task he thoroughly enjoyed, and under his leadership the academy's curriculum was strengthened and its reputation enhanced. New courses were introduced, including ones on steam engineering. In 1869 he returned to Washington, D.C., to become assistant to the secretary of the navy, a role not unlike that of the twentieth-century chief of naval operations. He remained on active duty until his death there... During these years Porter wrote a biography of his father, Memoir of Commodore David Porter (1875), as well as two volumes dealing with the Civil War, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (1885) and Naval History of the Civil War (1886). As might be expected, Porter's works reflect a fair degree of bias.

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