Following the capture of New Orleans in April 1862, taking the port of Mobile, Alabama became a priority for the Union high command. With New Orleans out of the picture, the Alabama city became the most important Gulf Coast port for blockade runners. The main channel into Mobile Bay was guarded by Forts Morgan and Gaines; smaller Fort Powell guarded another entrance. Federal authorities believed a combined army and navy operation would be necessary to take the forts and seize control of the bay, shutting down the port.
Despite its importance, for various reasons no action to take Mobile was undertaken until the summer of 1864. In August, Admiral David Farragut had an 18 ship fleet of gunboats, including four ironclads. The army had supplied a 2400 man force. Farragut attacked early on the morning of August 5th.
Besides the forts, the Confederate navy had four vessels on the scene: three side wheel gunboats and the powerful ironclad ram CSS Tennessee. The harbor also had mines, called torpedoes at that time.
Farragut had a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy, but is most remembered for his victory at Mobile Bay. It was at the Battle of Mobile Bay that Farragut shouted “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” or something similar as his ship Hartford headed across the mines. During the fight, Farragut was lashed to the rigging of the USS Hartford out of concern that the Admiral, who was up in the rigging to get a better view of the battle, might fall.
Here is Admiral Farragut’s official report on the Battle of Mobile Bay:
U. S. FLAGSHIP HARTFORD, Mobile Bay, August 12, 1864.
SIR: I had the honor to forward to the Department on the evening of the 5th instant a report of my entrée into Mobile Bay on the morning of that day, and which, though brief, contained all the principal facts of the attack.
Notwithstanding the loss of life, particularly on this ship, and the terrible disaster to the Tecumseh, the result of the fight was a glorious victory, and I have reason to feel proud of the officers, seamen, and marines of the squadron under my command, for it has never fallen to the lot of an officer to be thus situated and thus sustained. Regular discipline will bring men to any amount of endurance, but there is a natural fear of hidden dangers, particularly when so awfully destructive of human life as the torpedo, which requires more than discipline to overcome.
Preliminary to a report of the action of the 5th, I desire to call the attention of the Department to the previous steps take in consultation with Generals Canby and Granger. On the 8th of July I had an interview with these officers on board the Hartford on the subject of an attack upon Forts Morgan and Gaines, at which it was agreed that General Canby would send all the troops he could spare to cooperate with the fleet. Circumstances soon obliged General Canby to inform me that he could not dispatch a sufficient number to invest both forts, and in reply I suggested that Gaines should be the first invested, engaging to have a force in the [Mississippi] Sound ready to protect the landing of the army on Dauphin Island, in the rear of that fort, and I assigned Lieutenant-Commander de Krafft, of the Conemaugh, to that duty.
On the 1st instant, General Granger visited me again on the Hartford. In the meantime the Tecumseh had arrived at Pensacola, and Captain Craven had informed me that he would be ready in four days for any service. We therefore fixed upon the 4th of August as the day for landing of the troops and my entrance into the bay, but owing to delays mentioned in Captain Jenkins communication to me, the Tecumseh was not ready. General Granger, however, to my mortification, was up to time and the troops actually landed on Dauphin Island.
As subsequent events proved the delay turned to our advantage, as the rebels were busily engaged during the 4th in throwing troops and supplies into Fort Gaines, all of which were captured a few days afterwards.
The Tecumseh arrived on the evening of the 4th, and everything being propitious, I proceeded to the attack on the following morning.
As mentioned in my previous dispatch, the vessels outside the bar, which were designed to participate in the engagement, were all underway by 5:40 in the morning, in the following order, two abreast and lashed together:
Brooklyn, Captain James Alden, with the Octorara, Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Greene, on the port side.
Hartford, Captain Percival Drayton, with the Metacomet, Lieutenant-Commander J. E. Jouett.
Richmond, Captain T. A. Jenkins, with the Port Royal, Lieutenant-Commander B. Gherardi.
Lackawanna, Captain J. B. Marchand, with the Seminole, Commander E. Donaldson.
Monongahela, Commander J. H. Strong, with the Kennebec, Lieutenant-Commander W. P. McCann.
Ossipee, Commander W. E. Le Roy, with the Itasca, Lieutenant-Commander George Brown.
Oneida, Commander J. R. M. Mullany, with the Galena, Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Wells.
