David Farragut, the leading Union admiral during
the Civil War, was born James Glasgow Farragut at Cambell’s Station,
Tennessee, a small town outside of Knoxville. His parents were Elizabeth Shines
Farragut and George Farragut, a ferryboat operator. In 1807 the family moved to
New Orleans where the father served as a sailing instructor for the U.S. Navy.
Upon the death of his mother and retirement of his father, James became the ward
of Commodore David Porter Jr., a family friend. In 1814, the boy took the name
"David" to honor Porter, his guardian.
Farragut’s career at sea began early in life.
He became a midshipman at the age of nine (December 1810) and joined the crew of
Porter’s Essex in 1811. He saw action during the War of 1812,
commanding (at the age of 12) the captured British ship Alexander Barclay,
and was commended for his conduct during the Essex’s defeat by British
ships in waters off the coast of Valparaiso, Chile (March 1814). He was released
by the British and did not rejoin the fighting in the war’s remaining few
months. Because of his youth, he could not be promoted.
In the immediate post-war years (1815-1820),
Farragut served aboard ships in the Mediterranean Sea, learning the languages of
the area—Spanish, French, Italian, and Arabic. In 1821 he was promoted to
lieutenant and assigned the next year to pirate patrol in the Caribbean Sea. His
sea duty was limited by time spent caring for his invalid first wife (who died
in 1840), but he was chosen to escort Lafayette back to France in 1825 and to
spearhead the U.S. naval presence in Charleston (SC) harbor during the
Nullification Crisis of 1833. He fought at the rank of commander during the
Mexican War, although, being a land war primarily, it offered him no chance for
distinctive valor. In the 1850s he served at Mare Island, California, and was
promoted to captain (1855).
As Southern slave states seceded from the Union
during the winter of 1860-1861, Farragut was in Norfolk, Virginia. When Virginia
left the Union in April, he moved his family to New York. Because his Southern
heritage and connections generated suspicion, the U.S. Navy shuffled him between
minor posts throughout 1861. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, however,
recognized Farragut’s superior record and in January 1862 personally selected
him to command a squadron which was ordered to retake New Orleans for the Union.
Farragut was a focused and fearless risk-taker, a trait that brought him great
success. A month into his commission, he ignored orders from Welles and the
advice of his subordinate officers to sail his forces past Confederate Forts
Jackson and St. Philip. The Union fleet reached New Orleans the next day, with
the bypassed forts surrendering three days later.
In July 1862 Farragut received the rank of
admiral. By the end of the year, his squadron had captured every Confederate
port along the Gulf coast except for Mobile, Alabama. In early 1863, though, the
Confederates struck back with vengeance, recapturing Galveston and capturing
four and sinking one Union vessel. Farrugut then concentrated his efforts on
extending Union control up the Mississippi River in an attempt to divide the
Confederacy in two. After failing to starve out Port Hudson (which finally
surrendered on July 9), he turned his attention to Mobile.
During the battle in Mobile Bay, Farragut became
famous for shouting in response to a warning that Confederate torpedoes were
ahead of them, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" On August 5,
1864, his Union forces captured Confederate Forts Morgan and Gaines to control
the harbor, although the city would not fall until the following April. The
victories at Mobile Bay and (earlier) at New Orleans were critically important
for the Union war effort. He would become the first person in the nation’s
history to receive the rank of vice admiral (December 1864) and full admiral
After the war, Farragut commanded a squadron on a
good-will tour of Europe in 1867. Returning to the United States, he suffered a
heart attack in 1869 from which he never fully recovered, dying the next year.
His funeral procession included dignitaries such as President Ulysses S. Grant
and over 10,000 servicemen.
Sources consulted: American National Biography; Mark Boatner, The Civil War Dictionary.