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Chapter 8

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Rebel Shore

by
James M. Merrill


published by
Little, Brown and Company
Boston • Toronto
1957

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p173  Chapter IX

"Sixteen Bells!"

Thayer's Note: For following the geography in the text, the map provided on the book's endpages may be useful; it opens in a separate window.

It was dark. The Yankee skipper, clad in white trousers, undress jacket, and tattered cap, stood quietly on the forecastle of Westfield. His gunboat was deserted. The only sound was water lapping against the sides of the ship. The captain slowly lowered a barrel of turpentine into an open powder magazine, checked a fuse, took a last look around, and stepping to the gangway, clambered into a waiting boat and shoved off. Suddenly, black smoke shot skyward, followed by a leaping bright flame. The timing device had failed. The captain, his face illuminated by the red glare, frantically shouted to his men to row faster. A puff of smoke broke through the hatch and a deep, thundering explosion rent the air. Westfield lay scuttled, sinking, enveloped in flames. There was no sign of the boat or its crew. The year 1863 had opened disastrously for Yankee naval forces operating in the Gulf.

The Union's gunboats Owasco, Harriet Lane, Clifton, and Westfield had swept down, fired a few shots, and captured Galveston, Texas, the previous October. Without military units for garrison duty, Yankee ships controlled the deserted town from the harbor. A tacit  p174 understanding existed with the enemy. The Rebels would not move artillery into Galveston over the two‑mile-long bridge from the mainland and the Federals would refrain from shelling batteries on the shore.

To relieve the Navy, the commanding general in New Orleans ordered the Forty-second Massachusetts Regiment and a battery from the Second Vermont into Texas. On 21 December the first units of the regiment, Companies D, G, and I, marched on board the transport Saxon and headed for Galveston. Arriving on Christmas Eve, 1862, the troops disembarked at Kuhn's Wharf, set up soup kettles in abandoned warehouses, posted sentries, and were assured by the naval force that the town was secure from enemy attack.

Rebel forces on the mainland, aware of the precarious position of the Federals, recruited men and armed two river steamers in the Sabine River. Southern workmen cut down the stacks of Bayou City, a "two‑story type" Mississippi steamboat, and piled on bales of cotton, hiding her paddle boxes. Two hundred sharpshooters manned the decks. The stern-wheeler Neptune looking more like a ram than a steamer, was faced from waterline to stack with railroad iron and armed with one pivot gun and riflemen. These makeshift gunboats were to engage the Union squadron in the harbor as a military contingent of 300 Texans stormed the town.

New Year's Eve was a calm moonlit night. At 2 A.M., lookouts on Westfield noticed Rebel steamers under way, puffing and churning toward the flotilla. Sailors flashed signals; engines throbbed. Westfield, her skipper unfamiliar with the tricky waters, zigzagged and  p175 plowed into Pelican Island Bar and grounded. The captain of Harriet Lane, seeing artillery flash on the beach, jerked up red and blue lights, warning the flotilla that the Johnnies were assaulting the town.

Bayou City, running at full speed toward Harriet Lane, opened fire with her 32‑pounder. The Confederate gun captain hollered to his mates: "Well, here goes for a New Year's present!" and yanked the lanyard. The gun burst, killing him instantly and wounding three others. Bashing into Harriet Lane, Neptune backed off, her bow stove in, and ran up on the flats. The 160 Rebel sharpshooters abandoned ship, stood knee deep in water and mud, and peppered Harriet Lane with muskets. Bayou City barged into the Union gunboat, and her men, screaming and yelling, swarmed up the sides and forced the Federals to surrender.

From Harriet Lane, Southerners sent word to Westfield, demanding the surrender of the whole flotilla. The Yankee skipper refused. Ordering his vessels to clear out, he determined to blow up his grounded flagship. Westfield was abandoned. Minutes later she and her captain went down.

Owasco and Clifton escaped from Galveston Harbor, leaving behind twenty dead, forty wounded, Harriet Lane, and the unit of the Forty-second Massachusetts, who, after a fierce skirmish, had surrendered.

When the news flashed to the Union squadron at Pensacola, the steamer Brooklyn and six gunboats hauled off from the Mobile blockade and steamed to the rescue. But naval guns could not untangle the mess. The town remained in Rebel hands. On 11 January lookouts on  p176 Brooklyn, patrolling the waters off Galveston, spotted a suspicious-looking craft in the distance. An eight‑gun converted merchant steamer, Hatteras, got under way, gave chase, and after a short engagement, lay smashed and sinking, the victim of the Confederate raider Alabama.

The Southerners jolted the Gulf navy again four days later. Union sailors on the blockaders peered into Mobile Bay and froze when they saw another marauder, Florida, bristling with guns and ready to attempt escape through the Yankee dragnet. Six months before, this same ship, undermanned, short of guns, her captain laid low with yellow fever, had eluded the blockaders and run into Mobile.

