A member of the prominent Delaware family, Samuel Francis “Frank” Du Pont served almost 50 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of rear admiral. He was born in New Jersey in 1803, but spent his childhood at Louviers – his father’s home on the Brandywine Creek near Wilmington.
Because of his father’s failing business, “Frank,” as he was called by family and friends, was encouraged to enlist in the Navy. Through family connections with former president Thomas Jefferson, he received an appointment as a midshipman at the age of 12.
Before long, the young sailor went out to sea on the U.S.S. Franklin. Through diligence and learning, he had become an accomplished navigator by the time of his next assignment aboard the frigate Constitution in 1821. Eventually, he received promotions to the rank of sailing master and lieutenant.
In June 1833, it was a more mature naval officer who married his first cousin Sophie Madeleine, daughter of Frank’s uncle Eleuthere, founder of the E.I. du Pont Company. Sophie was her husband’s lifelong partner and confidante. (Frank, by the way, was the only one in the du Pont family to spell his name with a capital D.)
By the time of the Mexican War in 1846, Du Pont had received promotion to commander, and he took charge of the U.S.S. Cyane. He had a distinguished record during the conflict, capturing or destroying 30 ships and clearing the Gulf of California.
After the war, Frank helped modernize the navy that he considered to be outmoded and badly in need of reform. In 1850, he served as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, before moving on to other assignments. Promoted in 1855 to captain – the highest rank attainable during peacetime – he became commandant of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1860. He was contemplating retirement after 45 years of service, but the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 interrupted those plans.
When President Abraham Lincoln approved his appointment to command the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron based in Norfolk, Va., Du Pont organized the attack and capture of Port Royal, S.C. His performance won him promotion to rear admiral in July 1862.
The admiral’s fortunes took a downturn the following year, however, when Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles gave him command of a fleet of armored or “ironclad” ships, including seven monitors (low-lying vessels with revolving gun turrets), and directed him to capture Charleston, S.C.
Du Pont advocated a combined land and sea attack, and only reluctantly complied with his superior’s desire for an all-naval operation. The admiral knew that monitors, while successful in combat with enemy ships, had proven ineffective against fortifications.
Welles’ decision was as much political as it was military. He desired to gain recognition for the navy, since public attention was directed mainly toward the army’s engagement in land battles. However, once interest in an attack on Charleston grew – including on the part of President Lincoln – Du Pont made the mistake of not being forthright and insistent with the Secretary regarding limited chances for success for an all-naval operation. As a result, expectations in Washington were unrealistic.
When Du Pont led the attack on Charleston from his flagship, the U.S.S. New Ironsides, in April 1863, his fleet of Passaic-class monitors was outgunned. They had to contend with artillery firing from different points around the harbor leading to Charleston.
The Union ships were caught in the crossfire. Five of the ironclads were damaged, including one that eventually sank. Despite that result, Welles pushed Du Pont to renew the attack. He refused and, following confrontational charges exchanged about responsibility for the defeat, the admiral received a letter relieving him from his assignment.
Du Pont returned, dispirited and discredited, to his home at Louviers in Delaware. He had suffered the misfortune of a virtual no-win situation that might have been avoided, if he had challenged his superiors. He would come to see himself vindicated when his replacement, Admiral John Dahlgren, also failed to capture Charleston after repeated attempts. However, the damage to his reputation had already been done.
Samuel F. “Frank” Du Pont died in 1865 at age 61 and is buried in the family cemetery in Greenville, Del. Despite what occurred at Charleston, Congress recognized the admiral’s long and valiant service by naming Du Pont Circle in Washington, D.C., in his honor.
The family commissioned sculptor Daniel Chester French to create a memorial at Du Pont Circle to Delaware’s Admiral of the Navy. The project resulted in a fountain with three statues representing “Sea, Wind and Sky.” The dedication took place on May 17, 1921, to the man whom his biographer, Kevin J. Weddle, described as “a warrior, a diplomat, a thoughtful strategist, a confirmed reformer, and an experienced and supremely competent seaman.”
Thomas J. Ryan is an author and speaker and a member of several historical and preservation organizations, including the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.