Damn the Torpedoes!
Aug 5, 1864, 3 a.m.
On a sultry night, 18 ships of the Union navy rest uneasily at anchor off the bar of Mobile Bay, Ala. Led by four ironclads, and strengthened by 14 experienced wooden warships, the Union flotilla is part of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, commanded by Rear Adm. David G. Farragut. The admiral was the United States’s most experienced, and celebrated, flag officer. He had spent 51 years in the Navy: After service as a youth in the War of 1812, and fighting pirates in the West Indies, Farragut established his Civil War reputation by capturing New Orleans after a daring dash up the Mississippi.
Commodore Franklin BuchananCredit Library of Congress
Opposing Farragut was Franklin Buchanan, the South’s only admiral, who by 1864 had served a combined 49 years in the Union and Confederate navies. Buchanan was no stranger to Union forces. He had commanded the ironclad Virginia, formerly the Merrimac, in her maiden voyage at the Battle of Hampton Roads, where she sank two ships, the Congress and the Cumberland, and disabled the frigate Minnesota. Buchanan commanded a modest naval force at Mobile Bay from his flagship, the Tennessee, the most powerful ironclad in the Confederacy, and the equal or better of any Union ironclad. But only three gunboats were available as a complement.
By 1864 Mobile, Ala., was one of the last working ports of the Confederacy. Three forts guarded the entrance to the bay, 30 miles south, allowing Mobile to receive frequent blockade runners bringing urgently needed food, arms and supplies to confederate troops and civilians. An effective railway system then dispersed those supplies from Mobile throughout the South.
Along with the forts, Confederate engineers had placed wooden obstructions, heavy propeller-fouling rope and hundreds of “torpedoes,” or primitive underwater mines, along the mouth of the bay, forcing all naval traffic eastward to enter the bay through the only clear channel, directly under the guns of Fort Morgan.
Farragut’s options were limited, but he had a plan. Enjoying a calm sea, gunboats and smaller ships were lashed to larger ships in pairs, the larger ship to starboard closest to Fort Morgan. Farragut would send his four ironclads first, followed immediately by the seven pairs of wooden vessels, reducing the number of targets for confederate gunners. As soon as the fleet entered the bay, the smaller vessels would be cast loose to attack the Confederate fleet. As Farragut designed it, the larger union vessel would protect its consort from the guns of Fort Morgan, and if either ship became disabled, the southwest wind and flood tide would push both vessels into the bay.
Rear Adm. David FarragutCredit Library of Congress
Farragut had wanted to move against Mobile for two years. In vain he had requested further resources from Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and cooperation from War Secretary Edwin Stanton, but the shortage of men and matériel for this large an operation prevented those orders from issuing. Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox broke the news to Farragut in the fall of 1862: “We don’t think you have force enough, and we don’t want you to run risks … we only expect a blockade now, and the preservation of New Orleans.”
Finally, in the spring of 1864, with support from newly appointed General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant, Farragut began laying plans for the assault on Mobile Bay. First on his list — after being assured of army support — was obtaining several ironclads to breach the line at Fort Morgan. Welles cooperated, sending the Manhattan, the Chickasaw, the Winnebago, and the most powerful monitor of all, the Tecumseh. The Tecumseh, commanded by Tunis Craven, arrived only hours before the assault, and her captain missed the general briefing.
At breakfast aboard his flagship, the Hartford, Farragut learned that all ships had completed their pairings, and he ordered the signal to get underway. Capt. James Alden commanded the Brooklyn, the lead Union wooden warship. With the Octorara lashed to her side, she headed slowly north, the remaining pairs following in her wake. “At twenty minutes to six, the line was formed, and we commenced to steam in slowly, the Admiral’s order being to carry the lowest possible pressure, so as to avoid as much as possible the fearful scalding effect of steam, should the boilers be pierced,” one surgeon aboard the Lackawanna, recalled.
Four union ironclads began to stir from their anchorage off Sand Island. Anchored closer to Fort Morgan, they were to cross in front of the approaching Union fleet and lead them up the channel into the bay. Craven and the Tecumseh led the way.
The Tecumseh entered the main channel ahead of her sister ironclads. The main fleet picked up speed, but was still almost 1,000 yards behind. The crew primed its 15-inch Dahlgren guns by firing two 350-pound shells into the fort. The battle commenced.
The Union ships were still over 2,000 yards from Fort Morgan, out of any reliable range of the fort’s guns. Nonetheless, the fort’s commander, recognizing the need to boost his troops’ morale, ordered firing to commence, and the fort’s garrison raised a “soul stirring cheer” that the battle had been joined.
Now abreast of the fort, with shells exploding everywhere, the Brooklyn inexplicably stopped, and actually reversed her engines, her captain later noting “a row of suspicious-looking buoys were discovered directly under our bows.” Immediately behind in the Hartford, which was in danger of ramming the Brooklyn, Farragut ordered the Brooklyn to “Go ahead.” He was ignored.