There was deadly tension on the night of 4 January 1863. At 3 A.M. lights blinked from Pembina: "A strange sail running out." Looming up out of the darkness, Florida veered to port to avoid colliding with the blockaders and raced out to sea, followed in hot pursuit by Pembina and Cuyler. At daylight the gunboats pressed with sail and steam but steadily lost ground. By nightfall, Florida was lost in the wastes of Gulf waters.

Union naval forces were chastised the same month at Sabine Pass, Texas. Their guns rattling, two Rebel cotton-plated steamers pounced upon the sloop of war Morning Light and the schooner Velocity, capturing 11 guns and 109 Yankee seamen.

While the Gulf Squadron reeled from these damaging body blows in January 1863, Farragut with his river steamers and mortar vessels hammered Confederate gun  p177 emplacements on the Mississippi, trying desperately to open the river at Vicksburg. The Old Bulldog had solicited Secretary Welles for permission to assault Mobile after New Orleans had capitulated, but, pressured by Westerners, Lincoln and his Administration discarded the suggestion and insisted upon severing the Confederacy in two by the reduction of the entire river.

To take and hold so vast a territory as the Mississippi basin and maintain the blockade required an immense force of gunboats, which, in 1862, the Union did not possess. Farragut maneuvered up and down the river with an assault force too small to be effective. The time consumed in this effort permitted Mobile to strengthen her defenses and build ironclads, which threatened to tear the blockade apart. When Mobile became urgent, the fortifications were so far advanced that monitors were needed for the attack. The Union was to pay a fearful penalty in human lives by tying Farragut's hands when he wished to seize Mobile immediately after New Orleans fell.

With the Crescent City lost to the Union, Mobile became the South's prime cotton port. British and Confederate runners departing from Havana, five hundred and ninety miles away, sneaked in cannon and ammunition for the Alabama regiments and machinery for the naval foundry at Selma. Basking in the sunshine at the head of a magnificent bay, Mobile with its shaded streets, handsome market house and post office, and colorful wharves was, indeed, the Gem of the Gulf.

The blue waters of the bay, polluted by sharks and rimmed with fever-ridden swamps and sand dunes,  p178 widened gradually from the town to the Gulf, a distance of thirty miles. The entrance to the bay was protected by Fort Morgan, built at the western tip of a narrow strip of sand. This bastion was the strongest of the old stone forts, fortified by huge piles of sandbags, three tiers of heavy guns, and a water battery. Three miles away across the channel on the eastern end of Dauphin Island, Fort Gaines, a pentagon-shaped brick and earth structure, was armed with twenty-seven cannons. To the westward, Fort Powell bossed Mississippi Sound, an inlet through which light-draft vessels could enter the harbor. Only small sections inside the bay were navigable to seagoing ships.

July 1863 witnessed Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lee's invasion army retreating from the Union guns at Gettysburg and the Rebel forces inside Vicksburg succumbing to the forces of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant. At Washington, the little man of the Navy Department, Gus Fox, privately believed that the time had come to strike Mobile. Publicly, he, Welles, and the Department were committed to level Charleston before tackling the Alabama port.

Exhausted after eighteen months of constant duty and responsibilities, Farragut on 1 August was off for New York. The seasoned campaigner could not relax at home in the quiet of Hastings‑on‑Hudson. He supervised the repairs on his flagship Hartford in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, received congratulatory resolutions from the New York Chamber of Commerce, chatted informally at the Astor House with a Russian admiral, and dined with Welles in Washington.

The Secretary had heard rumbles that the Confederates  p179 were readying an iron ram, more terrifying than Merrimac, to steam out of Mobile and crush the blockaders. If these rumors were true, the campaign at sea and the blockade itself were endangered. To ward off the threatened blow, monitors were urgently needed in the Gulf, but the iron monsters still under construction were not scheduled to come off the ways until March. The ironclads afloat were fruitlessly pounding away at Fort Sumter. In January 1864, Farragut boarded Hartford, repaired and ready for sea, took departure from New York in a snowstorm, and set a course for the Gulf.

At the time of secession, Mobile had been totally unprepared. Its forts were crumbling; its guns rusting. To beating drums and waving flags, Mobile had gladly shipped off its volunteer companies, smartly dressed in spotless new uniforms, to the fighting fronts in Virginia. As the music faded away, Mobile residents found themselves unprotected. The Committee of Safety hurried to the state capital at Montgomery to ask for arms, ammunition, and fighting men. The military engineer wrote his representative at Richmond, demanding that Congress spend its "hundreds of millions" on seacoast defense.

Sixteen 10‑inch columbiads were forwarded by the Ordnance Bureau. Disgruntled by this paltry response, the commanding general at the port convinced himself that the safety and defense of Mobile lay not with Richmond. He set his puny military force to work strengthening the forts, repairing, digging trenches, and instructing  p180 raw recruits in the art of halting the enemy on the beaches. Racing against time, he gambled that the enemy's ignorance and stupidity would permit these operations to be completed.

