On August 5th, 1864, Rear Admiral David Farragut led the Union navy into Mobile Bay, Alabama, to face a smaller Confederate fleet under the command of Admiral Franklin Buchanan and neutralize three forts surrounding Mobile Bay to complete the Union blockade of the Gulf of Mexico. The battle would prove pivotal in the Union victory, as well as President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election three months later. The Union fleet, under Farragut, used sheer power and numbers to decimate the Confederates.
The Union fleet consisted of four ironclad monitors, two gunboats, twelve wooden warships, and a contingent of five-thousand infantry. While the Union assault was ready two days earlier, Farragut insisted that the fleet hold position and wait for the USS Tecumseh, a monitor that had been held up in Pensacola. Farragut, in full knowledge of the superiority of his fleet, almost ordered the assault early, but the Tecumseh arrived on time to begin the assault. In order to achieve maximum combat effectiveness, Farragut had the twelve wooden ships lashed together in pairs; this way, if one warship’s engines were disabled, it’s partner could easily continue its course. The monitors would form a column to lead the assault, followed by a double-column of the wooden ships on the port side of the monitors, away from the action. This way, any heavy fire would be received by the heavily armored ironclads, protecting the delicate wooden ships.
On entry into the bay, it was discovered that the entrance of the bay was protected by mines. The USS Tecumseh, leading the charge, took heavy damage from the mines and sunk as a result of the damage. Seeing this, the USS Brooklyn, leader of the wooden column, slowed its progress. When asked by Farragut, the ship responded that torpedoes (mines) blocked the passage. Admiral Farragut is famously quoted as responding with the phrase “Damn the torpedoes!” Whether he actually said this or not is still in question, but Farragut, in a cunning gamble, ordered his ships to advance through the minefield. Farragut believed that the mines had been submerged for too long to take any effect on the ships. This gamble would pay off; if the ships maintained caution, they would be stuck in range of the forts guns in a chokepoint, and most likely incur heavy damages, but the torpedoes proved to be inactive, as all ships passed through with no damage incurred from mines and began their assault on the Confederate fleet and forts.
The Confederate fleet was greatly outmatched in this naval conflict. Featuring only three gunboats and a single ironclad, coupled with only fifteen-hundred men to man the forts, created a disadvantageous setting for the rebels. The ironclad, the CSS Tennessee, chose to engage the Federal fleet head-on. Under the command of Admiral Buchanan, the Tennessee hoped to employ it’s successful ramming tactics, as used in the battle at Hampton Roads. With three monitors, the USS Manhattan, USS Winnebago, and USS Chickasaw, in its sight, the Tennessee would be hampered by its lack of speed, and in fact be rammed itself instead of ramming enemy targets.
On the flipside, the Tennessee’s superior armor would actually rebound most of the shots it received, while slightly weakening the armor with each hit, but the Tennessee’s guns witnessed several misfires during the battle, reducing their efficiency. Nonetheless, the bombardment rendered the Tennessee’s engines, steering, and guns useless, turning her into a heavily-armored pile of junk. Commander Johnson, captain of the CSS Tennessee, surrendered the vessel three hours after the first shot. Admiral Buchanan suffered a badly fractured leg from fragments of shot hitting the ship.
Shortly after the defeat of the CSS Tennessee, the Union fleet destroyed one gunboat, captured the other, and stormed Mobile’s forts. With fire support from Farragut’s fleet, the Union infantry took the three forts in a matter of hours, ending the battle over Mobile Bay and completing the Union blockade of the Gulf of Mexico. Using tactics, superior numbers, and a risky gamble, Admiral Farragut won the day for the Union and cemented his place in U.S. naval history