New-York Historical Society

Damn the torpedoes! The Battle of Mobile Bay

This post was written by Alice Browne, Ebsco Project cataloger.

The Battle of Mobile Bay, fought on August 5, 1864, led to Union control of one of the last significant Gulf ports remaining in Confederate hands. The New-York Historical Society holds letters and papers from several participants in the battle. It was widely anticipated, and widely reported as a major victory. Two actions of the admiral commanding the Union fleet, David Farragut, had a long afterlife in popular memory. One was the words of his command to lead his fleet through the mined waters which were the only way ahead, even after a mine (or torpedo, in the language of the day) had sunk the ironclad Tecumseh: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead … ” His congratulatory order to his troops of August 6 fully acknowledges their courage in following this command; Ensign D.W. Mullan, serving on the Monongahela, transcribed the order in his usually laconic diary. (Ensign D.W. Mullan collection, 1861-1862, 1864-1865. NHSC – Mullan)

Currier & Ives, "The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864.  PR 100, Maritime History File.

Currier & Ives, “The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864. PR 100, Maritime History File.

As an obviously important battle, Mobile Bay was anxiously anticipated and widely reported, with details emerging gradually. Sarah Coan, sister of Titus Munson Coan, a Union naval surgeon at Mobile Bay, wrote to him from Albion, N.Y. on August 10: “Dear Munson, somehow I do not like to write to you today, for the attack on Mobile has commenced, and perhaps I am writing to no one. But if you are alive and well, you must have letters. I am going down street this morning to get papers and see what news there is. ” (T.M. Coan papers, box 4, folder 12, item 19. Titus Munson Coan papers)  Coan survived, and sent his family hand drawn maps of Mobile Bay.

Admiral Farragut.  PR 52, Portrait File.

Admiral Farragut. PR 52, Portrait File.

Farragut’s other memorable  action was his decision for part of the battle to command from high on the mainmast of his flagship, tied to the rigging. This dramatic detail of the battle generated numerous reports and visual representations, and was disputed for many years.  A Union participant in the battle, Alexander McKinley, wrote to his niece Martha on August 29: “We have received the New York and Philadelphia papers up to the 17th inst. & most ludicrous and absurd accounts do they give of our great naval fight of the the 5th. Study my report and you will get at the truth. The Admiral was in the main rigging but not lashed there.” (Alexander McKinley letters, 1862-1864.  AHMC – McKinley, Alexander)

McKinley’s confidence in his report was misplaced. The dispute about whether Farragut was lashed to the rigging was only settled years later, by the testimony of eyewitnesses, including Quartermaster John H. Knowles, who helped to tie him.  (Chester G. Hearn, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998, p. 26-262) A letter from the admiral’s widow, Virginia Loyall Farragut, to Gustavus Vasa Fox, who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Civil War, discusses the question and adds a comment of her own: “The late discussion as to whether he was lashed to the port main rigging until the fleet got in the bay, or not, has been silenced by Page’s letter and also by the testimony of J. Crittenden Watson who assisted in tying him. Lieut. Marthon also testified to the fact. I can also testify that the [sic] often told me of it with the interesting addition that perhaps he never told to any one but myself and it is that he was glad to find himself so securely fastened in an elevated position as he felt then if ‘I am wounded fatally I may with my dying breath give an order that may lead to victory.’ During the discussion on the subject I felt greatly tempted to give my knowledge to the public but I have such a dread of making myself conspicuous I forbore, it has often been very oppressive to me to be silent when I perceive false impressions have been made about my husband.”  (Virginia Farragut letter to Gustavus Vasa Fox, in Gustavus Vasa Fox collection, box 13, folder 11, item 31. NHSC – Fox. The letter is dated April 23, with no year; probably 1882, as John Crittenden Watson’s article appeared in Scribner’s Monthly in Jun 1881.)

Virginia Farragut’s reticence, and McKinley’s false confidence, are good reminders of the complexity of the historical record. Witnesses often speak confidently from ignorance, and people who know about an event may have many reasons for remaining silent.

 

 

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