WHAT KNOX COUNTY HAS IN COMMON WITH MENORCA, AND WHY REMOVING A LEGACY OF A NATIVE-TENNESSEE UNION COMMANDER WOULD ALSO REMOVE A RARE LEGACY OF LATINO PARTICIPATION IN AMERICAN HISTORY.
You may have heard about the proposed removal—presented, a little oddly, as a compromise gesture—to remove the busts of three military figures from their respective niches in the state Capitol building in Nashville. The one that has drawn the most ire, from the day it was installed, is that of Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose career was controversial even before the Civil War was over. Another is a bust of Admiral David Glasgow Farragut.
Although I rarely find myself in those marble halls, I have seen it there, and liked seeing it there. In a town where you don’t see many familiar figures except for country musicians that Nashville lured away from here, Farragut’s noble countenance is a welcome sight. It’s been there since the state sesquicentennial in 1946.
Why the removal of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest hurts his advocates less by also removing Farragut’s is perplexing, and one more reason why I could never get a handle on the byzantine machinations of state politics.
Some of us are old enough to remember when Democrats in Nashville were still extolling the Confederacy as a sort of romantic ideal—especially in opposition to that mean Republican Governor W.G. “Parson” Brownlow, who in that same building pushed through the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments, ahead of the rest of the nation and contrary to the wishes of many Tennesseans. Brownlow, who gave the formerly enslaved the right to vote before allowing it for former Confederates, was a hero to African American Tennesseans of the late 1860s. In our era, it was Democrats who demanded the removal of the portrait of one of Tennessee’s first Republicans.
In the 1970s, Rep. Douglas Henry, Democrat of Davidson County led the campaign to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest with a capitol-building statue. He was the same fellow who a few years later campaigned to remove Brownlow’s portrait from public display in the capitol. That makes at least mathematical sense. Secession, led by Democrats, was a pro-slavery reaction to the election of the first Republican president. Now it’s Republicans who seem to be aligning with the Confederates, proposing removing more evidence of Tennessee Unionists. Political tribalism stratifies us all in bewildering ways.
Brownlow’s portrait, which was in the state capitol for decades, was one reminder that Tennessee produced some leading Unionists in the Civil War. Farragut’s bust is another. Removing Brownlow, and then Farragut, would erase two Tennessee Unionists from public view. But in Farragut’s case, it’s also removing a valuable reminder of a surprising ethnic diversity among the founding fathers of Tennessee’s pioneer generation.
Farragut is not an Anglo name.
Most of the shorthand newspaper/blog talk about Farragut’s statue begins with the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay, the one where he’s reported to have uttered “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.” Everybody has heard that defiant order, even if they can’t guess who said it or from which war it came. There’s a movie called The More the Merrier, in which the main character (played by Charles Coburn, who coincidentally had intimate Knoxville connections) beholds the Farragut statue in Washington and evokes that phrase in multiple modern circumstances.
Of course, people enjoy assertions that he didn’t actually say that, although it was being quoted even during his lifetime. It seems to me awfully hard to prove one way or another. But I like the quote almost as much as Charles Coburn did.
Less well remembered, maybe because it wasn’t nearly so noisy, and wasn’t associated with a memorable utterance, was the naval commander’s bigger accomplishment. It was what Farragut did with his fleet two years earlier. When the war was only one year old, Farragut seized the Confederacy’s largest city—and, in doing so, seized control of the Confederacy’s largest river. In a technically brilliant move, after a brief cannon battle with some forts on the Gulf, in April 1862, Farragut seized a high-tide opportunity to sail his 18-ship fleet up the Mississippi to New Orleans. The water was so high, some of his cannons were actually pointing downward at the city. Fortunately for him and New Orleans, he didn’t have to fire them.
He knew the place. It was—after Knox County—his second home. New Orleans yielded. The whole city was in Union hands for the final three years of the war.
Hardly ever in world history has a major city changed hands with less bloodshed. The reason it did was Farragut’s brilliant and sudden show of force—coupled perhaps with his own reluctance to hurt anyone in the city he knew so personally.
With the Union Army and Navy controlling the Mississippi River—and the South’s largest city—it’s surprising the Confederacy held on for three more years.
Farragut was one of the oldest commanders who led actions in the Civil War. He was in his 60s when he seized New Orleans, one of very few commanders who were veterans of the War of 1812, and one of the very few whose fathers had fought with distinction in the Revolutionary War. And his father was not the typical sort of patriot. English was not his favorite language.
Known as George Farragut in Knoxville, the admiral’s father was born Jordi Farragut Mesquida, on the Spanish island of Menorca, in the Mediterranean Sea. He was a full-blooded Spaniard, and pronounced his name with rolled Rs. First experiencing life in a place surrounded by salt water, he went to sea at the age of 10, and commenced a life of adventure. He is said to have fought the Russians on the Black Sea, before he crossed the Atlantic to work in the Spanish merchant marine, when Louisiana was still a Spanish colony.
He carried an antipathy for the British, due to their domineering control of his native island, and when the American Revolution broke out, he found it simpatico. He joined the South Carolina Navy and fought the British at Savannah and Charleston, where he was seriously injured when a hurtling cannonball broke his arm. Captured but then released, he rejoined the patriots at the decisive battle of Cowpens, which ended the war in the South.
His friendship with a Carolina veteran named William Blount coaxed him away from the sea for the first time in his life, and, marrying a Scots-Irish North Carolina woman named Elizabeth, he settled in the new territorial capital of Knoxville, where he had received considerable land grants for his war service.