In the wake of the Hatteras, Port Royal, and Roanoke Island disasters, the Confederate Congress appropriated $1,200,000 for the naval defense of Mobile and promised 6000 soldiers. Terrified by the constant rumors, reports, and hearsay that a huge enemy fleet was massing at Pensacola, seacoast residents stormed into the state capital to protest to the governor that Mobile had done its share for the common defense and had received nothing except paper appropriations.

In lieu of guns and men, the Alabama legislature passed resolutions, pledging that the port would be defended from street to street, house to house, and inch by inch until, if captured, it would be a heap of ashes. The women of Tuskegee held a raffle to raise money for the construction of a man-of‑war to be christened The Ladies' Gunboat. Pep talks and raffles did not satisfy Mobile. In desperation, an agent was dispatched throughout the South to hunt arms and ammunition. At Montgomery, authorities told him that the Confederate Government had ticketed all projectiles for Charleston. He corralled one thousand rounds at the Atlanta Arsenal, but learned that all the heavy ammunition was ordered elsewhere. Macon, Augusta, Columbia, Wilmington, and Fayetteville reported the same.

Mobile's hopes soared one fine spring afternoon in 1863 when the South's naval hero, Admiral Franklin Buchanan, took command of the port's naval defenses.  p181 Old Buck, clean-shaven, hook-nosed, with a high forehead fringed with white hair, was ordered to supervise the construction of an iron ram to be built at Selma, one hundred and fifty miles above the port on the Alabama River. Together with a naval constructor, he recruited a labor force to chop pine timber in the forests, ordered iron sheets from the rolling mills at Atlanta, and purchased the engines of the high-pressure Mississippi steamboat Alonzo Bell at Vicksburg. The work was slow. Through the steaming summer months laborers and mechanics hammered and sawed on the hull. The ram Tennessee was projected not only for defensive operations but to lift the blockade.

At the time Farragut was speeding southward from New York, the hull of Tennessee was ready for launching. The curious sunbonneted and blue-jeaned residents of Selma brought picnic lunches and squatted on the riverbank to watch the strange-looking craft splash and careen in the water. Secured by hawsers and cables to steamers, it was towed down-river to Mobile. Here, mechanics fitted the 2½‑inch iron plates, backed up by two feet of solid oak, into place.

Tennessee measured 209 feet in length with a 48‑foot beam. Occupying nearly two thirds of the ship, the gun room, equipped with six Brooke rifles, was constructed with a flat top composed of 2½ by 8‑inch iron bars, crossed and bolted together, forming a latticework above the gunners to afford ventilation. Her sides were inclined; her four gun ports closed by iron shutters. When work was completed, the cost was estimated at $883,880. The ram was by no means perfect. The sluggish engines  p182 turned only six knots; the gun-port shutters were complicated and apt to jam in battle; the rudder chains were partially exposed.

Admiral Buchanan found it difficult to recruit men for duty on this curious vessel, but fortunately, a few companies of Tennessee troops, garrisoned in the city, gladly transferred to the ship.

A naval expert worked out a scheme to float Tennessee over the mud flats and into the water of the bay. Large floats, or camels, were built to fit the hull beneath the waterline and secured by chains passing under the keel. When the water was pumped out of the floats, Tennessee rose to a height of five feet, which reduced her draft from thirteen to only eight, enabling her to pass over the bar. Two months elapsed as sailors rigged the camels. Finally in May, Tennessee, like a giant on stilts, was taken in tow and anchored in the lower bay.

At midnight, Rebels cut the floats adrift, turned over the engines, and got under way to attack the blockaders, only to go hard aground in the shoal waters. Off in the bay stood the remaining ships of the Confederate flotilla: the unarmored side-wheelers Morgan and Gaines, sporting six guns each, and the steamer Selma, with four.

Tennessee was almost demolished before seeing enemy action. One morning, as the officer of the deck paced up and down enjoying the sea breeze, the crew noticed a floating object bobbing up and down on the water and quickly informed the captain. At first glance they concluded it was a devilfish with its young. Spyglasses revealed a mine. It came nearer. The skipper drummed  p183 all hands to battle stations. The entire marine guard commenced firing. The mine was sunk by rifle only twenty feet from the ram.

Meanwhile Farragut had arrived at Pensacola and resumed command of the Gulf Squadron. Rumors flooded into the naval base. To gain information, the Admiral made a reconnaissance of the harbor without sighting Tennessee. Irked by the Department's inaction, damning it for tying up the monitor in Charleston. Farragut consulted with General Nathaniel Banks in New Orleans. The General refused to risk operating with the Navy on the coast, as he contemplated a movement up the Red River toward Shreveport to tighten the Yankee vise on Louisiana and eastern Texas. The Old Bulldog argued that it was idiotic to move west of the Mississippi when the heart and vitals of the rebellion lay to the east. Hopping mad, the Admiral left him after learning that his side-kick from the river days, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William T. Sherman, was moving from Vicksburg with 20,000 men for Meridian in eastern Mississippi. To help Sherman, Farragut determined to bombard the outer fringes of Mobile Bay, feigning an attack upon the town.

