BENJAMIN H. PORTER, LT, USN
Benjamin Porter '63
Date of birth: July 10, 1844
Date of death: January 15, 1865
The Lucky Bag was first published in 1894.
Benjamin Horton Porter was admitted to the Naval Academy from New York on November 29, 1859 at age 15 years 4 months.
He is listed on the killed in action panel in the front of Memorial Hall and is buried in New York.
Benjamin Horton Porter was born in Skaneateles on the 10th of July, 1844, the son of James Gurdon Porter and Sarah Grosvenor Porter.
In 1848, when Ben was four, his father moved the family to Lockport, N.Y., following the prosperity of the Erie Canal. Lockport had grown from a three-family settlement in 1820 to a town of 3,000 residents in 1825. One of James Gurdon Porter’s early business ventures was creating the city’s first gasworks in 1851.
Ben Porter was educated in Lockport, and remembered as “remarkable for his cheerful, amiable and affectionate spirit, which rendered him a universal favorite.” Like many adventurous boys, he dreamed of a life at sea. When he was 15, a vacancy occurred in his district for the United States Naval School at Annapolis, and friends urged him to apply. Silas M. Burroughs, the member of Congress for that district, held a competitive examination for all of the young applicants, and Ben Porter placed first.
Upon arriving at the Academy in November, 1859, he was given another examination; half the class examined with him was sent home; Porter was admitted as a cadet, and placed upon the school-ship Plymouth, anchored in Chesapeake Bay. He wrote to a friend, “Just think of my being here, going to school and the government paying me $30 a month for my company. Ain’t it bunkum?”
There were 112 cadets in Porter’s class. In June, they sailed on the annual cruise to initiate them into the practical duties of seamanship, visiting the Azores, Spain, the Rock of Gibraltar, Madeira, and the Canary Islands. They returned to Chesapeake Bay in September, where the sailors resumed their studies on shore for the winter.
In his enjoyment of college life, Ben Porter was not unlike many other students. To a friend, he wrote:
Last Saturday, I sent one of the servants out into town to get some oysters. After ‘taps,’ at night, we got out our chafing-dish, crackers, butter, pepper and salt. I got down under my bed, and took the chafing-dish with me. After all was ready, P_____ and H_______ hauled down the bedclothes over the front part of the bed, so the light could not reflect from the opposite wall out of the window… I struck the light and lay down on the floor to wait for the oysters to cook. After they were cooked, we drew the table up to the window and then commenced the fun! We ate a quart at this time, and as soon as we had finished we cooked another quart and ate them.
However, it was the eve of the Civil War and in eastern Maryland many people advocated secession from the Union, including some officers and cadets of the school. It was feared that those supporting the cause of the Confederacy might seize the ship, the guns and other property of the Naval Academy. The officers and cadets who remained loyal stood guard night and day; Porter himself stopped the hijacking of a small boat by firing his gun and summoning a guard.
Eventually, Federal troops arrived in relief, and Washington ordered the cadets to board the U.S.S. Constitution and sail for Newport, Rhode Island, where the school was re-established in a resort hotel, safe from “the assaults of treason.”
[The war began…]
Ben Porter, then 16, was assigned to the U.S.S. Roanoke on blockade duty off the Atlantic coast. (And here is your Small World factoid for the day: Porter’s commanding officer on the Roanoke was Capt. Charles Henry Poor, who, after his retirement, would spend his summers at Willowbank, also known as The Poor House, a house that he and his wife had received as a wedding present from her father many years before, today the big white house on Genesee Street at the foot of Leitch Avenue in Skaneateles.)
However, the Roanoke was soon back in port for repairs, and Porter wanted to get back into action. The Burnside expedition was then fitting out for the waters of the North Carolina, where goods were flowing into the Confederacy through its porous coastline.
The Union Navy and the forces of the Confederacy both realized that the Outer Banks and Roanoke Island were key to the Southern defenses and also a back door to the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia. Porter volunteered for the expedition and was accepted. Although young, he was given command of six launches, each with howitzers, for service in shallow water and on land.