An Army signalman named John Kinney was aboard the flagship, relaying messages to and from the admiral. Kinney climbed the rigging almost 100 feet above the deck to get a view above the smoke of battle. At that moment, against orders, the Tecumseh steered westward into the minefield, in an effort to keep the approaching rebel ram Tennessee in its sights. Kinney relayed what happened next. “Just at this moment, to the horror of us all, the monitor Tecumseh, a few hundred yards in the advance, seemed to stagger for a moment, then suddenly careened, and almost instantly disappeared beneath the water, carrying with her, her noble commander, Captain Craven, and one hundred and twenty officers and men, hopelessly imprisoned in their iron coffin.” The Tecumseh had struck a torpedo, the muffled explosion hardly audible above the din of battle, and she sank in less than a minute, bow first, her propeller still turning. Only 21 of her officers and men were able to exit the stricken vessel and swim to safety. The remaining 94 crewmen, including Craven, are entombed to this day.
The sinking of the Tecumseh during the Battle of Mobile BayCredit Library of Congress
The attack was unraveling, which Farragut saw firsthand after climbing the rigging himself. Fearing for the admiral’s safety, his captain sent a quartermaster aloft with a rope, and Farragut permitted himself to be tied fast to the rigging, freeing both hands to use his spyglass and signal his officers. The Tecumseh had vanished, and Farragut realized the Brooklyn, like an obstinate mule, simply was not going to proceed. Meanwhile, his fleet was taking merciless fire from the fort, as well as from the Tennessee and three confederate gunboats in the bay. Now almost abreast of the Brooklyn, whose captain shouted a warning of torpedoes ahead, Farragut replied: “Damn the torpedoes!” Then to his helmsman he added, “”Four bells, Captain Drayton, go ahead.” Though his exact words are lost to history, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” has survived as Farragut’s famous command. What is not in doubt is that he ordered the Hartford around the Brooklyn’s stern, through the minefield and into the bay. The other union vessels, including the Brooklyn, followed carefully in his wake, all expecting at any moment to feel the shudder of an exploding torpedo.
The gunboat Metacomet was finally cast loose from the Hartford, and like a bull terrier took off after the closest confederate gunboat, the Selma. As go the fortunes of war, the Selma’s captain, Patrick Murphey, was an old Navy friend of Capt. James Jouett of the Metacomet. Jouett, in the faster Metacomet, pursued the Selma across the bay through a blinding rain squall, cornering it in shoal waters, and fired from almost point blank range, killing an officer, and wounding Jouett’s friend and five other crew members. The Selma struck her colors immediately.
The heavily damaged Union fleet had now passed into the bay, and assembled at anchor to treat their wounded and conduct emergency repairs. The Hartford was hit particularly hard: By the time the battle was over, 25 of its crew were dead, and as many wounded. But aside from the Tecumseh, the remaining 16 ships suffered just 27 fatalities.
Though Fort Morgan had been passed, the battle was not over. Admiral Buchanan believed the Tennessee could match any of the Union ships. After raking the fleet with his huge guns as they passed into the bay, Buchanan got up steam and headed to single-handedly ram the fleet. As Farragut saw the slow-moving Tennessee approaching, he signaled his vessels to “Run down the ram.” Buchanan, however, was fixed on the Hartford. An officer on the Union the sloop Monongahela described the scene: “With colors flying, [the ram] made directly for the flagship, ignoring all lesser fry. The perfect confidence which the commander of the Tennessee had in his vessel … rendered the fight which then took place … one of the most desperate on record.”
As Buchanan methodically stalked the Hartford, the Monongahela and the Lackawanna each rammed the Tennessee at full speed. Kinney, above the Hartford’s deck, reported that the Monongahela’s blow “inflicted not the slightest damage on the solid iron hull of the ram.” The Lackawanna, at 150 tons, then rammed the Tennessee at 14 knots, but again, nothing. As each ship backed away from impact, much damaged, the Tennessee’s huge guns delivered broadsides, tearing enormous holes in their sides.
As Buchanan continued for the Hartford, the ironclad Manhattan approached, rotating her turret for a 440-pound solid shot from her 15-inch gun. The shot exploded against the Tennessee, penetrating 5 inches of iron plates and 24 inches of solid wood, daylight reaching the crew below. By now the Hartford had charged the Tennessee as well, the two vessels scraping side by side and exchanging broadsides from 12 feet away. Other Union vessels got into the action, and the Tennessee was taking fire from all quarters.
After several successful rounds from the Chickasaw, the Tennessee’s steering became unmanageable, and her gun doors became jammed shut. A shot penetrated a port door, killing two seamen instantly, and breaking Buchanan’s leg. He ordered the ship’s commander, James Johnston, to take over. With her steering now disabled, and no functioning guns, the ship was little more than a floating target.
After three hours of raging combat, with over 300 Union casualties, the Tennessee surrendered. Commander Johnston reported later on his decision, “with an almost bursting heart, to hoist the white flag, and … placed it in the same spot where but a few moments before had floated the proud flag for whose honor I would so cheerfully have sacrificed my own life.”
Despite the Union victory, Fort Morgan held out for almost three weeks in the face of almost round the clock bombardment. It finally surrendered the morning of Aug. 23, and the Battle of Mobile Bay was finally over at last. Admiral Farragut later pronounced it “the most desperate battle I ever fought.” Although blockade runner traffic was shut down, the city of Mobile never fell.