Jordi Farragut Mesquida can be counted among the very first Knoxvillians. He never learned to speak English perfectly, but was a jovial fellow much liked by his fellow settlers, “short, chunky, very brave and a funny genius,” as one described him.
He and his wife lived just on the fringe of the territorial and then state capital for a few years in an unusually elaborate stone and log house overlooking Second Creek in the area we now know as World’s Fair Park. Bigger water kept calling him, though, and he eventually moved to the western part of the county where, at a place called Stoney Point, he farmed and established a ferry across the river. There, his son David, originally called James, was born.
Meanwhile, President Jefferson made the deal of the century when he purchased, from Napoleonic France, the huge central part of the continent known as Louisiana. Early reports were that the Spanish and French people who inhabited the capital of New Orleans disliked Anglos and were unlikely to respect them as their new governors. William C.C. Claiborne, the first English-speaking governor there, and an East Tennessee friend of Farragut’s, would likely have trouble. The administration’s policy was to comb through the existing 16 states for anyone of Spanish or French descent to help Claiborne with administration. Maybe U.S. policies would sound better if expressed in French or Spanish.
After he’d been in the Knoxville area for about 15 years, Farragut accepted a job in New Orleans; he accepted it, and went immediately. In the fall of 1807, his family, with the help of a guide, followed floating all the way down the Tennessee to the Ohio to the Mississippi, a journey of more than a month, to New Orleans. The future admiral was just 6 at the time, but those are the formative years.
Elizabeth Farragut died of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1808. With his natural father preoccupied with work, David was raised with the help of another family, but he didn’t have much childhood left. Before turning 11, he was at sea as a midshipman aboard the warship Essex, and by the time he was 13, already getting his name in the newspapers for his courage under fire. Remarkably, his service with the U.S. Navy brought him to Menorca, his father’s birthplace.
Soon after the war, his father, George Farragut, born Jordi Farragut Mesquida, died near the Gulf in 1817, reportedly of yellow fever.
For many years, George Farragut was mainly just a local figure, known mainly to people who read the 1946 Knox County history, The French Broad-Holston Country. In recent years, as researchers have sought Latino connections to American history, his stock has risen. He even has a Wikipedia page. Farragut is remembered as one of the boldest and most interesting Latinos involved in the American war for independence.
The Spanish sailor’s son, David Farragut, had a half-century of naval service ahead of him. He was commander of a ship leading a blockade in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). After the war he worked to establish one of the first U.S. naval ports in California. Based back in Norfolk when Virginia seceded, he remained loyal to the United States during the war. He became the first naval commander to bear the title of Admiral. He remained on active duty for the rest of his life.
I don’t know to what extent Farragut considered himself Hispanic, but he kept the Hispanic name. He was dark complected, with Mediterranean features. Before he died, he returned one more time to see his father’s birthplace of Menorca, and sailed into the harbor. By then, he was famous throughout Europe, but especially well known in the home of the Farragut family. Thousands of Menorcans swarmed his ship as it docked, many of them shouting, “He is ours!”
He was back in America when he died in 1870, a sudden heart attack at age 69. The news stirred interest in Knoxville, although hardly anyone remembered the Spanish Farragut family, but a committee led by Captain William Rule, a fellow Union veteran, announced plans to erect some sort of monument to the county’s native son.
Somehow it didn’t work out. In years to come, veterans had trouble raising money for a general-purpose Union memorial for the National Cemetery. Most Knoxvillians were happy to put the war behind them.
Farragut was all but forgotten. People like to keep things simple. In Tennessee, conversation about the Civil War pictured mainly the battles on dry land.
Farragut was memorialized in the Northern port cities of New York and Washington, but not here. At the end of the 19th century, 30 years after the admiral’s death, there was no school, no town, no street, no hotel named for Farragut here.
Perhaps we would never have named anything for Farragut in Knox County if not for the fact that Admiral George Dewey, the newly minted hero of the Spanish-American War’s Battle of Manila Bay, announced his intention to memorialize his own personal hero and former commanding officer, admiral Farragut, at his birthplace. In the summer of 1900, a fleet of riverboats was barely enough to carry the dignitaries and national journalists who accompanied Dewey to a spot near the small town of Concord, a place once known as Stoney Point, a place where a Spanish immigrant made a home for his growing family.
Suddenly we were Farragut-mad, and the name began popping up everywhere, on a cafe, on a hotel, on a lumber company, and on a new school out near old Campbell’s Station. Now we have an incorporated community honoring him, as well as, more recently, the South’s only statue of the commander.
But we’re not the only ones who remember him. On the Mediterranean island of Menorca, in the town of
Ciutadella, where his father was born, there’s a prominent clifftop hotel called the Globales Almirente Farragut.
In 2017, on the bicentennial of George Farragut’s death, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis dedicated a new commemorative plaque, with Spanish encouragement. The same year, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain presented a specially made book called Farragut y Menorca, El Legado Espanol en la U.S. Navy, –that’s “Farragut and Menorca, the Spanish Legacy in the U.S. Navy”–and presented it to President Trump. I haven’t heard what he thought of it, but I’d be interested in seeing it if he’s done.
By the light of the weird lava lamp of 2021 politics, the Legislature and the state Historic Commission can decide whether commemorating Farragut, the U.S. veteran of three major wars, has anything to do with commemorating Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Spanish seem more comfortable with their position on the worth of this Knox County native.
Researched and Written by Jack Neely, February 2021