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This Week in Military History: August 4th - 10th

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August 5th, 1864: Battle of Mobile Bay

Painting of the Battle of Mobile Bay

A lot of great and inspirational adages came from the minds and mouths of brave men and women throughout the history of warfare. But few are probably as well-remembered, widely used, or slightly misquoted(1) as the immortal words of David Glasgow Farragut, the US Navy’s first admiral, at the Battle of Mobile Bay: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” It’s a cool phrase in and of itself, but the story of the battle around it makes it even cooler.

During the Civil War, Mobile Bay, Alabama was one of the main ports used by Confederate blockade runners, so its capture would severely curtail the vital supplies coming in from Europe. Ergo, the bay was heavily defended by three gunboats, the ironclad ram CSS Tennessee, and a trio of forts (Morgan, Gaines, and Powell) bristling with artillery. The surrounding waters were also heavily mined, with 67 “torpedoes” (as naval mines were called back then) effectively blocking all but a narrow channel into the bay.

But the strength of these defenses contended with (then rear admiral) Farragut’s impressive fleet of fourteen wooden warships and four ironclads working in conjunction with 5,500 Union Army soldiers under Major General Gordon Granger. Farragut was already a renowned figure by then, having served in the Navy since 1810 (he became a midshipman at age nine, which is just plain crazy when you think about it). He’d fought in the War of 1812, The Mexican-American War, and in operations against Caribbean pirates. Although born and raised in Tennessee and living in Virginia, Farragut was a staunch opponent of secession. By August of 1864 he’d already seen a great deal of action with the Union Navy, including his pivotal capture of New Orleans in 1862.

Photograph of Admiral David Farragut
Granger’s troops went ashore and dug in around the forts on the 3rd and 4th, but the battle began in earnest on the 5th. At dawn, with the tide coming in, Farragut began his attack up through the un-mined channel near Fort Morgan. His four ironclads went in first, single file, and set themselves in position to block the fort batteries from hitting the wooden ships. The wooden ships followed, lashed side-by-side in pairs in case one lost propulsion. The USS Tecumseh (the lead ironclad) opened fire at 6:47am, the Confederate ships and fort responded, and the fight was on.

The cannon fire from Fort Morgan proved ineffective, but the Tecumseh strayed into the mined waters, struck one, and sank in just a few minutes with 93 of her 114 crewmen (the majority of the 151 Union troops killed in battle). As a result, the captain of the USS Brooklyn, the leading wooden ship, stopped to wait for Farragut’s flashship, the USS Hartford, to pull closer so he could ask for further instructions. At this point, Farragut had climbed the mainmast for a better view of the battle and allowed a sailor to tie him to the rigging to keep him from falling.

There he was, a sixty-two year old two-star admiral lashed securely to the fore and aft shrouds in the middle of a battle shouting down to the Brooklyn, “What’s the trouble?”

“Torpedoes,” someone shouted up.

“Damn the torpedoes!” Farragut hollered back like the notoriously aggressive naval hero he was, followed by, “Four bells(2), Captain Drayton(3). Go ahead. Jouett(4), full speed.”

(Or something close to that, at any rate.)

At this fearless command, the fleet continued into the bay. Once past the mines the Union ships quickly put the Confederate gunboats out of commission, capturing one and forcing another’s crew to beach and burn it. The third never fired a shot, choosing to hide under the cover of Fort Morgan’s guns and escape once darkness fell that night. The Tennessee attempted to put up a fight but, alone and unable to ram the maneuverable Union ships, she was battered by cannon fire without doing significant damage in return. Finally, with her smokestack gone, steering disabled, and many of her gun ports jammed, the USS Chickasaw blocked her escape while the USS Manhattan fired a barrage so fierce it destroyed the ship’s oak structure beneath her failing metal armor. The Tennessee surrendered, leaving the Union Navy unopposed on the waters of Mobile Bay.

The Confederates at Fort Powell abandoned their position early in the battle and Fort Gaines surrendered a few days later on August 8th. Fort Morgan held out until the morning 23rd when, after weeks of bombardment from Farragut’s ships (now including the captured and renamed USS Tennessee, which must have really stung) and besieged by Granger’s troops, they ran up the white flag. With minimal loss of life on both sides, the Battle of Mobile Bay ended with a Union victory, a drastic cut in supplies coming in to the already waning Confederacy, and a supremely gutsy saying coined.

Navy WWI Recruiting Poster of Admiral David Farragut

Footnotes

1 - While Farragut definitely said, “Damn the torpedoes,” the exact wording of the second half of his command is a subject of historical debate. The phrasing included in this description of the battle is probably close to the truth. The nautical colloquialisms were changed to more common language over time but the intent was not. So the well-known wording remains fairly accurate and super cool phrase.

2 - The command for a steamship’s engine to be increased to full power

3 - Percival Drayton, captain of the Hartford

4 - James Edward Jouett, captain of the Metacomet, the ship paired with the Hartford

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