“Damn the torpedoes!”
Bold Farragut said,
“Damn the torpedoes!
Full speed ahead!”
And, lashed to his rigging
With never a squeal,
He led his fleet into
The Bay of Mobile.
The Southern forts thundered
With vigor and vim
But grapeshot and canister
Never touched him.
The waters were mined
With a death-dealing load,
But Farragut simply
Refused to explode.
And fought till the Southerners
Gave up the fray.
(He’d captured New Orleans
In much the same way.)
So remember, if ever
You face such a plight,
There’s a pretty good chance,
“Straight ahead!” will be right.
And while “damn,” as you know,
Is a word to eschew –
He knew when to say it –
So few people do.
Rosemary and Stephen Benet
Admiral David Glasgow Farragut had been in the Navy since he was a midshipman of nine. He would remain in the Navy until his death at sixty-nine. Sixty-three on August 5, 1864, the victor of New Orleans had energy that surpassed that of most of the young sailors in his fleet that he was about to lead against the Confederate batteries, forts and fleet that guarded Mobile Bay. The Union desperately needed a major victory in the summer of 1864, and if victory was possible at Mobile Bay, Farragut was just the sea dog to deliver it.
Mobile was the center of blockade running on the Gulf Coast, and both the Confederacy and the Union recognized its strategic value.
Farragut had a worthy opponent in Admiral Franklin Buchanan. A veteran of the United States Navy from 1815-1861, he was the first commandant of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Buchanan had served as the captain of the CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack, during the battle of Hampton Roads in which she tangled with the USS Monitor. Promoted to Admiral, he was placed in charge of the naval defenses of Mobile Bay. On August 5 he had a small fleet, three gunboats and the ironclad CSS Tennessee, but as was demonstrated at Mobile Bay the Confederate Navy, although short of every thing else, had abundant supplies of courage and ingenuity.
The entrance to the bay was guarded by two forts: Gaines on the west of the main channel and Morgan on the east. 67 mines, called torpedoes, floated in the entrance of the bay and were clearly marked. The mines were not meant to sink attacking ships, but to force them to steam close to Fort Morgan and be blasted by its artillery.
Farragut had 18 ships which were overwhelmingly superior in firepower to the Confederate vessels they would engage. The fleet carried 5,000 Union troops to besiege the forts and to take Mobile. The troops were landed on Dauphine Island to attack Fort Gaines.
Entering into Mobile Bay at dawn on August 5, Farragut had his iron clad monitors form a column and steam close to Fort Morgan, to help protect the column of 14 wooden ships entering the bay. Farragut had the wooden ships lashed together in pairs, assuming if one vessel was put out of action, its companion ship could tow it into the bay. The monitors succeeded in silencing the guns of Fort Morgan, the monitor USS Tecumseh being sunk by a mine. Farragut, ignoring the loss of the Tecumseh, steamed his column of wooden ships straight through the mine field, guessing, correctly, that the mines had been submerged so long that they were now probably unable to explode.
Inside the bay, Admiral Buchanan in the Tennessee gave battle to the entire Union fleet. The battle continued until Admiral Buchanan and a large part of his crew were wounded, the smokestacks of the Tennessee were shot away, she was unable to build up steam and she could no longer be steered. At the point when she could no longer fight, the Tennessee struck her colors. The forts were taken by August 23. There was no attempt to take Mobile. With Union control of the bay, the port of Mobile was now closed to blockade runners and a major step was taken in shutting down the access of the Confederacy to the goods of the rest of the world.
Most people, if they recall the battle of Mobile Bay at all, recall it for Farragut allegdly saying “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” before taking his fleet into the Confederate minefield. The words certainly are not out of character for Farragut, although the quotation did not appear in print until several years after the battle.
Here is the official report of Admiral Farragut:
FLAGSHIP Hartford, Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864.
I have the honor to report to the Department that this morning I entered Mobile Bay, passing between Forts Morgan and Gaines, and encountering the rebel ram Tennessee and the gunboats of the enemy, viz, Selma, Morgan, and Gaines.