On the 7th of February, 1862, the expedition landed on Roanoke Island. Porter and his sailors dragged their guns through a swamp to a position where he could protect the other troops who had landed; there they stood guard all night, drenched by a northeast storm. At daylight, they advanced on a line with the skirmishers. The Confederate hopes were pinned on a small three-gun battery in the center of the island. Porter later wrote:
As soon as I saw the enemy’s fortification I halted and… opened fire on the enemy with grape and shell from the rifled guns, and canister, shrapnel, and shell from the smooth bore… As I had received orders to keep the artillery on a line with the infantry, I advanced the pieces after each fire until they were in the open space directly in front of the rebel battery, where we made a stand under a most destructive fire from the rebel infantry. The men, however, worked the guns with great coolness and determination… We had been firing about three and a half hours when the fortification was stormed, and the rebels retreated.
Porter continued firing the howitzers even after most of his men had fallen and just one man remained with him. Porter wrote to his mother: “He alone remained, when a slug passed into his throat, from which the blood streamed out; he looked in my face, choked, fell down, and died. This made me madder than ever, and I went in on my muscle.”
Afterwards, General John Foster gave a tribute of commendation, saying: “I would notice here the gallant conduct of Midshipman Benjamin H. Porter, who commanded the light guns from the ships’ launches, and was constantly under fire.”
After the battle of Roanoke, he made a short visit to New York, where [the picture of him standing with his cover in his right hand] was taken, probably at the studio of Mathew Brady. His fame had gone before him. He took a room at the Metropolitan Hotel but it soon became known that he was “the young hero of Roanoke.” His celebrity annoyed him and he moved to another hotel.
Returning to duty after this brief respite, he was promoted to Acting Master and placed in command of the gunboat Ellis, patrolling the rivers, bays and inlets of North Carolina. One day he pursued a rebel craft and captured the crew. As they were brought onto the Ellis, one prisoner was found to be mortally wounded. He was one of Porter’s classmates at Annapolis. [This would be William Jackson '63.] He had the captive taken to his own room, and stayed by his side until he died.
In November, 1862, he was ordered to report to Admiral Samuel DuPont, at Port Royal, South Carolina. Here he was again in the blockade service, on the U.S.S. Canandaigua. But there was no getting away from Charleston and Fort Sumter. The Union Navy wanted Charleston harbor, but Fort Sumter was still in the hands of the rebels. And the Confederates were filling the channel-way of the harbor with “all manner of torpedoes [mines] and infernal machines.”
In July, 1863, Porter was selected to explore the harbor under the cover of darkness and search out its obstructions. For 24 nights in a row, he and his men were exposed to mines, picket boats, gunboats, the fort and the batteries of the enemy. Porter lost a pound every day and some nights had to be carried from the returning boat to his quarters. Author John S.C. Abbott described a typical night’s work:
He stood in the bow of the boat, in darkness which was only illumined by the flash of the guns, with his boat-hook feeling for and dodging torpedoes. At length he came across a buoy. Not knowing but that it was attached to a torpedo, he carefully approached and threw a rope over it, and then, backing some distance, he pulled upon it. As it proved to be harmless he again approached, and feeling with his boat-hook found it supported a large chain. Following the chain under water he soon came to other buoys and timbers, stretching across the channel. Following these up he found the opening for blockade-runners. Carefully making observations, to be sure of finding it again, he returned to the fleet and reported to the Admiral, offering to pilot the Monitors through.
And on another night:
With muffled oars and a strong pull he came rushing back to one of the Union Monitors with the tidings that a rebel steamer was under way and was coming down the harbor… Suddenly the rebel steamer emerged from the darkness, rushing down directly upon a scout-boat… The rebel steamer caught sight of the boat, fired a gun into her, and dashing on, struck the boat on the bow, breaking her to pieces. The men leaped into the water, and, as the steamer swept by, volleys of musketry were fired upon them while struggling in the waves.