Returning from New Orleans, Farragut readied his mortar vessels, moved into Mississippi Sound, and began shelling Fort Powell with little effect. The waters were too shallow, too shoal for his boats, which could not approach the fort nearer than two miles. The Rebels replied hotly. Calhoun, firing incessantly, went hard aground. John Griffith was hit four times in succession. The bruised vessels, expending their ammunition, withdrew  p184 out to sea. During the brisk exchange Farragut had spied Tennessee in the bay.

Chagrined at his abortive maneuver, the Admiral demanded that the Department give him ironclads and 2000 men to assail the forts and cut off their rear communications with Mobile. The Union had waited too long to attack, and with Tennessee on the prowl, it would be difficult to take the port with wooden ships.

Farragut was melancholy. To sustain himself, he read the Bible aloud each evening and distracted himself by opening the bundles of fan mail. His tensions eased as he chatted and dined at Pensacola with the charming Alexander Asboth, a former Hungarian refugee, now the brigadier general commanding the post. An amateur chef, the General concocted interesting dishes, to the amazement of Farragut, who choked on Asboth's delicacy, chocolate soup. Lame from an accident suffered in New York, the Admiral drank Bordeaux to the exclusion of water, and his lieutenants believed him to be ailing with gout.

Frequently Farragut sailed to New Orleans on squadron business. The Crescent City with its colorful society and fine foods enthralled him. On his nightly escapades, the Admiral, his sword strapped on him, exploded the wharves and waterfront saloons and visited places his chief aide would have steered clear of. The hero of New Orleans was entertained regally at first-class dinner parties by the right people. On at least one occasion, after indiscriminate drinking, the sea food served in spiced sauces, topped off with strawberries and ice cream, used up the Admiral.

 p185  While Farragut sampled the night life, the Confederates at Mobile were uneasy. They were convinced that the Admiral's roughhouse tactics at Fort Powell were the softening‑up preliminaries to the major assault. Dispatches deluged military headquarters that Sherman and his bummers were on the march for Mobile. The mayor ordered citizens to abandon their homes, flee for the interior. The Rebels, with only 8000 men in the district, could not halt the Union marauders. The return of the four brigades sent to General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Joseph E. Johnston, guarding the approaches to Atlanta, was demanded. Johnston refused, arguing that the Confederacy could not hold both Atlanta and Mobile. Off in the seacoast counties of Mississippi large numbers of Southern deserters banded together and openly cursed the Richmond government.

Alabamans breathed easier when Sherman, elevated to the command of Western armies, veered and moved northward toward Chattanooga. Unlike New Orleans, Mobile had prepared for the onslaughts of the Federal fleet. Garrisoned by 640 men, Fort Morgan now bristled with 45 guns, from 8‑inch rifled cannon to 24‑pounders. Rows of piles, sunken hulks, and a triple row of mines obstructed the channel, leaving a free water passage of only 500 yards under the guns of Fort Morgan.

Throughout April and May 1864 agents reported that Farragut was ready at Pensacola to strike Mobile. The crotchety old commander at Fort Morgan concluded that the bastion's firepower was inadequate, although his immediate superior was sure that the forts, obstructions, and the ram Tennessee would obliterate  p186 Farragut's squadron. The general commanding the Department of the Gulf was not so optimistic and argued with President Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis that the harbor was part of the common defense, and requested 12,000 men.

Off Mobile, sailors on the wooden gunboats grew restive shadowboxing with Tennessee. In Louisiana, General Banks with 30,000 infantrymen and gunboats blundered up the Red River to meet disastrous defeat. Naval officers realized that if the ram destroyed the blockade off Mobile in the wake of Banks's failure on the Red River, New Orleans would panic and might be lost to the Union.

By the spring of 1864 the Yankees bossed the Mississippi River system, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia north of the Rapidan River, parts of Louisiana, and most of the forts along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. But the bulk of the Confederacy was still intact. Rebel arms controlled the Shenandoah Valley, and two powerful armies — Lee's in Virginia and Joseph E. Johnston's in Georgia — were eager for battle.

Grant with an army twice the size of Lee's advanced toward Richmond, but was retarded with bloody losses at the Battle of the Wilderness and at Spottsylvania in May and at Cold Harbor in June. General Sherman and his legions, 80,000 strong, pushed off into the Lower South from Chattanooga and trudged toward Atlanta.

