August 2, 1864 (Tuesday)
Admiral David Farragut had wanted to capture Mobile Bay immediately after New Orleans fell. But with the Mississippi River open and Vicksburg calling, Washington would hear none of it. But now, a year and a half later, he was finally about to strike. He had been in the area since the middle of January 1864, and beheld the formidable Confederate defenses, including two forts and a small fleet of ships.
“I am satisfied,” he wrote to Washington, “that if I had one ironclad at this time I could destroy their whole force in the bay and reduce the forts at my leisure, by cooperation with our land forces – say 5,000 men.”
There were three Rebel forts barring the passage into Mobile. There was Fort Morgan, a star-fort constructed of mortar, and dating from the War of 1812, though it was much-changed by this date. There, too, was Fort Gaines, about half the size of Morgan, and built a decade or so later. The smallest was Fort Powell. In addition to the forts, which boasted a total of ninety guns, was a string of sixty-seven torpedoes, hidden like submerged bouys. In the time since Farragut had written the letter in January, the Confederate Navy had grown from virtually nothing to three side-wheel steamers and even an ironclad, the CSS Tennessee.
Mobile was one of the few ports which remained open to Confederate blockade runners. The Rebel ships would speed out of the harbor under the protection of the forts, bringing needed goods into the warring nation.
To close the port, Farragut knew the forts must fall. And for the forts to fall, he needed infantry. To lay seige to the forts, he also needed ironclads. “Without ironclads we should not be able to fight the enemy’s vessels of that class with much prospect of success, as the latter would lie on the flats, where out ships could not got to destroy them. Wooden vessels can do nothing with them, unless by getting within one hundred or two hundred yards, so as to ram them or pour in a broadside.”
From time to time, the Federal Navy would venture close to Fort Powell and shell it for a few days. But mostly it was waiting and working on the ships, making them ready for the coming battle. This preparation lasted through all the spring and summer. As time drew on, he became more depressed at the state of thins. “One thing appears to be certain,” he wrote to his son in May, “that I can get none of the ironclads. They want them all for Washington.”
Through spring, he watched the CSS Tennessee and the Confederate fleet commanded by Admiral Franklin Buchanan. “I am watching Buchanan in the ram Tennessee. She is a formidable-looking thing, and there are four others and three wooden gunboats. They say he is waiting for the two others to come out and attack me, and then raid until New Orleans. Let him come. I have a fine squadron to meet him, all ready and willing.”
Contrary to Farragut’s suspicion, and much to Buchanan’s chagrin, only the Tennessee was sea-worthy.
Nearly a month later, on June 21st, Farragut’s patience began to wear thin. “I am tired of watching Buchanan and [General Richard Lucian] Page, and wish from the bottom of my heart that Buck would come out and try his hand upon us. The question has to be settled, iron versus wood; and there never was a better chance to settle the question as to the sea-going qualities of ironclad ships. Ware are today ready to try anything that comes along, be it wood or iron, in reasonable quantities. Anything is preferable to lying on our oars.”
Come mid-July, he was itching to attack. “Strip your vessels and prepare for the conflict,” he ordered his captains. “Send down all your superfluous spars and rigging. Trice up or remove the whiskers.”
By the end of July, Farragut’s wish was granted. Three ironclads, the USS Manhattan, Chickasaw and Winnebago, were with him. The two latter had served the past year or so in the Mississippi. There was another, the Tecumseh, which had just the month previous been in the waters of Virginia, but had cruised along the coast, around Florida and was now leaving Pensacola. He hoped that it would arrive in a couple of days.
“The Confederates at Fort Morgan,” wrote Farragut on July 31st, “are making great preparations to receive us. That concerns me but little. I know Buchanan and Page, who commands the fort, will do all in their power to destroy us, and we will reciprocate the compliment. I hope to give them a fair fight, if I once get inside. I expect nothing from them but that they will try to blow me up if they can.”
On this date, Farragut was near a panic, tossing out several orders urging the Tecumseh to come quickly. The date of August 4th had been selected “as the day for landing of the troops and my entrance into the bay.” The plan, as it stood, was to land 1,500 infantry about fifteen miles west of Fort Gaines, where they would march upon the rear of the fort. Meanwhile, Farragut’s Navy would attack the same fort in two lines – one for the wooden ships, the other for the ironclads. Along the side of each of the larger wooden ships, a smaller gunboat was to be lashed. The line of ironclads would move between the fort and the other line for protection.
Now there would be more waiting.1
- Sources: Official Records of the Navy, Series 1, Vol. 21, p397, 400, 416-417; The Life of David Glasgow Farragut by Loyall Farragut; David G. Farragut by John Randolph Spears. [↩]