David Glasgow Farragut
The possibilities of American life are strikingly illustrated by the
fact that the two names at the head of the army and navy, Grant and
Farragut, represent self-made men. The latter was born on a farm near
Knoxville, Tennessee, July 5, 1801. His mother, of Scotch descent, was a
brave and energetic woman. Once when the father was absent in the Indian
wars, the savages came to their plain home and demanded admittance. She
barred the door as best she could, and sending her trembling children
into the loft, guarded the entrance with an axe. The Indians thought
discretion the better part of valor, and stole quietly away.
When David was seven years old, the family having moved to New Orleans,
as the father had been appointed sailing master in the navy, the noble
mother died of yellow fever, leaving five children, the youngest an
infant. This was a most severe blow. Fortunately, soon after, an act of
kindness brought its reward. The father of Commodore Porter having died
at the Farragut house, the son determined to adopt one of the
motherless children, if one was willing to leave his home. Little David
was pleased with the uniform, and said promptly that he would go.
Saying good-bye forever to his father, he was taken to Washington, and
after a few months spent in school, at the age of nine years and a half,
was made a midshipman. And now began a life full of hardship, of
adventure, and of brave deeds, which have added lustre to the American
navy, and have made the name of Farragut immortal.
His first cruise was along the coast, in the Essex, after the war of
1812 with Great Britain had begun. They had captured the Alert and
other prizes, and their ship was crowded with prisoners. One night when
the boy lay apparently asleep, the coxswain of the Alert came to his
hammock, pistol in hand. David lay motionless till he passed on, and
then crept noiselessly to the cabin, and informed Captain Porter.
Springing from his cot, he shouted, "Fire! fire!" The seamen rushed on
deck, and the mutineers were in irons before they had recovered from
their amazement. Evidently the boy had inherited some of his mother's
His second cruise was in the Pacific Ocean, where they encountered a
fearful storm going round Cape Horn. An incident occurred at this time
which showed the mettle of the lad. Though only twelve, he was ordered
by Captain Porter to take a prize vessel to Valparaiso, the captured
captain being required to navigate it. When David requested that the
"maintopsail be filled away," the captain replied that he would shoot
any man who dared to touch a rope without his orders, and then went
below for his pistols. David called one of the crew, told him what had
happened, and what he wanted done. "Aye, aye, sir!" responded the
faithful sailor, as he began to execute the orders. The young midshipman
at once sent word to the captain not to come on deck with his pistols
unless he wished to go overboard. From that moment the boy was master of
the vessel, and admired for his bravery.
The following year,--1814,--while the Essex was off the coast of
Chili, she was attacked by the British ships Phoebe and Cherub.
The battle lasted for two hours and a half, the Phoebe throwing
seven hundred eighteen-pound shots at the Essex.
"I shall never forget," Farragut said years after, "the horrid
impression made upon me at the sight of the first man I had ever seen
killed. It staggered and sickened me at first; but they soon began to
fall so fast that it all appeared like a dream, and produced no effect
upon my nerves.... Soon after this some gun-primers were wanted, and I
was sent after them. In going below, while I was on the ward-room
ladder, the captain of the gun directly opposite the hatchway was struck
full in the face by an eighteen-pound shot, and fell back on me. We
tumbled down the hatch together. I lay for some moments stunned by the
blow, but soon recovered consciousness enough to rush up on deck. The
captain seeing me covered with blood, asked if I was wounded; to which I
replied, 'I believe not, sir.' 'Then,' said he, 'where are the primers?'
This brought me completely to my senses, and I ran below again and
carried the primers on deck."
When Porter had been forced to surrender, David went below to help the
surgeon in dressing wounds. One brave young man, Lieutenant Cowell,
said, "O, Davy, I fear it is all up with me!" He could have been saved,
had his leg been amputated an hour sooner; but when it was proposed to
drop another patient and attend to him, he said, "No, Doctor, none of
that; fair play is a jewel. One man's life is as dear as another's; I
would not cheat any poor fellow out of his turn."
Many brave men died, saying, "Don't give her up! Hurrah for liberty!"
One young Scotchman, whose leg had been shot off, said to his comrades,
"I left my own country and adopted the United States to fight for her. I
hope I have this day proved myself worthy of the country of my adoption.
I am no longer of any use to you or to her; so good-bye!" saying which
he threw himself overboard.
