Admiral David Porter was not only one of the great unsung heroes of the Civil War, but he spent time with almost all the great and brilliant minds of the war, including Lincoln, Grant and Sherman. His own father had been a naval war hero in 1812 and Porter began working for him and the navy at age 10. It was Porter’s adoptive brother, David Farragut who captured the city of New Orleans in a surprise victory in 1862. Porter, who witnessed it, would observe his brother’s demeanor and self-control in the middle of trying to pacify a hostile city in the midst of rebellion. He would write in his memoirs,
“A conqueror is never so great as when governing himself and controlling the passions of those around him, in the moment of victory, who witness their beaten foes still defying those who have it in their power to destroy them.”
What Porter was really talking about here is the Stoic concept of self-mastery and justice. Yes, Farragut and the Union had been victorious, but in that victory there was grave danger—of getting carried away with excitement, of exacting retribution, of relaxing their guard or discipline, of committing crimes or lapses of judgement. Indeed, General Butler who would later succeed him was notorious for his abuses, cruelty and corruption. But there was none of that here and that was the greatness Porter was speaking of.
Governing oneself and controlling the dangerous passions around you is as admirable and essential in life as it is in war. Greatness is to be unrattled by victory and defeat. To always be in command of oneself and the situation. To act with justice and fairness, no matter the situation. That’s the sign of a true conqueror…both of the world and oneself.