Duel in Mobile Bay

Bataille_de_la_baie_de_Mobile_par_Louis_Prang_(1824-1909)Early in the morning of August 5, 1864 (150 years ago today), Union Admiral David G. Farragut’s fleet steamed north toward Mobile Bay, in an effort to run Confederate defenses and block the eastern Confederacy’s last major port on the Gulf of Mexico. What took place that morning became one of the iconic battles in American military history.

Mobile Bay was also a battle that also pitted the Union and Confederacy’s first Admirals against each other; Farragut sailed against Admiral Franklin Buchanan, who commanded a squadron of three gunboats and the ironclad CSS Tennessee. Assisting in the defense of the bay were Forts Morgan and Gaines bracketing the bay’s mouth; the intervening channel had been mined with electric “torpedoes.” An aggressive and driving officer, Buchanan was ready for a fight.

Mobile Bay is a perfect example of the truism that naval battles are fought and won by people, not machines. The progress of the battle turned on the actions and decisions of its two protagonists, Farragut and Buchanan.

Farragut took 18 ships of varying sizes into the bay’s entrance; led by four ironclads, he lashed gunboats alongside his frigates. USS Tecumseh led the line, while Farragut’s flagship Hartford was in the middle. One of the gunboats was the Galena, famous for its role in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. A young lieutenant in the fleet, George Dewey, would later earn his own fame in a different bay. The plan was to run the forts, regroup in the bay, and then assist the advance of the Union XIII Corps against Fort Gaines.

At 6:47 A.M. Farragut’s fleet entered Mobile Bay’s mouth. Captain T.A.M. Craven in Tecumseh disregarded orders and steered too far to one side of the channel; the ironclad hit a mine and sank quickly, leaving only 21 survivors of 114. (Craven himself died when he stood aside at the escape ladder to let his pilot go first.)

The sudden destruction of Tecumseh caused confusion in the Union line, as ships slowed and dodged right under the guns of Fort Morgan. On Hartford, Farragut turned to his flag captain, Percival Drayton, and cried, “Damn the torpedoes! Drayton, four bells! Jouett, full speed!” Hartford and her consort Metacomet surged forward over the mines, bravely leading the fleet into the bay to engage Buchanan’s squadron. Several Union sailors reported hearing clicks of torpedo detonators, but discovered the devices were too waterlogged to explode.

After a short battle in which Buchanan lost all his gunboats, both sides disengaged. Farragut retired northward, while Buchanan took shelter under the protection of Fort Morgan’s guns. Farragut expected a break to regroup, but saw Tennessee coming out to fight. He ordered his men back to action stations.

For the third time in the Civil War, Buchanan let his passion and aggression override his judgment; first by impulsively resigning from the U.S. Navy  in 1861, wrongly anticipating Maryland’s secession; second in 1862 by impulsively engaging in a musket duel with Union troops from atop the CSS Virginia, giving him a serious wound; and in Mobile Bay. By attacking Farragut’s 18 ships, he started a fight he could not win, and surrendered all advantages to the Union.

For the next two hours, a melee ensued as various Union ships rammed and fired at Tennessee, with the Confederates trying to give as good as they could. Faulty powder hurt Confederate shooting, but the presence of three Union ironclads ultimately decided the issue. Accurate fire destroyed Tennessee’s stack, disabled her steering, wounded Buchanan, and jammed many firing slits closed. Tennessee struck her colors about 10:00; after just over three hours of maneuvering and fighting, Farragut had possession of Mobile Bay.

Over the next days, Union Army and Navy forces occupied the forts, and tightened their grip on the bay’s mouth. This Union presence forced badly needed Confederate troops to stay garrisoning the city against any possible Union drive northward. Mobile itself fell in 1865.

After the casualties and stalemates on land so far in 1864, the Union Navy delivered a major victory just when it was most needed. Today Farragut’s “Damn the Torpedoes!” cry is a part of the American lexicon – a legacy of valor and leadership under fire 150 years ago today.

Top image: A depiction of the battle, showing the moment of Tecumseh’s sinking.

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