Wednesday, October 7, 2015

American History 101: The Battle of Mobile Bay 08/05/1864

The Civil War is rich with stories of heroes, great victories, stunning defeats and tragedy beyond the realm of what we can imagine today.  In American military lure, few stories are as fantastical, motivational and "American" as the Battle of Mobile Bay.  The Battle of Mobile Bay took place between August 2 and August 23, 1864 -- however the famous naval incursion that we will be talking about took place on August 5, 1864.  The naval battle is noted for the brash and over-confident actions of Rear Admiral David G. Farragut who, after his ironclad had been destroyed by "torpedoes" (what we refer to as mines today) ordered his ships to charge into the bay and attack the Confederate ships, no matter the cost.  It was at this point that history tells us he yelled, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"  It is thought by most historians that he did not say these words, and may not have issued a direct order at all.  But more on that later.
Mobile Bay

Mobile Bay is situated at the convergence of the Mobile and Tensaw rivers and feeds out to the Gulf of Mexico.  At the mouth of the bar there is a long peninsula of sand known as Mobile Point which separates the Bon Secour River from the bay and the gulf.  Previous to the Civil War, the federal government had erected a fort at this point to protect the city of Mobile from attack.  Across from that is a series of islands and a secondary entrance to the bay called Grant's Pass.  Early on in the war the Confederate government decided not to defend this entire stretch of land, and instead use what little resources it had to protect what it considered more important ports and harbors.  However, after New Orleans fell to the Union in April of 1864, Mobile became an important port to defend.  It was the only major port on the easter side of the gulf that the Confederacy still had control over.  It was utilized as a pinpoint location for running the Union blockade to Caribbean ports such as Havana.  While the Confederacy successfully ran through the blockade on several occasions from Mobile, none of the incidents was large enough to cause the Union great concern in and of themselves.

One of the interesting tid-bits surrounding the Farragut story and Mobile Bay itself is that Farragut was given orders in 1862 to capture New Orleans, Mobile and squash the Confederacy's ability to work in the Gulf of Mexico all together when he was assigned command of the Western Gulf Blockade Squadron.  However, Rear Admiral Farragut and the full force of his naval power would not descend into the Gulf of Mexico until after Vicksburg fell in July of 1863.  And because of this, the CSA had time to improve its defenses and strategy in the time between New Orleans and Mobile Bay.  The garrisons at Forts Morgan and Gaines were fortified and Grant's Pass was obstructed by pilings and other physical impediments.  

The army landing force was ready to attack on August 3rd, but Farragut wanted to wait for his fourth monitor, the USS Tecumseh, to arrive.  There was some miscommunication of this intent, because the army was staged and ready to go on the 3rd in spite of the lack of naval support.  Because of this, the Confederates were able to plan for and then attack the Union Army sitting and twiddling its collective thumbs.  The Confederacy also was able to see the size of the army and call for reinforcements.  After the battle had concluded, Admiral Farragut said that he felt the miscommunication and delay actually worked in favor of the Union because the reinforcements ended up having no real impact on the fight -- but they were included in the surrendered forces.  And while this was happening, the Tecumseh made its entrance into the bay and the naval forces were ready to fight.  This put Farragut's fleet at 14 wooden-hulled vessels that would be lashed together in pairs.  This way if any one vessel had their engines disabled, both ships guns would still brought to bare in the fight.  The four monitors would form a column, clearing the way into battles for the rest of the ships who would come in featuring a double column formation passing on the port side of the monitors once in the bay -- thus shielding the monitors from view. And when the Confederate ships showed up to defend, the monitors would spring into action attacking the armored Tennessee.

The Union fleet moved into the bay on August 5th with the tide running in to aid their progress.  The monitors, Tecumseh, Manhattan, Winnebago and Chickasaw led the way with the wooden ships following -- led by the Brooklyn who was lashed to the Octorara.  The Brooklyn was chosen because she had four forward facing guns, and the rest of the fleet only had two and she had a "cow catcher" to removing mines attached to her hull.  The Confederates were ready for the attack and responded to the Tecumseh's firing on the Confederate defense.  The Union ships did not fire on the Confederate fleet, as the monitors did, instead they concentrated their fire on the fort.  The Tecumseh's job was the hone in on the Tennessee and she did so quickly.  But in her haste to engage the Tennessee, Commander Craven forgot his orders and took the route most direct across the bay putting the Tecumseh in danger of mines.  Within minutes a mine went off under the hull of the Tecumseh.  The monitor sank, killing all but 21 on-board in a matter of minutes.  The Brooklyn responded by stopping all together and signaling Farragut for orders.  Farragut did not stop the Hartford, instead he came around port on the Brooklyn and the Hartford took the lead charging ahead.  Farragut reasoned that most of the torpedoes (mines) that were in the bay had been submerged too long, and were not operable.  The Tennessee was not nimble enough to ram the Union ships as they sped by.  Farragut's gamble paid off and the entire column of 14 ships passed through the minefield unharmed.  He was able to unleash the full power of his fleet on Fort Gaines and Fort Morgans, making quick work of the ships in the harbor.

