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David D. Porter Papers

An inventory of his papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: EFB
Date: April 1971

Biographical History

David Dixon Porter was a United States naval officer. He assisted in blockade operations during the American Civil War, served as superintendent of the United States Naval Academy, and retired with the rank of Admiral.

David D. Porter was born on 8 June 1813 in Chester, Pennsylvania, a son of David and Evalina (Anderson) Porter. His father was an officer in the United State Navy who resigned in 1826 to take command of the Mexican Navy. His paternal grandfather was a Revolutionary naval officer.

Porter served under his father as a midshipman in the Mexican Navy and was captured by the Spanish in a naval engagement. He returned to the United States in 1829 and became a midshipman in the American navy. During his second cruise in the Mediterranean he met George Ann Patterson, the daughter of the commander of the ship on which he was serving and whom he would later marry.

From 1835, when he received his commission as a passed midshipman, to 1841, when he became a lieutenant, he served with the Coast Survey, making hydrographic studies along the Atlantic coast. After serving in the Mediterranean and off the coast of South America, he returned to Washington for additional surveying work. In 1846 he undertook a secret mission to evaluate conditions in the newly independent Republic of Santo Domingo prior to its recognition by the United States. The outbreak of the Mexican War prompted him to apply for an appointment in the action, but he was assigned instead to recruitment duty in New Orleans. He subsequently saw action at Tabasco, where he captured a fort with a small landing party, for which success he was rewarded with his first command.

At the war's end, after a few months at the Naval Observatory in Washington, he rejoined the Coast Survey. He resigned in 1849 and took command of the merchant steamer Panama on a voyage to the Pacific, and, after his return, commanded the privately owned mail steamer Georgia on runs to Havana. He was later employed in Australia, commanding the Golden Age between Sydney and Melbourne.

In 1855 he returned to the American navy and commanded the steamship Supply on two voyages to the Mediterranean. From 1857 to 1860 he was assigned to the Portsmouth (N.H.) navy yard. An offer from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company to serve as captain of the largest American passenger steamship, then about to be built, tempted Porter to leave his navy assignment, but in March 1861 he was assigned to command the Powhatan on a special mission to the besieged Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida, and he decided to remain with the navy.

For the next few months he engaged in blockade duty at Pensacola, as well as off Mobile and at the mouth of the Mississippi River. During this time he was promoted to commander. He was active in planning the attack on New Orleans and recommended David G. Farragut, his adopted brother, for command of the operation. Porter commanded the mortar fleet that attacked Forts St. Philip and Jackson, forcing the surrender of these forts that guarded the river approaches to the city. The capture of New Orleans opened the Mississippi River to the United States Navy, and Porter's mortar fleet assisted Farragut's ships when they steamed upriver past the Vicksburg batteries. In October 1862 he was appointed commander of the Mississippi Squadron with the rank of acting rear admiral.

In January 1863 he assisted in the capture of Arkansas Post, an action which made possible General Ulysses Grant's campaign against Vicksburg. In the subsequent campaign, Porter's ships aided Grant in his futile attempts to approach Vicksburg from the North and allowed his circumvention of the city and the eventual landing of the army to the South. With the surrender of Vicksburg, Porter gained for the Union army control of the Mississippi River. In recognition of his successes on the Mississippi, Porter was made a rear admiral.

In 1864 he participated in the abortive Red River expedition into northwestern Louisiana. He was then put in command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and was assigned to capture Fort Fisher, which guarded Wilmington, North Carolina, and protected the last open supply line by sea available to the Confederate armies. The surrender of the fort and the capture of Wilmington was accomplished in January 1865.

After the war, from 1865 to 1869, Porter served as superintendent of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, and was instrumental in instituting changes in its curriculum and teaching methods. During 1866 and 1867 he undertook a mission to Santo Domingo for the purpose of securing the cession or lease of Samana Bay to the United States, but he was unsuccessful. In 1866 he was promoted to vice-admiral.

President Grant appointed him as an advisor to the Secretary of the Navy in 1869. By organizing boards of inspection for the fleet, beginning the repair of many vessels, and insisting that steam-powered ships also be equipped with sail, he demonstrated his effective control of the Navy Department. In 1870, after the death of Farragut, Porter was given the rank of admiral. From 1877 until his death he was head of the naval Board of Inspection, but he steadily lost power in the Navy Department. During this period he made annual reports to the Secretary of the Navy criticizing the state of the fleet and insisting on the construction of a new navy, but his counsel was seldom heeded. He died in Washington, DC, on 13 February 1891.

