Sunday, June 8, 2014

Happy 201st Birthday, Adm. David Dixon Porter

Happy 201st Birthday, Adm. David Dixon Porter

Admiral David Dixon Porter would be 201 today.   The storied Union naval officer and Civil War hero is represented by both a counter and a card in my strategic naval game of the Civil War – Rebel Raiders on the High Seas. Judicious use of USN Card No. 2 “David Dixon Porter & His Little Mortar Boats” can greatly ease the Union Navy’s attacks into Confederate river and ocean ports.

Porter is USN Card No. 2 because he was the second officer to attain the rank of rear admiral in the Union Navy.  David Glasgow Farragut was the first – and hence he is on USN Card No. 1 (“Damn the Torpedoes…Full Speed Ahead”) – a little inside joke of mine.  Porter was also the adopted brother of Farragut, and their sibling rivalry was infamous.  Farragut also appears on USN Card 33 – “The Grand Fleet,” a card which allows the Union to stack 10 warships instead of the usual maximum of 6.  Porter, alas, being the junior of the two admirals/brothers, is limited to the lesser number.

Porter, however, made many contributions to the war effort and is also remembered by USN Card 25 – “The Black Terror.”  Although not listed on the card, it was his idea to build the phony ironclad that so frightened the Rebels on the river.

Porter and his mortar boats were vital to the Union victory at New Orleans (where he served under his elder brother), and to the first naval attack on Vicksburg (where he again served at his brother’s side).  Porter was promoted to a command of his own, leading the Western Gunboat Flotilla – renamed the Mississippi River Squadron – during the Vicksburg campaign.  He was named “acting” rear admiral in recognition of his role in its capture. 

The importance of Vicksburg is noted in Rebel Raiders, as it is one of the critical victory cities the Union needs to take to win the game.

Porter also took part in the abortive Red River Campaign (which is represented in the game by CSN Card 76 – “Red River Fiasco”).  It is a Rebel card because it was such an ill-conceived plan that no Union player in his right mind would willingly attempt it.

Porter redeemed himself by saving his fleet from disaster on the Red River (thanks to an Army engineer who built a damn to float his ironclads over the rapids to safety) and again by leading the naval forces that pounded and helped capture Fort Fisher in January 1865. 

After the war, Porter went on to become superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.   In 1866 Farragut became the nation’s first full admiral, and Porter became its first vice admiral – and when Farragut died, Porter was promoted, becoming the nation’s second full admiral.   He died in 1891 at the age of 77.

Monday, June 2, 2014

150 Years Ago June 3: The Slaughter at Cold Harbor

150 Years Ago June 3: The Slaughter at Cold Harbor

The Battle of Cold Harbor began on May 31 when General Philip Sheridan's Union cavalry seized a keycrossroads between Bethesda Church and the Chickahominy River.  Confederate General Robert E. Lee responded with a series of counterattacks as Cold Harbor was astride his line of communications back to Richmond.  Both armies continued to hurl men at each other for days along a front that grew to seven miles as they kept attempting to turn each other's flanks.

On the morning of June 3 and impatient General U.S. Grant tried to bludgeon his way through the Rebel line with a massive human assault.  Three Corps (IInd, VIth, XVIIIth) were packed tight into a block and as the sun rose they moved forward - into a hell of Confederate fire.  In one 20-minute period over 7,000 Union soldiers fell; most of them new or green recruits from the heavy artillery regiments that Grant had ordered to leave their fortress positions around Washington and take up rifles.  The assault collapsed, many of the survivors taking cover behind the bodies of the fallen.

Grant, who rarely responded to charges that he was a" murdering officer" and for whom the "butcher's bill" was part of his war of attrition strategy, is on record as saying that he "always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made."   After the attack, Grant changed his strategy, first going to a war of trenches and then beginning his grand turning movement toward the James, a wide swing that would eventually bring the armies back face to face at Petersburg, whre they would remained locked in trench warfare until war's end.

Although primarily a game of naval strategy, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas also replicates the land war.  Many of the key figures in the land campaigns, including Grant (USN Card 8), Sheridan (USN Card 11) and Lee (CSN Card 60) are in the game, and many of the tactics, events and blunders of that war are similarly represented, among them a Cold Harbor card (CSN Card 105).