Gideon Welles on Appointing Admiral David Porter to Command the Mississippi Squadron

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

Gideon Welles served as Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, which was a cabinet level post at that time. Welles recorded his thoughts and observations on the Civil War and the inner workings of the Lincoln Administration in a straight forward, detailed, and honest style in his diary. The diary was published posthumously in 1911 (Welles died in 1878) and is considered one of the better primary sources on the Civil War.

In October 1862, Welles relieved and reassigned the commander of the Western Gunboat Flotilla, Flag Officer Charles Davis, and replaced him with Commander David D. Porter, who was promoted to the rank of Acting Rear Admiral. The Flotilla, renamed the Mississippi River Squadron, consisted of the ironclads and other gunboats that operated on the rivers of the war’s western theatre. This fleet played an important role in the Union war effort, and Welles searched throughout the ranks of his officers for the right one to lead the Squadron. He finally settled on Porter, albeit reluctantly, as he recorded in this entry from October 1st, 1862:

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,

Admiral David Porter USN

Admiral David Porter USN

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, who 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. He has not the conscientious and high moral qualities of Foote to organize the flotilla, and is not considered by some of our best naval men a fortunate officer; has not in his profession, though he may have personally, what the sailors admire, “luck.” It is a question, with his mixture of good and bad traits, how he will succeed. His selection will be unsatisfactory to many, but his field of operation is peculiar, and a young and active officer is required for the duty to which he is assigned; it will be an incentive to juniors. If he does well I shall get no credit; if he fails I shall be blamed. No thanks in any event will be mine. Davis, who he succeeds, is more of a scholar than sailor, has gentlemanly instincts and scholarly acquirements, is an intelligent but not an energetic, driving, fighting officer, such as is wanted for rough work on the Mississippi; is kind and affable, but has not he vim, dash, —recklessness perhaps is the better word,—of Porter.

Gunboats DeKalb, Mound City, and Cincinnati of the Mississippi River Squadron

Gunboats DeKalb, Mound City, and Cincinnati of the Mississippi River Squadron

Welles referred to Flag Officer Andrew Foote, the previous commander before Davis. Welles also mentioned Porter’s family, whose father, grandfather, and several brothers had been or were naval officers, as was his adaptive brother David Farragut.

The Navy Secretary had David Porter pegged fairly accurately. Porter was indeed a self promoter (as were many in the army and navy) who could be abrasive with superior officers, but he was also a very good commander of the Mississippi River Squadron, and would develop an excellent working relationship with Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Porter remained in command of the Mississippi River Squadron until July of 1864, when he returned to the blue water navy as commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Sources:

The Civil War Diary of Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy by Gideon Welles

Lincoln and His Admirals by Craig L. Symonds

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