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“Damn the torpedoes, I’m going to the head!”

That bit of irreverence  was one of the more popular interpretation of the immortal words of a yankee admiral. According to the book by Admiral Farragut’s son, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut, First Admiral of the United States Navy, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1879), pages 416-417, Admiral Farragut said “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!” Flag Captain Percival Drayton was in command of  USS Hartford a 2,900-ton screw sloop which was Farragut’s flagship and Lieutenant Commander James Edward Jouett was in command of the USS Metacomet  an 1,173-ton Sassacus-class “double-ender” steam gunboat, which was preceding the Hartford up the channel.

Not every battle Farragut commanded in the war of northern aggression was a victory – read the account of Port Hudson if you believe otherwise – but the general tenor and tone of this book leads you to expect to find him at a heavenly apotheosis rather than buried in the Bronx [while his half-brother and the second U. S. admiral, David Dixon Porter, received the superintendency of Annapolis and a grave at Arlington].

The Naval History and Heritage command says in their biography of him, “The history of Farragut’s life is of importance less as a study of naval tactics, strategy and history than a study of the character of one whom many believe to have been the ideal of what a naval commander should be. He proved that kindliness, honor, love of friends and family, and a tolerant disposition are not incompatible with inflexibility in discipline and greatness as a warrior. But the secret of this success in war was in straight thinking and determined action….. in his famous words ‘Damn the torpedoes; go ahead – full speed,’ he was expressing no mere braggadocio, but the guiding rule of his whole life: “First be sure you are right; then go ahead.”  Considering that in a history that included John Paul Jones and Stephen Decatur he was the first full admiral it is not surprising that they should be so fulsome in their praise.

What is lacking in this, and all but a handful of books, is an appreciation of the Southern naval achievements in their War for Independence. If you are from the South you have heard of Raphael Semmes who may have given a slightly more accurate portrayal of crews – both north and South – in saying, “The sailor is as improvident, and as incapable of self-government as a child. The moment a ship drops her anchor in port … he is like the bird let out of the cage. He gives a loose rein to his passions, plunges so deeply into debauchery that he renders himself unfit for duty, for days, and sometimes weeks, after he is hunted up and brought on board by the police, which is most frequently the manner in which his captain again gets possession of him. It was quite enough to have such scenes as these repeated once in every three or four months.” But any lack of accuracy or excess of praise is not our real complaint here.

Farragut was from Tennessee – a Southerner by birth – but he grew up with his half-brother in Pennsylvania. That accident may have put him in the northern fleet because up to 41% of the United States Navy officer corps in 1861 chose NOT to serve the north in its war of subjugation. Although he is no friend of the Confederacy, William S. Dudley published a monograph in 1981 detailing the numbers of naval officers who put loyalty and honor above political expediency and although his study is more concerned with numbers it still contains some good anecdotal history.

Farragut : America’s first admiral    Washington, D.C. : Brassey’s, c 2002   Robert J. Schneller, Jr. United States History Civil War, 1861-1865 Naval operations, Farragut, David Glasgow, 1801-1870 Book. xvi, 116 p. : ill., maps ; 21 cm.     Includes bibliographical references (p. [109]-110) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG

“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” With those words, David Glasgow Farragut led a fleet of Union warships into Mobile Bay, where he achieved one of the most celebrated victories in American naval history. What separates the good officer from the great one, writes Robert J. Schneller, Jr., is the courage to make difficult decisions in the heat of combat despite personal fear or the awful realization that some men will have to pay in blood. Farragut’s personal attributes, such as his sharp intelligence and confidence, and his careful preparations, keen situational awareness, and courage to act boldly at decisive moments produced the Union’s most important naval victories and resulted in his appointment as the U.S. Navy’s first admiral. These qualities also made Farragut the greatest naval officer, Union or Confederate, of the Civil War and, indeed, the most outstanding U.S. naval officer of the nineteenth century.


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