Confluence of Careers Mobile Bay

The Doctor's Son

Franklin Buchanan was born at Auchintorlie, the family estate near Baltimore on 17 September 1800, the fifth child and third son of a physician, George Buchanan, and Laetitia McKean Buchanan. When young Franklin was five, the family moved to Philadelphia, where his father was the attending physician at the Lazoretto Hospital. Three years later Dr. Buchanan contracted yellow fever from one of his patients and died. The widowed daughter of the governor of Pennsylvania had little trouble securing a midshipman's warrant for her son, who was eager to join the ongoing war with Britain. Fifteen-year-old Franklin became a midshipman in January 1815 just as the war was coming to a close, which was a great disappointment to him.

His first service was on board the new-construction frigate Java, named in honor of the British Java, which had been battered to pieces by Commodore William Bainbridge in the Constitution in 1812. His commanding officer was Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, famous for his victory over the British squadron on Lake Erie. After 18 months in the frigate, almost all of it in the Mediterranean, Midshipman Buchanan was next assigned to the ship-of-the-line Franklin, the squadron flagship. He spent the next 2.5 years cruising the Mediterranean, during which time the Franklin showed the flag and made port visits at places both friendly (Malaga, Port Mahon, Livorno) and hostile (Algiers, Tripoli, and, to a certain extent, Gibraltar). Besides Buchanan, some two dozen midshipmen were on board the flagship, including 16-year-old David Glasgow Farragut, who was already a seven-year Navy veteran. 

The Volunteer Yankee

Farragut was born near Knoxville, Tennessee, on 5 July 1801 and named James Glasgow Farragut after North Carolina Secretary of State James Glasgow. The circumstances of the Farragut family were considerably more modest than those of the Buchanans, and young Farragut might have remained anonymous to history but for the fact that in 1807 his father received an appointment to command one of the scores of small gunboats that were being built as part of President Thomas Jefferson's controversial effort to protect the American coast during the Napoleonic wars. George Farragut (who was of Spanish heritage and often spelled his name Jorge) accepted the appointment and immediately headed downriver to take command of Gunboat No. 13 at New Orleans, part of Master Commandant David Porter's squadron. Young James and the rest of the Farragut family soon followed.

The event that determined the trajectory of Farragut's life took place during a fishing trip on Lake Pontchartrain that summer. In August 1807, George Farragut was fishing on the lake when he saw David Porter's 84-year-old father, also named David, collapse unconscious in his boat, apparently from sunstroke. Taking the elderly man to his home, Farragut and his wife nursed him for several weeks until his son arrived and took charge. The elder Porter never fully recovered and died in the summer of the next year. By coincidence, that same day George Farragut's wife-and James' mother-also died, of yellow fever (the disease that killed Franklin Buchanan's father that summer in Philadelphia). Believing he owed something to the family that had cared for his father, Master Commandant Porter offered to adopt one of George Farragut's sons. The oldest Farragut child, William, was already a Navy midshipman, and so the opportunity fell to eight-year-old James. The Porters took James into their home, and though he was never formally adopted, he ever after considered the Porters his family. His foster father got him an appointment as a midshipman the next year at the age of nine, and at 12, James changed his first name to David in honor of his mentor and father figure.

While Buchanan missed seeing any action during the War of 1812, that was hardly the case with Farragut. As a midshipman on Porter's small frigate the Essex, young Farragut saw as much of the war as any officer in the Navy, for the day before his 11th birthday, the Essex set sail on a cruise that would make history.

Porter's initial assignment on this mission was to rendezvous with Bainbridge in the Constitution off the Brazilian headland. But after "Old Ironsides"' successful fight with the Java in December of 1812, Bainbridge headed back for the United States, and Porter was left on his own. He proceeded around Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean, arriving at Valparaiso, Chile, in March 1813. The Essex, with young Farragut on board, next headed for the Galapagos Islands. There, Porter savaged the British whaling fleet, taking a dozen prizes. They were then manned with prize crews, put under the command of a junior officer or midshipman, and sent into port to be condemned as prizes of war. One of the prizes was an American ship, the Barclay, which had been taken by a British privateer and then recaptured by the Essex. Having taken so many prizes, Porter was running out of junior officers to appoint as prize masters, and as a result this one went to Midshipman Farragut. The American skipper of the Barclay was almost as annoyed to find himself under the "command" of a 12 year old as he had been when his ship had first been captured by a British privateer. He declared that he would take no orders from such a stripling, and Farragut had to muster all the dignity and courage he could to face him down and assert his authority. Farragut later recalled that "This was an important event in my life, and . . . I felt no little pride at finding myself in command at 12 years of age."

