The Battle of Mobile Bay

August 5, 1864 – Federal naval forces under Rear Admiral David G. Farragut won a sensational victory that closed a vital Confederate seaport to shipping and boosted sagging northern morale.

This summer, Admiral Farragut finally received permission from the Navy Department to lead a naval fleet in a land-sea attack on Mobile Bay, Alabama. Farragut sought to not only close the port, but to divert attention from Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal threat to Atlanta. Farragut’s flotilla consisted of 14 wooden warships and four ironclads.[1]

To capture Mobile Bay, the forts defending the channel had to be subdued. These included Fort Morgan on the western edge of Mobile Point, and Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island. Confederates offset these forts’ lack of firepower by placing floating mines (or torpedoes) in the bay, supported by a small defense fleet under Admiral Franklin Buchanan. The fleet included wooden gunboats Morgan, Gaines, Selma, and the ironclad ram C.S.S. Tennessee.[2]

Some 5,000 Federal troops under Major General Gordon Granger landed on Dauphin Island and surrounded Fort Gaines on August 3. That evening, Federals worked through a heavy storm to clear mines from the bay. The next day, Farragut prepared his fleet to attack. He wrote to his wife: “I write and leave this letter for you. I am going into Mobile Bay in the morning, if God is my leader, as I hope He is, and in Him I place my trust… The Army landed last night, and are in full view of us this morning. The Tecumseh has not yet arrived.” The ironclad Tecumseh finally arrived late that evening and joined the line of battle.[3]

To succeed, the Federals had to enter a channel only 200 yards wide and avoid the torpedoes while under fire from Fort Morgan and the Confederate vessels in the bay. Farragut’s fleet began advancing at 5:30 a.m. on August 5, led by the admiral’s flagship Hartford. Suffering from vertigo, Farragut ordered himself lashed to the mast.[4]

Federal battle plan at Mobile Bay | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Federal battle plan at Mobile Bay | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Admiral Buchanan’s crew aboard Tennessee awoke him at 5:45 a.m. Buchanan assembled them on the gun deck and announced: “Now, men, the enemy is coming, and I want you to do your duty. If I fall, lay me on the side and go on with the fight.” Combat began at 7:07 a.m. when the Confederates opened fire on the Federal ships.[5]

The Federal momentum temporarily stalled as Hartford fell under heavy bombardment, and Tecumseh struck a mine and sank. However, many of the mines were waterlogged and failed to detonate, so Farragut finally ordered: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” Hartford led the remaining Federal ships past the forts with minimal damage and entered the bay by 8:35 a.m., in time to serve breakfast to the crew.[6]

Soon after the Federal vessels entered Mobile Bay, Buchanan brought Tennessee forward to give battle. Farragut said, “I did not think old Buck was such a fool” and trained his ships on the Confederate ram. Hartford and two other vessels rammed Tennessee at five-minute intervals. Three more Federal ships converged, and when fire destroyed Tennessee’s steering gear, a wounded Buchanan surrendered her around 10 a.m.[7]

Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Without their ironclad, the Confederates could do little to stop the mighty Federal fleet from entering the lower bay and capturing the port. Once the port was secured, Federal land forces began assaults on the forts guarding the bay. The Federals suffered 145 killed (93 drowned on Tecumseh), 170 wounded, and four captured. Confederates lost 12 killed, 20 wounded, and 270 captured.[8]

The next day, Confederates evacuated Fort Powell, which commanded a secondary entrance into Mobile Bay. Colonel Charles D. Anderson surrendered Fort Gaines on August 7, but his superiors censured him for acting too soon and revoked the surrender. After clearing up the confusion, Confederates formally surrendered the 818 men defending Gaines the next day.[9]

Meanwhile, Farragut sent a note to Brigadier General R.L. Page demanding the surrender of Fort Morgan. Page replied, “Sirs: I am prepared to sacrifice life, and will only surrender when I have no means of defense…” Federals placed Morgan under siege on August 17, cutting the fort off from Mobile. The Confederates finally capitulated six days later.[10]

Although the Confederates retained control of the city of Mobile, by month’s end the Federals had permanently closed the bay to Confederate shipping. This left Wilmington, North Carolina as the last major functional Confederate seaport. News of Farragut’s victory at Mobile Bay electrified northerners, who had been starving for a significant victory all summer. It also gave President Abraham Lincoln some much needed momentum in his bid for reelection.[11]

—–

[1] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 550

[2] Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15315-24; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 550

[3] Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 143 ; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10394-414; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 550-51

[4] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 551-52; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26

[5] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 145-47 ; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 551-52

[6] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 195; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 551-52; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26

[7] Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 195; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15324; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 551-52

[8] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 551-52

[9] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 553

[10] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10588-608; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 553, 559

[11] Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84

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