February 26, 2010

The Naval History of the Civil War

David Dixon Porter (June 8, 1813 – February 13, 1891) was the son of Commodore David Porter, a hero of the War of 1812. D. Like his father, D. D. Porter chose a military career, initially becoming an 1833 graduate of West Point who then went on to serve in the Mexican-American War.

When the Civil War came about, he joined the Navy's Gulf Squadron in command of the USS Powhatan. Promotion soon followed including captaincy on February 7, 1863. Porter was well known for his role in the 1862 expedition up the Mississippi River against Confederate New Orleans, where he commanded 21 mortar boats and several steamers. He then commanded the Mississippi River Squadron during the Vicksburg Campaigns in 1862–63. Porter and his sailors were also active in the siege at Vicksburg which resulted in his promotion to rear admiral on July 4, 1863, the same day of the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg. His presence was again duly noted during the Red River Campaign in 1864 and 1865. In late March 1865, near the end of the war, Ulysses S. Grant invited President Abraham Lincoln to visit his headquarters at City Point, Virginia. William Sherman happened to come up to City Point from North Carolina at that time, with Porter also joining the group. As a result, Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and Porter conferred together on the President's boat, the "River Queen." This four-way meeting is memorialized in the famous painting by George P.A. Healy, entitled The Peacemakers.

Porter was promoted to Vice Admiral in July 1866, and to Admiral on October 17, 1870. This made him the Navy's senior officer of the post-war era. His first assignment was Chief of the Bureau of Navigation of the U.S. Navy. From 1866 to 1870 he was Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. In the post-war years, Porter wrote eight non-fiction books and novels. Most notable among them was The Naval History of the Civil War, a huge, oversized 843-page tome published in 1886 by the Sherman Publishing Co. of New York. The work is a straightforward, though obviously partisan chronological narrative of Union naval ops during the war. Considering the author’s rank and reputation, one would think the work would have the stamp of reliability, but that would apparently be an error. While the book is filled with a trove of interesting facts, official reports, tables, dozens of original engravings, and dramatic accounts of naval engagements, the book is also said to have numerous inaccuracies, especially with regards to the author’s recollection of dates and events. David Eicher reports in his bibliography (#11) that there “are many ambiguous references to names, a poor index, and numerous misspellings” nevertheless Eicher also writes that Porter’s book “shines with personal comments on commanders and battles in which Porter himself played a significant role.”

Considering the major and important role that Admiral Porter played in the conflict, the book is considered an early, important, and therefore collectible book on naval actions in the Civil War. Due to its sheer size and heft, most copies of the book have not worn well over the years, as such those in stellar condition will command a premium price.

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