When David was taken a prisoner on board the Phoebe, he could not
refrain from tears at his mortification.
"Never mind, my little fellow," said the captain; "it will be your turn
"I hope so," was the reply.
Soon David's pet pig "Murphy" was brought on board, and he immediately
"But," said the English sailor, "you are a prisoner and your pig also."
"We always respect private property," the boy replied, seizing hold of
"Murphy"; and after a vigorous fight, the pet was given to its owner.
On returning to Captain Porter's house at Chester, Pa., David was put at
school for the summer, under a quaint instructor, one of Napoleon's
celebrated Guard, who used no book, but taught the boys about plants and
minerals, and how to climb and swim. In the fall he was placed on a
receiving-ship, but gladly left the wild set of lads for a cruise in the
Mediterranean. Here he had the opportunity of visiting Naples, Pompeii,
and other places of interest, but he encountered much that was harsh and
trying. Commodore C---- sometimes knocked down his own son, and his
son's friend as well,--not a pleasant person to be governed by.
In 1817, Chaplain Folsom of their ship was appointed consul at Tunis. He
loved David as a brother, and begged the privilege of keeping him for a
time, "because," said he to the commodore, "he is entirely destitute of
the aids of fortune and the influence of friends, other than those whom
his character may attach to him." For nearly nine months he remained
with the chaplain, studying French, Italian, English literature, and
mathematics, and developing in manliness and refinement. The Danish
consul showed great fondness for the frank, ardent boy, now sixteen, and
invited him to his house at Carthage. Failing in his health, a horseback
trip toward the interior of the country was recommended, and during the
journey he received a sunstroke, and his eyes were permanently weakened.
All his life, however, he had some one read to him, and thus mitigate
The time came to go back to duty on the ship, and Chaplain Folsom
clasped the big boy to his bosom, fervently kissing him on each cheek,
and giving him his parting blessing mingled with his tears. Forty years
after, when the young midshipman had become the famous Admiral, he sent
a token of respect and affection to his old friend.
For some years, having been appointed acting lieutenant, he cruised in
the Gulf of Mexico, gaining knowledge which he was glad to use later,
and in the West Indies, where for two years and a half, he says, "I
never owned a bed, but lay down to rest wherever I found the most
comfortable berth." Sometimes he and his seamen pursued pirates who
infested the coast, cutting their way through thornbushes and cactus
plants, with their cutlasses; then burning the houses of these robbers,
and taking their plunder out of their caves. It was an exciting but
After a visit to his old home at New Orleans,--his father had died, and
his sister did not recognize him,--he contracted yellow fever, and lay
ill for some time in a Washington hospital. Perhaps the sailor was
tired of his roving and somewhat lonely life, and now married, at
twenty-two, Miss Susan Marchant of Norfolk, Virginia.
For sixteen years she was an invalid, so that he carried her often in
his arms like a child. Now he took her to New Haven for treatment, and
improved what time he could spare by attending Professor Silliman's
lectures at Yale College. Now he conducted a school on a receiving-ship,
so as to have her with him. "She bore the sickness with unparalleled
resignation and patience," says Farragut in his journal, "affording a
beautiful example of calmness and fortitude." One of her friends in
Norfolk said, "When Captain Farragut dies, he should have a monument
reaching to the skies, made by every wife in the city contributing a
stone to it." How the world admires a brave man with a tender heart!
Farragut was now nearly forty years of age; never pushing himself
forward, honors had come slowly. Three years later, having been made
commandant, he married Miss Virginia Royall, also of Norfolk, Va. At the
beginning of the Mexican War, he offered his services to the Government,
but from indifference, or the jealousy of officials, he was not called
upon. The next twelve years were spent, partly in the Norfolk Navy Yard,
giving weekly lectures on gunnery, preparing a book on ordnance
regulations, and establishing a navy yard on the Pacific Coast. Whatever
he did was done thoroughly and faithfully. When asked by the Navy
Department to express a preference about a position, he said, "I have no
volition in the matter; your duty is to give me orders, mine to obey....
I have made it the rule of my life to ask no official favors, but to
await orders and then obey them."
And now came the turning-point of his life. April 17, 1860, Virginia, by
a vote of eighty-eight to fifty-five, seceded from the United States.
The next morning, Farragut, then at Norfolk, expressed disapproval of
the acts of the convention, and said President Lincoln would be
justified in calling for troops after the Southerners had taken forts
and arsenals. He was soon informed "that a person with those sentiments
could not live in Norfolk."
