David Dixon Porter (June 8, 1813 – February 13, 1891) was a United States Navy admiral and a member of one of the most distinguished families in the history of the U.S. Navy. Promoted as the second U.S. Navy officer ever to attain the rank of admiral, after his adoptive brother David G. Farragut, Porter helped improve the Navy as the Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy after significant service in the American Civil War.
Porter began naval service as a midshipman at the age of 10 years under his father, Commodore David Porter, on the frigate USS John Adams. For the remainder of his life, he was associated with the sea. Porter served in the Mexican War in the attack on the fort at the City of Vera Cruz. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was part of a plan to hold Fort Pickens, near Pensacola, Florida, for the Union; its execution disrupted the effort to relieve the garrison at Fort Sumter, leading to its fall. Porter commanded an independent flotilla of mortar boats at the capture of New Orleans. Later, he was advanced to the rank of (acting) rear admiral in command of the Mississippi River Squadron, which cooperated with the army under Major General Ulysses S. Grant in the Vicksburg Campaign. After the fall of Vicksburg, he led the naval forces in the difficult Red River Campaign in Louisiana. Late in 1864, Porter was transferred from the interior to the Atlantic coast, where he led the U.S. Navy in the joint assaults on Fort Fisher, the final significant naval action of the war.
Porter worked to raise the standards of the U.S. Navy in the position of Superintendent of the Naval Academy when it was restored to Annapolis. He initiated reforms in the curriculum to increase professionalism. In the early days of President Grant's administration, Porter was de facto Secretary of the Navy. When his adoptive brother David G. Farragut was advanced from rank of vice-admiral to admiral, Porter took his previous position; likewise, when Farragut died, Porter became the second man to hold the newly created rank of admiral. He gathered a corps of like-minded officers devoted to naval reform.
Porter's administration of the Navy Department aroused powerful opposition by some in Congress, who forced the Secretary of the Navy Adolph E. Borie to resign. His replacement, George Robeson, curtailed Porter's power and eased him into semi-retirement.
The seceded states laid claim to the national forts within their boundaries, but they did not make good their claim to Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Forts Pickens, Zachary Taylor, and Jefferson in Florida. They soon made it clear that they would use force if necessary to gain possession of Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens. President Abraham Lincoln resolved not to cede them without a fight. Secretary of State William H. Seward, Captain Montgomery C. Meigs of the US Army, and Porter devised a plan for the relief of Fort Pickens. The principal element of their plan required use of the steam frigate USS Powhatan, which would be commanded by Porter and would carry reinforcements to the fort from New York. Because no one was above suspicion in those days, the plan had to be implemented in complete secrecy; not even Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was to be advised.
Welles was in the meantime preparing an expedition for the relief of the garrison at Fort Sumter. As he was unaware that Powhatan would not be available, he included it in his plans. When the other vessels assigned to the effort showed up, the South Carolina troops at Charleston began to bombard Fort Sumter, and the Civil War was on. The relief expedition could only wait outside the harbor. The expedition had little chance to be successful in any case; without the support of the guns on Powhatan, it was completely impotent. The only contribution made by the expedition was to carry the soldiers who had defended Fort Sumter back to the North following their surrender and parole.
Lincoln did not punish Seward for his part in the incident, so Welles felt that he had no choice but to forgive Porter, whose culpability was less. Later, he reasoned that it had at least a redeeming feature in that Porter, whose loyalty had been suspect, was henceforth firmly attached to the Union. As he wrote,
"In detaching the Powhatan from the Sumter expedition and giving the command to Porter, Mr. Seward extricated that officer from Secession influences, and committed him at once, and decisively, to the Union cause."
In late 1861, the Navy Department began to develop plans to open the Mississippi River. The first move would be to capture New Orleans. For this Porter, by this time advanced to rank of commander, was given the responsibility of organizing a flotilla of some twenty mortar boats that would participate in the reduction of the forts defending the city from the south. The flotilla was a semi-autonomous part of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, which was to be commanded by Porter's adoptive brother Captain David G. Farragut.
The bombardment of Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip began on April 18, 1862. Porter had opined that two days of concentrated fire would be enough to reduce the forts, but after five days they seemed as strong as ever. The mortars were beginning to run low on ammunition. Farragut, who put little reliance on the mortars anyway, made the decision to bypass the forts on the night of April 24. The fleet successfully ran past the forts; the mortars were left behind, but they bombarded the forts during the passage in order to distract the enemy gunners. Once the fleet was above the forts, nothing significant stood between them and New Orleans; Farragut demanded the surrender of the city, and it fell to his fleet on April 29. The forts were still between him and Porter's mortar fleet, but when the latter again began to pummel Fort Jackson, its garrison mutinied and forced its surrender. Fort St. Philip had to follow suit. Surrender of the two forts was accepted by Commander Porter on April 28.
