Monday, April 22, 2019

Review - "Farragut's Captain: Percival Drayton, 1861-1865" by Peter Barratt

[Farragut's Captain: Percival Drayton, 1861-1865 by Peter Barratt (Author/Lulu, 2018). Softcover, maps, photos, drawings, notes, bibliography. Pages main/total:xv,138/187. ISBN:978-1-4834-8795-3. $16.27]

Civil War naval subcommanders do not receive nearly the levels of notoriety and attention that their army equivalents do in the literature. Union admirals such as David G. Farragut, David Dixon Porter, Andrew H. Foote, and others could not have achieved their enduring fame without the talented professional core of senior captains that carried out their orders and managed for the nation its indispensable naval yards and other key onshore installations. Among the most accomplished of these senior captains was Percival Drayton. The native Charlestonian Drayton was born in 1812 at the beginning of one major American war and died in August 1865 soon after the conclusion of another. A relatively slim volume that concentrates its attention on the Civil War period, Peter Barratt's Farragut's Captain: Percival Drayton, 1861-1865 is the first standalone biography of the officer to be published.

The book begins with a very brief overview of the ideological schism that emerged within the Drayton family during the Jacksonian Era, one that led Percival's staunchly anti-Nullification father to leave South Carolina for Philadelphia. Problems and divisions multiplied during the secession crisis. Drayton's place of birth definitely raised the risk that his personal and professional loyalty would be doubted by the U.S. Navy (these were quickly dispelled though) and the Civil War further divided his already troubled family (Percival's older brother, Thomas, would become a Confederate brigadier general).

In less than 150 pages of narrative, Barratt recounts Drayton's rather illustrious Civil War career, which began at the Philadelphia Naval Yard before moving offshore to serve in the South Atlantic and West Gulf blockading squadrons. Under flag officer (and later admiral) Samuel F. Du Pont, Drayton commanded ships in action at Port Royal and Charleston and engaged in extensive coastal reconnaissance operations and blockade enforcement. Quickly becoming Du Pont's right hand man, Drayton assisted in the capture of Fernandina and Jacksonville in Florida, and he provided naval support for the army's ill-conceived attack at Secessionville. In all of these actions, his ship handling skills and attentiveness to duty impressed his superiors.

Taking a much-needed break from the sea, Drayton then transferred to the Brooklyn Naval Yard to see to the arming and outfitting of the navy's new ocean-going ironclad fleet. Assigned to command the Passaic, Drayton returned to Charleston and participated in Du Pont's failed 1863 naval assault on Charleston harbor. This ship-versus-shore action provided further proof, which Drayton already suspected from his earlier test bombardments of Fort McAllister, that Monitor-class vessels and their descendents alone did not have the firepower in their two-gun turrets to simply blast their way into heavily defended southern ports and harbors. Regardless, Drayton's reputation did not suffer from the failure.

Again taking a hiatus from sea service, Drayton was appointed ordnance superintendent at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. There he renewed his friendship with Admiral Farragut, who arranged for Drayton to join his Gulf command as fleet captain for planned operations against Mobile. Aboard the Hartford, Drayton played an important role as the admiral's chief subordinate during the successful attack on Mobile Bay. Returning north that December. Drayton then spent the balance of the war performing various shore assignments, including court duties he found distasteful. He died suddenly in August 1865 after developing a bowel obstruction.

Basing his biographical narrative heavily on Drayton's own letters and papers, along with those of a core of friends and admirers in the service, Peter Barratt's study is largely celebratory in nature. Even so, the book makes a strong case that Drayton deserves a spot in the top tier of the Union Navy's second-ranking line of officers. Repaying the trust and professional respect of admirals Du Pont and Farragut on multiple occasions, Drayton was consistently appointed to posts of high responsibility during many of the war's most consequential naval campaigns. However, Barratt does occasionally point out some potential flaws. For example, throughout his Civil War career Drayton seemed very committed to interservice rivalry and rarely had anything good to say about his association with the army or its leaders. This suggests that he might have proved to be a very poor candidate for leading any important naval expedition that required close cooperation with the army.

A quick read, Farragut's Captain is a fine account of the Civil War service of a career naval officer highly deserving of greater historical recognition. Recommended.

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