To relieve the pressure from Johnston's army, Sherman wired General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Edward R. S. Canby, who had relieved Banks, to kick up a ruckus with Farragut at Mobile. With Atlanta in sight, Sherman wanted to prevent the Rebel troops in southern Alabama from  p187 moving to Johnston's aid. Farragut was eager. The new monitors Manhattan and Tecumseh had left Northern navy yards for Pensacola, and the ironclads Winnebago and Chickasaw on the Mississippi were on their way down-river to the Admiral. But Grant, who had suffered heavy casualties suddenly ordered a large contingent of Canby's troops sent to Virginia. In New Orleans, Canby marshaled his remaining force for the Mobile operation.

At Farragut's request, he ordered two thousand men into Mississippi Sound under the lively and dapper General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Gordon Granger, to land in the rear of Fort Gaines. The monitors were already with the Admiral in full force. Ironclad crews complained bitterly of heat. The water swashed the sides, leaking into the wardrooms and leaving an inch of brine on the decks. Temperatures ranged from 150° in the cabins to 214° in the engine rooms. "I am now writing in my drawers and under shirt," wrote a chief engineer, "with one of our Wardroom niggers fanning me."

The bluejackets of the fleet prepared for action. They stowed superfluous spars below, rigged splinter nets on the starboard sides, barricaded the helms with sails and hammocks, spread chains and sandbags around the deck machinery. To prevent a disabled craft from jamming up the battle line, ships lashed side by side with chains were to run the forts in pairs. The Admiral warned his skippers about mines, but he was confident that the submersibles, encrusted with barnacles, their powder damp, were waterlogged and powerless.

At nightfall, 4 August, the weather was hot and calm. Quiet prevailed in the squadron. The stillness was  p188 oppressive. In his cabin on Hartford, Farragut read his Bible, coming to the ultimate assurance that God was on his side. There was a knock on the door.º "Admiral," asked an officer, "won't you give the sailors a glass of grog in the morning — not enough to make them drunk, but just enough to make them fight well?"

"No sir! I never found that I needed rum to enable me to do my duty. I will order two cups of good coffee to each man at two o'clock, and at eight o'clock I will pipe all hands to breakfast in Mobile Bay."

Across the harbor the Advertiser confidently predicted that Farragut would fire until the end of the war, but the forts would stand. In Richmond, President Davis resorted to prayer and wired Mobile: "May our Heavenly Father shield and direct you, so as to avert the threatened disaster." The men inside Fort Morgan bragged that since they could hit a bobbing barrel at 1000 yards, they could knock Hartford out of the water.

On Dauphin Island, Granger's troops, landing with difficulty in the heavy surf lugged six 3‑inch Rodman guns seven miles through sand and planted them 1200 yards from Fort Gaines. Trenches were shoveled. Four hundred miserably clad, half-drilled cadets from Mobile, boys fourteen to eighteen, arrived at the fort to reinforce the garrison.

Farragut slept miserably. He arose at 3 A.M., dressed, and as he sipped hot tea, he sent his steward to find out from what direction the wind was blowing. As the gray glimmer of dawn struggled through the fog, sailors downed hot coffee and sandwiches and reported to battle stations. In his stateroom the Admiral breakfasted with  p189 his chief of staff. Putting down his fork, he quietly declared: "Well, Drayton, we might as well get under way."

The fleet headed toward their target. A light breeze scattered the mist and left a clear, sunny August day. The battlements of Fort Morgan stood out against the blazing eastern sky. Across the channel, the quartermaster of Tennessee lumbered down the ladder and roused Buchanan with a loud voice: "Admiral, the officer of the deck bids me report that the enemy's fleet is under way." Jumping up, half asleep, clad only in his drawers, Old Buck rushed on deck, yelling: "Get under way, Captain Johnston, head for the leading vessel of the enemy." The wooden gunboats Morgan, Gaines, and Selma maneuvered into position.

Reveille blew from line to line on Dauphin Island. As the fleet swung into motion, a solitary Yankee gun signaled Granger's troops to commence firing on Fort Gaines. Infantrymen, sweating and blackened, threw off their clothing, cursed the boiling sun, and poured shot and shell into the Rebel earthwork.

Four monitors and twenty‑six wooden ships with a broadside of seventy-five guns, led by Brooklyn and Octorara followed by Hartford and Metacomet, slowly moved toward the channel. The ironclads, acting independently of the battle line, veered to starboard and steered for Fort Morgan.

Up on the ramparts, General Richard Page, Old Ramrod, tall, dignified, bewhiskered, dressed in plain civilian clothes and wearing a straw hat, paced up and down, stopping at gun emplacements, chatting and advising.  p190 The fleet steamed nearer. At 7:06 Page bellowed: "Commence firing." The monitors' guns replied. The whole Union broadside thundered. The captain of the number one gun on Brooklyn aimed his cannon as it ran out, threw up his left arm signaling to stand clear, fired as it reached the gun port. The smoking Dahlgren recoiled violently, was loaded, pushed out, and fired again.

Brooklyn steamed opposite the forts and approached the mine bed and the rear monitor. Her engines stopped and began backing, threatening to throw the whole fleet into collision. From the poop deck of Hartford, Farragut hollered to Brooklyn: "What's the matter? Why don't you go ahead?"" There was no answer. Brooklyn's engines continued to back.