Ensign Porter, hearing the report of the howitzer, the firing of the musketry, and the cry of the drowning… ordered his men to bend to their oars to rescue the crew. Eight he dragged from the water into his boat. Porter, with apparently as much coolness as if in his father’s parlor, flashed the light of his dark lantern all around over the waves to ascertain if any more drowning men could be discovered, though he knew those gleams would guide the on-rushing rebel steamer down upon him. The flash of his lantern revealed to him the steamer heading directly for his boat. But the light of Porter’s lamp had also revealed the rebel gun-boat to the Catskill, and she opened upon her with her ponderous guns. The gun-boat could not for a moment cope with such an antagonist, and putting on all steam she fled back into the harbor, while at the same moment young Porter, with the rescued crew, plunged into the gloom of the storm and of the night, and returned to the fleet in safety.
After an hour or two of sleep, Porter would be again be found on the gun-deck, commanding his section of guns in action, stripped to shirt and trousers, black with smoke and powder, sighting every gun.
Battered as [Fort Sumter] was, it was still manned by Confederate troops and artillery. The U.S. Navy men had observed a breach in the wall, and a plan was hatched to storm the fort by night. Porter volunteered.
Thirty boats, carrying 700 men, were collected. But the rebels had observed the preparations and were ready to meet the assault.
John S.C. Abbott wrote:
In the darkness of the night stealthily the boats approached Fort Sumter. Suddenly there burst upon them such a storm of iron and of lead from the garrison, the gun-boats, and the batteries as no mortal valor could withstand. This tornado of war swept every boat back but three. One of these three was commanded by Benjamin H. Porter.
These three boats reached the debris of the fort. A hundred men sprang from them upon the broken mound of brick and stone, with the deafening thunder of artillery filling the air, and with round shot, grape-shot, and hand-grenades flying in all directions around them. The wounded, the dead, and trails of blood marked their path as they ascended the rugged acclivity a distance of forty feet.
Here they unexpectedly encountered a perpendicular wall 16 feet high, with its top crowded with rebel sharp-shooters who threw down hand-grenades which, bursting in the boats, blew them to pieces. These grenades also fell with fearful destruction into the disordered ranks of the assailants. At the same time fire-balls were thrown down which lighted up the whole scene as bright as day, enabling the garrison to take unerring aim at the little handful of men.
Porter and his remaining men were forced to surrender and were marched into the fort as captives.
The commander received them in his rubble-strewn domain with courtesy, saying, “Gentlemen, you are unexpected guests. But I will entertain you to the best of my ability.” The next day they were allowed to send to the fleet for clothing and money, and were sent by steamer to Charleston, then to Columbia, South Carolina.
For the next fourteen months, Benjamin Porter was in prison, and for several months in irons. Porter wrote to his father:
Lieutenant E. P. Williams and myself are in irons and close confinement, held as hostages for Acting-Masters Braile and McGuire, of the Southern navy, now, as I am informed, confined at Fort McHenry to be tried as pirates. I wish you would see what you can do for me ; for although we are as comfortable as can be under the circumstances, still we are far from being comfortable.
A young lady in Columbia had known Porter in Lockport and learned he was in the prison. She asked to see him, but was refused. She did, however, persuade the friends of a rebel officer who was confined on Johnson’s Island, in Lake Erie, to pay Porter $300, upon his promise that his friends in the North would give $300 to their relative. This was done and the money contributed to his comfort. He managed to get some old naval books on navigation, math and geometry, saying he intended to be the first in his class, on examination, when exchanged.
Another inmate, Captain Shadrack T. Harris, was in irons in a room opening on one in which the naval officers of the Sumter expedition were confined. Porter succeeded with his jack-knife in springing the lock of the door of Captain Harris’s room and taught him how to slip his irons off and on again. This was a huge relief, as Harris could slip them on only when the jailer was about to enter the room.
In October, 1864, an arrangement was made for the exchange of the naval officers and men captured at Fort Sumter. Mr. Porter gave all his money and spare clothes to another prisoner before leaving.
On arriving at Richmond he was placed in Libby Prison, and after ten days was sent on to the Union lines. He arrived in Washington the next day, reported to the Navy Department, then went to New York. He had been at home in Lockport for two days when a telegram from the Department announced that his exchange was official, and summoned him to report to Admiral David Porter. He was warmly received, and placed in command of the Admiral’s flag-ship, the U.S.S. Malvern.
