The Human Aspect of the Civil War Navies

In a recent talk to a group about my new book, Faces of the Civil War Navies, an audience member approached me with a question shortly before I stepped up to the podium. He politely inquired which aspect of the navy I’d talk about, Brown Water (rivers) or Deep Water (seas).

This is a popular framework to discuss the navy and a perfectly reasonable inquiry. My answer, however, was neither. I would speak about the human aspect.

The story of the war on the waters never quite stirred the American soul. The New York Herald noted in an 1895 review of the first in the 30-volume Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, “That branch of the service has never had its full share of credit for its work in the suppression of the rebellion, owing, perhaps, to the more popular interest in the army, which came so much more closely home to the people.”

And yet sailors on both sides of the conflict fought with determination and patriotism equal to their counterparts on land. Some were skilled merchant mariners and fishermen. Others were country farmers and city clerks with no obvious connection to water. An elite cadre was educated at the U.S. Naval Academy.

I’ve spent the better part of the last four years researching the lives and personal narratives of a representative group of Union and Confederate navy men. I came away from the experience with newfound respect for these citizen sailors who all too often paid the highest price to defend their country.

One of the men I wrote about in the book, Ben Porter, was a talented federal lieutenant. He was that rare leader who men would follow to their death. Fierce and fearless, his ability to inspire and rally his command in the heat of battle verged on the supernatural. He was the beau ideal of a naval officer.

Young Porter attracted the notice of his superiors in early 1862 during the fighting along the North Carolina coast at Roanoke. He insisted on participating in the ground fighting and took command of a battery of howitzers during a federal assault against Confederate forces on Feb. 7. To keep pace with the infantry, his crew dragged the guns with ropes, paused to fire a single round, and then grabbed the ropes and repeated the exercise. “I advanced the pieces after each fire until they were in the open space directly in front of the rebel battery, where we made a stand under a most destructive fire from the rebel infantry,” Porter stated in his after action report. The battle was a Union victory.

He was tapped for bigger and riskier assignments that culminated in the Jan. 15, 1865, attack against Fort Fisher. Its rebel garrison protected nearby Wilmington, N.C., the last major Confederate port along the Atlantic. Porter, by now a member of the staff of Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter, was a distant relation to his senior commander.

Young Porter was killed during the fight and his death widely mourned by the navy.

Perhaps no officer mourned his loss more than the Rear Adm. Porter. “I have seen my official family cut down one after another, and my heart is so sad that I feel as if I could never smile again,” he confessed in a letter to Porter’s grieving parents back home in New York. He added, “Among all the young men who have been on my staff no one had my entire confidence more than your lost son—lost only for a time. You will find him again where all is peace and joy. I would like to drink of the waters of Lethe and forget the last four years.”

Porter’s tragic story exemplifies the valor and courage of those who fought and died for freedom. It is fitting to recall his service as the Navy prepares to mark the 241st anniversary of its founding on Oct. 13, 1775.

It is also a reminder to current and future generations of Americans that the history of the Civil War is the very human stories of its soldiers—and sailors.


Ronald S. Coddington is a visual journalist whose work has appeared in USA Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the San Jose Mercury News. He writes a monthly column, "Faces of War," for The Civil War News and is the author of Faces of the Civil War: An Album of Union Soldiers and Their Stories, African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album, Faces of the Confederacy: An Album of Southern Soldiers and Their Stories, and Faces of the Civil War Navies: An Album of Union and Confederate Sailors.


Photo credit: Carte de visite by George Gardner Rockwood (1832-1911) of New York City, about 1864. Collection of Orton Begner.