Following orders from the Navy Department, Farragut took his fleet upstream to capture other strongpoints on the river, with the aim of complete possession of the Mississippi. At Vicksburg, Mississippi he found that the bluffs were too high to be reached by the guns of his fleet, so he ordered Porter to bring his mortar flotilla up. The mortars suppressed the Rebel artillery well enough that Farragut's ships could pass the batteries at Vicksburg and link up with a Union flotilla coming down from the north. The city could not be taken, however, without active participation by the army, which did not happen. On July 8, the bombardment ceased when Porter was ordered to Hampton Roads to assist in Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. A few days later, Farragut followed, and the first attempt to take Vicksburg was over.
In the summer of 1862, shortly after Porter left Vicksburg, the U.S. Navy was extensively modified; among the features of the revised organization were a set of officer ranks from ensign to rear admiral that paralleled the ranks in the Army. Among the new ranks created were those of commodore and rear admiral. According to the organization charts, the persons in command of the blockading squadrons were to be rear admirals. Another part of the reorganization transferred the Western gunboat flotilla from the army to the navy, and retitled it the Mississippi River Squadron. The change of title implied that it was formally equivalent to the other squadrons, so its commanding officer would likewise be a rear admiral. The problem was that the commandant of the gunboat flotilla, Flag Officer Charles H. Davis, had not shown the initiative that the Navy Department wanted, so he had to be removed. He was made rear admiral, but he was recalled to Washington to serve as chief of the Bureau of Navigation.
Most of the men who could have replaced Davis were either less suitable or were unavailable because of other assignments, so finally Secretary Welles decided to appoint Porter to the position. He did this despite some doubt. As he wrote in his Diary,
Relieved Davis and appointed D. D. Porter to the Western Flotilla, which is hereafter to be recognized as a squadron. Porter is but a Commander. He has, however, stirring and positive qualities, is fertile in resources, has great energy, excessive and sometimes not over-scrupulous ambition, is impressed with and boastful of his own powers, given to exaggeration in relation to himself, —a Porter infirmity, —is not generous to older and superior living officers, whom he is too ready to traduce, but is kind and patronizing to favorites who are juniors, and generally to official inferiors. Is given to cliquism but is brave and daring like all his family... It is a question, with his mixture of good and bad traits, how he will succeed.
Thus Commander Porter became Acting Rear Admiral Porter without going through the intermediate ranks of captain and commodore. He was assigned to command the Mississippi Squadron and left Washington for his new command on October 9, 1862 and arrived in Cairo, Illinois on October 15.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton considered Porter "a gas bag ... blowing his own trumpet and stealing credit which belongs to others." Historian John D. Winters, in his The Civil War in Louisiana, describes Porter as having "possessed the qualities of abundant energy, recklessness, resourcefulness, and fighting spirit needed for the trying role ahead. Porter was assigned the task of aiding General John A. McClernand in opening the upper Mississippi. The choice of McClernand, a volunteer political general, pleased Porter because he felt that all West Point men were 'too self-sufficient, pedantic, and unpractical.”
Winters also writes that Porter "revealed a weakness he was to display many times: he belittled a superior officer [Charles H. Poor]. He often heaped undue praise upon a subordinate, but rarely could find much to admire in a superior."
The Army was showing renewed interest in opening the Mississippi River at just this time, and Porter met two men who would have great influence on the campaign. First was Major General William T. Sherman, a man of similar temperament to his own, with whom he immediately formed a particularly strong friendship. The other was Major General McClernand, whom he just as quickly came to dislike. Later they would be joined by Major General Ulysses S. Grant; Grant and Porter became friends and worked together quite well, but it was on a more strictly professional level than his relation with Sherman.
Close cooperation between the Army and Navy was vital to the success of the siege of Vicksburg. The most prominent contribution to the campaign was the passage of the batteries at Vicksburg and Grand Gulf by a major part of the Mississippi River Squadron. Grant had asked merely for a few gunboats to shield his troops, but Porter persuaded him to use more than half of his fleet. After nightfall on April 16, 1863, the fleet moved past the batteries. Only one vessel was lost in the ensuing firefight. Six nights later, a similar run past the batteries gave Grant the transports he needed for crossing the river. Now south of Vicksburg, Grant at first tried to attack the Rebels through Grand Gulf, and requested Porter to eliminate the batteries there before his troops would be sent across. On April 29, the gunboats spent most of the day bombarding two Confederate forts. They succeeded in silencing the lower of the two, but the upper fort remained. Grant called off the assault and moved downstream to Bruinsburg, where he was able to cross the river unopposed.