The next objective was Fort Fisher, guarding Wilmington, North Carolina, on the Cape Fear River. This was the last open port of the Confederacy and vital to its survival. Steamers ran cargoes of cotton and tobacco through the blockade to ports in the Bahamas, Bermuda or Cuba, where the goods were exchanged for food and munitions for General Robert E. Lee’s army.
Fort Fisher, built on a peninsula where the Cape Fear River met the sea, protected Wilmington and harried the blockading Union ships with 44 heavy cannons. One hundred and twenty-five more cannons and 1500 soldiers defended the fort against any land or sea attack. Its commander, Colonel William Lamb, modeled it after the Malakoff Tower, a famed Crimean War fortification in Sevastopol, Russia.
Just before the conflict Ben Porter wrote to his mother:
We are now off New Inlet once more, for the purpose of taking Fort Fisher ; and this time, by God’s blessing, we mean to do it. We have General [Alfred] Terry in command, and he is young and ambitious. I hope he will make his men fight. It is 4 o’clock in the morning, and we are moving in for the attack.
And he wrote to a young friend:
I am going ashore to lead my men to the charge on Fort Fisher… I have been in command of the flag-ship several weeks, and am very pleasantly situated. I expect that we shall have a very hard fight, and as I am going to assault the fort, I run a good chance of losing the number of my mess [a navy idiom for dying].
Upon arrival at the waters off Fort Fisher, Admiral Porter asked for volunteers for an assault on the sea side of the fortress. Admiral Porter’s order to the force was “Board in a manly fashion!” Ben Porter would lead the volunteers from the U.S.S. Malvern. He was armed with a pistol and a cutlass, but chose instead to carry the Admiral’s flag.
The ships of the naval detachment fired on the fort all morning while the Army and Navy landed their men to the north of the fort. Of the bombardment, William Cushing later wrote, “Such a hell of noise I never expect to hear again. Hundreds of shell[s] were in the air at once . . . all shrieking in a grand martial chorus that was a fitting accompaniment to the death dance of the hundreds about to fall.”
On the beach, Porter waited with his fellow officers, William Cushing and Samuel Preston. Preston produced a bottle of beer from his coat pocket; the three men drank a toast to a young lady of their acquaintance, and looked at Fort Fisher waiting for them across the sand.
At 3 p.m. the signal to cease firing was sent to the fleet, the ships blew their steam whistles to signal the beginning of the land assault. This was supposed to be a phased charge, with Marine sharpshooters giving cover to the sailors, and the Army advancing from the north, but in the noise and confusion, the sailors all charged at once, running in ankle-deep sand toward a nine-foot palisade, with even higher parapets beyond, where Confederate soldiers waited with a thousand rifles and cannons to kill them.
Because the Army was advancing through a wooded area, the defenders didn’t see them at first and so concentrated their fire on the naval attackers. Confederate General Whiting stood on the ramparts of the fort, barking orders, cursing and challenging his men to kill the enemy. Although wounded four times, a naval ensign, Robley Evans, survived, and his account tells us what Ben Porter and his companions experienced:
About five hundred yards from the fort, the head of the column suddenly stopped, and, as if by magic, the whole mass of men went down like a row of falling bricks… At about three hundred yards they again went down, this time under the effect of canister [grape shot from the cannons] added to the rifle fire. Again we rallied them, and once more started to the front under a perfect hail of lead, with men dropping rapidly in every direction.
George Dewey, who as Admiral Dewey would become famous at the battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War, witnessed the charge as the Executive Officer aboard the USS Colorado. This is his account:
We could see very clearly the naval detachment which had landed under the face of the fort. The seamen were to make the assault, while the marines covered their advance by musketry from the trenches which they had thrown up. For weapons the seamen had only cutlasses and revolvers, which evidently were chosen with the idea that storming the face of the strongest work in the Civil War was the same sort of operation as boarding a frigate in 1812. Such an attempt was sheer, murderous madness. But the seamen had been told to go and they went. In face of a furious musketry fire which they had no way of answering they rushed to within fifty yards of the parapet. Three times they closed up their shattered ranks and attempted another charge, but could gain little more ground.
