Lincoln's Tragic Admiral: The Life of Samuel Francis Du Pont.
Of the seemingly endless flood of books about the Civil War that are published each year, most deal with familiar battles, campaigns, and personalities. Except for the famous clash between the Union ironclad USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia in March 1862, the lesser-known naval side of the Civil War has drawn far less interest. Nevertheless, it remains fertile ground for historians.
A case in point is Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont, one of the pioneers of the modern US Navy, whose brilliant career was dashed in the wake of his failed attempt to capture Charleston from the sea in April 1863. Kevin Weddle, who is currently assigned to the Army War College, has written a revealing biography of du Pont that sheds important new light on the rise and fall of an undeservedly obscure military figure.
Born in 1803, the nephew of the founder of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, Samuel du Pont was enchanted by the US Navy's exploits during the War of 1812, and he went to sea as a midshipman at the tender age of 12 to begin a remarkable naval career. Without patronage, du Pont quietly learned his craft and rose steadily but unspectacularly through the ranks of the Navy to become one of its most innovative and respected officers.
In the summer of 1861 du Pont was given command of the largest fleet ever to set sail for battle under the banner of the Stars and Stripes. His South Atlantic Blockading Squadron played a key role in the Union blockade of the Confederacy, beginning with the capture of the important sanctuary and logistical base of Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861. It was the first major Union victory of the war and was followed by the successful blockade of Georgia and Florida. These exploits resulted in du Pont's promotion to rear admiral.
The epic engagement between the Monitor and the Virginia at Hampton Roads on 9 March 1862 led the Navy Department to place unjustifiably high hopes on the unproven potential of ironclad vessels. In April 1863, du Pont was ordered to lead a flotilla of nine ironclads to capture the greatest Confederate prize of all, Charleston. Although one of the Navy's foremost champions of technological modernization, du Pont recognized the ironclad's shortcomings and strongly opposed their utilization against heavily defended Charleston, arguing that an attack without the support of the Union Army was folly. His warnings went unheeded by the Navy Department in Washington.
Du Pont had to either carry out his flawed orders or resign. His dilemma vividly illustrates a common problem in a democracy, where civilian rule predominates but sometimes clashes with the judgment of the commander in the field who has a better perspective of the mission. Although he dutifully carried out his orders, history's first all-ironclad attack failed disastrously when "the fires of hell were turned on the Union fleet," as C. R. P. Rogers, du Pont's staff captain, later wrote.
The Union failure to capture Charleston was doomed from the start. It bears a striking resemblance to the disastrous attempt orchestrated by Winston Churchill in early 1915 to thrust Royal Navy warships through the Dardanelles to capture Constantinople without the support of ground troops on the Gallipoli peninsula to neutralize the deadly Turkish fortifications guarding the straits.
Failed military operations invariably demand accountability, and history is replete with examples of commanders who have been held responsible for and paid the price for the misjudgments of their superiors. In his report to Congress, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles made Samuel du Pont the scapegoat for Charleston by concealing du Pont's letters warning of the pitfalls of an all-naval attack. As a matter of honor, when neither the Navy nor Congress cleared him of responsibility, he asked to be relieved of his command. Almost overnight du Pont went from naval hero to ignominy, his career effectively over after nearly 50 years of dedicated service to his country.
As the author notes, "du Pont's story is one of the most heartbreaking of the Civil War." Twenty-four years after du Pont's death in 1865, Congress finally redressed the injustice of Charleston by erecting a statue that for many years was the centerpiece of Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle, named in his honor. Nonetheless, Samuel du Pont has been virtually overlooked in the plethora of biographies of better-known figures of the Civil War.
Kevin Weddle's superbly researched, insightful biography not only chronicles du Pont's remarkable life, but also exposes the deceitfulness of Welles and his deputy, Gustavus Fox, who covered up their accountability for the failure to capture Charleston, which remained a Confederate stronghold until Sherman's army finally captured it in 1865. "Du Pont," notes the author, "was a warrior, a diplomat, a thoughtful strategist, a confirmed reformer, and an exceptional and supremely confident seaman." His contributions to the making of the modern US Navy included his advocacy of steam power and the transformation of the Navy from wood to iron ships. Samuel du Pont embodied the very best that America has produced in her officers and commanders. To his credit, he gave far more to his country than it gave back to him in his lifetime.
Lincoln's Tragic Admiral is both the biography of one of the Civil War's most underrated military figures and a compelling history of the naval side of the war. It is also the auspicious debut of a historian and biographer who deserves to be widely read by anyone interested in military history and the lessons it offers us.
Reviewed by Carlo D'Este (LTC, USA Ret.), author of Patton: A Genius For War and Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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