August 5, 1864 (Friday)
“The calmness of the scene was sublime. No impatience, no irritation, no anxiety, except for the fort to open; and, after it did open, full five minutes elapsed before we [on the Hartford] answered. In the mean time the guns were trained as if at a target, and all the sounds I could here were, ‘Stead! boys, steady! Left tackle a little; so! so!’ then the roar of a broadside, and an eager cheer as the enemy were driven from their water battery.” – officer aboard the flagship, USS Hartford.
The fleet attacking Fort Gaines at the entrance of Mobile Bay was made up of four ironclad monitors and seven pairs of wood ships lashed together. The USS Tecumseh, newly arrived from Virginia, led the monitors, while the USS Brooklyn, fitted with a “cowcatcher” to pluck away floating torpedoes, led the wooden ships, and the line in general, with the fleet’s flagship, the Hartford second.
“The attacking fleet steamed steadily up the Main Ship Channel, the Tecumseh firing the first shot at 6:47.” wrote Admiral David Farragut in his official report. He had climbed the rigging to get a better view and the captain of the Hartford saw the danger in such a position. He could not order his own admiral down, so he ordered Knowles, his quartermaster, to take a rope and make Farragut more secure.
“I went up with a piece of lead-line, and made it fast to one of the forward shrouds, and then took it round the Admiral to the after shroud, making it fast there. The Admiral said, ‘Never mind, I am all right’; but I went ahead and obeyed orders, for I feared he would fall overboard if anything should carry away or he should be struck.”
A few minutes later, the fort opened upon the fleet “and was replied to by a gun from the Brooklyn, and immediately after the action became general.” The Brooklyn took a beating. From the first reply from the fort, she received “rapid and sharp firing from the batteries of the fort and from the rebel ram Tennessee.”
“The action then commenced,” wrote Captain James Alden of the Brooklyn, “the fire of the enemy being almost entirely directed at the wooden vessels, their ram (Tennessee) and gunboats soon joining in the fight. The starboard battery was opened on the fort as soon as the guns could be brought to bear. Our progress up the channel was slow, owing to our carrying, as directed, low steam, and the very deliberate movements of our ironclads, which occupied the channel close ahead of us. When we had arrived abreast of the fort, by a rapid and timely fire of grape their several batteries were almost entirely silenced.”
It had been part of Farragut’s plan for the Tecumseh to engage the CSS Tennessee. She had arrived on the scene only yesterday, and was unfamiliar with the exact location of the line of torpedoes. Their captain, Commander Tunis Craven, neglecting to stay east of the torpedoes, steamed his ship directly into them.
“At this junction,” wrote Captain Alden of the Brooklyn, “I observed the ill-fated Tecumseh which was then about 300 yards ahead of us and on our starboard bow, careen violently over and sink almost instantaneously. Sunk by a torpedo! Assassination in its worst form! A glorious though terrible end for our noble friends, the intrepid pioneers of that death-strewed path! Immortal fame is theirs; peace to their names.”
It was about 7:40am, and Farragut sent the ship Metacomet, which had been lashed to the Hartford to aid the survivors, of which there were only twenty-one from a crew of 114.
At the same time, Captain Alden of the Brooklyn slowed his ship, seeing “a row of suspicious-looking buoys” directly under his bow. “While we were in the act of backing to clear them our gallant admiral passes us and took the lead.”
Farragut saw the the Brooklyn had “arrested the advance of the whole fleet, while at the same time the guns of the fort were playing with great effect upon that vessel and the Hartford. A moment after I saw the Tecumseh, struck by a torpedo, disappear almost instantaneously beneath the waves, carrying with her her gallant commander and nearly all her crew. I determined at once, as I had originally intended, to take the lead, […] I dashed ahead with the Hartford, and the ships followed on, their officers believing that they were going to a noble death with their commander in chief.”
As legend tells the story, Farragut was warned of torpedoes and, while lashed to the rigging, shouted “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” This story, however, did not appear in print until fifteen years after the battle. It was first related by Loyall Farragut, the admiral’s son, in an official biography thus: “‘What’s the trouble?’ was shouted through a trumpet from the flag-ship to the Brooklyn. ‘Torpedoes!’ was shouted back in reply. ‘Damn the torpedoes!’ said Farragut. ‘Four bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!'”
