SAMUEL W. PRESTON, LT, USN

From USNA Virtual Memorial Hall

Samuel Preston '62

Date of birth: April 6, 1842

Date of death: January 15, 1865

Age: 22

Lucky Bag

The Lucky Bag was first published in 1894.

Naval Academy Register

Samuel William Preston was admitted to the Naval Academy from Illinois on October 4, 1858 at age 17 years 6 months.

Biography & Loss

"Probably photographed while attending the U.S. Naval Academy, circa 1858-1861. The original print was mounted on a "Carte de Visite". Collection of Surgeon Herman P. Babcock, USN, donated by his son, George Babcock, 1939."

Born near London, Ontario, Canada, Preston was appointed Midshipman from the state of Illinois on 4 October 1858. Graduating first in his class, 9 May 1861, he was appointed Acting Master on 4 October 1861, and Lieutenant 1 August 1862. From 1861 to 1863 he served on various vessels attached to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Captured by Confederate forces during an attack on Fort Sumter on 8 September 1863, he was taken to Columbia Prison of War Camp at Richland County Jail in Columbia South Carolina and exchanged in the fall of 1864.

Ordered to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron as Flag-Lieutenant to Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, he participated in the attacks on Fort Fisher on 24–25 December 1864, and 15 January 1865. He was killed while leading an amphibious assault of U.S. Sailors and Marines against the fort on the latter date.

1862 Preston 3.jpg

From Wikipedia:

Battle for the Capture of Fort Fisher, 13 January 1865:

All of the navy officers has gone into battle wearing dress uniforms, and as they charged, the navy man cheered loudly. Leading the assault party from the USS Malvern was lieutenant Preston. While the marine riflemen tried to keep the defenders of the fort off the ramparts, Preston and other navy officers led the charge up the beach but were hit with withering canister fire from the fort's cannons. Many of the charging attackers pulled their blue caps low over their eyes so as not to see the flashes of the enemy guns. The sailors were not trained in infantry tactics, and the assault became an unorganized mess. The marines failed to keep up their covering fire and joined the charge. Of the two thousand sailors who landed on the beach, no more than two hundred made it to the walls of the fort, but that number included all of the officers.

As the blue jackets approached the fort, North Carolina troops poured volley after volley of musket fire into the sailors. Preston fell no more than twenty paces from the fort's walls.

Samuel is buried in the Naval Academy Cemetery.

He is listed on the killed in action panel in the front of Memorial Hall.

SHIPMATE

From the January 1963 issue of SHIPMATE:

SAMUEL WILLIAM PRESTON (1841-1865)

Flag Lieutenant to Three Admirals and Tragic Example of the Stall Ollicer in War

By John D. Hayes, '24

ON THE KNOLL of the Naval Academy cemetery that overlooks the Severn River as it flows toward the sea are the graves of three alumni who were called upon, in their early years, to give what their profession demands of its members, their lives, when that sacrifice is needed in the service of the state.

The three graves are within a few feet of each other and are among the oldest in the cemetery. One is that of the celebrated William B. Cushing, 1861, whose most famous Civil War exploit was his destruction of the Confederate ironclad ALBEMARLE. Ratey and undisciplined. Cushing was allowed to resign in lieu of dismissal in March of his first-class year. When hostilities opened, he reentered the Navy as a Master's Mate and won his reappointment as midshipman by sea service. The restless elements in Cushing's make-up that made him a poor naval prospect also made him a superb combat officer, a contradiction within the military service still unresolved. Gushing survived the war for a decade but he was a war casualty as much as if he had died in one of his exploits.

The second grave close by is that of Charles W. Flusser, 1854, Gallant Flusser as he was called, born in Annapolis and once a member of the Naval Academy faculty. He died 19 April 1864 in his attempt to stop the same ALBEMARLE with the two wooden ships under his command lashed together. He lost his life when he himself fired his bow gun, loaded with solid shot, against her iron sides at point blank range. His entire family were in the Confederacy and his shipmates had to decide where his remains would be interred.

