By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.
A compact column of bluejackets and Marines charged across a narrow strip of sand towards Fort Fisher on the afternoon of Jan. 15, 1865. Conspicuous in the tight-knit vanguard of the 1,400-man strike force was the commander of the flagship Malvern, Ben Porter, his gloved hands holding the admiral’s banner aloft.
Porter, it was said, was that rare leader who men would follow to their death. Fierce and fearless, his ability to inspire and rally his command in the heat of battle verged on the supernatural. He was, at age 20, the beau ideal of a naval officer.1
He had skyrocketed to recognition barely two years earlier with a tour de force along the North Carolina coast. In early 1862, then 17-year-old Porter volunteered for amphibious operations against Confederates holed up on Roanoke Island. Placed in command of a battery of six howitzers, he and his crew joined 10,000 infantry and established a beachhead on the island during the evening of February 7. Porter’s guns were the only artillery on the field.
At daylight the next morning Porter and his howitzer battery moved forward in double-quick time with the main skirmish line towards enemy artillery and infantry. To keep pace with the skirmishers, his crew dragged the guns with ropes, paused to fire a single round, and then grabbed the ropes and repeated the exercise. “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,” Porter stated in his after action report.2
The Confederate fire struck with deadly accuracy. One of the howitzers was left with a single man standing. Porter jumped in and together they worked the gun until a bullet struck his crewmate. “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,” Porter wrote to his mother. He continued the fight with utter disregard for his own life as he furiously loaded, fired and swabbed out the howitzer while the fighting raged.3
The Union ultimately won the day. Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, the commander of the expedition that would become known by his name, and a subordinate, Brig. Gen. John G. Foster, informed Rear-Adm. Louis M. Goldsborough of Porter’s gallantry. The admiral, who led the supporting naval fleet, later sent a commendation letter to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. “The battery under his command,” Goldsborough stated, was “handled with a degree of skill and daring which not only contributed largely to the success of the day, but won the admiration of all who witnessed the display.”4
Goldsborough added, “Mr. Porter was but 17 years of age, and in my belief no father in the land can, with truth, boast of a nobler youth as a son.”5
Porter’s father, James G. Porter, could be justifiably proud. A prosperous merchant and carriage builder in New York, Ben was the youngest of his six sons—and the family favorite. The Porters had always lived close to water, first in the village of Skaneateles on the Finger Lakes and later in Lockport, located near Lake Ontario and the Niagara Falls.6
It is perhaps no surprise that Porter was drawn to the sea from an early age. And when a vacancy at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis became available in his congressional district, he was selected from a number of applicants after a competitive examination. Porter, then 15 years old, arrived at the Academy in late 1859 and took his place as a cadet in the Class of 1863.
The war interrupted his formal education. Porter and many fellow cadets were ordered to active duty on warships in the rapidly expanding fleet. Porter was assigned to the Atlantic blockade on the frigate Roanoke. Technically a midshipman, he performed the tasks of a lieutenant with the ease of a veteran officer.
The Roanoke was stranded in Hampton Roads, Virginia, with a broken shaft when Burnside’s Expedition was fitted out. Porter itched for an opportunity to go and managed to talk his way in charge of six launches that transported the howitzers and their crews.
Porter’s performance at Roanoke Island was consistent with his credo. “I came into the country’s service; to fight, and, if necessary, to lay down my life. And I assure you that I am not only glad of the opportunity, but if any thing is to be gained for my country, I will gladly welcome any fate that awaits me.”7
News of his deeds at Roanoke Island spread to the far corners of the navy and to his hometown. During a brief visit to Lockport after the battle, his friends presented him with an elaborate sword as a testament of their pride in his achievement. At some point afterwards he posed for this carte de visite portrait holding the saber.
Porter returned to the front lines with a promotion to acting master and an assignment aboard the Ellis, a gunboat commanded by another bright star in the navy, Lt. William B. Cushing.8 The two young officers had known each other at the Academy and now became good friends as they wreaked havoc along the North Carolina coast.
In November 1862, Porter received his ensign’s stripe and an assignment to the steam sloop Canandaigua stationed off the coast of Charleston. Here he added to his laurels after being selected to reconnoiter the Confederate defenses of Charleston Harbor. Beginning one day in July 1863, he set out after dark with one or two small boats and a barebones crew to explore the various batteries, forts and vessels. He returned to the harbor for twenty-four successive nights, during which time he came into close contact with underwater mines, or torpedoes, and enemy patrols. After each clandestine visit he returned with valuable details of enemy positions and strength. Then he snatched an hour or two of sleep and reported to the gun deck to command a section of cannon that bombarded Fort Sumter daily. Stripped down to his shirt and trousers, his skin black with smoke and gunpowder, Porter sighted guns and directed his crew. He and his men helped reduce Sumter to a heap of ruins.9
His conduct verged on superhuman. But the stresses of command and constant activity took a toll. “So deeply did he feel his responsibility,” noted one historian of his nights in the harbor, “that while the labor lasted he lost a pound of flesh each day.”10
On Sept. 7, 1863, Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg fell to the federals. Rear-Adm. John A. Dahlgren sought to take advantage of the weakened defenses and called for a storming party to capture Fort Sumter. Porter was one of 400 men who volunteered. They landed on the debris-strewn grounds of Sumter during the early hours of September 8 and were immediately pinned down and trapped. About 125 were captured, including Porter, and held as prisoners of war in Charleston until October 1864, when they were paroled and sent to the North.
