Senators and congressmen reviewed the battle reports from the taking of New Orleans in early 1862 in order to prepare a special resolution honoring Captain Theodorus Bailey and Flag-officer David Farragut. Bailey almost certainly would rise to the top of the waiting list for promotion to rear admiral. However, according to author/Admiral David Porter, as the battle’s description was read aloud by Senator James Grimes and the nation’s legislators reacted with wild enthusiasm, a note was delivered to the speaker.
Reading it, he said, “Stop, we are moving too fast,” after which the note was passed around for all to read. The subject was quickly changed and the lawmakers began addressing unrelated issues, while Bailey sat in disbelief and utter humiliation.
Later, he was quietly informed by Grimes that the note mentioned discrepancies between Bailey’s and Farragut’s accounts of the battle, necessitating further inquiry. Translation: it appeared Bailey had taken more credit than he was due for Farragut’s great achievement.
Theodorus returned to duty and was promoted to commodore in July of that same year. Despite poor health, he requested further assignments, leading to service in the Eastern Gulf Blockading Squadron. Shortly after the war ended, Bailey was promoted to rear admiral. He retired three months later after nearly 49 years of service.
Seven years after the taking of New Orleans, there was still talk among many battle participants at how Bailey had been mistreated, having been overlooked for promotion after bravely leading the charge at New Orleans, and later being humiliated before Congress.
Finally, in 1869, Bailey himself sought to set the record straight. He wrote to Admiral Farragut, and through a series of missives, the truth was uncovered. In his original report, Farragut had offered high praise for Bailey’s courageous performance at New Orleans, but the materials he submitted to Congress included a drawing of the initial battle plan, which placed Farragut at the lead of the attack. That was not the case.
To keep Farragut relatively safe, the plan had been revised verbally, instead placing Bailey and the Cayuga at the lead. His was the first ship to pass the forts on the Mississippi, after which his crew battled alone against a flotilla of gunboats and the two famous ironclads, Louisiana and Manassas, until help arrived. From Farragut’s own account and the original battle drawing, it was easily and mistakenly believed that Farragut himself led the charge past the forts and took New Orleans. But in reality, he led the overall attack as its commander. At the front, the physical and inspirational leader was Bailey.
The personal letters between Bailey and Farragut, with Bailey repeatedly citing documents submitted by Farragut years earlier, reveal that the admiral finally agreed: Theodorus had been badly wronged. Farragut then sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, along with a corrected drawing of the assault. Included was further information clarifying what had occurred at New Orleans, giving Bailey the full credit he was due as the battle’s hero.
But the damage had already been done. Many history books (Benson Lossing’s and others that are still cited today) up to that point had recorded Farragut as the front-running hero past the forts. Bailey was praised in many instances, but his role was minimized by erroneous descriptions of what took place. Had the correct information been provided in 1862, Theodorus would likely have been a top candidate for rear admiral and vice admiral as the positions became available. Those honors instead went to David Porter, also a worthy candidate, who was promoted in the footsteps of his adoptive brother, David Farragut.
Porter’s family had adopted Farragut at age seven, and years later, Porter actually served under Farragut at New Orleans. In his book, The Naval History of the Civil War (1886), Admiral David D. Porter details what occurred at the taking of New Orleans. Regarding the actions of his adoptive brother, he leaves the door open to possible impropriety on Farragut’s part when addressing the issue of Bailey’s troubles.
Porter wrote of Farragut: “… who, as time passes, will be handed down as the most famous Admiral of the American Navy. Farragut received so many honors himself that he could well afford to spare to those who served under him, any that may have been withheld from them either by accidental omission or otherwise” [my italics: LPG].
Porter’s next sentence begins the narrative with, “There was no braver officer in Farragut’s fleet than Captain Theodorus Bailey, who led the first division at the passage of Forts Jackson and St. Philip.” He goes on to describe the battle, its aftermath, Bailey’s visit to Washington, and reprints the letters exchanged between Bailey and Farragut several years after the battle.
That remarkable chapter, titled “A Brave Officer’s Mortification—History Set Right,” reveals the truth. It also prompts speculation, for Porter uses the phrase, “by accidental omission or otherwise.” Some Farragut supporters dismissed Porter’s claims, and there certainly was plenty of bad blood between the two men. But setting that feud aside, it remains true that the Bailey–Farragut letters alone provide convincing proof that much if not all of what Porter described was, in fact, accurate.
One of many samples to that effect: Farragut told the Department of the Navy that Bailey led the right column in the attempt to pass the forts. However, in the actual attack, there were three divisions lined up in the river, single file (there were no left and right columns side by side), with the Cayuga at the lead. Responds Bailey, politely but firmly, “How could there have been a right and left column practically when I led my division to the attack and passage of the forts an hour before you lifted anchors in the Hartford and your center division? What I did was done by your orders and inspiration, and to you the world has given credit of the attack and its success….” Further dismaying to Bailey was that Farragut’s drawing placed the Cayuga third in line, not first.
When Farragut made the official correction in naval records, he dismissed the original drawing as “evidently a clerical error.”
There is no question that Theodorus Bailey fought bravely, just like Macdonough had, and with the same results—a critical victory in the face of great danger and daunting challenges. But the effects of that erroneous report by Admiral Farragut are still evident today.
Here’s one example, taken from a popular modern source, Wikipedia: “After two days of heavy bombardment, Farragut ran past forts Jackson and St. Philip and the Chalmette batteries to take the city and port of New Orleans on April 29, a decisive event in the war. Congress honored him by creating the rank of rear admiral on July 16, 1862, a rank never before used in the U.S. Navy. Before this time, the American Navy had resisted the rank of admiral, preferring the term ‘flag officer’ to distinguish the rank from the traditions of the European navies.”
He reaped wonderful rewards for the victory, and yes, it’s true that “Farragut ran past forts Jackson and St. Philip” and continued to New Orleans. The image conjured by Congress from Farragut’s own account was that of the fearless admiral leading the fleet headlong into battle. Thus, Bailey’s account was discounted as self-serving and inaccurate.
But Farragut’s ship was actually the ninth boat to pass the forts. Bailey on the Cayuga was the first, as ordered by Farragut himself in the revised plan. Was it an accident or an oversight that Farragut submitted the drawing that made himself the hero, rather than a revised drawing showing Bailey at the lead? Either way, he surely benefited immensely, while Bailey suffered unjustly.
Although he carried himself like his childhood hero Macdonough, Theodorus Bailey never received appropriate credit for his accomplishments at New Orleans. Admirably, David Porter tried years later to correct the slight by including the story in his book, complete with the Bailey–Farragut letters. But few sources, present or past, acknowledge Porter’s account or the full scope of Bailey’s heroism.
Meanwhile, Chateaugay and the North Country can take pride in another prominent naval hero, one inspired by Plattsburgh’s famous commodore.
Photos: Theodorus Bailey … three ships have been named in his honor (1901, 1919, 1942); the corrected diagram submitted by Admiral Farragut, with the lead ship Cayuga in the upper middle. (The Naval History of the Civil War, 1886, by Admiral David Porter.)