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Battle of Mobile Bay


On August 5, 1864, Union Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut led his flotilla past the Confederate defenses at Mobile, Alabama. Once into the bay, Farragut’s force engaged in a bloody firefight with a small Confederate fleet led by the formidable ironclad CSS Tennessee. The Union navy eventually sank or captured two smaller ships and damaged the Tennessee so badly that she surrendered. Over the next two and one-half weeks, the Union ships, with the assistance of army troops, forced the surrender of all three of Mobile’s forts and gained control of the bay. By sealing one of the last major Southern ports, another Confederate gate to the outside world had been nailed shut. The Battle of Mobile Bay was the first unequivocal strategic Union victory of 1864. Farragut’s success set the stage for several more victories in the following months that ensured Abraham Lincoln’s reelection, which in turn guaranteed that the war would be carried on to a victorious conclusion.

Although the Northern people and their president had suffered many dispiriting moments throughout the war, at no time did their morale sink lower than in the summer of 1864. Historian James McPherson explains, “By the fourth of July the two main Union armies seemed to be bogged down in front of Richmond/Petersburg and Atlanta after suffering a combined total of ninety-five thousand casualties in the worst carnage of the war.” With the peace wing of the Democratic party gaining strength, the Confederacy pursued a military strategy of holding out until the Northern elections and inflicting heavy casualties on attacking Union forces to turn the electorate against President Lincoln. Everything depended on the fighting men of the Union. Lincoln could not win the pivotal election of 1864 unless they started to win again. If Lincoln lost, the new Democratic administration might settle for peace at any price, even the price of a dishonorable peace. If that happened, many Union soldiers knew that all their sacrifices would be in vain. These were difficult times indeed, but men like David Farragut were ready to rise to the occasion.

David Glasgow Farragut. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

David G. Farragut was born to be a sailor, serving fifty of his fifty-nine years in the navy when the state he called home, Virginia, seceded in 1861. Farragut was born in Tennessee and married a Virginian. After his first wife died, he married another Virginia women. “God forbid I should ever have to raise my hand against the South,” he said to friends in Virginia as tensions between the North and the South heightened. With a brother in New Orleans and a sister in Mississippi, it is easy to understand why he would have felt conflicted. Unlike most Southerners however, Farragut expressed approval when President Lincoln called out the militia after the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter. Farragut’s Virginia friends told him that anyone holding this opinion could not live in Norfolk, where he was living at the time. “Well then,” he replied, “I can live somewhere else.” Farragut made the decision to move to New York. He admitted to his wife that his choice might “cause years of separation from your family,” and that she “must decide quickly whether you will go north or remain here.” Farragut’s wife decided to leave with him. As they prepared to go North, Farragut offered some parting words to his Norfolk neighbors: “You fellows will catch the devil before you get through with this business.” He was absolutely right. Over the course of the war, they would catch a good many devils, some of them from Farragut himself.

Farragut emerged as the Union navy’s foremost hero in the Civil War. In April 1862, his fleet captured the South’s largest port and city, New Orleans. Later that July, Farragut was appointed as the nation’s first rear admiral. His fleet also played a pivotal role in the Mississippi River campaigns of 1862 and 1863. Farragut was bold and he was not afraid to take risks. His greatest test came at the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, and as he had proven before, Farragut was willing to risk his fleet and his reputation to achieve victory.

Capture of New Orleans by Union Flag Officer David G. Farragut by Julian Oliver Davidson. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ever since his capture of New Orleans in 1862, Farragut had wanted to attack the forts guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay and shut down that port to blockade-running. Because other priorities had intervened, it was not until the summer of 1864 that the Navy Department unleashed him on Mobile Bay.

With four ironclads and his fleet of wooden warships, Farragut was ready to take on the three Confederate forts plus a small Confederate fleet led by the ironclad CSS Tennessee. The Confederates had also placed some 180 torpedoes (they called mines torpedoes in those days) and stretched them across the entrance to the bay between the two main forts, leaving only a small opening. On August 5, 1864, Farragut’s fleet weighed anchor and headed toward the opening. The leading Union ironclad, USS Tecumseh, struck a torpedo and went down in less than a minute, taking ninety men with her. After watching this, the captain of the USS Brooklyn hesitated at the line of torpedoes and the whole fleet came to a halt under the punishing fire of Fort Morgan’s eighty-six big seacoast guns. This was the time when leadership was desperately needed and Farragut did not let his sailors down. Without hesitating, Farragut ordered his flagship, the Hartford to pass the Brooklyn. In that moment, Farragut supposedly shouted, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” thus giving birth to one of the great legends of the U.S. Navy.

Rear Admiral Farragut aboard the Hartford during the Battle of Mobile Bay. (Photo: warfarehistorynetwork.com)

As the Hartford pushed forward, dueling with the guns of Fort Morgan, Farragut climbed the rigging for a better view above the smoke. A Confederate rifleman on the ironclad CSS Tennessee fired several shots at the Union rear admiral, but fortune smiled on Farragut that day and he was not hit. After entering the bay, the Federal fleet fought a bloody contest against the Confederate ships, but sank or captured two smaller vessels and compelled the Tennessee to surrender. Over the next two and one-half weeks, Farragut’s naval force, assisted by army troops, forced the capitulation of all the Rebel forts and gained control of Mobile Bay. Farragut had achieved the Union’s first unequivocal strategic victory of 1864. More Union success was still to come.

Photograph of the Confederate ironclad CSS Tennessee. Taken after she was captured by Federal forces. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

“Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.” On September 3, 1864, a telegram from General William Tecumseh Sherman arrived in Washington announcing that his army had finally captured Atlanta. This news provided a desperately needed morale boost in the North. More good news was right around the corner. In October, General Philip Sheridan victoriously led his army against Rebel forces under the command of General Jubal Early. Sheridan’s triumph ensured that the Confederacy would never again threaten the North by way of the Shenandoah Valley. The victories achieved by Farragut, Sherman, and Sheridan helped President Lincoln win reelection. In November, Lincoln defeated the Democratic nominee, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, George B. McClellan, obtaining a civilian-vote majority of about 53 percent. President Lincoln also won 78 percent of the soldier votes in the states that tabulated them separately. As James McPherson notes, the men who had “to do the fighting and dying had voted overwhelmingly for their commander in chief to help him finish the job.” With their votes, the fighting men told Lincoln to carry the war on to a victorious conclusion. With their help, he would do just that.

Sources

American Battlefield Trust: David G. Farragut.

History.com: Battle of Mobile Bay.

The Civil War by Bruce Catton.

The War That Forged A Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters by James M. McPherson.

Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson.

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