At the outbreak of the Civil War, Drayton held the rank of commander. Of the navy’s fifteen hundred officers, one-quarter left to serve with the South. But Drayton did not and chose instead the cause of Union.
Naval officer. Drayton was born on August 25, 1812, in Charleston, the son of William Drayton (1776–1846) and Ann Gadsden. His father served in Congress from 1825 to 1833 and was a leading opponent of nullification in the early 1830s, and he eventually moved his family from Charleston to Philadelphia. Drayton’s older brother, Thomas Fenwick Drayton, was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. After army service, Thomas returned to South Carolina and became a successful planter and state senator.
At age fifteen, Percival Drayton was appointed midshipman in the U.S. Navy. He entered the service twenty years prior to the founding of the naval academy at Annapolis, and his naval training followed the old pattern inherited from England. Future naval officers began their professional lives not at formal schools but by learning the ropes at sea as midshipmen. He served aboard frigates engaged in protecting U.S. commerce abroad or showing the flag on distant stations. His assignments took him to the Brazilian, Mediterranean, and Pacific squadrons. Eventually he commanded the schooner USS Enterprise and served in a variety of vessels, including the Mississippi, the navy’s third steam-powered warship.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Drayton held the rank of commander. Of the navy’s fifteen hundred officers, one-quarter left to serve with the South. But Drayton did not and chose instead the cause of Union. In November 1861 he commanded a ship in the Port Royal expedition, in which Union forces captured Hilton Head Island, Beaufort, and Parris Island in order to gain a base for operations against Savannah and Charleston. In the battle his brother Thomas, a Confederate brigadier general, commanded the forts whose guns exchanged fire with Drayton’s ship.
Drayton’s performance won him promotion to captain and command of one of the new Ericsson-designed Monitor-class ironclads, the USS Passaic. In April 1863 Drayton took part in the attempt to use nine ironclads–the first time armored vessels were employed in anything approaching a fleet action–to fight their way into Charleston harbor. The attack proved unsuccessful, but Drayton was soon named flag captain under Rear Admiral David Farragut. He commanded Farragut’s flagship, USS Hartford, at the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. It was to Drayton that Farragut shouted the command famously associated with that action: “Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!”
Following the battle, Drayton accompanied Farragut to a triumphal reception in New York. In South Carolina, however, he was regarded quite differently. The General Assembly passed measures formally condemning him to legal banishment and exile. He was not to return in any event. Four months after the war ended, while serving in Washington as chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Drayton died on August 4, 1865, following a brief illness. He had never married.
Ammen, Daniel. The Navy in the Civil War. Vol. 2, The Atlantic Coast. 1883. Reprint, Harrisburg, Pa.: Archive Society, 1992.
Canney, Donald L. Lincoln’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861–65. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998.
Halsey, Ashley, Jr. “I Rue the Day I Got into the Ironclad Business.” Civil War Times Illustrated 4 (April 1965): 28–34.
Mahan, A. T. The Navy in the Civil War. Vol. 3, The Gulf and Inland Waters. 1883. Reprint, Harrisburg, Pa.: Archive Society, 1992.