The third grave is that of Samuel W. Preston, 1862, who was described by a senior well qualified to judge as "the most brilliant, the most gifted, the most promising man I have ever known. Had he been spared he would probably have been the first man in the Navy." Preston's unusual ability destined him for staff duty throughout the war as flag officers sought his services. He was alternately flag lieutenant to Rear Admirals S. F. Du Pont, J. A. Dahlgren and D. D. Porter, but to each of these men he was much more than that. Each of them sent him from their squadron to Washington to represent them in critical decision-making conferences, perhaps with the feeling that Preston could do the job better than they could do it themselves. His unusual performance in such duty brought him an admiring list of acquaintances in high places. He was undoubtedly the best known and most influential naval lieutenant of that war, both in and out of the Navy.

HIS MONUMENT, USS PRESTON (DD-795)

The tragedy of young Preston's life is that this was not the sort of distinction that he wanted. Ambitious to a fault, especially during the last years of the war, he realized that military glory with its fame and promotion could only be gained in combat and he sought every opportunity for it, begging his superiors for the chance. Later he took the opportunity to take part in operations he planned and, where he could, he assigned himself a combat position in them. His ambition brought him 14 months of imprisonment and finally death in the last battle of the war before Fort Fisher in January 1865, a little more than two months before his 24th birthday. Willing to accept this chance for the opportunity he sought, he left a request that in case of death his remains be interred at the Naval Academy. Preston's brilliance and bravery were still fresh in the minds of his contemporaries a generation later and he is honored today in the Navy by DD-795, the third destroyer to bear his name.

This precocious and ambitious man came from a humble background about which he preferred to remain reticent. He once, however, told a boasting boyish fib about his family that was to be discovered after his death to the embarrassment of some of his admirers. He was born 6 April 1841 near London, Upper Canada (Ontario), the thirteenth child of a poor Canadian farmer who for a time migrated to Ottawa, Ill. There his father apprenticed the promising son to a merchant, Mr. J. W. Mills. Samuel remained in this family until Mr. Mills obtained an appointment for him to the Naval Academy from Senator Stephen Douglas.

At the Naval Academy he stood first in his class and received only two demerits during his entire period there. The opening of the Civil War forced the early graduation of his class but with so many of the regular faculty being ordered away, he was kept there as an instructor. Professor Henry H. Lockwood, West Point 1836, whom the Navy Department released to become colonel of the First Delaware Regiment and later a brigadier general wanted the 20-year-old Preston as his lieutenant colonel but here the Department refused.

PRESTON AND DU PONT

In October 1861, Preston had his chance when he was recommended to Flag Officer Du Pont, commander of the newly formed South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, as his flag lieutenant. In this duty Preston came under the guiding hand of three of the ablest naval administrators of his day, Du Pont; his fleet captain. Captain Charles H . Davis, noted mathematician and Shakespearian scholar; and Commander C. R. P. Rodgers of the family that gave four generations of officers to the Navy and then commanding the flagship WABASH. He assisted them in the planning of the Port Royal operation, until then the biggest ever undertaken by the Navy with 20 warships and 14,000 troops in 30 transports.

Du Pont had gathered within his squadron a large number of the ablest officers in the Navy, all of whom were eager to serve under him. In his capacity as flag lieutenant, Preston came in close contact with these men who soon recognized his unusual ability. The fleet captain, Davis, began unloading his duties upon the young man who, before he was 21 years of age and with practically no sea experience, was soon performing the duties of squadron operations officer, controlling the movements and readiness of the 60 nondescript ships performing blockading and Army support duty on the southern coast. While doing so, he sought every opportunity also for active service and with Du Pont's permission participated in all the naval and several of the Army operations, including the bombardment and surrender of Fort Pulaski.

Between the 57-year-old, childless Du Pont and the younger man, there developed almost a father and son relationship. The flag officer seldom failed to mention Preston in admiring terms in letters home, while the flag lieutenant considered the senior "one of nature's noblemen." Preston worked so hard that the admiral feared for his health. When he was sent north during the summer of 1862, he visited the admiral's family at their home on Brandywine Creek, near Wilmington, Delaware, but the older man's hope that he might become interested in one of the numerous nieces did not materialize.