Of the 2,000 men who began the charge, fewer than 200 reached the palisade. When they looked over their shoulders, they saw that those who had started with them were either dead, wounded or just gone, and they fled for their lives as well. The only survivor of the three young officers, Lieutenant W. B. Cushing, described Ben Porter’s last moments:
Ben looked grave and determined, and I remember being much impressed by his supremely noble bearing. In a moment we were under a terrific fire, and the men commenced to get confused. It needed all the pluck and daring that man can have to lead and give confidence to the sailors in charging up that bare and level beach. Ben threw himself to the front, flag in hand, and the charge went on. We were all three in uniform, perhaps rashly, but it has ever been the pride of naval officers to wear, amidst the smoke of battle, the same lace that denotes their rank when enjoying the pleasures of society.
At the palisade, by the ditch that surrounds the fort, Ben fell, shot through the breast. His last words were, ‘Carry me down to the beach.’ Four of the Malvern‘s and Monticello‘s men raised him and tried to comply. Two were killed. He waved the others aside with a last motion, and died, with as sweet a smile as I could paint with words. I doubt not that some world met his dying eyes where spirits so pure, so noble, so brave as his meet with an eternal and great reward.
Confederate defenders along the Northeast Bastion cheered wildly. Their celebration evaporated, however, when Lamb and Whiting turned, stunned to see several large Union flags waving over the western salient of Fort Fisher.
On the land side, General Terry’s troops had captured the end of a parapet and began a hand-to-hand battle inside the fort that would last until dark, and end with the capture of the fort, opening the way to Wilmington.
After the battle, Admiral Porter wrote to Porter’s bereaved mother:
Your gallant son was my beau-ideal of an officer. His heart was filled with gallantry and love of country. It must be a dreadful blow to lose such a son. It was a dreadful blow to me to lose such an officer. My associations with my officers are not those of a commander. We are like comrades, and form fond attachments to each other. When they fall I feel as if I had lost one of my own family. Your son was captain of my flag-ship, and a favorite with me and all who knew him. He was brave to a fault.
Another officer wrote of Porter:
His imperial spirit gave him perfect command of his men; his youthful appearance and almost feminine beauty won their love ; his utter fearlessness commanded their admiration and roused their enthusiasm. He possessed that rare electric power, so singularly developed by Napoleon, which bound his men to him with almost a supernatural affection. It was said that there was not one of his men who would not readily have died for him.
Just after midnight on January 16, 1865, almost 14 hours after the sailors went ashore to participate in the attack, the bodies of young Lieutenant Porter and Flag. Lt. Samuel W. Preston were returned to the Malvern “and properly cared for.” Later that morning, with the ship’s flags at half-mast, Ensign John Gratton viewed his friends for the last time, and wrote of Porter, “A calm, peaceful smile played around his mouth.”
At 2:30 in the afternoon, in a cold, drizzling rain, the fallen officers were placed aboard the Santiago de Cuba for the journey north. The body of Lieutenant Porter, in a metallic case, was forwarded to his friends in New York. Navy officials wanted to honor his memory with a public funeral, but, “The grief of his friends was so deep that they had no heart for the public display.”
A friend of Cushing's from the Naval Academy, Porter had seen much active service, including capture and imprisonment in an 1863 raid on Fort Sumter. He relieved Cushing as commander of the flagship Malvern when Cushing returned to his old ship, the Monticello. Porter was killed leading his men during the naval land assault on Fort Fisher January 15, 1865. Cushing was nearby, as was Porter's best friend, Lieutenant Samuel Preston, who was also killed in the assault.
Acting Midshipman, 1 December, 1859. Ensign, 8 November, 1862. Lieutenant, 22 February, 1864. Killed in attack upon Fort Fisher, 15 January, 1865.
Samuel Preston '62 was also lost in this assault; he was Flag Lieutenant to Admiral Porter, who was embarked on Malvern.