Combat Initiation

Farragut also got his baptism of fire on this voyage. When several months later the Essex and her small consort, an armed prize that Porter had dubbed the Essex Junior, were trapped on the Chilean coast and slowly battered to pieces by the British frigates Phoebe and Cherub, Farragut found himself surrounded by chaos and death. He watched a cannonball disembowel a boatswain's mate, and soon afterward another shot killed four men who were standing near him, the ball "taking the last man in the head, and his brains flew over us both." Even at 12, he was nearly as cool in this crisis as he would be 51 years later amid the chaos and death of Mobile Bay. Indeed, he was surprised not to be more affected by this horror than he was, declaring that at the time, "I neither thought of or noticed anything but the working of the guns," though once the battle was over and the Essex taken, he "became faint and sickened."

For his part, Buchanan had to wait 32 years for his baptism of fire. Though he rose to command a ship in the 1830s, he never fired a shot in anger until 1847 during the war with Mexico. That year he led a landing party up the Tuxpan River to the small Mexican Fortaleza del Pena, where he personally led the party ashore, sword in hand, to storm the fort. Less than a month later, he was part of another, larger landing party that captured Villahermosa on the Grijalva River. Neither of these triumphs, however, matched the violence or glory of Farragut's exploits in the Essex.

And yet, at the dawn of the Civil War era, though both men had risen to the rank of captain, Buchanan's naval career was more distinguished than Farragut's. After the drama of his service on the Essex, Farragut's next high point came only 40 years later when in 1854 he established the Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco. Indeed, Farragut's prewar accomplishments paled next to Buchanan's, which included the founding of the U. S. Naval Academy (1845-47), service as Commodore Matthew Perry's flag captain during the famous expedition to open Japan to the West (1853-54), and his work on the so-called Plucking Board (1855-56) that sought to establish new protocols for promotion in the Navy. When the Civil War broke out, Buchanan was commandant of the Washington Navy Yard in the nation's capital. It was a plum job and a testimony to his status as one of the Navy's most senior and honored officers. Almost at once, however, he found himself in a crisis of conscience.

No Question of Loyalty

Though his home of record was Pennsylvania, Buchanan was a Marylander by birth, and he had married into one of Maryland's most prominent families. His wife was Nannie Lloyd Buchanan, and her father, Edward Lloyd of Wye House on Maryland's Eastern Shore, was the largest slaveholder in the state. Unsurprisingly, the Lloyds were strong advocates of slaveholder's rights, and those views rubbed off on young Lieutenant Buchanan. Moreover, he retained those views as he rose from commander to captain, and in 1861, he found the policies of President Abraham Lincoln appalling. In private correspondence with his friend Captain Samuel F. "Frank" Du Pont, Buchanan excoriated the "vile Yankees" that had taken control of the government.

Buchanan was horrified when, a few days after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, provoked by a civilian mob during its passage through Baltimore en route to Washington, fired into the crowd. The mood in Baltimore was little short of hysterical; the newspapers carried a story that Federal artillery was preparing to shell the city. Declaring that it was the duty of every Marylander to stand by his state, Buchanan made his way to Main Navy-the Navy Department building in Washington-and submitted his resignation to Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, in the full expectation that Maryland was about to secede.

But Maryland did not secede, and once that became clear, Buchanan sheepishly tried to recall his resignation. Welles would hear none of it. In his view, men who were willing to abandon their nation in its time of crisis were not worthy of holding a commission. He ordered Buchanan's name struck from the Navy List, and with that, after 46 years of loyal service, he was dismissed.

Characteristically, Buchanan saw himself as the victim in this scenario. How dare Welles imply that he was not a loyal and patriotic American? He was simply unwilling to raise his hand against his state. "I am no secessionist," he wrote, "I am as strong a Union man as any in the country." Welles was not impressed, and the dismissal stood. After nursing a grudge for several months, and encouraged by the news of a Confederate victory at Manassas in July, Buchanan decided to make his way to Virginia and offer his services to someone who would appreciate him: Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory. Nannie remained in Maryland at their home, the Rest, near her family at Wye House.

Farragut was already in Virginia during the secession crisis. The previous fall, he had completed a tour in command of the newly built steamer Brooklyn. After turning over command, he returned to his home in Norfolk to await orders. Like Buchanan, Farragut had married a woman of Southern leanings. His first wife, Susan, had died in 1840, and his second wife was not only a Virginian by birth and by residence, she was even named Virginia. Although Farragut considered the Old Dominion his home, when he learned in April 1861 that it had seceded from the Union, he announced to a group of fellow officers, "I can not live here, and will seek some other place where I can live, and on two hours' notice." He then went home and told his wife, "This act of mine may cause years of separation from your family, so you must decide quickly whether you will go North or remain here." For his part, he planned to leave at once.

