Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Battle of Mobile Bay III - The Aftermath

Sailors at the helm of the USS Hartford, probably taken after the battle. Naval History and Heritage Command.
In the days after the battle, officers of Farragut’s squadron composed their after-action reports to the Admiral. Some of these contain almost humorous recollections. Captain John B. Marchand of the USS Lackawanna wrote that he closed with the Confederate ironclad CSS Tennessee, and for a brief period the two warships lay side-to-side. As he gazed into one of the open gun-ports on the Confederate ironclad, he found himself in a stare-down with a Confederate sailor manning one of the Tennessee’s guns. The Confederate sailor unleashed a blistering epithet of profanity at the Union officer. His men adjacent to him heard this and, insulted by this affront to their officer’s honor, redoubled the pace of their re-loading and discharge of small arms fire into the open gun-ports of the enemy ship, along with throwing anything solid in their possession at Confederate sailors visible through the ports, if they did not wield a weapon. 

After the surrender of the Tennessee, Cdr. William E. Le Roy, captain of the USS Ossipee, lay alongside the stricken Confederate ironclad and called out to his good friend, CSN Cdr. James D. Johnston, to come aboard for some cold water and “something better than that for you down below.” Interestingly, Farragut himself did not go aboard the Tennessee to accept Buchanan’s surrender. He sent Acting Volunteer Lt. Pierre Giraud to take possession of the Admiral’s sword, and subsequently sent Fleet Surgeon Palmer aboard to assist CSN Surgeon Conrad in caring for Buchanan and the other wounded. Although Farragut and Buchanan had served together aboard USN warships, and knew each other, the relationship was purely professional and a friendship between the two had never developed. Buchanan was sent to Pensacola to recuperate, despite Confederate Gen. Page’s request that he be sent to Mobile. 

Losses on the Confederate side were remarkably light, considering the overwhelming superiority of the Union in terms of number of guns. Twelve Confederate sailors were killed (most on the other gunboats, only two on the Tennessee), and 20 wounded, although every Confederate warship was lost (sunk or captured). The “butcher’s bill” on the Union side was quite a bit more severe; 93 men lost when the Tecumseh went down, and Farragut reported 52 of his sailors killed and 170 wounded on the other ships. Landsman John Lawson, an African American sailor on the Hartford serving on a gun crew, received the Medal of Honor authorized by the US Congress (now called the “Congressional Medal of Honor”) for his gallantry during the action.

View of the Union fleet from Ft. Morgan after capture. Alabama Historical Society.
Forts Powell and Gaines surrendered not long after the defeat of the Confederate flotilla, and after a few days of bombardment, Fort Morgan also surrendered. Although the City of Mobile would not be taken by Union forces until the spring of next year (April 1865), the Union now had complete control of Mobile Bay and essentially closed down Mobile as a destination for blockade runners for the rest of the war. 

Much legend has accumulated over what Farragut actually said in the early stages of the battle, as things appeared to deteriorate after the loss of the monitor Tecumseh. An article in the most recent Naval History magazine analyzes this in detail based on “ear-witness” accounts. It appears obvious that he made a statement that struck a chord with those around him. No matter what exactly he said, I think we have to acknowledge that it ranks right up there with other legendary statements in U.S. Navy history, including John Paul Jones’ “Sir, I have not yet begun to fight.” and George Dewey’s “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

U.S. Navy recruiting poster from WW I, showing Farragut and his famous order. Wikipedia/U.S. Navy archives.

The Best Place to Experience The Battle of Mobile Bay is at the NMUSN

Fife Rail and Wheel of USS Hartford

On this day 150 years ago, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut made history. After a dazzling victory at New Orleans early in the war, Admiral Farragut spent the next several years fighting through the Mississippi River. By the middle of 1864, it became necessary to capture Mobile Bay, the South's last major port city on the Gulf Coast. Capturing it would help tighten the anaconda-like grip on the southern coastline.

Hartford Cathead
The bright August morning proved to be one of the most surprising achievements in Farragut's long and distinguished career. Now a century and a half later, many of the relics left to commemorate the ships and men of the battle are long gone. The Hartford, one of the most iconic ships of the Civil War, is broken up and scattered to different museums and institutions around the United States. How then do you decide where to see the best collection of artifacts from the battle during the Civil War sesquicentennial?

For those of us who could not make the trek down south for the sesquicentennial anniversary, many visitors commented it was an event worthy of its name and place in history. Fortunately, Civil War enthusiasts still have an opportunity to see several some of the relics of the battle. There is no better place to share this connection between past and present than the National Museum of the United States Navy (NMUSN) at the Washington Navy Yard.