This remained the story until Isaac Newton Arnold’s 1885 biography of Abraham Lincoln, when it was shortened to: “‘Damn the torpedoes!’ said Farragut. ‘Go ahead, full speed,’ he shouted to his own captain.”
Three years later, in 1888, the story was already being questioned: “This is the current story, and may have some basis of truth. But as a matter of fact, there was never a moment when the din of the battle would not have drowned any attempt at conversation between the two ships, and while it is quite probable that the admiral made the remark it is doubtful if he shouted it to the Brooklyn.”
Admiral Farragut’s own report is less dramatic: “I steamed through between the buoys where the torpedoes were supposed to have been sunk. These buoys had been previous examined by my flag-lieutenant, J. Crittenden Watson, in several nightly reconnaissances. Though he had not been able to discover the sunken torpedoes, yet we had been assured by refugees, deserters, and others of their existence, but believing that from their having been some time in the water, they were probably innocuous, I determined to take the chance of their explosion.”
As the Hartford pushed through, so followed the rest of the fleet, firing as they went. At 8:10am, they passed the fort. But just as they did, the Confederate Tennessee made for the flagship. There three other Rebel gunboats were also plying their trade. For the other three, Farragut dispatched the Metacomet to pursue them. By 8:30, the entire fleet had passed the fort, and the Tennessee was still behind them and uninjured.
Farragut ordered most of his fleet to anchor in the middle of the bay, where no guns could touch them. They were not, however, safe from the Tennessee, who was now steaming towards them, attempting to take on the entire Federal fleet. This was a move reminiscent of the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads, and that is no small wonder. The Tennessee was the flagship of Admiral Franklin Buchanan, who had captained the Virginia on that infamous day in 1862.
“I was not long in comprehending his intention to be the destruction of the flagship,” wrote Farragut in his report. “The monitors and such of the wooden vessels as I thought best adapted for the purpose were immediately ordered to attack the ram, not only with their guns, but bows on at full speed, and then began one of the fiercest naval combats on record.
“The Monongahela, Commander Strong, was the first vessel that struck her, and in doing so carried away his own iron prow, together with the cutwater, without apparently doing her adversary much injury. The Lackawanna, Captain Marchand, was the next vessel to strike her, which she did at full speed, but though her stem was cut and crushed to the plank ends for the distance of 3 feet above the water’s edge to 5 feet below, the only perceptible effect on the ram was to give her a heavy list.
“The Hartford was the third vessel which struck her, but as the Tennessee quickly shifted her helm, the blow was a glancing one, and as she rasped along our side we poured our whole port broadside of IX-inch solid shot within 10 feet of her casemate.
“The monitors worked slowly, but delivered their fire as opportunity offered. The Chickasaw succeeded in getting under her stern, and a 15-inch shot from the Manhattan broke through her iron plating and heavy wooden backing, though the missile itself did not enter the vessel.
“Immediately after the collision with the flagship I directed Captain Drayton to bear down for the ram again. He was doing so at full speed, when unfortunately the Lackawanna ran into the Hartford, just forward of the mizzenmast, cutting her down to within 2 feet of the water’s edge. We soon got clear again, however, and were fast approaching our adversary when she struck her colors and ran up the white flag.”
“Suddenly the terrific cannonading ceased, and from every ship rang out cheer after cheer, as the weary men realized that at last the ram was conquered and the day won. The Chickasaw took the Tennessee in tow and brought her to anchor near the Hartford. […] Admiral Buchanan surrendered his sword to Lieutenant Giraud, of the Ossipee, who was sent to take charge of the captured Tennessee.”
Buchanan had been seriously injured in the leg during the last moments of the battle. It would later have to be amputated. Farragut’s fleet suffered 150 killed and 170 wounded, most from the Tecumseh. The Rebels fared much better, though they had many fewer engaged – 12 killed and 19 wounded.
Still, all three forts, Gaines, Powell, and Morgan, remained in Rebel hands, and Farragut would soon turn his eyes toward them.1
- Sources: Official Records of the Navy, Series 1, Vol. 21, p405, 415-418, 445, 451, 456, 508-512, 576; Battles & Leaders, Vol 4; The Life of David Glasgow Farragut by Loyall Farragut. [↩]