Porter returned to his family and anxiously awaited a formal exchange and return to active duty as a lieutenant, a promotion he had received during his captivity. The negotiations were soon completed, and before Thanksgiving 1864 he reported to Rear-Adm. David D. Porter at Hampton Roads. The two men were distantly related.11
Lt. Porter’s reputation preceded him. He was assigned to the command of the Malvern, the admiral’s flagship. Here Porter also reunited with his best friend, Lt. Samuel W. Preston.12 The pair had attended the Academy together, and both had been captured during the assault on Sumter. Preston served as the admiral’s flag-lieutenant. Cushing, Porter’s friend and former commander on the Ellis, was also on the scene.
Less than a month later, the trio was part of a Union expeditionary force that commenced operations against Wilmington, North Carolina. The Confederacy’s last major port and a critical supply line for the Southern armies, the city was defended by Fort Fisher. The incursion occurred during the last week of December 1864 and it failed.
Overall Union commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was disappointed with the results. He ordered another expedition to try again. On January 13-14, 1865, a Union force of 8,000 infantry and artillery landed and established a beachhead while an armada of 60 warships with a total firepower of 627 guns readied for action.
The commander of the expedition, Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry, planned a massive bombardment by the navy to soften the enemy’s defenses followed by a two-pronged ground assault. One column of infantry would attack the west side of the fort while a column of navy men hit the northeast salient. Terry scheduled the attack for January 15.
“It is 4 o’clock in the morning, and we are moving in for the attack,” Porter stated in a hastily written letter to his mother. “We will strike a telling blow for Columbia to-day. America expects every man to do his duty, and our gallant tars never flinch.”13
The landing and initial deployment in preparation for the attack was made during the massive naval bombardment, which lasted from about 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. that afternoon. About that time a signal was given for the columns to begin the assault. Though the naval column was under the tactical command of Fleet Captain Kidder R. Breese, Lt. Porter was the catalyst to spur the men forward.14
“The terrible hour for the assault came,” recounted historian John S.C. Abbott, “Young Porter, bearing the Admiral’s flag, claimed the post of honor in leading the headmost column with the Malvern men. As he left the ship, with the flag in his hand, he said, ‘Admiral, this shall be the first flag on the fort.’”15
Lieutenants Preston and Cushing stood alongside Porter, and all were dressed in their best uniforms complete with gold lace. Cushing recalled the charge. “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.”
Cushing continued, “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 sailors tried to move him, but two were killed in the attempt as shot and shells reined down upon them. Cushing, still on his feet, noted that Porter then “waved the others aside with a last motion, and died, with as sweet a smile as I could paint with words.”16
Porter was twenty years old. His body was left behind in the sand. A few yards away lay his best friend, Lt. Preston, who had fallen at almost the same moment.
The assault lost power and the column crumbled. The defenders of Fisher sensed the shift in momentum, mounted the parapet and fired down into the disorganized mass. The sailors and Marines broke and ran while the enemy firing raged. A small group of stalwarts dug into to the sand and remained until nightfall when they made their escape. One of these men, Lt. John Bartlett, had befriended Porter at the Academy. Bartlett had seen Porter fall. “I wished to see if my friend Porter was still alive,” he explained to his sisters in a letter a few days after the fight. “He was lying on the beach about a hundred yards from the palisades. I ran to him and dropped beside him. I found him dead, a shot having passed through his body. I took his sword, belt, and glove, and then, oh! how I did run for a little way. The rebels fired about twenty shots at me.”17
The assault failed with a long casualty list—307 men and officers. Seeking perhaps to put a brave face on the disaster, navy commanders asserted that the action succeeded in creating a diversion that drew attention away from the west end of the fort. There the army column scored a major breakthrough that led to the capture of the fort and subsequent fall of Wilmington.
The navy mourned their fallen, especially Porter and Preston. “Two more noble spirits the world never saw, nor had the Navy ever two more intrepid men,” stated Fleet Captain Breese. “Young, talented, and handsome, the bravest of the brave, pure in their lives, surely their names deserve something more than a passing mention and are worthy to be handed down to posterity with the greatest and best of naval heroes.”
Perhaps no officer mourned Porter’s loss more than Rear Adm. Porter. “I have seen my official family cut down one after another, and my heart is so sad that I feel as if I could never smile again,” he confessed in a letter to Porter’s parents. He added, “Among all the young men who have been on my staff no one had my entire confidence more than your lost son—lost only for a time. You will find him again where all is peace and joy. I would like to drink of the waters of Lethe and forget the last four years.”18
The remains of Porter and Preston were recovered and carried to the Malvern to be prepared for transport, then sent to the North with naval wounded on the side-wheel brig Santiago de Cuba. Preston was interred at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis. Porter’s body was sent to his family in New York. On top of his casket was placed the sword given to him by his friends.
Porter was buried in a local cemetery at his birthplace, Skaneateles. Here he joined one of his older brothers, Stanley, a corporal in the 21st New York Infantry who was killed in action on Aug. 30, 1862, at the Second Battle of Bull Run.19
In Skaneateles on May 28, 1882, the Benjamin H. Porter Post of the Grand Army of the Republic was chartered in his memory.