Good as his word, Farragut immediately packed up and left Norfolk for New York. His wife went with him. Unlike Buchanan, who suffered the tortures of a conflicted sense of duty, or even Robert E. Lee, who is said to have spent a night pacing up and down in his room before finally deciding that he would go with his state, Farragut never had a doubt about where his duty lay. The moment Virginia abandoned the Union, Farragut abandoned the state and went north.

The Farraguts arrived in Baltimore on 19 April, the very day the 6th Massachusetts fired into the crowd along Pratt Street to prompt Buchanan's resignation. From there, they made their way to Philadelphia and then New York, where they settled in a small house in Hastings-on-Hudson. Farragut languished there for some weeks before being called to another command. Welles had to satisfy himself that this Southern-born naval officer was reliable. In the end, Farragut got a squadron command mainly because of his seniority and the fact that no other senior captains were available.

Paths to Mobile

In Richmond, Mallory may have been a little uncertain about Buchanan's loyalty as well. His long delay before coming south in July led others to question his commitment, and when the letter he had written declaring that he was "as strong a Union man as any in the country" became public, it proved very embarrassing.

Buchanan and Farragut each quieted their critics when they won signal victories early in 1862. In March, Buchanan took the ironclad Virginia out into Hampton Roads and destroyed two Union warships, including one on which his own brother served as paymaster, inflicting on the U.S. Navy the worst defeat in its history. Just over a month later in April, Farragut took the West Gulf Blockading Squadron past the Mississippi River forts south of New Orleans to seize the South's largest city and most important port. Both were promoted in recognition of their victories, each becoming the first admiral in their respective services.

Buchanan was badly wounded during the Hampton Roads fight and spent several months recuperating before Mallory sent him to Mobile in August 1862. His orders were to construct an ironclad fleet that could defend the harbor and city from a Union attack. That was easier said than done. Buchanan at first hoped to construct a whole squadron of ironclad warships, but in the end he had only enough resources for one, the CSS Tennessee. Unlike the Virginia, which was built on the hull of the steam frigate Merrimack, the Tennessee had to be built from the keel up, and the Confederacy was short of nearly everything necessary for her construction, especially iron plate and marine engines.

Buchanan personally oversaw her construction and armament, working with a kind of frenzy to get her ready before Farragut attacked. When workers balked at the pay and the hours, he threatened to have them drafted into the Army; when suppliers claimed they could not produce the needed iron plate or engine parts, he went over their heads to appeal to the government. He ranted and complained, pleaded and cajoled, and eventually, by May 1864, he had a fully armed and manned ironclad warship afloat in Mobile Bay. Buchanan's first instinct was to attack the growing Federal squadron outside the bay, but assured by the pilots that the Tennessee could not survive in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the admiral reluctantly concluded he must cede the initiative to his opponent and await Farragut's move.

That attack was delayed, first by the lengthy campaign for Vicksburg, and then by Major General Nathaniel P. Banks' expedition up the Red River in Louisiana. Nevertheless, by the spring of 1864, Farragut had his fleet concentrated off the entrance to Mobile Bay, and he waited now only for the four ironclads that Welles had promised him. The first appeared in late July, and a week later, two more arrived. Impatient by this time, Farragut had decided that he would attack the first week of August even without the last ironclad. But it arrived on the evening of 4 August in the form of the doomed Tecumseh, and Farragut gave orders to his squadron to prepare for battle.

The next morning the Northern-born Confederate, the first man ever to be named a Confederate admiral, and the Southern-born Yankee, the first man ever to be named an admiral of the U.S. Navy, would meet at last in battle.

Additional reading:

A number of biographies of David Farragut have been written. A good place to start is his semi-autobiographical The Life of David Glasgow Farragut: First Admiral of the United States Navy (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2009), which was brought to publication in 1879 by his son, Loyall, and contains a number of Farragut's letters. All subsequent biographers have relied heavily on this book for material about Farragut's early life and personal views. A readable modern biography of Farragut's Civil War years is Chester Hearn's Admiral David Glasgow Farragut: The Civil War Years (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998). For his early years, Charles Lee Lewis' David Glasgow Farragut, Admiral in the Making (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1941), though old, is still a good read.

There are fewer books on Franklin Buchanan. The only modern biography is my book; Confederate Admiral, The Life and Wars of Franklin Buchanan (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), which is available in a 2008 paperback edition. The official Civil War letters of both men are included in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922).

Craig L. Symonds is a professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the author or editor of 22 books including Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History (Oxford, 2005), which won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Prize, and Lincoln and his Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War (Oxford, 2008), which won the Barondess Prize, the Laney Prize, the Lyman Prize, and the Lincoln Prize for 2009.


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