The attacking fleet was underway by 5:45 a.m., in the following order:
Brooklyn with the Octorara on her port side, Hartford with the Metacomet, Richmond with the Port Royal, Lackawanna with the Seminole, Monongahela with the Kennebec, Ossipee with the Itasca, and Oneida with the Galena.
On the starboard of the fleet was proper position of the monitors of ironclads.
The wind was light from the southward and westward; the sky cloudy with very little sun.
Fort Morgan opened upon us at six minutes past 7, and soon after this the action became lively. As we steamed up the Main Ship Channel there was some difficulty ahead and the Hartford passed on ahead of the Brooklyn. At forty minutes past 7 the monitor Tecumseh was struck by a torpedo and sank, going down very rapidly and carrying with her all of her officers and crew with the exception of the pilot and 8 or 10 men, who were saved by a boat that I sent from the Metacomet alongside of me.
The Hartford had passed the forts before 8 o’clock, and finding myself raked by the rebel gunboats I ordered the Metacomet to cast off and go in pursuit of them, one of which, the Selma, she succeeded in capturing.
All the vessels had passed the forts by 8: 30 o’clock, but the rebel ram Tennessee was still apparently uninjured in our rear.
Signal was at once made to all the fleet to turn again and attack the ram, not only with the guns, but with orders to run her down at full speed. The Monongahela was the first that struck her, and, though she may have injured her badly, yet did not succeed in disabling her. The Lackawanna also struck her, but ineffectually, and the flagship gave her a severe shock with her bow, and as she passed poured her whole port broadside into her, solid IX-inch shot and 13 pounds of powder, at a distance of not more than 12 feet. The ironclads were closing upon her and the Hartford and the rest of the fleet were bearing down upon her when, at 10 a. m., she surrendered. The rest of the rebel fleet, viz, Morgan and Gaines, succeeded in getting back under the protection of the guns of Fort Morgan.
This terminated the action of the day.
Admiral Buchanan sent me his sword, being himself badly wounded with a compound fracture of the leg, which it is supposed will have to be amputated.
Having had many of my own men wounded and the surgeon of the ram Tennessee being very desirous to have Admiral Buchanan removed to a hospital, I sent a flag of truce to the commanding officer of Fort Morgan, Brigadier-General Richard L. Page, to say that if he would allow the wounded of the fleet as well as their own to be taken
to Pensacola, where they could be better cared for than here, I would send out one of our vessels, provided she would be permitted to return bringing back nothing that she did not take out. General Page assented, and the Metacomet was dispatched about—o’clock.
The list of casualties on our part as far as yet ascertained are as follows:
In all, 41 killed and 88 wounded.
On the rebel ram Tennessee were captured 20 officers and about 170 men. The list of the former is as follows: Admiral F. Buchanan, Commander James D. Johnston, Lieutenant Wm. L. Bradford, Lieutenant A. D. Wharton, Lieutenant E. J. McDermett, Master J. R. Demahy, Master H. W. Perrin, Fleet Surgeon D. B. Conrad, Assistant Surgeon R. C. Bowles, First Assistant Engineer G. D. Lining, Second Assistant Engineer J. [C.] O’Connell, Second Assistant Engineer John Hayes, Third Assistant Engineer O. Benson, Third Assistant Engineer W. B. Patterson, Paymaster’s Clerk J. H. Cohen, Master’s Mate W. S. Forrest, Master’s Mate [M. J.] Beebee, Master’s Mate R. M. Carter, Boatswain John McCredie, Gunner H. S. Smith.
On the Selma were taken about 90 officers and men. Of the officers I have only heard the names of two, viz, Commander Peter U. Murphey, Lieutenant and Executive Officer J. H. Comstock, who was killed.
I will send a detailed dispatch by the first opportunity. Enclosed is a list of killed and wounded on board the Hartford.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
D.G. Farragut, Rear-Admiral, Commanding West Gulf Blockading Squadron.
Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.