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Morton: Farragut a great American naval hero

On this day (Aug. 5) in 1864, David Glasgow Farragut earned a spectacular naval victory when he successfully led a fleet of 14 warships and four ironclad monitors past the largest of the three Confederate forts guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay, Ala.

This well-planned, generally well-executed, successful but audacious, risky maneuver deprived the Confederacy of its last major port on the Gulf of Mexico, and, thus, was a devastatingly blow to the unrealistic hope many Confederate leaders had in mid-1864 to negotiate a peaceful conclusion to the increasingly bloody “War of Northern Aggression.”

As it turned out, Farragut’s brilliant victory in Mobile Bay coupled with Gen. William T. Sherman’s Sept. 2, 1864, occupation of Atlanta and subsequent famous (to Southerners infamous) march to the sea practically ensured, because the Union strategy of all-out war was succeeding, that the Republican ticket of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson would win the upcoming 1864 presidential election against the Democratic ticket of George McClelland and George Pendleton. Lincoln and Johnson favored a vigorous continuation of fighting, while McCelland and Pendleton generally supported negotiations that would end the bloodshed, and, thus, essentially allow the Confederacy to win its independence.

Farragut rightly belongs with such famous American naval officers as John Paul Jones, George Dewey, Chester W. Nimitz, and William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr. on any short list of American naval heroes.

Born July 5, 1801, near Knoxville, Tenn., into the family of merchant/naval officer George and Elizabeth Farragut, David, upon the 1808 death of his mother, was adopted by David Porter (who was a decorated naval officer). Following in the footsteps of his adoptive father, Farragut, at age 9, began his distinguished 60-year (1810-1870) naval career as a commissioned midshipman.

As a young teenager, Farragut, serving under adoptive father Capt. David Porter, served with notable distinction and bravery in the War of 1812. By 1861, now Cmdr. David Farragut participated in many of the American naval battles, primarily against Caribbean pirates and smugglers, between 1815 and 1861.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Southern-born Farragut, who many thought would resign his commission and join the Confederate navy, instead moved with his Virginia-born wife to New York and offered his services to the Union.

Initially, the U.S. Navy had some doubts about Farragut’s loyalty to the Union because of his Southern birth, as well as that of his wife. David made it clear that he would remain loyal to the Union, and that he considered secession as treason.

During the Civil War, as commander of the Gulf blockading squadron, Farragut, in April 1862, ran past the Confederate batteries guarding New Orleans to capture the city and port of the Crescent City.

This, of course, was one of the decisive Union naval victories of the entire conflict, only exceeded by Farragut’s great victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay. It was while running the gantlet of batteries guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay that Farragut lashed to the rigging of his flagship, the USS Hartford, is reported to have shouted “Torpedoes!  Damn the torpedoes! Four bells. Capt. Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!”

While not particularly well known today, upon his death Aug. 14, 1870, while on vacation in Portsmouth, N.H., Admiral Farragut was eulogized as the greatest naval hero in American history and was widely memorialized with a majestic statue and monument at the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City, the naming of a Washington, D.C., Square, with a giant statue, after him, and having five U.S. naval vessels named  USS Farragut.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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