Early on the morning of August 5, 1864, aboard his flagship USS Hartford, Adm. David G. Farragut finished breakfast with his flag captain, Capt. Percival Drayton. Rising from the table, he said, “Well, Drayton, we might as well get under way.” Orders to the deck were passed through the Boatswains and their mates aboard 18 Union Navy warships (14 wooden ships and 4 ironclads). The Union fleet formed up and began steaming towards the entrance to Mobile Bay. Aboard four Confederate Navy warships (one ironclad and three gunboats), and in Forts Morgan and Gaines, Confederate sailors and soldiers eyed the approaching fleet and finished loading their guns.
Similar to what he had done at Port Hudson on the Mississippi River, Farragut had his crews lash each of the smaller gunboats side-by-side with a larger steam sloop-of-war. The thinking was that if one of the warships became disabled, the other could power it to safety. The sloops were also all “screw” sloops, powered by a propeller beneath the stern of the ship. A few of the gunboats were side-wheel steamers; the sloops could take more punishment from Confederate gunfire as opposed to the highly vulnerable side-wheels on the gunboats. As the squadron entered the mouth of Mobile Bay, the larger sloop was on the starboard, or eastern, side of each pair of warships, facing nearby Fort Morgan. Adm. Franklin Buchanan, aboard his flagship the ironclad CSS Tennessee, positioned his flotilla of CSN warships inside the mouth of the Bay and northwest of Fort Morgan where they could rake the ships of the incoming Union squadron with maximal effect.
The first shot was fired at 6:45 AM by one of the Union monitors and by 7:15, the action was general, with almost all of Farragut’s warships engaging the Confederates and the forts firing on the Union ships. As the action proceeded, smoke from the discharge of the guns began to accumulate, despite a westerly breeze blowing. Farragut gradually inched his way up the main ratlines to see over the smoke and observe what his fleet was doing, ending up just below the main top. Someone eventually noticed the Admiral’s precarious position and pointed it out to Drayton, who sent the Quartermaster up with a line to wrap around the Admiral and secure him to some main shrouds.
|Drawing of the USS Hartford engaging the CSS Tennessee. Naval History and Heritage Command.|
Farragut had organized his fleet in two columns; the wooden warships lashed together in pairs in one column, and the four ironclads in a separate column in front of the warships. As the ironclads entered the Bay, Buchanan had the Tennessee moved to the west a bit to get a better angle of fire on the Union ships. Captain Tunis A. M. Craven of the monitor USS Tecumseh spied the Confederate ironclad and ordered his ship to make straight for her to engage. This resulted in the Union warship entering a mine field of “torpedoes” placed by the Confederates to restrict the entrance into Mobile Bay. The Tecumseh detonated one of these and sank in minutes, taking 93 men down with her, including Capt. Craven. Farragut’s carefully conceived battle plan was falling apart, as the lead pair of warships, the Brooklyn and Octorara, began to back their engines to avoid the sinking ironclad and her three consorts which followed. The entire Union fleet was in danger of degrading into an entangled mass of warships under the guns of Fort Morgan and the Confederate Navy flotilla when Farragut ordered that the Hartford and Metacomet steer around the Brooklyn, which would take the two ships deeper into the mine field. When told of this, he then uttered his now legendary order “D___ the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” (other accounts indicate he said “go ahead, go ahead” and still others that he said “Ring four bells, eight bells, sixteen bells!”, emphasizing the signal to the engine room to go full speed ahead).
The battle then became somewhat “pell-mell” after its beginning. Buchanan attempted to ram several Union warships, starting with the Hartford, and several of the Union warships attempted to ram the Tennessee. Farragut ordered the Metacomet unlashed from aside the Hartford to begin dealing with the three CSN gunboats, while he focused on the Tennessee. At one point, the two flagships were side-by-side against each other, what guns could bear blasting away at point blank range. Eventually the remaining three Union ironclads joined the fray and began to pound away at the Tennessee with their XI- and XV-inch Dahlgren guns, damaging many of the shutters covering the Confederate warship’s gun-ports and rendering them unable to open so the guns could fire. Eventually a shot from the ironclad USS Chickasaw damaged the vulnerable steering chains of the Tennessee. Relieving tackles were rigged, but these too were soon shot away. The Tennessee was crippled; she couldn’t maneuver and she couldn’t bring a gun to bear on the Union warships.
|Painting showing the Hartford and Tennessee engaged, with the Union monitor gunboats closing in on the combat to attack the Tennessee. Library of Congress|
The CSS Tennessee surrendered about 10:00 AM that morning. The Confederate gunboat CSS Morgan ran into shallow water to escape the Union gunboats and grounded. The CSS Gaines was hit by Union gunfire and ran into shallow water under the guns of Fort Morgan. Eventually this CSN warship sank. The CSS Selma tried to escape back to Mobile but the faster USS Metacomet ran her down, delivered some punishing blows from her guns, and forced the surrender of the Confederate warship.
As the gunfire died out, the clouds of powder smoke began to dissipate, and dazed sailors looked around to see whom of their mates might still be alive.
|Painting showing the surrender of the CSS Tennessee. In the left center of the image, Confederate flag captain Cdr. James D. Johnston can be seen hauling down the Confederate flag at the stern of the Tennessee. Naval History and Heritage Command.|