August 4, 1864 (Thursday)
“Thirty-seven vessels have already assembed off Mobile Bar,” wrote General Dabney H. Maury, commander of the Confederacy’s Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana. “A large force of infantry landed on Dauphin Island last night and reported moving on Fort Gaines.”
This was all true. Federal Admiral David Farragut had assembled an imposing fleet, including four ironclads.
“Yesterday and last evening,” reported the Richmond Examiner of a dispatch written on this date, “the enemy threw an infantry force upon Dauphin Island, 7 miles from Fort Gaines. The fleet outside is larger this morning. […] General Maury call on all to enroll themselves in battle. Great confidence prevails.”
That an attack upon the Confederate defenses was coming was certain, and the Southerners had done everything they could in preparation. The channel running into the bay was guarded by two brick and mortar forts – Gaines to the west, and Morgan to the east. Strung in the narrow stretch between the two island forts was a line of torpedoes set to explode whenever a Federal vessel brushed against them.
Each torpedo was marked with a buoy and it was hardly the intention to keep them secret. In order to avoid the explosives, the enemy ships had to steam close to either fort, coming in range of their guns. But if either one of the forts could be reduced, the line of torpedoes was pointless and Mobile Bay and the port – one of the few remaining or the gasping Confederacy – would fall.
It had been Admiral Farragut’s plan to launch his attack on this date, but postponed it so that he might have the USS Tecumseh, an ironclad monitor with two 15-inch Dahlgren guns mounted on a turret. On the 3rd, she was still at Pensacola, Florida taking on coal. Previous to this, she had been with Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James during the Bermuda Hundred expedition, even firing into Confederate defensive works.
Farragut’s wait was tedious. “I have lost the finest day for my operations,” he wrote on the 3rd. “I confidently supposed that the Tecumseh would be ready in four days, and here we are on the sixth and no signs of her, and I am told has just begun to coal. I could have done very well without her, as I have three here without here, and every day is an irretrievable loss.”
Unable to contain his anxiety, Farragut dispatched the USS Bienville, a wooden sidewheel steamer, to tow in the Tecumseh if necessary. “I can lose no more days. I must go in day after tomorrow morning at daylight or little after. It is a bad time, but when you do not take fortune at her offer you must take her as you can find her.”
“Proceed at once with the Bienville to Pensacola,” ordered Farragut to Commander H.L. Howison, “and take the Tecumseh in tow as soon as she is ready and bring her out to me here.”
On this date, the following day, a sail was reported on the horizon from the masthead of the USS Oneida, “which proved to be the Bienville, towing the ironclas monitor battery Tecumseh.”
While he had waited for her arrival, Farragut noticed that the Rebels were offloading troops at Fort Gaines, and sent forward the USS Winnebago, an ironclad monitor, to shell the enemy. “Go up to Fort Gaines and try and drive off the enemy’s boats that are landing troops and supplies. You had better not approach the fort nearer than a mile, but exercise your judgment. Ge back to your anchorage before night. […] We go in a little after daylight in the morning, so do not use up your crew too much.”
By 10:15am, the Winnebago “got underway and stood toward Fort Gaines.” An hour later, she opened fire upon both the enemy’s transport steamers and the fort itself. The guns at Fort Gaines returned to fire, but little damage was done either way. By 2pm, the commotion was at an end and the Winnebago set about to returning.
While the Winnebago was away, Farragut called a council of war to explain the plan for the follow day’s attack upon Fort Morgan. The ironclad monitors were wonderful in battle, but they were much slower than the wooden ships. They would necessarily steam between the wooden vessels and the fort.
“The service that I look for from the ironclads is, first, to neutralize as much as possible the fire of the guns which rake our approach; next to look out for the ironclads when we are abreast of the forts, and, lastly, to occupy the attention of those batteries which would rake us while running up the bay.
“After the wooden vessels have passed the fort, the Winnebago and Chickasaw will follow them. The commanding officer of the Tecumseh and Manhattan will endeavor to destroy the [CSS] Tennessee, exercising their own judgment as to the time they shall remain behind for that purpose.”
The Confederate ironclad Tennessee was a 296foot steamer with a projecting iron prow, which lay two feet below the water line. Six inches of iron plated her sloping sides, and as armament, she carried six Brooks rifles, two of which were mounted on pivots. Each of the guns could hurl solid shot weight between 90 and 110lbs. In addition to the Tennessee, three wood gunboats were near the forts.
Farragut explained (as worded by Captain Marchand, commanding the USS Lackawanna): “In going in it is not expected that we shall take the forts, but get possession of the bay, after which the forts must fall as a matter of course.” The infantry troops landed the day previous “will simultaneously attack Fort Gaines with our passage into Mobile Bay. What torpedoes or obstructions are in the ship channel we are ignorant. An effort on our part to pass in will be made, but the result is in the hands of the Almighty, and we pray that He may favor us.”1
- Official Records of the Navy, Series 1, Vol. 21, p401, 403-404, 439, 555, 783, 789, 799, 818-819, 824, 830, 854. [↩]