"Well then, I can live somewhere else," was the calm reply.
Returning home, he announced to his wife that he had determined to
"stick to the flag."
"This act of mine may cause years of separation from your family; so you
must decide quickly whether you will go North or remain here."
She decided at once to go with him, and, hastily collecting a few
articles, departed that evening for Baltimore. That city was in
commotion, the Massachusetts troops having had a conflict with the mob.
He finally secured passage for New York on a canal-boat, and with
limited means rented a cottage at Hastings-on-the-Hudson, for one
hundred and fifty dollars a year. He loved the South, and said, "God
forbid that I should have to raise my hand against her"; but he was
anxious to take part in the war for the Union, and offered his services
to that end.
The Government had an important project in hand. The Mississippi River
was largely in the control of the Confederacy, and was the great highway
for transporting her supplies. New Orleans was the richest city of the
South, receiving for shipment at this time ninety-two million dollars
worth of cotton, and more than twenty-five million dollars worth of
sugar yearly. If this city could be captured, and the river controlled
by the North, the South would be seriously crippled. But the lower
Mississippi was guarded by the strongest forts, Jackson and St. Philip,
which mounted one hundred and fifteen guns, and were garrisoned by
fifteen hundred men. Above the forts were fifteen vessels of the
Confederate fleet, including the ironclad ram, Manassas, and just
below, a heavy iron chain across the river bound together scores of
cypress logs thirty feet long, and four or five feet in diameter, thus
forming an immense obstruction. Sharpshooters were stationed all along
Who could be entrusted with such a formidable undertaking as the capture
of this stronghold? Who sufficiently daring, skilful, and loyal? Several
naval officers were considered, but Gideon Welles, Secretary of the
Navy, said, "Farragut is the man." The steam sloop-of-war, Hartford,
of nineteen hundred tons burden, and two hundred twenty-five feet long,
was made ready as his flag-ship. His instructions were, "The certain
capture of the city of New Orleans. The Department and the country
require of you success.... If successful, you open the way to the sea
for the Great West, never again to be closed. The rebellion will be
riven in the centre, and the flag, to which you have been so faithful,
will recover its supremacy in every State."
With a grateful heart that he had been thought fitting for this high
place, and believing in his ability to win success, at sixty-one years
of age he started on his mission, saying, "If I die in the attempt, it
will only be what every officer has to expect. He who dies in doing his
duty to his country, and at peace with his God, has played the drama of
life to the best advantage." He took with him six sloops-of-war, sixteen
gunboats, twenty-one schooners, and five other vessels, forty-eight in
all, the fleet carrying over two hundred guns.
April 18, 1862, they had all reached their positions and were ready for
the struggle. For six days and nights the mortars kept up a constant
fire on Fort Jackson, throwing nearly six thousand shells. Many persons
were killed, but the fort did not yield. The Confederates sent down the
river five fire-rafts, flat-boats filled with dry wood, smeared with tar
and turpentine, hoping that these would make havoc among Farragut's
ships; but his crews towed them away to shore, or let them drift out to
Farragut now made up his mind to pass the forts at all hazards. It was
a dangerous and heroic step. If he won, New Orleans must fall; if he
failed--but he must not fail. Two gunboats were sent to cut the chain
across the river. All night long the commander watched with intense
anxiety the return of the boats, which under a galling fire had
succeeded in breaking the chain, and thus making a passage for the
At half past three o'clock on the morning of April 24, the fleet was
ready to start. The Cayuga led off the first division of eight
vessels. Both forts opened fire. In ten minutes she had passed beyond
St. Philip only to be surrounded by eleven Confederate gunboats. The
Varuna came to her relief, but was rammed by two Southern boats, and
sunk in fifteen minutes. The Mississippi encountered the enemy's ram,
Manassas, riddled her with shot, and set her on fire, so that she
drifted below the forts and blew up.
Then the centre division, led by the Hartford, passed into the
terrific fire. First she grounded in avoiding a fire-raft; then a
Confederate ram pushed a raft against her, setting her on fire; but
Farragut gave his orders as calmly as though not in the utmost peril.
The flames were extinguished, and she steamed on, doing terrible
execution with her shells. Then came the last division, led by the
Sciota, and Commander Porter's gunboats. In the darkness, lighted only
by the flashes of over two hundred guns, the fleet had cut its way to
victory, losing one hundred and eighty-four in killed and wounded.