Abreast of Fort Morgan, the captain of Tecumseh sighted the mines. He clanged four bells to the engine room and tried to pass the rows at full speed. A mine exploded. The monitor lurched and heaved. She went down rapidly bow first, her stern lifted high in the air, her propeller spinning madly, Men, screaming, cursing, shoving, rushed to escape the death trap. Waist-deep in water, the skipper, encased in a life preserver, struggled to reach the small hatch of the pilothouse. The pilot screamed: "Let me get out first, Captain, for God's sake; I have five little children!" Instantly the captain answered: "Go on, sir." The pilot scrambled out to safety. Water engulfed the captain and his 110 men. Only 10 survived.

Stalled in Tecumseh's mess, Brooklyn made the whole fleet a stationary, point-blank target. The fort's  p191 guns cut down the sailors. Hartford was terribly riddled. The berth deck was a slaughterhouse, splashed and tracked with red ooze. One shot plowed into the side of Hartford, mowing down men, deluging the deck with blood, scattering mangled fragments of human flesh. Bluejackets dumped the dead in long rows on the port side and hurried the wounded to the main hatch, placed them in swinging cots, and lowered them to the temporary hospital in the main hold. One veteran, his arm torn off, turned in his agony and fell thirty feet, ending his suffering. Deck gangs gathered up the lumps of flesh, sewed them up in canvas bags, and hurled them over the side.

When Hartford's number one gun was disabled by a bursting shell, killing seven men, Charlie Mitchell, loader, although severely wounded and scarcely able to walk, stood by his gun. Coxswain Tom Fitzpatrick, the gun captain, replaced the breaching, made repairs, hauled in a new crew, and commenced firing again.

His view obscured by the low‑hanging smoke, Farragut climbed the mainmast as far as the futtock shrouds immediately below the main top, and asked the pilot if there was sufficient depth of water for Hartford to pass to the port of Brooklyn. Receiving an affirmative, the Admiral shouted through the speaking tube: "Four bells, eight bells, sixteen bells! Give her all the steam you've got." The flagship shot forward.

Two hundred yards away on board the ram Tennessee the 7‑inch cannon was loaded. The gun captain congratulated himself that he would tear a hole into the flagship, sinking Farragut instantly. Quickly he gave the  p192 commands: "Raise, steady, raise a little more, ready, fire!" His aim was faulty. The shot struck Hartford a glancing blow and veered off. The flagship and Metacomet, chained together, swept past Brooklyn, Tennessee, the fort, and mine beds.

Inside Fort Morgan, General Page breakfasted on salt pork and tea. He kept reiterating to his Negro servant: "I do not see how I failed to sink the Hartford. I do not see how I failed to sink her." The fleet poured in 491 projectiles, but inflicted little damage. The elevation of the Yankee guns was too high.

Hartford anchored out of range inside the bay. The Rebel gunboat Selma commenced raking the Yankee fore and aft with her guns. The Confederates' Gaines and Morgan, off Farragut's starboard bow, were drubbed by Hartford's cannon. With guns barking, Metacomet cast off from the flagship and dashed for Selma. Recognizing her danger, the Rebel endeavored to retreat up the bay. She was overhauled and, punctured with shot, surrendered. Boarding her, Union sailors found Selma's deck a complete mess. Seven men lay mangled and one lieutenant, his bowels ripped out, flapped over the breach of a cannon.

Crippled by Hartford's vicious fire, Gaines ran aground under the guns of Fort Morgan. Her crew set her afire and escaped to the fort in small boats. Morgan, momentarily grounded, freed herself and escaped to Mobile.

The other Union frigates and gunboats passed the fort. A heavy shell smashed into Oneida, exploding the starboard boiler, engulfing the engine room with scalding  p193 steam. The bodies of the black gang made a ghastly spectacle. Topside, fragments tore off the captain's arm, severed a marine's head, and critically wounded the men at the 9‑inch gun. Another shot shattered the 8‑inch cannon of the first division, killing the first captain and sponger. The fleet came to anchor astern of Hartford.

The ram Tennessee had contented herself to lie near Fort Morgan and fire at the approaching vessels. Old Buck, stumping up and down with his game leg, watched the fleet run the gauntlet and anchor. Suddenly he sprang to action. "Follow them up, Johnston," he bellowed. "We can't let them off that way." The iron prow turned and pointed for the Hartford. The fleet surgeon excitedly exclaimed: "Are you going into that fleet, Admiral?"

"I am!"

To another officer, the medic whispered: "We'll never come out of there whole!"

With inferior speed and exposed steering chains, the Tennessee was not equipped for close‑in fighting, and by attacking the whole Union squadron, Buchanan threw away his great defensive strength and the advantage of his long-range guns.

