A Civil War Biography

William David Porter

He invented a less than successful exploding shell and spent his time adjusting light house deployments along the coast. Known as "Dirty Bill" he was court-martialed for a long list of charges then placed on the retired list in September 1855. He was reinstated in 1859 and returned to active duty with the rank of Commander.

The beginning of the Civil War found Porter commanding the sloop of war "Saint Mary's" stationed in the Pacific. To prove his somewhat suspected loyalty he divorced his Southern-born second wife. He was assigned to the Western Gunboat Flotilla in the Mississippi and given command, on 4 October 1861, of the converted gunboat "New Era" which he renamed the "Essex" after the ship his father commanded during the War of 1812.

At Fort Henry the "Essex" was hit by the fort's batteries and its boiler was pierced. Porter was blown from his ship and so severely burned that he would never fully recover. The "Essex" was sent to St. Louis fro repairs which were completed at the enormous cost of more than $90,000. He ran the batteries between Cairo and New Orleans, took part in an attack on Vicksburg, tried to take credit for destroying the rebel ram "Arkansas" which actually was scuttled by its own crew near Baton Rouge, and assisted in the attack on Port Hudson.

He was promoted to commodore to date from 16 July 1862, but forced to give up the "Essex" in September 1862 and sent to New York to answer charges from Charles H. Davis concerning a letter Porter wrote the department to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles who described Porter as a courageous, daring, troublesome, reckless officer. He would not again see service afloat. Porter spent the rest of his service on various commissions. He died in New York on 1 May 1864. Porter had two sons who fought for the Confederacy. Admiral David G. Farragut was Porter's foster brother (although some sources state half-brother), his father having taken in the future hero of Mobile Bay when Farragut was nine. Fitz-John Porter was a cousin.

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