Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

DAVID DIXON PORTER
(June 18, 1813–February 13, 1891)

Charles F. Ritter

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles knew his man. David Dixon Porter has “stirring and positive qualities,” Welles confided to his diary on October 1, 1862. He “is fertile in resources, has great energy, excessive and sometimes unscrupulous ambition, is impressed with and boastful of his own powers, [and] given to exaggeration in everything relating to himself,” a trait Welles thought was a Porter family “infirmity.” Yet the Navy Secretary continued, he “is brave and daring like all his family” (Welles, 1:157). In short, Porter was the right man for the job.

The job was to relieve Charles Henry Davis as commander of the Mississippi Squadron above Vicksburg. Despite the eighty officers who preceded Porter in seniority, Welles chose the forty-nine-year-old commander who had a reputation for action and results. Sending Porter off to Cairo, Illinois, with the rank of acting rear admiral, Welles would see if that reputation were justified.

Porter’s love for the navy and his aggressive attitude came naturally to one who was born into the culture. The third of ten children of Captain David and Evelina (Anderson) Porter, David Dixon was born on June 18, 1813, and traced his nautical roots to his great-grandfather Alexander Porter who captained a merchant ship out of Boston. His grandfather David Porter (1754–1808) fought in the Revolutionary War and became a naval officer. His father, also David Porter (1780–1843), and his uncle John Porter (b. 1833) were both navy commanders. David Dixon’s father gained a reputation as a fighter for his efforts against the Barbary pirates in 1803, his exploits as a commerce raider in the War of 1812, and his foray against West Indian pirates in 1823. Court-martialed for a breech of diplomatic propriety and perhaps international law, David Porter resigned his commission and joined the Mexican navy in 1826.

Just as David Dixon’s grandfather David had taken his son David to sea at age sixteen, so David Dixon’s father took him to sea when he was but ten. And when Porter père joined the Mexican navy, he took the thirteen-year-old Porter

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