On May 10 I lectured about the Battle of Midway to Old Dominion University’s Institute of Learning in Retirement. Over the course of a wonderful discussion, I assessed one of the U.S. commanders, Raymond Spruance, as “one of the greatest fleet commanders in our history.” Driving home, I recalled a conversation with the Bull Run CWRT about my evaluation of the greatest naval battle commanders of the Civil War and World War II.
After some consideration, I thought I’d share my list of the Top 5 Naval Battle Commanders in the history of the U.S. Navy. The sole criteria for inclusion is to have tactically commanded a fleet in battle.
Here they are:
5. George E. Dewey. His opportunistic victory at Manila Bay in May 1898 broke Spanish power in Asia and made the U.S. a force in Asia. A cool leader under fire and veteran of the Civil War, Dewey consciously modeled himself after David Farragut, to the point of asking himself at times “What would Farragut do?”
4. Oliver Hazard Perry. Built a fleet and led it to victory at Lake Erie in September 1813, securing naval dominance of the region. A determined planner and leader, during the course of the fighting he shifted his flag (via open boat) to bring up a reluctant brig, which action turned the battle. His postbattle dispatch “We have met the enemy and they are ours” is a part of U.S. Navy lore. Many cities have been named for him, including Perryville, Kentucky.
3. David Dixon Porter. Son of a naval officer and foster brother to David Farragut, Porter excelled at riverine warfare. He commanded a semi-independent bombardment fleet that helped reduce the forts guarding New Orleans, led fleets on the Mississippi, Red, and James Rivers, and assisted in the taking of Fort Fisher. He always handled his ships well, and made sure they provided maximum possible support to land forces. Arguably, U.S. Grant would not have taken Vicksburg without Porter’s fleet.
2. Raymond Spruance. Won two of the greatest victories in U.S. Navy history at Midway in 1942 and the Philippine Sea (Great Marianas Turkey Shoot) in 1944. He also held the fleet together under the mass kamikaze attacks off Okinawa. A calm and thoughtful officer with a fine strategic brain and good judgment, the modest Spruance shunned the spotlight. His Japanese opponents rated him their most skillful opponent on the high seas.
1. David G. Farragut. Arguably the greatest sailor in U.S. history, Farragut went to sea at age 9, had his first command at age 12, and died in 1870 (age 69) still on active duty. His father was Hispanic. Farragut’s victories at New Orleans and Mobile Bay were termed at the time as the greatest achievements in the history of the U.S. Navy, and both altered the Civil War’s course. His cry “Damn the torpedoes!” at Mobile Bay is today a part of the American lexicon.
The illustration at top is Louis Prang’s depiction of the Battle of Mobile Bay.
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