CSS Tennessee after its capture
Farragut had expected that the ironclad Tennessee would hide in the relative safety of Fort Morgan's guns.  Instead, Commander Morgan decided to take on the entire Union fleet alone.  It is possible he thought he could repeat the successes of ramming ships that had worked well in previous battles, but it is unclear.  Unfortunately for Buchanan, the Union ships were moving this time and he was unable to catch them.  This set the Tennessee up as the target, not the Union ships.  Ships such as the Monongahela were able to ram the Tennessee and inflict minor damage.  The bigger issue for the Tennessee, outside of being big and slow, was its guns.  There were a number of misfires because of the quality of the gun powder leaving the Tennessee -- the Confederate's ace in the hole -- ineffective.  By the time the Chickasaw and Manhattan joined the battle with the Tennessee, she was already crippled in the water allowing the Manhattan to ram her into submission.

After the naval fleet was defeated, the troops from Fort Powell and Fort Gaines put up little fight, and they were captured.  Fort Morgan was a bit of a different story.  It took a sustained bombardment from the bay coupled with several surges to finally capture Fort Morgan on August 23rd.

While the loss of troops on one side or the other was not significant enough to impact the war, the capture of the bay and the forts along the bay were.  The continued presence near Mobile constrained the Confederate Army's ability to mount any last ditch effort late in the war.  In spite of there being only a relatively small number of troops left in Mobile, the Confederate leadership could not simply pretend they weren't there.  Because of this, they did not shift resources away from the area to reinforce other ailing Confederate efforts.  This alone made the Battle of Mobile Bay key in the Union efforts to squash the Confederacy.  Unfortunately, the immediate impact was not evident and the battle was seen as only a partial victory because Farragut had failed to take the city of Mobile itself.  The Union did not take Mobile until the final days of the war.  But with Major General Sherman's Atlanta Campaign being a sweeping success, the impact of Mobile Bay began to really show its colors.

Now that we've discussed the basics of the events of the battle, we can discuss the myth and lure of then Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut.  One of the biggest contributions made by Farragut was the unification of Army and Navy signals.  Part of the reason for the miscommunication between the land and naval forces, and the naval forces themselves was that they used different methods of signaling.  Farragut recognized this, and pushed for the unification of signaling across the armed forces.

Admiral D.G. Farragut
It is thought that Admiral Farragut was actually tied to the rigging of the Hartford during the battle.  This is true.  In fact, he was tied to it twice during the battle.  During the initial fire of the battle, the smoke in the bay made it impossible to see.  So Farragut climbed the rigging until he was high enough to see.  This was not an act of courage or defiance at all, as myth might tell you, in fact it was a practical and protective moment.  Captain Drayton of the Hartford ordered a seaman to secure Farragut to the rigging for his own safety, knowing that if Farragut fell he could be incapacitated.  Farragut is thought to have told the sailor, "Never mind, I'm all right," but the sailor obeyed orders and tied him to the rigging anyway.  Later in the battle, when the Tennessee was attempting to attack the fleet, Farragut again climbed into the rigging of the Hartford to get a better look.  Again, Captain Drayton ordered Lieutenant Watson to secure the Admiral for his own safety.

And now to the most famous story of all... "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"  The popular story says that when the Brooklyn slowed down to allow the Tecumseh to cross her path, Farragut wanted to know why she was not moving forward.  The reply was that there were torpedoes in her path, it is thought that his reply was "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"  Putting the story into historical perspective, it is unlikely that any communication across ships in the midst of a battle was possible at all.  And odds are if any such order was given, it would have been to Captain Drayton on the Hartford -- and not the Brooklyn.  There are no stories printed from the time of the battle itself, only ones printed several years later.  And the most common collection of these says that Farragut ordered Drayton, "Damn the torpedoes, four bells go ahead!"  And then followed with a command to the Metacomet (lashed to the Hartford) "Go ahead, Jouett, full speed."  Four bells would have been the setting on the helm that would have been the equivalent to what we call "full speed", since the controls would ring like bells as certain points were passed.  Plus, as we mentioned before, there were no torpedoes as we think of them.  Instead, mines were very commonly referred to as torpedoes at that time.  And today, the common saying comes down as -- "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel -- with a new book, Learn the Basics: Digital Forensics, due soon. 

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