The Great Naval Leaders

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.

Share your opinion in the comments below.

9 Responses to The Great Naval Leaders

  1. Interesting subject ! Farragut’s father was a Spaniard not “Hispanic.” Si ?

    1. The precise definition of Hispanic is: of or relating to Spain or to Spanish-speaking countries, especially those of Latin America.

      1. Agreed but just being precise. The Spaniards dislike being lumped together with their New World former subjects.

  2. LeRoy Fitch is a naval commander who has never received the attention he deserves. Not many naval officers can say they ran John Hunt Morgan down. His flagship, USS Moose, was nobody’s idea of a line of battle ship. In fact, there is no known photograph of the Moose. The fleet of timber clad gunboats he commanded was in active service almost every day of the river war. It was Fitch that made the transfer of troops from St Louis to Nashville possible. With the addition of a heavy hitter, USS Neosho, to his command Fitch opened the Battle of Nashville by pounding confederate batteries in coordination with cavalry sweeping in from landward. It was Fitch who kept the riverine lifeline open for years, despite a steady drumbeat of attacks. I would nominate him as the eleventh man on Chris’ list.

  3. This is a list which is hard to debate but I’d slot Thomas Macdonough with Perry or even in place of him. Perry gets the ink for his quote but Macdonough’s victory at Lake Champlain had, IMHO, bigger strategic implications – and he won in part because of a brilliant tactical decision he made using his flagship.

    1. Excellent point, John. Macdonough would be 6th on this list. I thought long and hard about Macdonough vs. Perry, and finally took Perry on points. What tipped the balance was the boat ride during the battle and the fact that Perry beat a better fleet (at least in terms of training) than Macdonough. Again, it was very close.

  4. For pure courage, my vote goes to Capt. Henry Walke during the Civil War. A Virginian by birth, he stayed true to the United States. Even before Lincoln asked for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, Walke displayed his courage. He escaped Pensacola, Fla., aboard a commandeered ship after that port’s naval yard was turned over to Rebels. Sailing to New York with loyal sailors, he returned to the Pensacola area with supplies and Union troops for Fort Pickens.

    He exchanged intense fire with Confederate artillery during Grant’s attack on Belmont and did the same at Forts Henry and Donelson. He volunteered to test Island No. 10’s defenses by running past its guns under furious fire. His success led other ironclads to pass the redoubt also and eventually led to it’s capture. His ironclad was heavily damaged by the CSA Arkansas during an early, unsuccessful attempt at capturing Vicksburg and later participated in running past the cannons of Vicksburg in Grant’s successful campaign to get below that city. Walke was a hell of a warrior.

    1. From Volume 23 Page 269 of the O.R. Navies:

      Letter from Major-General Grant, U. S. Army, to the Secretary of the Navy, commending Captain Henry Waike, U. S. Navy.
      CORINTH, Miss., July 28, 1862

      SIR: Understanding that promotions are to be made in the Navy for meritorious conduct, permit me to recommend Captain Henry Walke, who has served on the Western waters with distinction since the beginning of our troubles.

      Captain Walke has shown himself ever ready for any service the vessel commanded by him might be called for, and, if a landsman may judge, has shown both skill and personal bravery in all cases.

      He served in guarding our frontier all the time I commanded at Cairo (frontier of loyalty), protected our debarkation and reembarkation at Belmont, besides doing good service in repelling the attack made upon our troops while embarking on that occasion; commanded a gunboat at the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, and was the commander selected to run the gantlet of the rebel batteries at Island No. 10. which resulted in such advantages to our arms.

      In every instance Captain Walke has proven himself worthy of the confidence bestowed upon him, and I hope will receive the reward of his merit.

      I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant, U. S. GRANT, Major- General.


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