For a more detailed biographical sketch, see the article "David Dixon Porter" in Dictionary of American Biography. A recent full-length biography is Noel Gerson's Yankee Admiral (1968).

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The David Dixon Porter Collection contains sixty-nine items of correspondence and memorabilia relating to the naval career and business affiliations of David Dixon Porter. The inclusive dates of the collection are 1806-1890, with the years 1870 to 1878 the most heavily represented.

Correspondence, dated from 1806 to 1890, amounts to sixty-five letters. Thirty-eight of these (among them one typescript copy) are letters from David Dixon Porter. There is one incoming letter to David Dixon Porter, and there are two letters addressed to David Porter, father of David Dixon Porter. An index of the correspondence is appended to this inventory.

A group of some three dozen letters written between 1870 and 1879 discusses the uses and capabilities of a new type of screw propeller for torpedo boats: Fowler's Patent Propeller, also known as the Fowler Wheel. Porter actively promoted this new propulsion system, and these letters reflect his efforts to convince the Navy of its worth and his role in its subsequent tests by the Navy. Correspondents, besides Porter, include William H. Mallory, president of the American Propeller Company, and Joseph R. Hawley, a Hartford newspaper editor (later a senator from Connecticut) and a stockholder in the company. Other letters contain business correspondence of Mallory and Hawley, particularly during the years 1878 to 1880, and reflect their attempts to sell the system to the British Navy and to establish a British company for its manufacture. Correspondence between Hawley and Sir William H. Stewart, a British admiral, and Sir Edward James Reed, a naval architect, concerns the testing of the system and the chairmanship of the proposed manufacturing company. There is also a letter to Mallory from Simon Stevens, president of the Tehuantepec Railway, who sought to purchase a steam launch for use at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico and suggested one equipped with the Fowler Wheel recommended to him by Porter.

The earliest items in the collection are two letters dated 1806, from a United States counsel in Leghorn, Italy to David Porter (1780-1843), father of David Dixon Porter, while the senior Porter was commanding the schooner Enterprise in the Mediterranean. They concern another United States ship and the issuance of travel permits for Porter's officers by the town government of Leghorn.

Other items in the correspondence include a letter of 12 April 1863, in which Porter describes to Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, the shortage of manpower in the Mississippi Squadron, and two letters of 1866 (during Porter's tenure as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy) to Rear Admiral Charles A. Davis. Three 1867 letters in photocopy form relate to an investigation by Gideon Welles into charges of misuse of funds against O.K. Bernbaum, an acting ship's master. In a letter of 1874 the sculptor Franklin Simmons describes the plans for a monument, possibly celebrating the Union capture of New Orleans. An 1882 David Dixon Porter letter to his cousin, Fitz John Porter, summarizes congressional developments in the long attempt to clear the cousin's name after a celebrated court-martial for failure to carry out orders of General John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862. Other Porter letters include one of 1889 in response to an offer to sell an autograph letter of the naval engineer John Ericsson, and an 1890 letter in which he reminisces about his capture of the fort at Tabasco during the Mexican War.

Memorabilia consists of two engraved portraits captioned "D. Porter" and "David D. Porter," a photocopy of a one-page biography of David Dixon Porter with corrections in an unknown hand, and holograph minutes, taken by William H. Mallory, of an 1874 meeting of the board of directors of the American Press and Clasp Company.

Arrangement of the Collection

Correspondence is arranged chronologically. An Index to correspondence may be found at the end of this document.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Porter, David D. (David Dixon), 1813-1891.

Corporate Bodies

United States. -- Navy -- Officers.
United States. -- Navy.


Admirals -- United States.


United States -- History, Naval -- To 1900.

Genres and Forms




Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

David D. Porter Papers
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Two letters to David Porter and a portrait labeled "D. Porter," purchase, 1965.
Twenty-one letters from David Dixon Porter or relating to him, and an engraved portrait, purchases, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969.
Correspondence between David Dixon Porter and William H. Mallory, and related items, including three contemporary copies of letters exchanged between Gideon Welles and O.K. Bernbaum, purchase, 1970.
Typescript copy of a Porter letter to President Grant, transfer from the Carnegie Library, 1970.
David D. Porter letters dated 23 June 1882 and 28 May 1885, transfers from the Theodorus Bailey Collection, 1971.

Table of Contents



Index to correspondence


Index to correspondence