Twice Preston was sent to Washington by the flag officer as his personal representative on critical missions and he performed these duties with remarkable tact and efficiency. In fact, Du Pont was later to regret that in the critical days both before and after his repulse with the ironclads against Charleston, when the admiral's position was not properly understood by his superiors in Washington, that he did not send his flag lieutenant, rather than the men he did, to explain his views there. Had he sent Preston, Du Pont's position in American history might have been different from what it is today.

Preston's appraisal of the ironclad action against Charleston on 7 April 1863 is perhaps the best on record: "Many officers with less courage than Admiral Du Pont would have allowed selfishness or pride to predominate and, renewing the attack for the sake of making a gallant thing of it, would have perhaps knocked down Fort Sumter and then been forced to withdraw leaving one, two or more ironclads in the hands of the enemy and Charleston quite as impregnable as before, or indeed more so, for the enemy could afford to exchange Sumter, (their most vulnerable fort) for one of our formidable engines of defense, the monitors. Charleston cannot be taken by complicated machinery."

PRESTON AND DAHLGREN

Du Pont was relieved on 5 July 1863 by Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, the ordnance expert and friend of Lincoln. The new admiral, who had had littie sea service, was forced to begin operations in conjunction with the Army against Charleston almost immediately after taking over. He soon realized the treasure that Du Pont had left him in Preston, and during the next three weeks of the most difficult amphibious assault and bombardment operations he used his flag lieutenant as his entire staff. Three weeks of unending labors in the heat of a southern summer broke down the young man's health and he was forced to go North to recuperate. During this trip he paid his last visit to his home in Canada. By 1 September Dahlgren had him back on the job and this time the lieutenant was actually designated fleet captain. But he was only to serve Dahlgren in this caoacity for a week. On 8 September 1863 he was captured in the abortive naval landing force assault on Fort Sumter.

Du Pont on learning what had happened attributed the bungle to "a green admiral, with ambitious, spirited, self-reliant but inexperienced young men around him." Dahlgren was not the first nor the last senior who has come to grief by putting too much power in the hands of smart young officers.

PRESTON AS A PRISONER OF WAR

Preston spent more than thirteen months in prison at Charleston and Columbia, S. C, using his pen and his wits trying to get exchanged. It is reported that he finally succeeded when he learned that the brother-in-law of General U. S. Grant was also a prisoner in the same camp and somehow got this word through to the Union lines. Grant, at the instigation of his old friend, Captain Daniel Ammen, USN, and his own military secretary, Adam Badeau, who had known Preston from Port Royal, directed an exchange of naval prisoners, although General B. F. Buder, then Commissioner for Exchange, was reluctant to do so. Moreover, Grant ordered that Preston be sent to his headquarters when exchanged to report on his experiences.

Preston at this meeting with Grant and his staff spoke for all the prisoners of war whom, he said, readily understood that the policy of no exchange to drain Confederate manpower must be paramount to the usual considerations of humanity and they were willing to endure privations until such time as their release could be effected without giving military aid to the enemy. But he advocated that vigorous efforts be made by the government to relieve them of the barbarities to which they were exposed in all the large prison camps of the South. He believed that this ill-treatment was a deliberate policy to force the Union into exchange, the military advantage of which would be all with the enemy. Hence Confederate willingness to publish reports of suffering in the prison camps.

Badeau later told of the sensation Preston created. The officers crowded around him, his handsome person clothed in tatters and his frank and gendemanly bearing arresting admiration and good will. Grant was delighted with him, showing him marked attention. At the General's suggestion, Preston included his remarks in a letter to Butler under whose control he was a paroled prisoner. The letter of 20 Oct. 1864 was published in the New York Herald a few days later.

Preston was not formally exchanged until December. He spent this time in Newport, R. I., and New York. He also took the trouble to write to the family of every prisoner whose address he had been able to obtain. But he was now a different Preston. The experience under Dahlgren had given him a sense of his own power and a realization of the dependence seniors had upon him. The fifteen months as a prisoner and parolee had embittered him as he saw the war obviously drawing to a close and the fame and promotion he eager sought going to lesser men. Mrs. Du Pont saw this change and was not happy about his release. When his death did come, she found consolation in the thought that "God might have taken from the evil to come."

