By the summer of 1864 the three-year Union naval campaign to blockade Southern ports and choke off the Confederacy was at its zenith. Mobile, Ala., was one of only two major ports—along with Wilmington, N.C.—left to the Rebels. Tennessee-born David Glasgow Farragut (1801–70) was America’s first and most celebrated admiral. His loyalty to the Union, bold command decisions and courage epitomized the American spirit. His resolve was never more on display than when he led his battle fleet into the heavily defended port of Mobile on Aug. 5, 1864.
Though Mobile Bay spans more than 400 square miles, only two narrow channels link it to the Gulf of Mexico. The wider of the two is the 3-mile gap between Fort Morgan Peninsula to the east and Dauphin Island to the west. The other is 2-mile Grant’s Pass, between the north tip of Dauphin and the mainland at Cedar Point. The Confederate defenses included three forts. From the western tip of its namesake peninsula Fort Morgan and its 46 guns defended the wider channel.
Opposite it on the east end of Dauphin was the smaller, 26-gun Fort Gaines. Built on a half-acre artificial island, Fort Powell guarded Grant’s Pass with 16 guns. The Confederates had obstructed much of the wider channel with torpedoes (actually floating barrels of explosives akin to modern naval contact mines), leaving only a small, marked passage beneath Fort Morgan’s walls. The small Confederate flotilla comprised the ironclad CSS Tennessee and three gunboats.
Farragut, who’d earned promotion to rear admiral (the U.S. Navy’s first) in 1862 for his capture of New Orleans, used a combined Army/Navy force at Mobile. On August 3 Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger landed with 1,500 soldiers on the west end of Dauphin to besiege Fort Gaines.
At dawn on the 5th the Union fleet of four ironclad monitors and 14 wooden ships entered the harbor with Farragut tethered high in the mainmast of USS Hartford. He’d split the fleet into two parallel columns, the ironclads sailing nearest Fort Morgan to shield the wooden ships to port.
The ships steamed through the unmined gap beneath the fort. Off course, the ironclad USS Tecumseh struck a torpedo and sank, causing alarmed Union captains to hesitate within range of Fort Morgan. At that moment Farragut reportedly bellowed, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
Hartford passed through the minefield, the rest of the fleet following. Once in the bay Farragut swiftly captured or drove away the Confederate gunboats. After three hours of fighting Tennessee surrendered, ending what Farragut called “the most desperate battle I ever fought.”
Three days later Fort Gaines surrendered, while Fort Morgan capitulated on August 23. Though Mobile itself would not fall until 1865, Farragut had cut off one of the last of the Confederates’ deepwater ports.
His victory—and those of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman at Atlanta in September and Brig. Gen. Philip Sheridan at Cedar Creek, Va., in October—helped secure President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election in November. A grateful president and Congress created the rank of vice admiral for Farragut in December 1864, and two years later he became the nation’s first full admiral.
Lessons: Once committed, finish the job. Farragut’s determination to pierce the torpedo barrier was key to the ultimate Union victory. Combined operations can be incalculable force multipliers. The skillful, integrated employment of naval and land forces enabled the attacking Union force to prevail against determined Confederate defenders. Military action is inevitably linked to politics. Farragut’s victory bolstered the Union cause and led to Lincoln’s re-election at a crucial moment in American history.
Once committed, finish the job. Farragut’s determination to pierce the torpedo barrier was key to the ultimate Union victory.
Combined operations can be incalculable force multipliers. The skillful, integrated employment of naval and land forces enabled the attacking Union force to prevail against determined Confederate defenders.
Military action is inevitably linked to politics. Farragut’s victory bolstered the Union cause and led to Lincoln’s re-election at a crucial moment in American history.
This article appeared in the September 2021 issue of Military History magazine. For more stories, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: