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Damn the Torpedoes! - Rear Admiral David G. Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay


“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” According to legend, so shouted Union Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut on Friday, August 5, 1864, as he led his flotilla of 14 wooden ships and four ironclad monitors against three Confederate forts and a small Rebel fleet defending the major Southern port of Mobile, Alabama.

The Confederates had spread around 180 torpedoes, which is what mines were called at that time, across the entrance to the bay between their two main forts. Farragut’s lead ironclad, U.S.S Tecumseh, struck a torpedo and quickly plunged beneath the water. Shaken by this, the next ship up, the U.S.S. Brooklyn, hesitated at the line of torpedoes, causing the rest of the Union flotilla to halt under withering Confederate fire. A sailor in the U.S. Navy since the age of nine, Farragut was not fazed in the slightest, ordering his ship to pass the Brooklyn and shouting his famous line: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

David G. Farragut. Born in Tennessee and married to a Virginian, Farragut and his wife were living in her home state when it seceded from the Union in 1861. They went North and the veteran sailor stayed true to the old flag, casting his lot with the Union. As he told his pro-secessionist neighbors before leaving, "You fellows will catch the devil before you get through with this business." (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

As Captain Percival Drayton, the fleet captain commanding the Hartford wrote, “We sheered to port and passed directly over the line of torpedoes planted by the enemy, and we could hear the snapping of the submerged devilish contrivances as our hull drove through the water-but it was neck or nothing, and that risk must be taken.” The Hartford made it through safely, and as Drayton added, “All the other vessels followed in our wake and providentially all escaped.”

Fighting was fierce as the Hartford led the Union flotilla into the bay and traded blows with the small Rebel fleet led by the giant ironclad C.S.S. Tennessee. According to historian James M. McPherson, as the Hartford pushed forward, Farragut had “climbed the rigging for a better view above the smoke and was lashed to the shrouds by the boatswain.” A Confederate rifleman aboard the Tennessee fired several shots at the rear admiral in blue, but his bullets did not hit home. Farragut’s flotilla overcame the Rebel resistance, “sinking or capturing two of the smaller ships and damaging the Tennessee so badly that she surrendered,” as noted by McPherson. The only loss to Farragut’s fleet was the U.S.S. Tecumseh.

A World War One recruitment poster depicting Rear Admiral Farragut tied to the rigging of the U.S.S. Hartford at the Battle of Mobile Bay. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Over the following weeks, Farragut’s ships and Federal infantry worked in unison to compel the surrender of the Confederate forts and gained control of Mobile Bay. Located thirty miles to the north, the city of Mobile would remain in Rebel hands until April 1865, but as McPherson explains, the capture of the bay ensured that the “last blockade-running port in the Gulf east of Texas was out of business.”

Regarded by McPherson as “the first unequivocal strategic victory in 1864,” Farragut’s triumph came at a time when the Union war effort seemed stalled and Northern morale was so low that President Abraham Lincoln was in serious jeopardy of failing to win reelection. After the victory at Mobile Bay, however, conditions for the Union started to change for the better. By damning the torpedoes and ordering his sailors to go full speed ahead, Rear Admiral David Farragut rose to the occasion, emerging triumphant and setting the stage for several more major Federal victories over the following months. These successes ensured Lincoln’s reelection, which guaranteed that the Civil War would be vigorously pursued to a victorious conclusion for the Union.

Sources

American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Mobile Bay.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.

The Civil War by Bruce Catton.

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

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