The American Viking: David Glasgow Farragut

David Farragut (It appears he is missing a button on his uniform or didn’t button it) Courtesy Library of Congress

On July 5, 1801 James Glasgow Farragut was born in Tennessee to Jordi ‘George’ and Elizabeth Shine. Jordi was a Spanish immigrant and had been a merchant captain. He had gone on to serve in the American Revolution and marry Elizabeth Shine. James Farragut later changed his first name to David.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth died in 1808 of yellow fever (Jordi would die in 1817 virtually unknown to Farragut). With her loss also came the scattering of the family. Unable to juggle his family and business the elder Farragut had his children sent to live with other families. James went to live with Commander David Porter, Jr., at the commander’s request. In Porter’s care, young Farragut would be trained for service in the United States Navy. At the tender age of 9, Farragut was a midshipman. He and Porter soon found themselves aboard the USS Essex  preparing to go to war with Britain. In June 1812 the United States declared war on Britain. If Farragut thought he would be coddled by his guardian and commander, Porter, he had another thing coming. Porter showed no favoritism but treated his crew fairly.

At 12 years old Farragut found himself the prize master of a whaler, the Alexander Barclay. Her civilian captain was in charge of navigation, but the orders were all up to the boy who had to take the ship to Valparaiso, keeping up with the Essex. Still the whaler’s captain wasn’t going to relinquish command of his ship so easily. When Farragut gave an order, the captain threatened to shoot the man who carried it out. When the captain went below to fetch his firearms, Farragut warned that if he came up with the weapons the captain would find himself thrown overboard. That answered the question of who was in charge.

USS Essex Courtesy Wikipedia

Because the Essex was wreaking havoc for the British (it was taking a healthy number of their ships), two warships were sent out to stop the venerable vessel. Unfortunately, due to winds that worked in favor of the British during battle, the Essex was badly damaged. Much of the crew had been killed or wounded in the grueling battle. Among the prisoners taken were Porter and Farragut, who were later paroled. By the time Farragut’s parole had ended, so had the War of 1812. Following it was war with Algeria and Farragut found himself back at sea. It wasn’t a particularly exciting stint.

By 1820 Farragut was back in the US to take an exam in hopes of a  promotion. After taking the exam the following year, Farragut had a hard time getting promoted. Despite his early start in the navy, Farragut was in his 20s and still a midshipman. In 1824 he married Susan Merchant. Sadly, she would die in 1840 having suffered from neuralgia during their entire marriage. In 1843 Farragut remarried to Virginia Loyall, a day before the 3rd anniversary of Susan’s passing. Farragut had, by this time, been promoted to commander. The next year Farragut’s only child was born, a son by the name of Loyall.

Despite the adoration he would receive in later life, Farragut had his enemies. One of which was Commodore Matthew Perry. Farragut believed Perry had made a mistake in an episode during the Mexican War. Perry was furious and did all in his power to ensure Farragut didn’t take part in the war. When Farragut and his crew came down with yellow fever aboard the Saratoga, Perry would not relent and allow the ship to leave. He kept them later than other ships, endangering not only Farragut’s life but also the crew’s, since the couldn’t get the much needed medical treatment (Note: Given the odd treatments at that time, I don’t think the crew was missing much). In early 1848 Farragut was free of Perry. About six years later Farragut was out West, building a navy yard in California. He was promoted to captain in 1855.

Fort Sumter Under Attack Courtesy Wikipedia

With the Civil War came the question of loyalty. Farragut had been born in the South and at the time of the war the sailor had been living in Norfolk, Virginia. But he was as loyal to the Union as they get. Following the fall of Fort Sumter, Farragut found himself shunned by US naval officers who had resigned to join the Confederacy. When Virginia seceded Farragut decided it was time to leave. He along with his family fled the South.

In 1862 Farragut took command of the West Gulf Blockade Squadron. He was to capture New Orleans, which he would indeed go on to do. After making his way past forts St. Philip and Jackson, Farragut sailed up the Mississippi River with his fleet. He arrived in New Orleans on April 25, 1862. The surrender took some doing though. The mayor insisted that Confederate general Lovell would have to surrender the city, as New Orleans had been under martial law. But Lovell was withdrawing his troops, and said it was up to the civilian officials. So began the long and drawn out negotiations between Farragut and the mayor. By the 29th forts St. Philips and Jackson had surrendered to Union forces and on May 1st, General Benjamin Butler arrived with troops to occupy New Orleans. The city had been taken.

