AUGUST 5 = “DAMN the torpedoes!! FULL SPEED AHEAD!!”

Those are the words which are said to have been bellowed by Admiral David Glasgow Farragut from onboard his Flagship the “U.S.S. Hartford” at the height of the Battle of Mobile Bay on today’s date, August 5, in 1864. As with John Paul Jones and his cry of “I have not yet begun to fight!”from a naval battle during the American Revolution, there is indeed some doubt as to whether he actually yelled out those exact words. But Farragut was one of the toughest, no-nonsense fighting leaders in the history of our country, and as was the case with Jones and his call to arms, those words exemplified the man. And just like the words of the Navy Seals on the Bin Laden raid in may of this year: “For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo,  E.K.I.A.” (enemy killed in action), they set a model of the fighting spirit of the United States Navy for all time to come. 

Farragut, USN -vs- Buchanan, CSN

One really could not get a stronger contrast between two fighting men than between these two who faced off on the waters of Mobile Bay, Alabama that August morning. Then Flag Officer David G. Farragut, a

native of Tennessee (pictured, above), was living quietly in Virginia when the secession crisis came in March of 1861. But there could be no question as to the loyalty to the Union of this veteran of naval service during the War of 1812. Within two hours of learning that Virginia had seceded from the Union Farragut packed his wife and children into a carriage, tucked loaded pistols into his coat and dashed to the waterfront just in time to board the last steamer headed north. Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan (below), was no less determined to fight than Farragut, but possessed neither Farragut’s intelligence, nor his strength of principle.

Head of Washington Navy Yard at the outbreak of war, he sabotaged the yard before going south. Upon learning that Maryland would not be seceding, he attempted to go back to the Union, but we had had enough of him. So he returned South wherein he took command of the ground- breaking, but ill-fated “Merrimack/Virginia”. He would survive that encounter to rise to the rank of Admiral in the Confederate Navy. By the time they met at Mobile Bay, Farragut, the U.S. Navy’s first full Admiral, was commanding the Union Naval Squadron attacking that rebel stonghold.

The Battle of Mobile Bay 

“Fort Morgan”guarded the approaches to Mobile Bay, which was outside of the key Confederate port of Mobile, Alabama. In addition to the fort, the Confederates had a small naval squadron to defend the port, a pair of wooden gunboats, and the powerful ironclad ship, the “Tennessee”. The ironclads were ships which had been fashioned as essentially floating gun platforms housed in iron of up to six inches in

thickness. This made them largely (but not totally) impervious to guns firing from wooden ships. Buchanan was in charge of the Rebel squadron. The Union Squadron under Farragut’s command opened fire on Fort Morgan early that morning. The plan was for the line of Union ironclads (Monitors – ironclads with revolving turrets) to run the fleet past the guns of Fort Morgan, and then to engage the Tennessee, while the wooden Union ships dealt with the wooden gunboats (click on the above map to enlarge). Unfortunately, the Rebels had rigged a line of floating mines (called “torpedoes” in civil war parlance) across the bay. One of these torpedoes struck the Union monitor “Tecumseh” and sunk her with a loss of most of her crew. When the Union line of ships lead by the “U.S.S. Brooklyn” saw this, they halted, fearing a similar fate. But Farragut, who was aboard his flagship, the “U.S.S. Hartford” was in no mood for such caution. “DAMN the torpedoes!!” he yelled. “Full speed ahead!!” 

Buchanan Brings the Tennessee Out to Fight

The van of Farragut’s line was able to brush past the remaining torpedoes which failed to detonate. Buchanan took the Tennessee out to fight, but was driven back. But he was furious, and anxious to take the fight to the invaders. His Surgeon, Dr. D.B. Conrad wrote: “Buchanan, grim and silent, stumped up and down the deck.” Then he abruptly turned and ordered Tennessee back out to attack once again. When Farragut saw this, he said “I did not think Old Buck was such a fool.” Taking his small flotilla out to attack three Union monitors and 14 ships was suicidal. But Buchanan was far more determined than he was smart. The report in the August 9, 1864 edition of the New York Times tells the story from there:

“The Confederate Ram “Tennessee”. after first attacking the fleet, as it advanced, seemed to return for shelter under the guns of Fort Morgan; but, after the fleet had proceeded some distance up the bay, stood toward them, as if to give battle; whereupon the “Hartford”, the monitors, and the wooden vessels of the fleet, stood for her, and a most terrible engagement commenced. The “Tennessee” was rammed by the “Hartford” (and several other Union ships)… and all of the vessels delivering heavy fire at the same instant. “The “Manhatten”, meantime putone solid 15 inch shot at her, which penetrated her armour through and lodged on the opposite side.  

Admiral Farragut, during the engagement, was stationed in the maintop, where he had lashed himself in case he should receive a wound, communicating his orders below through speaking tubes. After a most determined and gallant engagement, the Tennessee showed a white flag as a token of surrender. An officer of the Federal Fleet then boarded the “Tennessee” and demanded the sword of Admiral Buchanan, which that officer surrendered and it was taken aboard the flagship. The Confederate Admiral was wounded severely and will probably have to suffer the amputation of a leg.”

Did Farragut REALLY Yell “Damn the Toredoes…” etc.?

There has been some suggestion that Admiral Farragut did not actually yell out the phrase “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” That he said those exact words and that they would have been heard over the din of an extremely fierce battle does seem unlikely. “Wikipedia” has dealt with this controversy thus:

“Most popular accounts of the battle relate that when “Brooklyn” slowed when “Tecumseh” crossed her path, Farragut asked why she was not moving ahead. When the reply came back that torpedoes were in her path, he is said to have said, “Damn the torpedoes.” The story did not appear in print until several years later, and some historians ask whether it happened at all. Some forms of the story are highly unlikely; the most widespread is that he shouted to “Brooklyn”, “Damn the torpedoes! Go ahead!” Men present at the battle doubted that any such verbal communication could be heard above the din of the guns. More likely, if it happened, is that he said to the captain of “Hartford”, “Damn the torpedoes. Four bells, Captain Drayton.” Then he shouted to the commander of (the gunboat)”Metacomet”, lashed to “Hartford’s” side, “Go ahead, Jouett, full speed.” The words have been altered in time to the more familiar, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” “

Whatever Admiral Farragut’s actual words were, there can be no doubting that his exceptional drive and aggressiveness, coupled with his judicious use of the superior forces he had at his disposal produced a major victory over Buchanan and his bull headed defense with the Tennessee. This was the first good news which the Union had had all of that long and bloody year of 1864. It was the first of several important battlefield victories which ultimately would lead up to and assure Lincoln’s victory in the presidential year of 1864 over the Democratic candidate, that strutting boob, former General George Mc Clellan. The city of Mobile was not actually taken until some time later, but with Farragut’s victory in Mobile Bay, Mobile could no longer serve as a port through which the Confederate Armies could be re-supplied. Thus Sherman was free to operate as he saw fit in his campaigns in Georgia. Just as was the case with the fight against Bin Laden, the fight would go on, but a major blow had been struck in the fight for freedom and justice.

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Picture History of the Us Navy by Theodore Roscoe and Fred Freeman, Bonanza Books, New York, 1956.

“The New York Times History of the Civil War”  Edited by Arleen Keylin & Douglas John Bowen, Arno Press, New York, 1980.

US NAVY: An Illustrated History by Nathan Miller, Bonanza Books, New York, 1977

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