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Farragut, who became a midshipman at age 9, was the son of a Spaniard who fought in the Revolutionary War. (National Archives)
Adm. David Glasgow Farragut

From Boy Midshipman To Mobile Bay Hero, 'Old Salamander' Spent His Life Aboard Navy Ships

All the highest ranks in the Navy -- rear admiral, vice admiral, and admiral of the Navy -- were created for just one man, the inimitable David Glasgow Farragut, hero of the Battle of Mobile Bay and other sea encounters. Farragut's rise to the post of admiral in 1866 was the crowning moment in a career that began before he was a teenager and lasted for more than five decades.

Son of a Scots-Irish pioneer woman and a Spanish father, the Revolutionary War hero Jorge Farragut, young Farragut grew up hearing tales of sea adventure and derring-do. When his mother died, family friend Commodore David Porter adopted Farragut. Porter secured an appointment as midshipman for his 9-year-old charge. Cadets were educated and trained at sea -- the U.S. Naval Academy was not established until 1845 -- and before long, Midshipman Farragut was on the USS Essex.

During the War of 1812, the Essex sailed to South America, where the precocious Farragut took a captured British ship into Santiago, Chile. By all accounts, he conducted himself with calm courage during his ship's defeat. After this excitement, 45 years of routine naval duty followed.

At the start of the Civil War, Farragut was nearly 60, a naval captain living with his wife in Virginia. A Southerner by birth, Farragut nonetheless pledged his allegiance to the Union cause and was given command of a heavy fleet. His orders: to open the mouth of the Mississippi by taking New Orleans. This Farragut did in April 1862. For his accomplishments, on July 16 of that year he was made the first rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. He had already earned another title, "Old Salamander," when he ran his ships under heavy enemy fire between New Orleans' forts

Sixteen months later, he took the last Confederate stronghold on the Gulf of Mexico in the celebrated Battle of Mobile Bay. The heavily guarded bay entrance was filled with mines, then known as torpedoes. Farragut's cry of "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" is now the stuff of legend, but it was also good tactics. All but one of the fleet's 18 ships passed safely through the channel, and in August 1864, Mobile Bay's forts fell. "Old Salamander" returned to Union territory a hero.

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