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July 31 - August 6, 1864
Admiral Farragut 'Damns the Torpedoes';
Enters Mobile Bay

July 2011

Admiral David Farragut, 1801-1870.

Just at daybreak on Aug. 5, 1864, the Union fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, commanded by Admiral David Farragut, moved into battle formation to enter Confederate-held Mobile Bay. The attack was part of General Ulysses S. Grant's much larger strategic plan to bring the United States Civil War to a close, and, although it took awhile, it worked.

Grant's overall plan was to move a number of Union armies to converge in Virginia, cutting off Lee's communications with other parts of the Confederacy, and forcing him into a decisive battle in open country. Now that Union control of the Mississippi River had cut the Confederacy in two, Grant focused on an enveloping movement east of the Mississippi which would make it difficult for the Confederates to use their internal lines. One Union army from the deep South was to cut the James and Appomattox River line of communication, while General Sherman's army would execute a wide wheeling march through the South to complete the envelopment. The capture of Mobile, Ala. would deprive the Confederacy of its last major ocean port and would shorten the supply lines to Sherman's army.

Admiral Farragut (1801-1870), entrusted with the capture of Mobile Bay, was a 63-year-old veteran of the War of 1812, a distinction he shared with Army Generals Winfield Scott and John Wool. Scott, before resigning as commanding general of the army in November 1861, had laid out a plan similar in conception for enveloping the South. Although it was derisively dubbed "Operation Anaconda" by those who thought Richmond could be taken in a month or two, that concept actually was used by the Union in blockading Southern ports and attempting to prevent the resupply of the rebel armies.

The capture of Mobile Bay presented a difficult problem, for the bay had two entrances—one for shallow-water boats, and the other with a deep channel which ran between several well-equipped forts. The main entrance was extensively mined with "torpedoes," forcing any entering ships to run right under one of the guardian fort's guns. But Farragut was the man for the job, not only because of his earlier capture of New Orleans, but also because of the character and bravery he had developed when just a young boy.

Farragut's father was a native of Minorca, whose family had been in the service of Spain for centuries. He became a trader in the Caribbean, and when he heard of America's fight for independence he brought a cargo of munitions to Charleston, S.C. He fought for the American cause both on the sea as a privateer, and on land at the Battle of Cowpens and against General Cornwallis in North Carolina. After the Revolution he moved to Tennessee, where his son David was born, and then to New Orleans where he was appointed a sailing master in the U.S. Navy. In 1810, after the death of his wife, his naval duties forced him to find people who could take care of his children. David Porter, the commander of the U.S. Naval Station at New Orleans, offered to adopt David.

At the age of 10, David Farragut became a Navy Midshipman, and two years later, during the 1812 war with Britain, sailed with Captain Porter on the frigate "Essex" around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean. The Essex captured many prize ships, and David, at the age of 12, was temporarily put in command of one of them. The captain told his crew not to obey Farragut's orders, but Farragut managed to stand up to him and won the crew over to his side. When Captain Porter took the Essex into the neutral harbor of Valparaiso, Chile, two British warships, which had been dispatched to destroy him, blocked him into the harbor. When Porter made a run for the open sea, a storm carried away his main topmast and the long-range British guns decimated his ship. David Farragut acted as a messenger for Porter during the hours of bombardment, and twice narrowly escaped death.

After the war ended, Farragut served on various ships, principally in the Mediterranean Sea. Trying to make up for the education he had lost while at sea, he studied under the U.S. consul at Tunis, and over the years, became fluent in Spanish, French, Italian, and Arabic. He also served on a ship which was supposedly a model of discipline and cleanliness, but whose captain achieved his goals through fear and excessive punishment. Farragut resolved never to copy the captain's example. Farragut's wife Susan suffered from a painful disease for 16 years before her death, and Farragut trained himself in medicine in order to serve as her nurse. After her death, one of the Farragut's friends declared that the women of Norfolk should build a "monument to Captain Farragut" to honor the care he had given his wife.

When the Civil War broke out, Farragut pledged his loyalty to the Union, even though he and his new wife, Virginia, were both Southerners. Because of threats from his now-Confederate Navy colleagues, the Farraguts had to slip out of Norfolk on a boat to Baltimore, which they reached just after Southern sympathizers had clashed with Union troops moving through the city. Quickly boarding a canal boat crammed with refugees, the Farraguts sailed to New York and settled north of the city, awaiting orders. They were slow in coming, because the Navy mistrusted Southerners, even those who had given up everything to support the Union.

Finally, David Porter's son, David Dixon Porter, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox recommended Farragut for the job of capturing New Orleans. When that, and the opening of the Mississippi, was accomplished, Farragut was sent to capture Mobile Bay. Farragut determined that he must keep the Confederate soldiers stationed in Mobile from being sent north against Sherman, who was positioned to take Atlanta, and, if possible, cause more Confederate troops to be sent south to answer his projected attack against Mobile. He launched a feint against Mobile even though he did not have the troops to support it, and he succeeded in his first objective, but partially failed in the second, because only engineers were sent South to reinforce the Mobile forts.

Admiral David Farragut on the U.S.S. Hartford.

Now that the actual attack was made possible by the arrival of more troops and ironclad ships, Farragut prepared to lead the fleet in his flagship, the "Hartford." But many of his fellow officers were concerned about the 63-year-old's safety, and convinced him that other ships with more powerful guns should lead the attack. This almost resulted in disaster.

One of the lead ships, the ironclad Tecumseh, struck a torpedo, exploded, and instantly sank. Her companion ship, the Brooklyn, stopped and then turned sideways in the channel, partially blocking the ships behind it. Farragut immediately swung his steam-powered wooden ship out into the minefield and pulled alongside the Brooklyn. Farragut had perched himself high in the ship's rigging, equipped with binoculars, a megaphone for shouting orders, and a speaking tube leading to the captain which he had installed earlier. The crew of the Brooklyn shouted a warning about the mines, but Farragut famously replied, "Damn the torpedoes!" Then, he called down the speaking tube to the Captain of his flagship, "Four bells, Captain Drayton." He then shouted through his megaphone to the gunboat lashed to the flagship's side, "Go ahead, Jouett, full speed."

The Hartford's sailors below decks could hear the primers snapping off the torpedoes beneath the ship as the Hartford crossed the minefield, but not one exploded. Farragut had gambled that they had been in the water too long while his fleet maintained their long blockade of Mobile Bay, and he was right. The entire fleet passed successfully down the channel and entered Mobile Bay. They were met by a smaller Confederate fleet, but one that featured the dreaded ironclad ram, the Tennessee, which had been built at Selma and floated down the Alabama River to Mobile.

One after another, the Union ships tried to put it out of commission, but it was the flagship of Confederate Adm. Franklin Buchanan, and he relentlessly headed for Farragut's wooden flagship. Finally, the two ships met and Farragut tried to ram the ironclad, but it turned slightly to starboard. The two ships passed each other with their guns almost touching, firing into each other. When they had passed, two Union ironclads attacked the Tennessee and forced it to surrender. Farragut's ship suffered 25 officers and sailors killed, and when Farragut saw them laid out on the deck, Quartermaster Knowles reported that "It was the only time I ever saw the old gentleman cry, but the tears came in his eyes, like a little child."

Farragut's personal bravery inspired the North to further effort, and his conduct, and Sherman's conquest of Atlanta, which he had helped to further, contributed to the reelection of Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 campaign, and to the eventual success of General Grant's strategy for ending the Civil War.  


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.