Battle of Mobile Bay Begins

U.S. #4911 reproduces a painting by Julian Oliver Davidson published in 1886.

On August 5, 1864, Admiral David Farragut led a successful naval attack that led to a Union victory at Mobile Bay, Alabama.

Mobile Bay was the last important harbor held by the Confederacy. It was deep enough for ocean-going vessels to navigate, and three forts protected the opening. The city of Mobile, at the head of the bay, was the center of blockade running in the Gulf of Mexico, which continued in spite of efforts by the Union to stop it. In August 1864, the Union’s Rear Admiral David Farragut was determined to take control of the bay and put an end to the blockade-runners.

Item #MA229 – An 1862 blockade-run cover.

A long, narrow peninsula marked the opening of the bay. In 1834, the U.S. built Fort Morgan at its tip to protect the port from enemies. During the Civil War, the Confederacy took control of Mobile Bay and reinforced this fort, as well as two smaller ones that also guarded the entrance.

U.S. #2975g pictures Farragut standing on a rope ladder of his ship, the Hartford.

In addition to the forts, the Confederate Torpedo Bureau planted a line of naval mines (known as torpedoes) across the main channel, leaving an opening near Fort Morgan. Blockade-runners safely navigated the opening, but the stronghold’s guns hit Union vessels attempting to pass through.

The Confederate fleet stationed in the bay consisted of three small gunboats and the CSS Tennessee, an ironclad with a ram. Admiral Franklin Buchanan commanded the ships. He had been the flag officer aboard the Virginia in the first battle of ironclads in 1862. Because of his heroic actions at the time, he became the Confederacy’s first admiral.

Farragut and the West Gulf Blockading Squadron had previously been successful in taking control of the Mississippi River. The admiral’s attention now turned to Mobile Bay. His fleet was much larger than Buchanan’s, and the lessons Farragut had learned during the Mississippi battles would serve him well this time.

U.S. #792 pictures Farragut, his foster brother David Porter, and a warship representative of the ships they commanded, the USS Hartford and Powhatan.

The battle required the assistance of the army. The commander of the Military Division of West Mississippi estimated he needed 5,000 troops to land behind the forts and cut off communications with Mobile. General-in-Chief Ulysses Grant needed all available soldiers for his campaign in Virginia; so many from this area were sent to his aid. The remaining men were enough to take the forts but not the city of Mobile. Some of the troops were signal corpsmen who went aboard Farragut’s ships in order for the navy and army to communicate with each other.

On August 3, some 1,500 Union troops under the command of General Gordon Granger landed on the far side of Dauphin Island, the location of Fort Gaines, the second-largest fort. By the next evening, they had formed skirmish lines less than a half-mile from the fort.

While the army prepared for battle on land, Farragut was getting his fleet ready for the dangerous venture past Fort Morgan. He had run his fleet past the guns of the forts protecting New Orleans and would use the same strategy here. The admiral’s 14 wooden ships were lashed together in pairs. If one became disabled, the other could drag it through the channel. The four ironclads were positioned closer to the fort to protect the wooden ships from artillery fire.

U.S. #4664 pictures an 1862 Currier & Ives lithograph titled “The Splendid Naval Triumph on the Mississippi, April 24th, 1862.”

At dawn on August 5, the fleet began its mission. The USS Tecumseh led the ironclads and the Brooklyn and Octorara were the first wooden-hulled ships in the line. At 6:47 a.m., Tecumseh fired the first shot and the battle began. As the ironclad was passing the fort, it steered too close to the minefield, detonating a torpedo. It sunk within minutes. The commander of the Brooklyn stopped his ship to await orders from Farragut. The admiral ordered that his ship, the Hartford, be steered around it and into the lead. This took his ship over the minefield. When asked about sailing over the mines, Farragut allegedly shouted, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” His daring command paid off, and the rest of the ships made it safely past Fort Morgan.

Farragut ordered the wooden vessels to be unlashed and to pursue the wooden Confederate boats. One was captured almost immediately. Another was beached, and then burned by its crew. The third sought the protection of Fort Morgan’s guns. The final Southern ship, the ironclad Tennessee, faced the entire Union fleet. Rather than moving to safety, Admiral Buchanan turned his vessel and sailed full-steam into the midst. He tried to ram the Northern ships, but his vessel was too slow. The smokestack was shot and the boiler could not build up pressure needed to run the engines. The chains connected to the rudder were damaged, so the ship could not be steered. In addition, the shutters on the gun ports were jammed shut so the artillery inside was useless. The Tennessee surrendered about three hours after the first shot was fired.