PRESTON AND D. D. PORTER

When exchanged, Preston for the third time was assigned duty as flag lieutenant, this time to Admiral D. D. Porter, whose operation with the Army against Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, N. C, was to begin on Christmas Day. An intense naval bombardment was to be followed by the explosion of a ship loaded with powder close to the fort, which the Union assaulting troops would then easily take from the stunned defenders. Or so General B. F. Buder, the Army commander, expected. Porter gave Preston his chance for distinction, assigning him as second in command of the powder boat. The powder experiment turned out to be a miserable failure, the Confederates hardly knowing that anything happened. Buder refused to storm the fort, re-embarked his troops and returned to the James River.

The furious Porter sent Preston to Washington as his bearer of dispatches and to advocate that the troops be returned under another commander and the assault made. Preston was now to do his most important service for the Union cause and it was in a staff assignment. The impression that he made on Grant two months before paid off, for the lieutenant general, who never was too enthusiastic about the Fort Fisher operation, sent the troops back under an old friend of Preston's South Atlantic days, Major General A. H. Terry. Du Pont later remarked on Preston's work to a friend: "Porter sent him to report the first failure and I am convinced his earnestness and clear statement of the case induced a renewal of the attack more than anything else."

The second attack took place on 15 January 1865. To divert the attention of the defenders from the main Army assault (and perhaps get some glory for the Navy), a landing party from the fleet was organized to storm the sea face like a gigantic boarding party. Trenches would be first constructed as close to the fort as possible. Marines would take position in these and then, with their rifle fire, cover the advancing sailors, armed only with cudasses and pistols. Preston went ashore in full uniform, in charge of the sappers who were to dig the trenches. When he was finished, he attached himself to the assault party where he was killed leading it. The assualt was repulsed with heavy loss but it did succeed in creating the diversion it intended. After the fort was in Union hands, about 2200 that night. Lieutenant Silas W. Terry, 1863, recovered the body of his shipmate, Preston, and that of Preston's friend and his own classmate, Benjamin H. Porter, and returned them to the ship. Preston's body was sent to Fortress Monroe and then to Aimapolis, according to his wishes. The remains were placed in the family vault of Judge Randall and when the Naval Academy returned to Annapolis later that year, they were interred with appropriate honors.

A fitting obituary was given him by a sad but still admiring C. R. P. Rodgers: "What better death could come to a sea officer."

Cases parallel to Preston's have occurred in America's subsequent wars and will no doubt again. The older among us can easily remember where men's very ability doomed them to a secondary position in war and oblivion after it. Some of these served willingly, knowing in their hearts the services they were performing and the sacrifices they were making. Others believed themselves prisoners to their senior's selfishness and became bitter and frustrated. A flag officer has to realize that no man is big enough to fill his job and he should be humbly grateful to those who have the role of his "alter ego"—either by expanding his command potential or filling some gap in it.

There were many latent Cushings in the Navy of the Civil War and the Navy of today has a good supply. That war, however, produced only one Preston—and no doubt such are scarce today.

Career

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From the Naval History and Heritage Command:

Acting Midshipman, 4 October, 1858. Acting Master, 4 October, 1861. Lieutenant, 1 August, 1862. Killed in attack on Fort Fisher, 15 January, 1865.

Namesakes

Six ships in the United States Navy have been named USS Preston:

USS Preston (1864) was captured in 1864, commissioned in 1865 and decommissioned later that same year. USS Preston (1865) was captured in 1865 and sold in 1868. USS Preston (Destroyer No. 19) was commissioned in 1909 and decommissioned in 1919. USS Preston (DD 327) was commissioned in 1921 and decommissioned in 1930. USS Preston (DD 379) was commissioned in 1936 and sunk in November 1942. USS Preston (DD 795) was commissioned in 1944 and transferred to Turkey in 1969.

Related Articles

Benjamin Porter '63 was also lost in this assault; he was the commanding officer of USS Malvern, Admiral Porter's flagship.


Class of 1862

Samuel is one of 2 members of the Class of 1862 in Memorial Hall.