The Battle of Mobile Bay, which took place in August 1864, was the last major naval engagement of the Civil War, and the Union victory there led to the closing of the Mobile port. The action is best remembered for the famous quotation, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" attributed to Union admiral David Glasgow Farragut, and the massive resistance against overwhelming odds put forth by the Confederates and the ironclad CSS Nashville as they defended the bay and Forts Morgan and Gaines.
By the summer of 1864, the Civil War was entering into its fourth year, and although Confederate forces had suffered devastating defeats in 1863, the South's prospects for independence remained hopeful. Southern agriculture was bountiful and southern cities and ports thrived, despite the Union blockade. As Union general Ulysses S. Grant engaged Confederate general Robert E. Lee in the "Overland Campaign," Union forces under Farragut maneuvered toward Mobile Bay. At that time, Mobile remained the last major Confederate port not taken by Union forces and became a key element in the North's strategic war aims. Union victory in Mobile Bay would provide a much-needed boost to northern morale, boost Pres. Abraham Lincoln's popularity, and provide the North with a point of entry for future operations into the Deep South. Moreover, Union capture of the bay would cut off Confederate blockade runners, thus hindering the South's economy.
Mobile Bay was one of the most well-defended of southern ports. The main entrance was flanked by two substantial fortifications, Fort Morgan on Mobile Point and Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, both defended by impressive artillery batteries of 47 and 16 guns, respectively. In addition, the channel was protected with a triple line of mines, commonly called torpedoes at the time, that were suspended below the surface and could sink or cripple any ship that hit one of them. The city of Mobile, strategically significant as a rail center and port, was equally well defended. In 1862 Confederate forces had begun constructing a formidable line of entrenchments (earthen fortifications to protect the position and soldiers against enemy fire), which by 1864 had developed into a triple line of entrenchments, one behind the other, against attack by land forces. These fortifications, in addition to the protection from the harbor, prevented Union forces from closing to within effective shelling range.
Union commanders realized that any infantry assault against the city would be disastrous and consequently made plans to capture the bay first, and then compel the city's populace to evacuate. Farragut, a Tennessee native who became a midshipman at age nine, planned to storm past the forts into the bay, directly engage the Confederate fleet, neutralize the forts, and gain possession of Mobile Bay. His plan was risky because in addition to the two forts, a small Confederate fleet, commanded by Adm. Franklin Buchanan, consisting of three gunboats and one ironclad ram guarded Mobile Bay. Farragut, with 18 ships, including gunboats, sloops, and ironclads, gave little consideration to the lightly armed gunboats, the CSS Selma, the CSS Morgan, and the CSS Gaines, because he was confident that his fleet could quickly overwhelm them. Of greater concern was the CSS Tennessee, which was commissioned in February 1864 and boasted two 7-inch and four 6.4-inch, long-range Brooke rifles. In addition, Farragut was worried about the ironclad ram CSS Nashville, but that ship was under-armored and under-gunned and remained up river near Mobile, unbeknownst to the admiral, although it would see brief action at the very end of the battle. Thus the Tennessee was Buchanan's best defense against Farragut's fleet. To direct attention away from his main assault, Farragut ordered 2,000 infantry soldiers to assail nearby Dauphin Island and eventually to press to Fort Gaines on August 3.
The Battle of Mobile Bay began on the morning of August 5 when Confederate guns from Fort Morgan opened fire on Farragut's advancing fleet. Early action favored the Confederates when the ironclad monitor USS Tecumseh hit a torpedo, sinking to the bottom of the bay with 94 men. Farragut had tied himself to the rigging of the USS Hartford to better observe and direct the battle and reportedly exclaimed, "Damn the Torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"
As expected, Union forces quickly neutralized the Confederate gunboats, and the Tennessee remained the only threat. The ship engaged 14 of Farragut's wooden vessels, but the ram's mobility was limited, and she struggled to hold off the Union gunboats. Buchanan remained convinced that the Tennessee's armor would withstand contact and fire from the Federal vessels. At 9:35 a.m., however, the Tennessee fired its last shot into the hull of the Hartford. Intense firing and ramming by Union gunboats had wrought havoc on the Tennessee, jamming shut four of the 10 port shutters and destroying the smokestack and steering chains. Buchanan was wounded as iron fragments from an exploding shell smashed into his leg. At about 10:00 a.m., he surrendered the Tennessee and her 190-man crew.
Farragut's fleet seemingly had accomplished the impossible: racing past the forts, skillfully navigating the torpedo mines, and capturing the Confederacy's most powerful ship. Farragut's successful offensive into the bay cost him 315 casualties, compared with only 32 casualties among Confederate sailors. But before the Union could declare a complete victory, Forts Morgan and Gaines had to be captured. That task fell to Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger's infantry division. In a combined offensive, Farragut's ships and Granger's artillery began bombarding Fort Gaines, and on August 8 at 9:30 a.m., Col. Charles Anderson of the Confederate Army surrendered the fort. The Union Army took possession of 800 prisoners. Brig. Gen. Richard Page, commanding officer of Fort Morgan, remained determined to hold fast, however. When Union forces demanded his surrender, Morgan replied, "I am prepared to sacrifice life and will only surrender when I have no means of defense." Union guns began bombarding the fort on August 22, and on the following day Page, determining that he no longer had a "means of defense," surrendered the fort, along with 600 men. The Union captured about 100 total pieces of artillery from the Confederate forts.
Farragut's capture of Mobile Bay was a decisive strategic victory for the Union. His success was the first significant victory in the Union's 1864 offensives and provided a much-needed boost to northern morale. Although the city of Mobile remained in Confederate hands until the final days of the war, the port was closed to Confederate blockade runners, thus cutting off supply lines. On March 24, 1865, Maj. Gen. Dabney Herdon Maury and the remnants of his army evacuated Mobile, and the city surrendered on April 12, exactly four years after the start of the Civil War at Fort Sumter.
Friend, Jack. West Wind, Flood Tide: The Battle of Mobile Bay. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2004.
Hearn, Chester G. Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign: The Last Great Battles of the Civil War. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993.
Waugh, John C., and Grady McWhiney. Last Stand at Mobile. Abilene: McWhiney Foundation Press, 2002.