"A Deadly Rain of Shot and Shell"
— Civil War Trail, Battle for Mobile Bay —
Eager to attack Mobile Bay since 1862, U. S. Admiral David Farragut knew he could not capture control of the lower bay without the support of the army and without a flotilla of ironclad monitors to confront the Confederate ironclad CSS Tennessee
. In July 1864, U. S. General Edward Canby sent 1,500 men under General Gordon Granger on army transports from New Orleans. Granger landed on Dauphin Island on August 3. By August 4 all of Farragut's monitors had joined the fleet. Farragut was ready to attack.
Farragut would confront three forts, a series of obstructions, a triple row of torpedoes, and C. S. Admiral Franklin Buchanan's squadron. The Confederate ships mounted a total of 22 guns and Fort Morgan mounted 46 guns, 38 of them bearing upon the channel. The ironclad ram, CSS Tennessee
, Buchanan's flagship and the most powerful warship in the world, mounted ten guns, four of them rifled. Farragut's ships carried a total of 199 guns. His wooden ships were partially armored with improvised chain armor and sand bags, intended to protect the ship's boilers and machinery. His monitors carried a total of four 15" and eight 11" smoothbore guns.
On August 5, 1864, Farragut attempted to run past Forts Gaines and Morgan into Mobile Bay. The USS Tecumseh
, the lead monitor, when within 2,000 yards of Fort Morgan, fired the first shot of the day at 6:47 a.m. A few minutes later the fort returned fire. Farragut's flagship, the USS Hartford
, fired her first shot about 25 minutes later. Soon after, the engagement became general and a light west wind blew black smoke into the faces of Fort Morgan's gunners. A soldier in the fort remembered that "everything was so enveloped in smoke that little could be seen except their brilliant banners?" But the smoke also obscured Farragut's view and forced him into the rigging.
At 7:25 the USS Brooklyn
, in the lead of the wooden fleet, found its way blocked by the USS Tecumseh
and stopped. Farragut ordered the Brooklyn
to "go on," but, the Tecumseh
, intent on attacking the CSS Tennessee
, did not get out of the way and the Brooklyn
did not move. At 7:40 the Tecumseh
, within two hundred yards of the Tennessee
, hit a torpedo and sank, causing "immense bubbles of steam, as large as cauldrons" to rise to the surface. Then the Brooklyn
backed up. The ships behind the Brooklyn
became crowded in front of the fort. Fort Morgan's gunners, sensing victory, punished them badly.
"?A deadly rain of shot and shell was falling on? [the Hartford
], and her men were being cut down by the scores, unable to make reply. The sight on deck was sickening beyond the power of words to portray. Shot after shot came through the side, mowing down the men, deluging the decks with blood, and scattering mangled fragments of humanity so thickly that it was difficult to stand on the deck, so slippery was it."
Lieutenant John C. Kinney, aboard the Hartford
Conditions were similar on many of Farragut's ships. At 7:50, the admiral, taking a calculated risk, ordered the Hartford
and her consort, the Metacomet
, across the torpedo field into the Bay at full speed. He knew that torpedoes submerged for too long might be ineffective. Within ten minutes, the Brooklyn
followed. Over the next 30 minutes the rest of Farragut's wooden ships followed. As they passed through the field, many heard torpedoes knocking against the bottom of their ships. The Federal fleet was lucky; none exploded. When the torpedo field was swept a few weeks later, one out of ten was dry. Though risky, Farragut's decisive action saved the Union fleet from certain destruction.