Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Book Review: Lincoln's Admiral

I posted this earlier in the week, but could not edit a couple of mistakes, so I deleted it and am re-posting it now.

Lincoln’s Admiral: The Civil War Campaigns of David Farragut
Author: James P. Duffy
Castle Books, published in 2006 (original copyright 1997 by James. P. Duffy)

It may not be a new book to the Civil War world, but it is to me and I just finished this enjoyable, informative look at a man who played a very important role during the Civil War, Mr. David (originally James) Glasgow Farragut.

This is a very readable, enjoyable story of Farragut’s life, with most of it understandably focused on the Civil War period, when he became a national hero and the first Admiral in the history of the United States. It describes his family’s naval background in the Mediterranean Sea and its participation in the American Revolution. It tells the reader how Mr. Farragut found a military benefactor in David Porter Jr., who took the boy under his wing and showed him how to run a ship, in battle against both the British in the War of 1812 and against pirates.

The book does a fine job of showing the frustrations of Farragut’s life as he grew up into adulthood and beyond. He had poor eyesight that caused troubles, and his first wife suffered badly from health issues. Additionally, life in the peacetime navy added its own frustrations, both in the slowness of promotion and even in the difficulty of finding assignments, as there were more officers than ships available. Being off assignment and stuck in Norfolk allowed him to spend time with his wife, but also meant he was only on half-pay, making it tougher to provide the care his wife and his own health needed.

Mr. Duffy then gets into the years of Civil War, when Farragut won his fame. His first action was to leave his home in Norfolk (where the family of his new wife also lived) and move to New York when hostilities broke out – there was no question in his mind about which side he would support; he was a Union man all the way, though some people questioned his loyalty due to his southern birth and southern bride.

Eventually, Farragut was assigned to the Western Blockade Squadron, a move that led to his eventual success and fame, as he took his ships up the Mississippi River, past the forts of New Orleans and captured that key port city, one of the south’s most important trade centers. His recognition that the Union would have to bypass the forts then cut them off from behind instead of simply trying to blow them to pieces was a brilliant observation and proved to be completely accurate, the same strategy that would work in Mobile Bay two years later.

Farragut and his fleet eventually also captured Baton Rouge and moved their ships above Port Hudson, to help cut off southern trade that came up the Red River.

Once General U.S Grant and David Dixon Porter got their men and ships south of Vicksburg and captured that city, Port Hudson was doomed and the whole Mississippi River soon again went “unvexed to the sea” as President Abraham Lincoln put it.

This was a huge accomplishment for the United States, cutting the Confederacy in half, preventing it from moving supplies from the western lands across the Mississippi River to the east, and re-opening trade opportunities for United States merchants. Farragut simply was the key person in making this possible, by opening up New Orleans and blockading the Red River, while Grant, Porter and others finished off Vicksburg and Port Hudson (both of which badly missed the supplies that would have come from the Red River region had Farragut not closed it off).

Farragut was recognized as a hero for this deed, but was not done yet, as in late summer of 1864, he again took his ships past a highly-guarded and fortified area, this time Mobile Bay, ran past the forts and closed down yet another key Confederate port. This was where he gave the order that the years have twisted into “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

Farragut lived the rest of his life as a national hero who traveled (with his wife, thanks to President Andrew Johnson) to several foreign countries in the post-war years. Farragut finally passed away on August 14, 1870. He was 69 years old and had spent almost sixty of those years in naval service to his country, including years as Admiral. His career and service did truly earn him the title of a national hero, which Duffy’s book makes clear and unmistakable.

One small issue I had with Mr. Duffy’s writing occurred on page 46, when he described Winfield Scott’s retirement as though Mr. Scott had easily and quickly recognized his own failings and retired on his own, with no mention of the struggle for control with General George B. McClellan.

This is a small flaw in this book, as those details are not necessarily needed for a discussion of this subject, but I do wonder if there are any other similar situations in the book, but on subjects with which I may not be familiar enough to recognize.

Another quibble I had is with the lack of footnotes or endnotes. This especially bothered me on page 208 when Duffy recounts a story about one of Farragut’s men (and a couple freed slaves from nearby) hid in a dug-out log, covered it with branches, and floated down the Mississippi river to deliver dispatches to the boats in the fleet that had not passed the Confederate defenses around Port Hudson. I would like to know more about this amazing idea and passage, but the lack of endnotes leads to frustration here.

The book is definitely readable and not an overly technical work where the author tries to show off his vocabulary as other books seem to do, but it may go a bit too far to the “non-academic” version of history, at least regarding the lack of endnotes and occasional statements for which more details would be helpful.

Despite the small flaws I mentioned above, however, I do recommend this book to anyone who has interest in the naval aspect of the Civil War, particularly in the western theater. David Farragut’s name is well-known, but some of the details of how he accomplished the feats that made him famous are not, as both the naval war and the western theater sometimes do not receive a lot of coverage.

Duffy’s book provides an excellent read and summary of Farragut’s life, his accomplishments and how he was able to achieve such excellent results. This is a very informative and readable biography that provides an enjoyable look at David Farragut’s life and exploits on the seas and in the rivers. This volume would be a good addition to any Civil War library.

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