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Civil War Naval Hero David G. Farragut Was the Navy’s First Admiral

David G. Farragut was the first American naval officer to hold the rank of rear admiral, vice admiral and admiral – a unique status that resulted directly from his many accomplishments during the Civil War.

He was born James Glasgow Farragut in Tennessee in 1801, but grew up in New Orleans. His family knew local Navy Commodore David Porter, who adopted Farragut as his son after Farragut’s mother died in 1808. It was Porter who then obtained an appointment as a midshipman for young Farragut, even though he was only nine years old.

At this point, Farragut, who was tied to the mast of the steam-powered frigate Hartford, seized the moment and yelled: “Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!”

During the War of 1812, Farragut joined Porter, then a captain, in the latter’s famous attacks on British whaling ships in the Pacific. Farragut, only 12 years old, served as a prize master on a captured British ship and sailed it into Valparaiso, Chile. In a subsequent fight with the Royal Navy warships Phoebe and Cherub, both Porter and Farragut were taken prisoner. After the war was over, his adopted father praised Farragut for his heroism. Farragut honored Porter by taking his first name.

Farragut remained in the Navy after the war and served in a variety of assignments. He participated in Mediterranean actions against pirates and commanded the sloop Saratoga during the Mexican-American War.

Adm. David G. Farragut

Adm. David G. Farragut, ca. 1863. Photo part of the Mathew Brady Collection.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, then-Capt. Farragut remained loyal to the Union despite his southern origins. In January 1862, Farragut took command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. His mission was to capture New Orleans, then the South’s largest port. His initial plan was to use the firepower of his flotilla to subdue the Confederate batteries guarding the entrance to New Orleans.

When this plan did not succeed, Farragut adopted a brilliant new tactic. On the night of April 24, 1862, he ran his ships past the Confederate forts and their defenders and sank 11 Confederate vessels. When troops under the command of Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler subsequently landed, New Orleans surrendered without a shot being fired. This was a major victory for the North, since the Confederacy lost a major port while the Union gained a strategic location astride the Mississippi River from which to launch further attacks. Congress was grateful: It promoted Farragut to rear admiral in July 1862 – making him the first American naval officer to hold that rank.

It promoted Farragut to rear admiral in July 1862 – making him the first American naval officer to hold that rank.

Farragut is best known for capturing Mobile. At the time, the Alabama city was the last major Confederate port on the Gulf of Mexico. It was well defended. First, its gun batteries were located at Fort Morgan at the entrance to Mobile Bay. Second, tethered naval mines – then called torpedoes – guarded the approaches.  Third, the ironclad CSS Nashville provided protection. Undeterred, on the morning of Aug. 5, 1864, Rear Adm. Farragut led his four armored monitors and 14 wooden ships under Fort Morgan’s guns.

All went well until the monitor USS Tecumseh struck a mine and sank with great loss of life. The other Union warships started to hesitate and pull back. At this point, Farragut, who was tied to the mast of the steam-powered frigate Hartford, seized the moment and yelled: “Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!”

Admiral David G. Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay

Adm. David G. Farragut lashed to the rigging of the USS Hartford during the Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5th, 1864 by Henry Alexander Ogden/The Stapleton Collection.

Inspired by Farragut, the Union flotilla passed through the minefield, entered Mobile Bay and, after a brief battle, captured CSS Nashville. Mobile surrendered on Aug. 23, 1864, and Farragut was promoted to vice admiral in December – again, the first American naval officer to hold the rank.

On July 25, 1866, an appreciative Congress promoted Farragut to full admiral. Farragut died in August 1870 at age 69. A sailor to the very end, he was still on active duty.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

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    William Mielniczuk

    I was proud to have served on a ship with his namesake, The U.S.S. Farragut (DDG-37)