Naval Officers Jump Ship

August 12, 1861/2011
Volume 2, Issue 34 (44 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Naval Officers Jump Ship

August 10, 1861. In his Naval History of the Civil War, Admiral David Dixon Porter reflected on the precarious state of the US Navy on the eve of war:

Admiral David Dixon Porter, June 8, 1813 -- February 13, 1891

Admiral David Dixon Porter, June 8, 1813 — February 13, 1891

“Some there were . . . — rebels at heart and purpose — after holding for several years previous to the war high positions in the administration preceding that of Mr. Lincoln, had done all they could to dispose of the Navy, so that it could not be used in the event of trouble between the North and the South. The object was to destroy all its resources, to cripple the navy yards, dismantle the ships or have them on distant stations, so as to render it impossible for the Navy to strike an effective blow; or, if possible, to throw the ships and Southern yards into the hands of the Secessionists.”[1]

Compounding this situation was the critical question of the dependability and loyalty of an officer corps with a disproportionally Southern orientation. The nature of this challenge became evident in January 1861 after Lieutenant J.R. Hamilton left his ship to return to his native South Carolina and join the incipient siege of Fort Sumter.

His resignation was dutifully accepted in Washington, the nineteenth-century equivalent of an honorable discharge, even after Hamilton issued a broadside from Charleston urging his fellow Southern officers to desert and “bring with you every ship and man you can, that we may use them against the oppressors of our liberties.”[2] Scores of resignations followed (many for spurious health reasons) and were largely approved without prejudice — often with a toast and a collegial farewell.

Porter recounts a particularly ironic sequence of events:

“A short time before Fort Sumter was fired upon, the Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard [Captain Franklin Buchanan] gave a large party at his headquarters, on the occasion of the marriage of his daughter, to which the President and his cabinet were invited. A number of disloyal officers were present, and the house was everywhere festooned with the American flag, even to the bridal bed; yet just after Sumter was fired on, the Commandant, including his new son-in-law [Lt. Julius E. Meiere, USMC], resigned their commissions and left the Washington Navy Yard to take care of itself.”[3]

Some officers, however, including New Orleans-born Porter (who along with his adoptive brother David Farragut would provide invaluable service to the Union throughout the war) had little stomach for this disloyalty. On board the US Sloop St Mary’s Captain Porter responded defiantly to Lt. Hamilton’s appeal:

“The Constitutional Government of the United States has entrusted me with the command of this beautiful ship, and before I will permit any other flag to fly at her peak than the Stars and Stripes, I will fire a pistol in her magazine and blow her up.”[4]

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

As soon as he was sworn into office, Lincoln’s new Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, moved quickly to staunch his hemorrhaging service. Right up to the attack on Fort Sumter, resignations had been steadily piling up. (Resignations momentarily fell off during the brief siege of Fort Sumter — suggesting a hedging of bets in case the rebellion should collapse.)  Responding to a new wave of resignations following the fort’s fall, Welles stopped accepting them and instead began issuing dismissals. A new loyalty oath was instituted, and finally, on August 10, 1861 the ultimate sanction was adopted — United States Army regulations were revised to include Article V,  Resignations of Officers, which is still in force today:

“No officer will be considered out of service on the tender of his resignation, until it shall have been duly accepted by the proper authority. Any officer who, having tendered his resignation, shall, prior to due notice of the acceptance of the same by the proper authority, and, without leave, quit his post or proper duties with the intent to remain permanently absent there from, shall be registered as a deserter, and punished as such.”[5]

But damage had been done. Out of a total of 1,554 regular naval officers, 373 of  had gone over to the Confederacy to create the nucleus of a new Southern navy. [6]

Lt. Hamilton’s call for mutinies, however, went unanswered. Not a single significant naval warship was seized intact or sailed into a rebel port. This outcome would have strategic and political consequences for the conduct of the war as loyal naval forces swiftly rallied to secure a handful of key forts along the southern coast — in Mobile Bay, Key West and Dry Tortugas.

These outposts would serve as critical logistical bases for the institution of a naval blockade of southern harbors and for successful military incursions into Louisiana and the Carolinas. These combined army/navy operations in 1862 were also a catalyst for tens of thousands of African-Americans living along those coasts to throw off their bonds, accelerating the eventual collapse of slavery in the South.

In 1909, M. R. Morgan, who served as a young artillery officer at Fortress Monroe during those early, pivotal months of 1861, boldly asserted that events would have turned out differently if the government had acted sooner to exercise more political will and pragmatism and tolerated less chivalry and collusion.

“We at Fort Monroe tried to persuade the officers with us who had southern affiliations to remain loyal . . . But the Government did nothing to aid our efforts . . . The Government was then struggling for its very life and those officers were going home to enter the Army of the Confederacy. . . . Had the Government arrested all officers resigning the war would have been but of short duration and thousands of lives North and South would have been spared.”[7]


[1] Admiral David D. Porter, Naval History of the Civil War, The Sherman Publishing Company, New York  1886, 27

[2] William S. Dudley, Going South: U.S. Navy Officer Resignations & Dismissals On the Eve of the Civil War, Naval Historical Foundation, Department Of The Navy–Naval Historical Center, Washington DC, 4

[3] Horatio Bateman, Biographies of Two Hundred and Fifty Distinguished National Men, John T. Giles & Co., New York 1871

[4] John S. C. Abbott, The History of the Civil War in America, Henry Bill, New York 1863, 85

[5] Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861, War Department, Washington, August 10, 1861

[6] Dudley, 13

[7]  M. R. Morgan, U. S. Army (retired), “A Glimpse of the Great War of the Rebellion,” Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States, Governors’ Island, 1909,  161-162

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1861

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