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.
Farragut had been assembling a naval fleet and planning to capture Mobile Bay since January. His flotilla consisted of 14 wooden warships and four ironclads. To access the bay, the ships had to pass through a narrow, 200-yard channel guarded by Confederates at Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island to the west and Fort Morgan to the east. The secondary bay entrance to the far west was guarded by Fort Powell.
Confederates placed 67 floating mines (or torpedoes) in the main entrance, which were marked with buoys. The Federals could avoid them, but they would have to steer closer to Fort Morgan and its 46 guns. Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan had a small naval fleet in the bay consisting of the wooden sidewheel gunboats C.S.S. Morgan, Gaines, and Selma, and the ironclad C.S.S. Tennessee. The 18 Federal ships outgunned the four Confederate vessels 147 to 22.
The Federal vessels began advancing on the flood tide at 5:30 a.m., with the ironclad monitors in a column closest to Fort Morgan that protected the wooden vessels. The wooden ships were lashed together in pairs so that if one was disabled, the other could pull her along. The U.S.S. Tecumseh led the ironclads, and the U.S.S. Brooklyn lashed to the Octorara led the wooden ships. The Brooklyn had a “cowcatcher” used to dredge for torpedoes. The admiral’s flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford, was behind the Brooklyn, lashed to the Metacomet.
Buchanan’s crew aboard the Tennessee woke 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.” Farragut reported, “The attacking fleet steamed steadily up the Main Ship Channel, the Tecumseh firing the first shot at 6:47.” An officer aboard the Hartford recalled:
“The calmness of the scene was sublime. No impatience, no irritation, no anxiety, except for the fort to open; and, after it did open, full five minutes elapsed before we answered. In the mean time the guns were trained as if at a target, and all the sounds I could hear were, ‘Steady boys, steady! Left tackle a little; so!’ then the roar of a broadside, and an eager cheer as the enemy were driven from their water battery.”
The Federal momentum temporarily halted as the fleet came under heavy bombardment from Fort Morgan, and the Tecumseh struck a mine and sank. Captain James Alden of the Brooklyn wrote:
“I observed the ill-fated Tecumseh which was then about 300 yards ahead of us and on our starboard bow, careen violently over and sink almost instantaneously. Sunk by a torpedo! Assassination in its worst form! A glorious though terrible end for our noble friends, the intrepid pioneers of that death-strewed path! Immortal fame is theirs; peace to their names.”
As Farragut sent the Metacomet to collect the Tecumseh survivors, the Brooklyn began reversing, which halted all the ships behind her. Farragut asked Alden why he was reversing, and he replied, “Torpedoes.” Farragut yelled, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead, Drayton! Hard astarboard; ring four bells! Eight bells! Sixteen bells!”
Farragut climbed the rigging to see better, and a boatswain lashed him to the shrouds to prevent him from falling. The Hartford moved directly through the minefield, hitting some torpedoes. However, they did not detonate because they were waterlogged. The remaining 16 vessels followed the Hartford into the bay by 8:35 a.m., in time to serve breakfast to the crew.
Soon after the Federal vessels entered Mobile Bay, Buchanan brought his small fleet forward to give battle. Farragut said, “I did not think old Buck was such a fool,” and trained his ships on the Confederates. The Morgan was grounded, the Gaines was sunk, and the crew of the Selma surrendered. This left the Tennessee alone to face Farragut’s 17 ships.
Buchanan had moved the Tennessee under the guns of Fort Morgan, but now he brought her out in a last-ditch effort to drive the Federals out of the bay. The Hartford and two other vessels rammed the enemy vessel at five-minute intervals. Three more Federal ships converged with broadsides that destroyed Buchanan’s smokestack. And when fire destroyed Tennessee’s steering gear, a wounded Buchanan finally raised the white flag around 10 a.m.
A lieutenant from the U.S.S. Manhattan went aboard the Tennessee to collect her colors and later wrote that “her decks looked like a butcher shop. One man had been struck by the fragments of one of our 15-inch shot, and was cut into pieces so small that the largest would not have weighed 2 lbs.”
Without their ironclad, the Confederates could do little to stop the mighty Federal fleet from entering the lower bay and capturing the last port in the Gulf of Mexico east of Texas. The Federals suffered 145 killed (93 drowned on Tecumseh, including Commander Tunis A.M. Craven), 170 wounded, and four captured. Confederates lost 12 killed, 20 wounded, and 270 captured.
Northern morale, which had been at its lowest point of the war, was greatly boosted by this sensational Federal victory. However, the Confederates still held the forts at the bay’s entrance and the city of Mobile, 30 miles north. The Federals soon began working to take the forts.
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