Convinced that the ram was heading for the Hartford, Farragut got under way, hoisted signals for the fleet to attack Tennessee, and muttered to a lieutenant: "I did not think Old Buck was such a fool."

Monongahela, strengthened with an artificial iron prow, her throttle wide open, rammed the oncoming Tennessee. Her prow and cutwater carried away, Monongahela  p194 backed off and retreated. The uninjured ram aimed at Hartford.

Lackawanna closed in. On board Tennessee, the captain yelled to his men: "Steady yourself when she strikes! Stand by and be ready!" Lackawanna bashed into the ram with her wooden bow. The Yankees tried desperately to depress their cannon and fire them point-blank at the monster, but the Rebel was too close alongside. Sailors grabbed pistols and muskets and peppered the ram with small arms. Incensed with anger, one man grabbed a spittoon and hurled it into Tennessee's gun port. As the vessels separated, the ram sent two percussion shells crashing through Lackawanna, clearing out the entire powder division. The berth deck, full of smoke, glared with burning woodwork. The sound of groaning men was sickening. Someone screamed: "Magazine on fire!" A gunner sprang into the passage and put out the fire with his bare hands, burning them to the bone in the process.

The two flagships, Rebel and Yankee, approached each other bow to bow, iron against oak. The other vessels lay helpless, their shots bouncing off the iron Goliath.

On Hartford's forecastle Captain Drayton spotted Buchanan's white head peeping over the hatch, shook his fist, crying: "Infernal traitor," and heaved his spyglass at the disappearing figure. Unexpectedly, Tennessee changed course slightly, her port bow glancing off Hartford. The flagship poured her whole port broadside into the ram, but the solid shot only dented the side and bounded into the air. As the two ships passed, the  p195 Federals fired revolvers into the enemy's gun ports, one shot terribly mutilating the face of the chief engineer. The ram tried to fire her guns, but, due to defective primers, only one gun worked. This sent a shell battering through Hartford's berth deck, killing eight.

Tennessee became the target of the whole squadron. Her stack and steering apparatus were shot away; her port gun shutters jammed. The Union monster Chickasaw second slowly and deliberately. "That damned ironclad," snarled Tennessee's pilot, "is hanging on to us like a dog. . . . Fight him! Sink him if you can!" A 15‑inch shot from Manhattan crashed into the iron plating. Two machinists standing near the bulkhead were torn to pieces by the concussion, smearing the gun crews and officers with blood and flesh.

A voice resounded through the ram: "Doctor, the Admiral is wounded!" Hit by a flying fragment, Buchanan lay crumpled up on deck with a broken leg. Captain Johnston clambered into the bloody rubbish of the gun deck and found his chief under the surgeon's care, his leg crushed up under his body. "Do the best you can, Johnston, and when all is done, surrender," mumbled the white-haired veteran. Up forward a gunner called out: "One of the ships is moving into us, sir."

While the Rebels watched the huge bow of Hartford bearing down upon them, Lackawanna steering erratically, collided with the Union flagship and knocked her off course. For a split second, sailors on Hartford, thinking their ship was going down, shouted: "The Admiral! The Admiral! Save the Admiral!"

Enraged at Lackawanna's performance, Farragut ordered  p196 engines backed and asked the signalman: "Can you say, 'For God's sake'?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then say to Lackawanna," the Admiral sputtered, " 'For God's sake, get out of the way and anchor!' "

The guns of Fort Morgan were silent. Soldiers crowded the parapets, watching the dogfight in the bay. Old Ramrod, studying Tennessee, suddenly dropped his spyglass and told his men: "She has ceased firing."

Out in the bay the skipper of Tennessee struck her colors.

Casualties on board the ram were two killed, nine wounded, including Buchanan, whose leg was later amputated. The Confederate Navy's losses included Tennessee and Selma captured, Gaines gutted, 12 dead, 20 wounded, and 280 captured. Federal comet numbered 162 killed, including those of the ill‑fated Tecumseh, and 170 wounded.

To the westward on Dauphin Island, the Army had not lagged. After a fierce exchange, Union batteries had silenced Fort Gaines and prevented Southerners from employing those cannon on the fleet. The light-draft vessels Conemaugh, J. P. Jackson, Estrella, Narcissus, and Stockdale had taken position in Mississippi Sound and pummeled Fort Powell. That afternoon, the double-turreted monitor Winnebago opened fire on the bastion with her four 11‑inch guns.

Night descended on the debris-cluttered bay. Sailors surveyed the battered timbers, torn bulwarks, smashed‑in sides, the dead and dying. Over dinner the skipper of a gunboat asked Farragut whether he tried to avoid the  p197 mines. "No!" Farragut retorted. "I heard torpedoes cracking all around me. . . . I knew . . . that there were chances of their exploding without blowing up any vessels, and I took those chances. I know of no other way to fight . . . but to take chances and go ahead!"