"In a twinkling the flames had risen
Half-way to maintop and mizzen,
Darting up the shrouds like snakes!
Ah, how we clanked at the brakes!
And the deep steam-pumps throbbed under
Sending a ceaseless glow.
Our top-men--a dauntless crowd--
Swarmed in rigging and shroud;
There ('twas a wonder!)
The burning ratlins and strands
They quenched with their bare hard hands.
But the great guns below
Never silenced their thunder.
"At last, by backing and sounding,
When we were clear of grounding,
And under headway once more,
The whole Rebel fleet came rounding
The point. If we had it hot before,
'Twas now, from shore to shore,
One long, loud thundering roar,--
Such crashing, splintering, and pounding
And smashing as you never heard before.
"But that we fought foul wrong to wreck,
And to save the land we loved so well,
You might have deemed our long gun-deck
Two hundred feet of hell!
For all above was battle,
Broadside, and blaze, and rattle,
Smoke and thunder alone;
But down in the sick-bay,
Where our wounded and dying lay,
There was scarce a sob or a moan.
"And at last, when the dim day broke,
And the sullen sun awoke,
O'er the haze and the cannon-smoke,
That even such morning dulls,
There were thirteen traitor hulls
On fire and sinking!"
--Henry Howard Brownell
* * * * *
"Thus," says the son of Farragut, in his admirable biography, "was
accomplished a feat in naval warfare which had no precedent, and which
is still without a parallel except the one furnished by Farragut
himself, two years later, at Mobile. Starting with seventeen wooden
vessels, he had passed with all but three of them, against the swift
current of a river but half a mile wide, between two powerful earthworks
which had long been prepared for him, his course impeded by blazing
rafts, and immediately thereafter had met the enemy's fleet of fifteen
vessels, two of them ironclads, and either captured or destroyed every
one of them. And all this with a loss of but one ship from his
The following day, he wrote:--
"My dearest wife and boy,--I am so agitated that I can scarcely write,
and shall only tell you that it has pleased Almighty God to preserve my
life through a fire such as the world has scarcely known. He has
permitted me to make a name for my dear boy's inheritance, as well as
for my comfort and that of my family."
The next day, at eleven o'clock in the morning, by order of Farragut,
"the officers and crews of the fleet return thanks to Almighty God for
His great goodness and mercy in permitting us to pass through the events
of the last two days with so little loss of life and blood."
April 29, a battalion of two hundred and fifty marines and two
howitzers, manned by sailors from the Hartford, marched through the
streets of New Orleans, hoisted the Union flag in place of the
Confederate on the city hall, and held possession till General Butler
arrived with his troops on May 1. After the fall of the city, the forts
surrendered to Porter.
From here Farragut went to Vicksburg with sixteen vessels, "the
Hartford," he says "like an old hen taking care of her chickens," and
passed the batteries with fifteen killed and thirty wounded. Three
months later he received the thanks of Congress on parchment for the
gallant services of himself and his men, and was made Rear-Admiral. He
remained on the river and gulf for some months, doing effective work in
sustaining the blockade, and destroying the salt-works along the coast.
When the memorable passage of the batteries at Port Hudson was made,
where one hundred and thirteen were killed or wounded, the Hartford
taking the lead, his idolized boy, Loyall, stood beside him. When urged
by the surgeon to let his son go below to help about the wounded,
because it was safer, he replied, "No; that will not do. It is true our
only child is on board by chance, and he is not in the service; but,
being here, he will act as one of my aids, to assist in conveying my
orders during the battle, and we will trust in Providence." Neither
would the lad listen to the suggestion; for he "wanted to be stationed
on deck and see the fight." Farragut soon sent him back to his mother;
for he said, "I am too devoted a father to have my son with me in
troubles of this kind. The anxieties of a father should not be added to
those of a commander."
Every day was full of exciting incident. The admiral needing some
despatches taken down the river, his secretary, Mr. Gabaudan,
volunteered to bear the message. A small dug-out was covered with twigs,
so as to resemble floating trees. At night he lay down in his little
craft, with paddle and pistol by his side, and drifted with the current.
Once a Confederate boat pulled out into the stream to investigate the
somewhat large tree, but returned to report that, "It was only a log."