The ironclads Tecumseh, Commander T. A.M. Craven; the Manhattan, Commander J. W. A. Nicholson; the Winnebago, Commander T. H. Stevens; and the Chickasaw, Lieutenant-Commander G. H. Perkins, were already inside the bar, and had been ordered to take up their positions on the starboard side of the wooden ships, or between them and Fort Morgan for the double purpose of keeping down the fire from the water battery and the parapet guns of the fort, as well as to attack the ram Tennessee as soon as the fort was passed.
It was only at the urgent request of the captains and commanding officers that I yielded to the Brooklyn being the leading ship of the line, as she had four chase guns and an ingenious arrangement for picking up torpedoes, and because, in their judgment, the flagship ought not to be too much exposed. This I believe to be an error, for apart from the fact that exposure is one of the penalties of rank in the Navy, it will always be the aim of the enemy to destroy the flagship, and, as will appear in the sequel, such attempt was very persistently made, but Providence did not permit it to be successful.
The attacking fleet steamed steadily up the Main Ship Channel, the Tecumseh firing the first shot at 6:47. At 7:6 the fort opened upon us and was replied to by a gun from the Brooklyn, and immediately after the action became general.
It was soon apparent that there was some difficulty ahead. The Brooklyn, for some cause which I did not then clearly understand, but which has since been explained by Captain Alden in his report, 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 gallant commander and nearly all her crew. I determined at once, as I had originally intended, to take the lead, and after ordering the Metacomet to send a boat to save, if possible, any of the perishing crew, 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.
I steamed through between the buoys where the torpedoes were supposed to have been sunk. These buoys had been previously examined by my flag-lieutenant, J. Crittenden Watson, in several nightly reconnoissances. 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.
From the moment I turned to the northwestward to clear the Middle Ground we were enabled to keep such a broadside fire upon the batteries at Fort Morgan that their guns did us comparatively little injury.
Just after we passed the fort, which was about ten minutes before 8 o’clock, the ram Tennessee dashed out at this ship, as had been expected, and in anticipation of which I had ordered the monitors on our starboard side. I took no further notice of her than to return her fire.
The rebel gunboats Morgan, Gaines, and Selma were ahead, and the latter particularly annoyed us with a raking fire, which our guns could not return. At two minutes after 8 o’clock I ordered the Metacomet to cast off and go in pursuit of the Selma. Captain Jouett was after her in a moment, and in an hour’s time he had her as a prize. She was commanded by P. U. Murphey, formerly of the U. S. Navy. He was wounded in the wrist; his executive officer, Lieutenant Comstock, and 8 of the crew, killed, and 7 or 8 wounded. Lieutenant-Commander Jouett’s conduct during the whole affair commands my warmest commendations. The Morgan and Gaines succeeded in escaping under the protection of the guns of Fort Morgan, which would have been prevented had the other gunboats been as prompt in their movements as the Metacomet. The want of pilots, however, I believe was the principal difficulty. The Gaines was so injured by our fire that she had to be run ashore, where she was subsequently destroyed, but the Morgan escaped to Mobile during the night, though she was chased and fired upon by our cruisers.
Having passed the forts and dispersed the enemy’s gunboats, I had ordered most of the vessels to anchor, when I perceived the ram Tennessee standing up for this ship. This was at 8:45. I was not long in comprehending his intention to be the destruction of the flagship. 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.
She was at this time sore beset. The Chickasaw was pounding away at her stern, the Ossipee was approaching her at full speed, and the Monongahela, Lackawanna, and this ship were bearing down upon her, determined upon her destruction. Her smokestack had been shot away, her steering chains were gone, compelling a resort to her relieving tackles, and several of her port shutters were jammed. Indeed, from the time the Hartford struck her until her surrender she never fired a gun. As the Ossipee, Commander Le Roy, was about to strike her she hoisted the white flag, and that vessel immediately stopped her engine, though not in time to avoid a glancing blow.
During this contest with the rebel gunboats’ and the ram Tennessee, and which terminated by her surrender at 10 o’clock, we lost many more men than from the fire of the batteries of Fort Morgan.
Admiral Buchanan was wounded in the leg, 2 or 3 of his men were killed, and 5 or 6 wounded. Commander Johnston, formerly of the U. S. Navy, was in command of the Tennessee, and came on board the flagship to surrender his sword and that of Admiral Buchanan.
