Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Book Review: Farragut’s Captain: Percival Drayton, 1861-1865

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 31, 2020

Peter Barratt, Farragut’s Captain: Percival Drayton, 1861-1865 (Lulu Publishing Services, 2018).

Percival Drayton and I are old acquaintances, of a sort. I first encountered him two decades ago when doing research on the Civil War blockade runner Denbigh. That ship had a spectacular career in the Gulf of Mexico, running first between Havana and Mobile, and later between Havana and Galveston. Denbigh’s ability to avoid capture or destruction was a matter of ongoing annoyance to the U. S. Navy’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron and its commander, Admiral David G. Farragut. Denbigh turns up a number of places in the U.S. Navy’s official correspondence, and through tracking these down I came to “meet” Farragut’s Flag Captain, Percival Drayton.

Drayton is an interesting, if not unique, character for a number of reasons. He was not only a southerner – Farragut himself was born in Tennessee – but part of the extended Drayton family of South Carolina, planters and politicians of the first order in that state in the decades before the war. (The family seat, the 18th century plantation at Drayton Hall, is a popular attraction outside Charleston today.) I had often wondered about Percival Drayton’s decision to remain in the U.S. Navy in 1861, when many of his colleagues resigned their commissions and “went south” to fight with their native states, but it was never a question for Drayton, and his loyalty to the United States never falter. Early in the war, at the Battle of Port Royal in November 1861, Percival Drayton found himself engaging shore batteries under the command, he later learned, of his own brother, Confederate Brigadier General Thomas F. Drayton. “Brother against brother” is a common and trite reference to the conflicts within families during the war, but if the Draytons’ case it was literally true. Though his family’s wealth and influence in South Carolina were built (like so many others) on the institution of slavery, Percival Drayton came to despise both the practice and the rebellion it had brought about, and fought as vigorously to defeat the Confederacy as any of his contemporaries, ashore or afloat.

(Although they never met again after the war began, Percival and Thomas corresponded and reconciled quickly after its conclusion. Thomas had been wiped out financially during the war, and during his final illness in 1865 Percival made a last-minute amendment to his will, leaving his brother $30,000 from his own estate.)

Drayton needs also to be remembered as one of the U.S. Navy’s first monitor commanders, who worked out many of the deficiencies and issues with the first generation of those turreted warships. Drayton was a gunnery specialist, a protégé of both Admirals John A. Dahlgren and Samuel DuPont, and played an important part in shaping the U.S. Navy’s use of those ships in 1862 and 1863.

Peter Barratt has crafted a detailed and nuanced portrait of Percival Drayton, who finally gets his due recognition in this short biography. Barratt draws on a range of sources, and provides a comprehensive bibliography that includes substantial additional annotations and side notes. The one real criticism I have of Farragut’s Captain – and it’s a big one for me – is that it lacks an index, something that impedes somewhat its use as a reference.

Nevertheless, Farragut’s Captain is an important biography of U.S. naval officer who’s often been overlooked, hidden in the shadow of other, more prominent figures. It will make a fine addition to anyone’s library on the U.S. Civil War on naval history.

3½ of 4 Stars

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One Response

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  1. Matt McKeon said, on June 4, 2020 at 6:54 pm

    Very interesting!


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