Born in Chester, Pennsylvania on June 8, 1813, David Dixon Porter was the son of Evelina Anderson and Commodore David Porter, a naval officer who earned fame in the War of 1812. After attending Columbia College in New York, the younger Porter followed in his father's footsteps, entering the U.S. Navy as a midshipman in 1829 and earning promotion to lieutenant in 1841.
In 1861, Porter was assigned to the U.S. Navy's Gulf Squadron as commander of the USS Powhatan. He was promoted to commander on April 22, 1861 and was instrumental in the navy's campaign against New Orleans in 1862. He was promoted to captain in February 1863 and commanded the Mississippi Squadron throughout 1863 and 1864. He was promoted to rear admiral on July 4, 1863 immediately after the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi. His last major campaign with the Mississippi River Squadron was the Red River Campaign, March 10 to May 22, 1864.
On October 12, 1864, Porter took command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, the position he held throughout the remainder of the war. Porter's fleet participated in the two battles of Fort Fisher, December 24-25, 1864 and January 13-15, 1865. These two engagements proved to be the largest naval bombardments in history, and the Second Battle of Fort Fisher was the largest amphibious engagement of the war. Some ships from Porter's fleet also participated in the remainder of the Wilmington Campaign, including the Battle of Fort Anderson, February 18-19, 1865.
Porter continued his storied naval career long after the Civil War. From 1865 to 1869 he was Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. In 1869, he was appointed advisor to the Secretary of the Navy. He earned promotion to admiral in 1870, commanded a fleet based at Key West in the mid-1870s, and from 1877 to 1891 served as head of the Board of Inspection and Survey. He is one of only seven naval officers to remain on active duty for life.
Porter's descendents carried on the family's military tradition. Porter married Georgia Ann Patterson on March 10, 1839 and the couple had ten children. One son, Carlile Patterson Porter became a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. Carlile Porter named his son after David Dixon Porter, and he became a major general in the U.S. Marine Corps, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1901, during the Philippine War.