The surgeon, Dr. Conrad, came with him, stated the condition of the admiral, and wished to know what was to be done with him. Fleet-Surgeon Palmer, who was on board the Hartford during the action, commiserating the sufferings of the wounded, suggested that those of both sides be sent to Pensacola, where they could be properly cared for. I therefore addressed a note to Brigadier-General R. L. Page, commanding Fort Morgan, informing him that Admiral Buchanan and others of the Tennessee had been Wounded, and desiring to know whether he would permit one of our vessels under a flag of truce to convey them, with or without our own wounded, to Pensacola, on the understanding that the vessel should take out none but the wounded and bring nothing back that she did not take out. This was acceded to by General Page, and the Metacomet proceeded on this mission of humanity.
I enclose herewith the correspondence with that officer (marked 1, 2, 3, and 4). I forward also the reports (marked Nos. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21) of the commanding officers of the vessels who participated in the action, and who will no doubt call attention to the conduct of such individuals as most distinguished themselves.
As I had an elevated position in the main rigging, near the top, I was able to overlook not only the deck of the Hartford, but the other vessels of the fleet. I witnessed the terrible effects of the enemy’s shot and the good conduct of the men at their guns, and although no doubt their hearts sickened, as mine did, when their shipmates were struck down beside them, yet there was not a moments hesitation to lay their comrades aside and spring again to their deadly work.
Our little consort, the Metacomet, was also under my immediate eye during the whole action up to the moment I ordered her to cast off in pursuit of the Selma. The coolness and promptness of Lieutenant-Commander Jouett throughout merit high praise; his whole conduct was worthy of his reputation.
In this connection I must not omit to call the attention of the Department to the conduct of Acting Ensign Henry C. Nields, of the Metacomet, who had charge of the boat sent from that vessel when the Tecumseh sunk. He took her in under one of the most galling fires I ever saw, and succeeded in rescuing from death ten of her crew within 600 yards from the fort. I would respectfully recommend his advancement.
The commanding officers of all the vessels who took part in the action deserve my warmest commendations, not only for the untiring zeal with which they had prepared their ships for the contest, but for their skill and daring in carrying out my orders during the engagement. With the exception of the-momentary arrest of the fleet when the Hartford passed ahead, and to which I have already adverted, the order of battle was preserved, and the ships followed each other in close order past the batteries of Fort Morgan, and in comparative safety, too, with the exception of the Oneida. Her boilers were penetrated by a shot from the fort, which completely disabled her; but her consort, the Galena, firmly fastened to her side, brought her safely through, showing clearly the wisdom of the precaution of carrying the vessels in two abreast. Commander Mullany, who had solicited eagerly to take part in the action, was severely wounded, losing his left arm.
In the encounter with the ram the commanding officers obeyed with alacrity the order to run her down, and without hesitation exposed their ships to destruction to destroy the enemy.
Our ironclads, from their slow speed and bad steering, had some difficulty in getting into and maintaining their position in line as we passed the fort, and in the subsequent encounter with the Tennessee from the same causes, were not as effective as could have been desired, but I can not give too much praise to Lieutenant-Commander Perkins, who, though he had orders from the Department to return North, volunteered to take command of the Chickasaw, and did his duty nobly.
The Winnebago was commanded by Commander T. H. Stevens, who volunteered for that position. His vessel steers very badly, and neither of his turrets will work, which compelled him to turn his vessel every time to get a shot, so that he could not fire very often, but he did the best under the circumstances.
The Manhattan appeared to work well, though she moved slowly. Commander Nicholson delivered his fire deliberately, and, as before stated, with one of his XV-inch shot broke through the armor of the Tennessee with its wooden backing, though the shot itself did not enter the vessel. No other shot broke through her armor, though many of her plates were started and several of her port shutters jammed by the fire from the different ships.
The Hartford, my flagship, was commanded by Captain Percival Drayton, who exhibited throughout that coolness and ability for which he has been long known to his brother officers. But I must speak of that officer in a double capacity. He is the fleet captain of my squadron, and one of more determined energy, untiring devotion to duty, and zeal for the service, tempered by great calmness, I do not think adorns any Navy. I desire to call your attention to this officer, though well aware that in thus speaking of his high qualities I am only communicating officially to the Department that which it knew hall well before. To him and to my staff, in their respective positions, I am indebted for the detail of my fleet.
Lieutenant J. Crittenden Watson, my flag-lieutenant, has been brought to your notice in former dispatches. During the action he was on the poop, attending to the signals, and performed his duties, as might be expected, thoroughly. He is a scion worthy the noble stock he sprang from, and I commend him to your attention.
