August 4, 1864 – Federal naval forces under Rear Admiral David G. Farragut prepared to attack one of the last remaining Confederate seaports open to blockade runners.
Farragut had sought to capture Mobile Bay ever since he took New Orleans in April 1862. Farragut intended to not only close the port, but to divert attention from Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal threat to Atlanta. However, blockading duty and the opening of the Mississippi River took precedence until January, when Farragut finally began planning in earnest to take this vital seaport.
Capturing Mobile Bay meant subduing the forts defending the channel. These included (from east to west) Fort Morgan on the western edge of Mobile Point, Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, and the smaller Fort Powell, all commanded by Brigadier General Richard L. Page. The forts lacked sufficient firepower, but the Confederates made up for this by placing 67 floating mines (i.e., torpedoes) in the bay, as well as a small defense fleet under Admiral Franklin Buchanan. The fleet included the wooden gunboats Morgan, Gaines, Selma, and the ironclad ram C.S.S. Tennessee.
Farragut reported to his superiors:
“I am satisfied that if I had one ironclad at this time I could destroy their whole force in the bay and reduce the forts at my leisure, by cooperation with our land forces–say 5,000 men… Without ironclads we should not be able to fight the enemy’s vessels of that class with much prospect of success, as the latter would lie on the flats, where our ships could not go to destroy them. Wooden vessels can do nothing with them, unless by getting within 100 or 200 yards, so as to ram them or pour in a broadside.”
Farragut spent the first half of 1864 assembling his attack fleet, but the ironclads were slow in coming. He wrote pessimistically in May, “One thing appears to be certain, that I can get none of the ironclads. They want them all for Washington.” Farragut also reported on the Confederate progress in gathering a fleet during that time:
“I am watching Buchanan in the ram Tennessee. She is a formidable-looking thing, and there are four others and three wooden gunboats. They say he is waiting for the two others to come out and attack me, and then raid until New Orleans. Let him come. I have a fine squadron to meet him, all ready and willing.”
However, Buchanan would not bring his fleet out to confront the Federals, and Farragut soon became frustrated:
“I am tired of watching Buchanan and Page, and wish from the bottom of my heart that Buck would come out and try his hand upon us. The question has to be settled, iron versus wood; and there never was a better chance to settle the question as to the sea-going qualities of ironclad ships. We are today ready to try anything that comes along, be it wood or iron, in reasonable quantities. Anything is preferable to lying on our oars.”
In July, Farragut directed his fleet commanders, “Strip your vessels and prepare for the conflict. Send down all your superfluous spars and rigging. Trice up or remove the whiskers.” Farragut had 14 wooden ships and three ironclads–the U.S.S. Chickasaw, Manhattan, and Winnebago–with a fourth, the U.S.S. Tecumseh, on her way from Pensacola. Farragut wrote on July 31:
“The Confederates at Fort Morgan are making great preparations to receive us. That concerns me but little. I know Buchanan and Page, who commands the fort, will do all in their power to destroy us, and we will reciprocate the compliment. I hope to give them a fair fight, if I once get inside. I expect nothing from them but that they will try to blow me up if they can.”
He chose the 4th “as the day for landing of the troops and my entrance into the bay,” but he began panicking as the day approached and the Tecumseh had not yet arrived. Farragut planned to land about 1,500 Federal troops under Major General Gordon Granger on Dauphin Island while the ships advanced in two lines. The ironclads would move between Fort Morgan and the wooden vessels, with gunboats protecting the wooden ships’ western sides.
Granger’s Federals landed on the 3rd, but instead of assaulting Fort Gaines, Granger directed his men to deploy artillery and besiege the fort. That day, Farragut’s fleet captain, Percival Drayton, sent an urgent message to the Federal commander at Pensacola:
“If you can get the Tecumseh out to-morrow, do so; otherwise I am pretty certain that the admiral won’t wait for her. Indeed, I think a very little persuasion would have taken him in to-day, and less to-morrow. The army are to land at once, and the admiral does not want to be though remiss.”
Farragut postponed his attack for a day in hopes that the Tecumseh would arrive. He wrote:
“I have lost the finest day for my operations. I confidently supposed that the Tecumseh would be ready in four days, and here we are on the sixth and no signs of her, and I am told has just begun to coal. I could have done very well without her, as I have three here without her, and every day is an irretrievable loss.”
Farragut followed up Drayton’s message with one of his own: “I can lose no more days. I must go in day after to-morrow morning at daylight or a little after. It is a bad time, but when you do not take fortune at her offer you must take her as you can find her.”
That night, Federal vessels made their final reconnaissance of the bay in a heavy storm, as men tried deactivating as many torpedoes as possible and marking the locations of those they could not. Gunboats fired on Fort Powell, situated on the secondary channel west of the main bay entrance.
Major General Dabney H. Maury, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, reported, “Thirty-seven vessels have already assembled off Mobile Bar. A large force of infantry landed on Dauphin Island last night and reported moving on Fort Gaines.” A correspondent from the Richmond Examiner wrote on the 4th:
“Yesterday and last evening, the enemy threw an infantry force upon Dauphin Island, 7 miles from Fort Gaines. The fleet outside is larger this morning… General Maury call on all to enroll themselves in battle. Great confidence prevails.”
The Winnebago briefly shelled Fort Gaines, as Farragut called a council of war to review the attack plan for the next day. Farragut explained:
“The service that I look for from the ironclads is, first, to neutralize as much as possible the fire of the guns which rake our approach; next to look out for the ironclads when we are abreast of the forts, and, lastly, to occupy the attention of those batteries which would rake us while running up the bay.
“After the wooden vessels have passed the fort, the Winnebago and Chickasaw will follow them. The commanding officer of the Tecumseh and Manhattan will endeavor to destroy the Tennessee, exercising their own judgment as to the time they shall remain behind for that purpose.”
Farragut planned to bypass the forts and occupy Mobile Bay, which would then starve the Confederates in the forts into surrender. Granger’s troops on Dauphin Island “will simultaneously attack Fort Gaines with our passage into Mobile Bay. What torpedoes or obstructions are in the ship channel we are ignorant. An effort on our part to pass in will be made, but the result is in the hands of the Almighty, and we pray that He may favor us.”
That night, Farragut wrote 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 Tecumseh finally arrived late that night and joined the line of battle. 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.
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. 143, 145; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15315-24; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 444; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 479-80; 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; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 209