Unexpectedly about midnight, there was a terrific explosion in the direction of Fort Powell. One hundred and forty Rebels, after blowing up the fort, waded through the mud flats and escaped to the mainland.

Granger's forces and Winnebago continued to shell Fort Gaines for the next few days. General Page in Fort Morgan signaled the beleaguered stronghold: "Hold on to your fort." There was no reply. The General boarded a small boat in the night, landed near Gaines, entered, and discovered that the commanding officer was on board Hartford.

In the flagship's wardroom, Farragut laid it on the line to the Confederates. "Surrounded on three sides by my vessels, and on the fourth by the Army," the Admiral stated, "you cannot hold the fort. Submit like a man."

"Let us fight it out," one Rebel exclaimed.

"Gentlemen, if hard fighting would save the fort, I would advise you to fight to the death, but by all the laws of war you have no chance to save it."

The Confederates submitted.

Early on the morning of 8 August, General Page, again at Fort Morgan, frantically telegraphed Fort Gaines. There was no answer. Through his spyglass he saw the Stars and Stripes run up on the ramparts.

Mobile was in panic. Military officers spat in the direction  p198 of Fort Gaines and cursed the "Benedict Arnold of the South" for his shameful surrender. Workers, reservists, militia, two Louisiana artillery regiments, six companies of cavalry, a battalion of convicts, 4000 in all, girded themselves for the final assault. The Confederate Army in Atlanta, fighting for its life against Sherman, ignored Mobile's pleas. The governor of Mississippi refused to render aid.Only a handful of recruits responded to the call at Montgomery. The despondent, sick governor of Alabama ordered the port burnt to ashes if it could not be held.

Granger transported his men and siege equipment across the channel and landed them two miles from Fort Morgan. Advance companies sneaked forward and occupied the abandoned trenches 2000 yards from the bastion. In the days that followed, the 32‑pounders and mortars were hauled up. At daylight on 22 August, 100 Army and monitor guns opened fire. The fort shook. Granger stepped up the pace. Page saw his guns disabled, casemates breached, the citadel in flames. The white flag was hoisted.

Under a hot, stifling afternoon sun the Thirty-fourth Iowa lined up before the shattered fort and received its surrender to the martial strains of "Hail Columbia." Six hundred Johnnies trudged out. In slow succession they faced front, dressed right, and grounded their arms. The Union ensign leaped up the flagpole as the regimental band struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner." The guard detail formed around the begrimed captives and marched them off to the waiting transports.

Farragut realized that the city of Mobile itself was of  p199 little military consequence. To attack and occupy the town could only weaken Union forces. The capture of the forts effectively sealed off the port from commerce. The Confederate troops garrisoned there would not desert the besieged town for other fronts. Farragut had no desire to sack the city.

In hot, dry, dusty Washington that summer the Potomac aqueduct ran low. Hydrants and house cocks produced only a trickle of water. The war news was depressing. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jubal A. Early's raid in July, narrowly missing the capture of Washington, had harassed the Administration. There was Republican talk of dumping Lincoln in the forthcoming presidential election in favor of a more vigorous candidate. Depression increased. Sherman's army seemed neutralized before Atlanta; Grant recoiled under Lee's blows in Virginia.

Across the Potomac the countryside baked. In his tent General Ben Butler, commanding the Army of the James, drowsily scanned the latest Confederate newspapers brought by his orderly. Suddenly he leaped about his tent, shouting: "Three cheers for Farragut! Three cheers for Farragut!" His staff, believing that their chief had gone crazy from sunstroke, rushed to render first aid.

When the news of Mobile broke, the Navy Department, Washington, and the entire nation toasted Farragut. Union ships had propped up public confidence. Newspapers reported that Farragut had shown the world that iron hearts and oaken ships could hold their own. They contrasted the effectiveness of wooden vessels against the forts of New Orleans and Mobile with  p200 the fruitless efforts of the monitors against Charleston.

The Administration's prestige skyrocketed when Sherman took Atlanta on 2 September. Lincoln ordered a one‑hundred-gun salute at the Washington Navy Yard to celebrate the victories. At the Broadway Tabernacle Church in New York, the Reverend Joseph P. Thompson chose as his text "O sing unto the Lord a new song, for He hath done marvelous things!" and spoke at length about Atlanta and the iron-hearted Admiral.

The victories dramatically enhanced Lincoln's chances at the polls. Amid three rousing cheers for the Union, Farragut and Sherman, Secretary Seward, illuminated by the yellow torchlights in a city park, told a huge yelling crowd: "This victory at Atlanta comes in good time, as the victory in Mobile does, to vindicate the wisdom and energy of the war administration."

The naval triumph in the bay converted Mobile from a commercial port to an isolated town, halted serious blockade-running in the Gulf, and crushed the enemy's hopes for smashing the blockade, which grew more stringent. Wilmington, North Carolina, still open to Confederate runners, became proportionately more valuable. All eyes, North and South, focused on this port.


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Page updated: 3 Jan 18