Although the fleet made no major offensive contributions to the campaign after Grand Gulf, it remained important in its secondary role of keeping the blockade against the city. When Vicksburg was besieged, the encirclement was made complete by the Navy's control of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. When it finally fell on July 4, Grant was unstinting in his praise of the assistance he had received from Porter and his men.
For his contribution to the victory, Porter's appointment as "acting" rear admiral was made permanent, dated from July 4.
After the opening of the Mississippi, the political general Nathaniel P. Banks, who was in charge of army forces in Louisiana, brought pressure on the Lincoln administration to mount a campaign across Louisiana and into Texas along the line of the Red River. The ostensible purpose was to extend Union control into Texas, but Banks was influenced by numerous speculators to convert the campaign into little more than a raid to seize cotton. Admiral Porter was not in favor; he thought that the next objective of his fleet should be to capture Mobile, but he received direct orders from Washington to cooperate with Banks.
After considerable delays caused by Banks's attention to political rather than military matters, the Red River expedition got under way in early March 1864. From the start, navigation of the river presented as great a problem for Porter and his fleet as did the Confederate army that opposed them. The army under Banks and the navy under Porter did little to cooperate, and instead often became rivals in a race to seize cotton. Confederate opposition under Major General Richard Taylor succeeded in keeping them apart by defeating Banks at the Battle of Mansfield, following which Banks gave up the expedition. From that time on, Porter's primary task was to extricate his fleet. The task was made difficult by falling water levels in the river, but he ultimately got most out, with the help of heroic efforts by some of the soldiers who stayed to protect the fleet.
By late summer 1864, Wilmington, North Carolina was the only port open for running the blockade, and the Navy Department began to plan to close it. Its major defense was Fort Fisher, a massive structure at the New Inlet to the Cape Fear River. Secretary Welles believed that the head of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee, was inadequate for the task, so he at first assigned Rear Admiral Farragut to be Lee's replacement. Farragut was too ill to serve, however, so Welles then decided to switch Lee with Porter: Lee would command the Mississippi River Squadron, and Porter would come east and prepare for the attack on Fort Fisher.
The planned attack on Fort Fisher required the cooperation of the army, and the troops were taken from the Army of the James. It was expected that Brigadier General Godfrey Weitzel would command, but Major General Benjamin F. Butler, the commander of the Army of the James, exercised one of the prerogatives of his position to install himself as leader of the expedition. Butler proposed that the fort could be flattened by exploding a ship filled with gunpowder near it, and Porter accepted the idea; if successful, the scheme would avoid a protracted siege or its alternative, a frontal assault. Accordingly, the old steamer USS Louisiana was packed with powder and blown up in the early morning of December 24, 1864. It had, however, no discernible effect on the fort. Butler brought part of his troops ashore, but he was already convinced that it was hopeless, so he removed his force before making an all-out assault.
Porter, enraged by Butler's timorousness, went to U. S. Grant and demanded that Butler be removed. Grant agreed, and placed Major General Alfred H. Terry in charge of a second assault on the fort. The second assault began on January 13, 1865, with unopposed landings and bombardment of the fort by the fleet. Porter imposed new methods of bombardment this time: each ship was assigned a specific target, with intent to destroy the enemy's guns rather than to knock down the walls. They were also to continue firing after the men ashore started their assault; the ships would shift their aim to points ahead of the advancing troops. The bombardment continued for two more days, while Terry got his men into position. On the 15th, frontal assaults on opposite faces by Terry's soldiers on the land side and 2000 sailors and marines on the beach vanquished the fort. This was the last significant naval operation of the war.
By April 1865, the Civil War drawing to a close, U.S. victory in the war was all but guaranteed. After the Confederate capital of Richmond was captured by U.S. forces, Porter toured the city on foot, accompanying U.S. President Abraham Lincoln with several armed bodyguards. He fondly recalled the events in his 1885 book, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, where he described witnessing scores of many freed slaves rushing to get a glimpse of Lincoln, whom they admired as a hero and credited for their emancipation, kissing his clothing and singing odes to him:
Twenty years have passed since that event; it is almost too new in history to make a great impression, but the time will come when it will loom up as one of the greatest of man's achievements, and the name of Abraham Lincoln — who of his own will struck the shackles from the limbs of four millions of people — will be honored thousands of years from now as man's name was never honored before. [...] The scene was so touching I hated to disturb it, yet we could not stay there all day; we had to move on; so I requested the patriarch to withdraw from about the President with his companions and let us pass on.
— David Dixon Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, (1885), pp. 295–296