Item #CNS4076 – Enhanced coin featuring a scene from the battle.

Enemy ships no longer threatened the Union Navy, so Farragut began the attack on the forts. He sent one of the ironclads to bombard Fort Powell, the smallest of the three. The commander of the fort realized resistance was futile, so his men spiked the guns and blew up the magazines. They then waded ashore and made their way to Mobile.

The Northern ground troops went into action at Fort Gaines. Sand dunes shielded their artillery, making it easier to bombard the stronghold from behind. The fort surrendered on August 8. Granger then moved his men behind Fort Morgan, cutting off all communications with Mobile. The Confederates held out until August 23, when the white flag of surrender was raised over the last of the three forts.

Though the important city of Mobile remained part of the Confederacy, Mobile Bay was now in Union hands and closed to blockade-runners. For the part he played in the victory, Farragut was given a $50,000 bonus and promoted to vice admiral.

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  1. Great history. But still waiting to read about a stamp that commemorates a victory (no matter how local) for the armies of the South over the Union. Thanks. GdR

    1. Doc,
      If the Confederacy had won, do you think they’d issue stamps commemorating Union victories? To the winner goes the spoils (and they get to write history).

  2. Waiting for a stamp commemorating Confederate victory is like waiting for Godot. It will never come. A stupid thing to say. The Confederacy was about treason and should never be celebrated. not to mention the eradication of slavery. Shame on such a silly statement.

    1. To David, you are right in that there is no reason to commemorate Confederate victories, but perhaps you should study up on motivations of the south before making your statements. It was a little more complicated than that, and simplify history with such broad and incomplete generalizations is a disservice.

    2. And the Union was about Dictatorship! Tell the whole story or none at all!
      If the Confederacy was about treason, then this whole nation is all about treason or have you forgotten the Revolution!

  3. Sorry Doc! I know how you feel. A general from the north lost every battle he fought during the Revolutionary War but the British ceded every battle ground to his army. I participate in the Vietnam War. We received no heroes welcome and the bloody soil on which we fought was ceded to the enemy. The South can still stand proud and we can still enjoy our stamps

  4. I don’t know what schools you went to but, I loved studying about the South and North. Yes I am
    from the north but History is History and we should all want to learn about it since we live here. I am
    proud to be an American but, I do not like the way our country is going. We have had a few bad
    Presidents and I for one would always love to read about them but, will not vote for a woman President because of the one running. I am 81 yrs old and yes a white woman, but I like all people, it is not their color I look at it is their heart and how they treat everyone. Like your history no matter where you come from.

  5. When I was a kid growing up in Spokane, WA during WWII , there was a Naval training base on Lake Pendoreille (sp?) in Northern Idaho named after Admiral Farragut. This cold lake was known for high winds and choppy waters and would capsize sports fishermen, often with fatal results. Near Spokane at this time, were two air bases – Fairchild and Geiger, plus Fort George Wright across the river – so on weekends, downtown Spokane and the USO would be awash with serviemen. My three older sisters would attend the USO dances and sure enough they all married service men, I’m hoping that now, in my 80’s that these memories are fairly accurate,

  6. Wow. All I wanted to point out was that people might get tired of the same one-way narrative, again and again, only at the expense of simplifying history (too right Abe). Just watched a programme last night on the box about one of our own (Michael Portillo, Great Railway Journeys) retracing the building of railways in USA. The history about Fredericksburgh, Richmond, Manassas, was simply fascinating for us in the UK, very informative, and less strident/biased, than some of the comments above. His exchange of ideas with Governor Terry McAuliffe was particularly enlightening, and who would begrudge the invention of Bourbon whiskey! Yes it may be like waiting for Godot, but wouldn’t one think that a bit more balanced history would go a long way harmonising a Country? I don’t think my comment was stupid, as I’m sure we in the North were not angels either. I can’t believe everyone in the USA think the people in the Southern States were traitors! Judging from the reply comments, I kind of begin to understand a little more the resentment still lingering on across this beautiful land. GdR

    1. Not everyone is against the south. They accualy planned on releasing thier slaves. My dad read about it and told me. The war was not all about slavery either they just want you to believe that to cover up the truth. Tom Petty was born in the south, he was born a reble and he has a album named “Damn the Torpedoes”. I wish that people would get both sides of the story not just the winner’s side. Often the winner paints the losers as bad people.
      Thanks for your input.

      1. Read “The Cornerstone Speech” by Alexander H. Stephens who was the Vice-President of The Confederacy. He states that slavery was the immediate cause of the late rupture and African slavery as it exists amongst us; the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. He said this March 21, 1861.

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