Lashed to the Shrouds Courtesy Library of Congress

On August 5, 1864, at the Battle of Mobile Bay, Rear Admiral Farragut (he had been made the United States’ first vice admiral in 1862) and his fleet tried to pass Fort Gaines. To get a better view during the battle, Farragut climbed up in the rigging of his ship, the USS Hartford, much to the horror of his crew. Captain Percival Drayton, afraid Farragut would fall, had the sixty-three year old admiral lashed to the rigging. Some time later the Brooklyn stopped ahead of the Hartford. There were ‘torpedoes’ further on. Farragut wanted to know what was the matter and when he heard the answer he shouted something to the effect of hang the torpedoes and to proceed full speed ahead. In the end Mobile Bay was a victory for the Union, Fort Morgan surrendering on August 23rd.

By December Farragut was back at his home in New York and completely exhausted. That same month he was promoted to vice-admiral and in 1866 to admiral. After the war he and his wife visited Europe. He didn’t live very long to enjoy peacetime. David Glasgow Farragut died of a heart attack on August 14, 1870.

Source: Duffy, James. Lincoln’s Admiral: The Civil War Campaigns of David Farragut

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30 thoughts on “The American Viking: David Glasgow Farragut

  1. Incredible career. I’m always struck by the fact that many of these early American people we read about lost loved ones at early ages due to disease. Nice summation of Lincoln’s admiral!

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    • Yep. While reading about his early life, Farragut reminded me of Stonewall Jackson. They led tough lives, but look how they turned out! Real fighters, they were.

      Thanks for your comment!

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    • In those terms children do have it pretty easy nowadays, then before. And Farragut didn’t have much if any formal schooling, but look what he accomplished. Thanks for your comment!

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  2. Interesting post. And a cogent comment about how different young boys are treated today and what’s expected of them compared to 150-200 years ago.

    Can you imagine a 12-year-old aboard a ship lying in his berth and telling the captain he wasn’t going to do his chores because “he didn’t feel like it?” The call would go out for the cat-o-nine-tails before you could count to 10.

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    • Yes. It would definitely give him something to think about while nursing his wounds. But I wonder would the boy actually learn from something like that or would his rebellion get the better of him? I know of a couple of kids like that. Thanks for your comment!

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    • Yep, he deserved it. Hi ‘brother’, David Porter’s son, seemed to be very jealous about Farragut. He tried to make him look bad to officials back in Washington. I don’t know if Farragut knew or not, but he didn’t act like he did. Thanks for reading!

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  3. Kids had to grow up quickly in the 19th century, didn’t they. There’s a square in the middle of downtown DC called Farragut Square, after David. I never knew his story, though. Thanks for the insight.

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    • Really, I hadn’t heard of it. Thanks for the info.

      Given Farragut’s Southern heritage but Northern sympathies I wonder if he has anything named after him in the South?

      Thanks for your comment!

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  4. Thanks for the fascinating post. I assume this is the guy who gave his name to two DC metro stations? Wish I’d known his story when I lived in DC. But what caught my eye in your post was the reference to a US war in Algeria in 1815 – I’d never heard of this one, but sure enough a quick google search proved quite an eye-opener. So much happening in Europe around this time, I guess we kept our eye off the ball for a while.

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  5. I, too, first thought of the Metro stations in D.C.. I believe Farragut has a circle in D. C. named after him. One of these days, I shall visit all the circles an figure out their place in history.
    Oscar

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  6. Missed this post, for which I blame WP. But why was he called a viking??

    Amazing that he started on board ship at such a young age – and was still there at a ripe old age. Total opposite to our aims today, put off work as late as possible and retire as quickly as we can.

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    • That’s what a New York newspaper called him, “the valiant actions of the American Viking, Farragut, on board the Hartford, which have won for him a name not inferior to the naval commanders of any nation of the present day”.

      In regards to his staying with ships, I found that amazing too. Imagine being sixty some years old and climbing up in the rigging to get a better view of the battle. I believe he also, on his birthdays, would do a handspring. If he could no longer do that, then he would consider himself old.

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  7. Thanks again for a beautiful post on such an interesting life! I have a 12 year old daughter and can’t in a million years imagine a kid of her age taking on so much responsibility!

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