He succeeded in reaching General Banks, who had taken the place of
General Butler, and when the fleet returned to New Orleans, he was
warmly welcomed on board by his admiring companions.
Farragut now returned to New York for a short time, where all were
anxious to meet the Hero of New Orleans, and to see the historic
Hartford, which had been struck two hundred and forty times by shot
and shell in nineteen months' service. The Union League Club presented
him a beautiful sword, the scabbard of gold and silver, and the hilt set
His next point of attack was Mobile Bay. Under cover of the forts,
Morgan, Gaines, and Powell, the blockade was constantly broken. A good
story is told of the capture of one of these vessels, whose merchant
captain was brought before Farragut. He proved to be an old
acquaintance, who said he was bound for Matamoras on the Rio Grande! The
admiral expressed amazement that he should be three hundred miles out of
his course, and said good-naturedly, "I am sorry for you; but we shall
have to hold you for your thundering bad navigation!"
And now occurred the most brilliant battle of his career. Aug. 4, 1864,
he wrote to his wife,--
"I am going into Mobile Bay in the morning, if God is my leader, as I
hope He is, and in Him I place my trust. God bless and preserve you, my
darling, and my dear boy, if anything should happen to me.
"Your devoted and affectionate husband, who never for one moment forgot
his love, duty, or fidelity to you, his devoted and best of wives."
At half past five on the morning of Aug. 5, fourteen ships and four
monitors, headed by the Brooklyn, because she had apparatus for
picking up torpedoes, moved into action. Very soon the Tecumseh, the
monitor abreast of the Brooklyn, went down with nearly every soul on
board, sunk by a torpedo. When the Brooklyn saw this disaster, she
began to back.
"What's the trouble?" was shouted through the trumpet.
The supreme moment had come for decision. The grand old admiral offered
up this prayer in his heart, "O God, direct me what to do. Shall I go
on?" And a voice seemed to answer, "Go on!"
"Go ahead!" he shouted to his captain on the Hartford; "give her all
the steam you've got!" And like a thing of life she swept on over the
torpedoes to the head of the fleet, where she became the special target
of the enemy. Her timbers crashed, and her "wounded came pouring
down,--cries never to be forgotten." Twice the brave admiral was lashed
to the rigging by his devoted men, lest in his exposed position he fall
overboard if struck by a ball. The fleet lost three hundred and
thirty-five men, but Farragut gained the day. When all was over, and he
looked upon the dead laid out on the port side of his ship, he wept like
a child. The prisoners captured in the defences of Mobile were one
thousand four hundred and sixty-four, with one hundred and four guns.
On his return to New York he was welcomed with the grandest
demonstrations. Crowds gathered at the Battery, a public reception was
given him at the Custom House, and fifty thousand dollars with which to
buy a house in New York. Congress made him Vice-Admiral. Prominent
politicians asked him to become a candidate for the Presidency; but he
refused, saying, "I have no ambition for anything but what I am,--an
admiral. I have worked hard for three years, have been in eleven fights,
and am willing to fight eleven more if necessary, but when I go home I
desire peace and comfort."
At Hastings-on-the-Hudson, the streets were arched with the words "New
Orleans," "Mobile," "Jackson," "St. Philip," etc. Boston gave him a
welcome reception at Faneuil Hall, Oliver Wendell Holmes reading a poem
on the occasion. At Cambridge, two hundred Harvard students took his
horses from the carriage, and attaching ropes to it, drew him through
the streets. On July 25, 1866, the rank of admiral was created by
Congress, and Farragut was appointed to the place. Honors, and
well-deserved ones, had come at last to the brave midshipman.
The next year, in command of the European squadron, accompanied by Mrs.
Farragut, who went by special permission of the President, he visited
France, Russia, and other countries.
Napoleon III. welcomed him to the Tuileries; the Grand Duke Constantine
of Russia, Duke of Edinburgh, and Victor Emmanuel each made him their
guest; he dined with the King of Denmark and the King of Greece, and
Queen Victoria received him at the Osborne House. Two years later he
visited the navy yard on the Pacific Coast, which he had established
He died Aug. 14, 1870, at the age of sixty-nine, universally honored and
regretted. Congress appropriated twenty thousand dollars for his statue
on Farragut Square, Washington, and the work has been executed by Vinnie
Success was not an accident with the Christian admiral. It was the
result of devotion to duty, real bravery, and a life distinguished by
purity of character and the highest sense of honor.