NMUSN Curator Jennifer Marland took me around to several of the artifacts of Admiral Farragut and the Battle of Mobile Bay. She showed me her favorite piece of the collection, a small series of sketches depicting the battle. "So many paintings and sketches surfaced after the battle, some coming weeks and even years later," said Marland. "I really like this sketch from crew members present at the battle. You get a better sense of what these sailors really experienced." The sketch, albeit crude and hastily put together, tells the story of a sailor's front row seat to one of the United States Navy's greatest battles.

Other interesting items in the National Museum of the United States Navy collection includes Admiral Farragut's presentation cane, a large model of Hartford, a cathead, ship bell, and surrender letter from Ft. Gaines.

Naval Mine at NMUSN

Why are these torpedoes important today? 
Although Admiral Farragut may or may not have said the immortal words "Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead," the crafty countermeasure still proved an effective defense on the 5th, sinking the Tecumseh in the process. The artifacts on display at NMUSN are a constant reminder that every great piece of naval history comes with a price.

The National Museum of the United States Navy is open Monday to Friday from 9:00am to 5:00pm.

Special Thanks to Jennifer Marland for giving me an in depth tour of the NMUSN gallery.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Battle of Mobile Bay II - The Battle 5 August 1864

Painting depicting the Battle of Mobile Bay. This is the "header" illustration at the Home Page of this Blog Site. In the right center, the monitor USS Tecumseh is going down after hitting a Confederate torpedo. The two columns of Union warships (ironclads in the foreground and double-lashed warships in the background) are shown. Fort Morgan is on the left, with the Confederate Navy warships in the lower left corner of the image. Library of Congress.

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.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Battle of Mobile Bay I - The Ships and Fleets

Confederate ironclad CSS Tennessee. Naval History and Heritage Command.

This week we observe the 150th Anniversary of the epic Battle of Mobile Bay, one of the largest naval battles of the Civil War. On the Union side, Admiral David G. Farragut commanded the naval forces and Major Gen. Gordon Granger was in command of army troops. On the Confederate side, Admiral Franklin Buchanan commanded the grey navy warships and General Richard L. Page commanded CS Army forces from his headquarters in Fort Morgan.

Farragut’s flagship was the steam sloop-of-war USS Hartford. At a length of 225 feet and displacing 2,900 tons, she was one of the U.S. Navy’s newer and most powerful warships. Powered by square-rigged sail plan and steam engines, she was launched in November 1858. She packed a battery of twenty IX(9)-in Dahlgren smoothbore guns mounted in broadside, two 20-pdr Parrott Rifles, and two 12-pdr Dahlgren boat howitzers. Earlier in the war, Farragut had steamed the Harford up the Mississippi to run by Forts St. Philip and Jackson, capture New Orleans, and eventually help Gen. Grant conquer Vicksburg. She was a seasoned combat veteran. Farragut’s squadron included the gunboats USS Brooklyn, Richmond (both sister ships to Hartford), Lackawanna, Monongahela, Ossipee, Oneida, Octorara, Metacomet, Port Royal, Seminole, Kennebec, Itasca, and Galena. This squadron of wooden gunboats was supported by four “monitor” type ironclads, two of which were the newer Canonicus-Class, USS Manhattan and Tecumseh, and two double-turreted Milwaukee-Class river monitors, USS Chickasaw and Winnebago.

On the Confederate side, Farragut was opposed by salty old Franklin “Old Buck” Buchanan. Buchanan’s flagship was the casemated ironclad CSS Tennessee. With a length of 209 feet, and displacing 1,273 tons, Tennessee was armored with three layers of iron plating. On the flanks were two 2” thick layers of plates and one 1” thick layer. The bow section was encased with three layers of 2” plates. Tennessee was armed with two 7” Brooke rifles mounted “in pivot” (on tracks so they could fire in multiple directions) and four 6.4” Brooke rifles mounted in broadside. Some considered the Brooke rifle the finest naval heavy gun of its day, and with this battery, the Tennessee was perhaps one of the most formidable warships yet built by the Confederacy. Supporting Franklin in the Tennessee were the wooden gunboats CSS Morgan, Selma, and Gaines. The Selma was initially named the CSS Florida and participated (against the USS Huntsville) in the first naval combat engagement of gunboats in Mobile Bay on Christmas Eve, 1861. Supporting the CSN fleet was Fort Morgan, on the east side of the entrance to Mobile Bay, Fort Gaines, on the west side of the entrance, and Fort Powell, on the inside of the Bay guarding the entrance to the Mississippi Sounds.

The stage was set, and the actors assembled. Now it was only a tense waiting game before the drama began.

USS Hartford. Library of Congress, Civil War Photographs Collection.