My secretary, Mr. McKinley, and Acting Ensign H. H. Brownell, were also on the poop, the latter taking notes of the action, a duty which he performed with coolness and accuracy.
Two other acting ensigns of my staff, Mr. Bogart and Mr. Heginbotham, were on duty in the powder division, and, as the reports will show, exhibited zeal and ability. The latter, I regret to add, was severely wounded by a raking snot from the Tennessee, when we collided with that vessel, and died a few hours after. Mr. Heginbotham was a young married man, and has left a widow and one child, whom I commend to the kindness of the Department.
Lieutenant A. R. Yates, of the Augusta, acted as an additional aid to me on board the Hartford, and was very efficient in the transmission of orders. I have given him the command temporarily of the captured steamer Selma.
The last of my staff, and to whom I would call the notice of the Department, is not the least in importance. I mean Pilot Martin Freeman. He has been my great reliance in all difficulties in his line of duty. During the action he was in the maintop, piloting the ships into the bay. He was cool and brave throughout, never losing his self-possession. This man was captured early in the war in a fine fishing smack which he owned, and though he protested that he had no interest in the war and only asked for the privilege of fishing for the fleet, yet his services were too valuable to the captors as a pilot not to be secured. He was appointed a first-class pilot and has served us with zeal and fidelity, and has lost his vessel, which went to pieces on Ship Island. I commend him to the Department.
It gives me pleasure to refer to several officers who volunteered to take any situation where they might be useful, some of whom were on their way North, either by orders of the Department or condemned by medical survey. The reports of the different commanders will show how they conducted themselves.
I have already mentioned Lieutenant-Commander Perkins, of the Chickasaw, and Lieutenant Yates, of the Augusta. Acting Volunteer Lieutenant William Hamilton, late commanding officer of the Augusta Dinsmore, had been invalided by medical survey, but he eagerly offered his services on board the ironclad Chickasaw, having had much experience in our monitors. Acting Volunteer Lieutenant P. Giraud, another experienced officer in ironclads, asked to go in on one of these vessels, but as they were all well supplied with officers, I permitted him to go in on the Ossipee under Commander Le Roy. After the action he was given temporary charge of the ram Tennessee.
Before closing this report there is one other officer of my squadron of whom I feel bound to speak, Captain T. A. Jenkins, of the Richmond, who was formerly my chief of staff, not because of his having held that position, but because he never forgets to do his duty to the Government and takes now the same interest in the fleet as when he stood in that relation to me. He is also the commanding officer of the second division of my squadron and as such has shown ability and the most untiring zeal. He carries out the spirit, of one of Lord Collingwood’s best sayings, not to be afraid of doing too much; those who are, seldom do as much as they ought.” When in Pensacola he spent days on the bar placing the buoys in the best positions, was always looking after the interests of the service, and keeping the vessels from being detained one moment longer in port than was necessary. The gallant Craven told me only the night before the action in which he lost his life, “I regret, admiral, that I have detained you, but had it not been for Captain Jenkins, God knows when I should have been here; when your order came I had not received an ounce of coal.”
I feel that I should not be doing my duty did I not call the attention of the Department to an officer who has performed all his various duties with so much zeal and fidelity.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
D. G. FARRAGUT,
Rear-Admiral, Commanding West Gulf Blockading Squadron.
I enclose herewith my General Orders, No. 10 and No. 11 (marked 22 and 23), issued before the action, and General Orders, Nos. 12 and 13 (marked 24 and 25), issued after the engagement.
Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington.
From Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I Volume 21.
After the CSS Tennessee surrendered, the next objective was the elimination of the forts. Confederate forces evacuated Fort Powell on the night of August 5th, which was followed by the surrender of Fort Gaines on the 8th. Fort Morgan held out about two weeks longer. After a coordinated bombardment from both the navy and army, Fort Morgan’s commander surrendered the garrison on August 23rd. The last open Confederate port on the Gulf of Mexico was now under Union control. The city of Mobile itself was of less strategic value. Federal forces did not make a serious attempt to take the city until late March, 1865. The city surrendered on April 12th.
By Sea And By River: The Naval History of the Civil War
by Bern Anderson
“Farragut at Mobile Bay” by John Coddington Kinney. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV.
“Go Ahead, Go Ahead'” by Robert M. Browning, Jr. Naval History, December 2009.