The Battle of Mobile Bay

With the fall of New Orleans in April 1862, Mobile, Alabama became the Confederacy's principal port in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Situated at the head of Mobile Bay, the city relied on a series of forts at the bay's mouth to provide protection from naval attack. The cornerstones of this defence were Forts Morgan (46 guns) and Gaines (26) which guarded the main channel in to the bay. While Fort Morgan was built upon a spit of land extending from the mainland, Fort Gaines was constructed to the west on Dauphin Island. Fort Powell (18) guarded the western approaches.

While the fortifications were substantial, they were flawed in that their guns did not protect against assault from the rear. Command of these defences was entrusted to Brigadier General Richard Page. To support the army, the Confederate Navy operated three side-wheel gunboats, CSS Selma (4), CSS Morgan (6), and CSS Gaines (6) in the bay, as well as the new ironclad CSS Tennessee (6). These naval forces were led by Admiral Franklin Buchanan who had commanded CSS Virginia (10) during the Battle of Hampton Roads.

In addition, a torpedo (mine) field was laid on the eastern side of the channel to force attackers closer to Fort Morgan. With operations against Vicksburg and Port Hudson concluded, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut began planning an attack on Mobile. While Farragut's believed his ships were capable of running past the forts, he required army cooperation for their capture. To this end, he was given 2,000 men under the command of Major General George G. Granger. As communication between and the fleet and Granger's men ashore would be required, Farragut embarked a group of US Army signalmen.

For the assault, Farragut possessed fourteen wooden warships as well as four ironclads. Aware of the minefield, his plan called for the ironclads to pass close to Fort Morgan, while the wooden warships advanced to the outside using their armoured comrades as a screen. As a precaution, the wooden vessels were lashed together in pairs so if one were disabled, its partner could pull it to safety. Though the army was ready to launch the attack on August 3, Farragut hesitated as he wished to await the arrival of his fourth ironclad, USS Tecumseh (2), which was en route from Pensacola.

Believing that Farragut was going to attack, Granger began landing on Dauphin Island, but did not assault Fort Gaines. On the morning of August 5, Farragut's fleet moved into position to attack with Tecumseh leading the ironclads and the screw sloop USS Brooklyn (21) and the double-ender USS Octorara (6) leading the wooden ships. Farragut's flagship, USS Hartford and its consort USS Metacomet (9) were second in line. At 6:47 AM, Tecumseh opened the action by firing on Fort Morgan. Rushing towards the fort, the Union ships opened fire and the battle began in earnest.

Passing Fort Morgan, Commander Tunis Craven led Tecumseh too far west and entered the minefield. Shortly thereafter, a mine detonated beneath the ironclad sinking it and claiming all but 21 of its 114-man crew. Captain James Alden of Brooklyn, confused by Craven's actions halted his ship and signalled Farragut for instructions. Lashed high in Hartford's rigging to get a better view of the battle, Farragut was unwilling to halt the fleet while under fire and ordered the flagship's captain, Percival Drayton, to press on by steering around Brooklyn despite the fact that this course led through the minefield.

At this point, Farragut reputedly uttered some form of the famed order, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" Farragut's risk paid off and the entire fleet passed safely through the minefield. Having cleared the forts, the Union ships engaged Buchanan's gunboats and CSS Tennessee. Cutting the lines tying it to Hartford, Metacomet quickly captured Selma while other Union ships badly damaged Gaines forcing its crew to beach it. Outnumbered and out-gunned, Morgan fled north to Mobile. While Buchanan had hoped to ram several Union ships with Tennessee, he found that the ironclad was too slow for such tactics.

Having eliminated the Confederate gunboats, Farragut focused his fleet on destroying Tennessee. Though unable to sink Tennessee after heavy fire and ramming attempts, the wooden Union ships succeeded in shooting away it smokestack and severing its rudder chains. As a result, Buchanan was unable to steer or raise sufficient boiler pressure when the ironclads USS Manhattan (2) and USS Chickasaw (4) arrived on the scene. Pummelling the Confederate ship, they forced it to surrender after several of the crew, including Buchanan, were wounded. With the capture of Tennessee, the Union fleet controlled Mobile Bay.

While Farragut's sailors eliminated Confederate resistance at sea, Granger's men easily captured Forts Gaines and Powell with gunfire support from Farragut's ships. Shifting across the bay, they conducted siege operations against Fort Morgan which fell on August 23. Farragut's losses during the battle numbered 150 killed (most aboard Tecumseh) and 170 wounded, while Buchanan's small squadron lost 12 dead and 19 wounded. Ashore, Granger's casualties were minimal and numbered 1 dead and 7 wounded. Confederate battle losses were minimal, though the garrisons at Forts Morgan and Gaines were captured. Though he lacked sufficient manpower to capture Mobile, Farragut's presence in the bay effectively closed the port to Confederate traffic. Coupled with Major General William T. Sherman's successful Atlanta Campaign, the victory at Mobile Bay helped assure the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln that November.

The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Autumn 2012