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Chapter 19

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

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 21
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p330  XX
Battle of Mobile Bay​a

Had Farragut been free after the capture of New Orleans to choose the next point of attack, instead of making two futile expeditions to Vicksburg in the spring and summer of 1862, he would have moved against Mobile. At that time its capture would have been an easy matter for the fleet under his command. Two years later, when the Department ordered the attack, the undertaking was of much greater magnitude, for the Confederates had vastly strengthened the defenses.

On the surrender of Port Hudson, July, 1863, Farragut turned over to Porter the command of all the Mississippi above New Orleans, and on August 1 sailed for New York. He needed rest, and the Hartford, the Brooklyn, and the Richmond required extensive overhauling. With both objects attained, the admiral and his ships returned in January, 1864, to take a further part in the blockade of the Gulf.

After the fall of New Orleans, Mobile became the Confederates' most important port for the shipment of cotton. Its situation near the head of a bay thirty miles long, with two large rivers flowing into the bay, and with a railroad system well developed, made its retention by the Confederates of great importance. For nearly two years previous to Farragut's return in 1864, the general blockade had been regarded as technically effective. Still, it constantly happened that the swift blockade runners, creeping along the shore on a dark night, would make a bold dash and gain the protection of the forts commanding  p331 the entrance to the bay before the Union ships could come up with them.

These forts were, in the order of their strength and importance, Morgan, Gaines, and Powell. Fort Morgan, on the east side of the main channel at the southern end of Mobile Point, was a pentagonal, bastioned work, with a full scarp wall of brick, four feet and eight inches thick. It mounted eighty‑six guns and had a garrison of 640 men. As the channel passed close under its guns, it was an admirable defense to the bay. Fort Gaines was on Dauphin Island, three miles to the northwest of Morgan. And Fort Powell was six miles farther in the same direction, commanding one of the passes navigable for small steamers only. Since neither Gaines nor Powell had any part in the battle about to be described, they will not be considered further. On the flats to the south and east of Gaines, a long row of piles had been driven to prevent the passage of small boats, and where the piles ended, a double row of torpedoes had been planted toward Morgan.

Further to strengthen the forts, the Confederates had ready, some months before Farragut could make his attack, the ironclad Tennessee, built on the general lines of the Merrimac. Though not so long as the latter, the Tennessee had a somewhat heavier armor, and also had an advantage in her shallow draft of fourteen feet. Her beak and her power­ful battery of four 6‑inch and two 7‑inch rifles made her a dangerous foe to the wooden ships; indeed, she was commonly regarded as the most power­ful ship afloat. Supporting the Tennessee were three wooden gunboats, which were reported to Farragut by refugees and deserters also as ironclads.

[image ALT: An engraving of a low ironclad with a single smokestack, flying the flag of the Confederate States. It is the C. S. S. Tennessee.]

After marking a reconnoissance on arriving off Mobile, Farragut informed the Department of the need of an ironclad and of troops to make a success­ful attack upon the forts. It was not until the last of July that troops  p332 could be sent, and not until the 4th of August that the four monitors assigned him had all arrived. On the 5th of August, 1864, Farragut proceeded to the attack.

He had made careful preparations for passing the forts, similar to those in the operations below New Orleans; and since a large proportion of his fourteen wooden ships were only of the gunboat class, he resorted to the expedient tried at Port Hudson of having his ships proceed in pairs; on the port side of each of the heavy vessels was lashed a light vessel, the latter being thus protected from the fire of Fort Morgan. The fight was to be the most desperate one that Farragut had engaged in since he was a boy on the Essex; he seemed to know this in advance, and there is a deep seriousness, almost melancholy, not characteristic of the admiral, that appears in a letter written August 4:1

"My Dearest Wife: I write and leave this letter for you. I am going into Mobile Bay in the morning, if God is my leader, and as I hope He is, and in Him I place my trust. If He thinks it is the proper place for me to die, I am ready to submit to His will, in that as all other things. . . .

"Your devoted and affectionate husband, who never for one moment forgot his love, duty, or fidelity to you, his devoted and best of wives,

"D. G. Farragut."

There were two favoring conditions that he desired in making the attack: a flood tide, and a westerly wind to blow the smoke of the guns from the ships upon Fort Morgan. Early Friday morning, August 5, he had both.

[image ALT: A schematic map of a water channel between two small bodies of land, Dauphin Island to the W or the viewer's left, Mobile Point to the E. In the channel the evolutions of 18 ships is depicted, giving their positions three times. Just N of Mobile Point are four large ships. The diagram illustrates the battle of Mobile Bay in the War between the States, 1864.]

Long before daylight Farragut had given orders for the ships to be ready to advance. At 5.30, while sipping  p334 a cup of tea at the conclusion of breakfast, he turned to his fleet-captain and quietly said, "Well, Drayton, we might as well get under way." In a minute there came back answering signals from the expectant captains, and the ships, lashed in couples, took their assigned positions.

The column was led by the Brooklyn, Captain Alden, and Octorora, Lieutenant-Commander Charles Green. Following them came the flagship Hartford, Captain Percival Drayton, and the Metacomet, Lieutenant-Commander James E. Jouett. Since the ships would be subject to a raking fire on approaching Fort Morgan, and could bring but very few guns into action until abreast the fort, the monitors Tecumseh, Manhattan, Winnebago, and Chickasaw, which could fire in any direction, were to form a column to starboard and in advance of the ships, engaging the fort to protect the ships' approach. That the fleet might demoralize the gunners in Fort Morgan by a hot fire of grape and shrapnel, the vessels were to pass close to the fort, to the east of a certain red buoy. It was said that the buoy marked the limit of the line of torpedoes, so that this order had a double reason.

The Tecumseh, Commander T. A. M. Craven, opened the battle, firing the first shot at 6.47.​2 Meanwhile, the Confederate vessels, Tennessee, Morgan, Gaines, and Selma had emerged from behind the fort, and had taken position in echelon across the channel, with their port batteries toward the advancing fleet; the Tennessee was the farthest to the left, and rested a little to the westward of the red buoy. The ram had been designated by Farragut as the antagonist especially of the Tecumseh and Manhattan, and Craven was all eagerness to engage her. Accordingly, after his first fire, Craven loaded the  p335 guns with sixty pounds of powder and a steel shot, and held them in readiness.

Fort Morgan had opened on the approaching ships shortly after seven, and for half an hour was raking them while they could answer only with their bow‑chasers. At the end of that time, the Brooklyn and the Hartford, drawing abreast of the fort, brought their broadsides into action, and Farragut, from his station in the port main rigging, saw the gunners driven from the barbette and water batteries. But his satisfaction was of short duration; suddenly all went wrong.

Commander Craven, in the Tecumseh, was about 300 yards in advance and to starboard of the Brooklyn, and as he approached the red buoy, remarked to his pilot, "The admiral ordered me to go inside [to the east of] that buoy, but it must be a mistake."​3 Just at that moment the Tennessee moved slightly forward and to the west. Craven, in his doubt as to the course and in his eagerness to grapple with the enemy, put on full speed and made directly for the ram. This led him slightly to the west of the buoy.

The bow gun of the Tennessee was heavily loaded to meet the monitor, and the attention of onlookers was  p336 eagerly directed towards the ironclads about to engage each other, when suddenly a muffled roar was heard; the Tecumseh careened violently, and then settled so quickly that 113 men out of a complement of 135 were carried down with her. A torpedo had exploded under her turret, and within less than two minutes nothing but eddies marked where the large sea‑going monitor had been. Commander Craven was among the lost. It is related by Mr. Collins, the pilot, who was with him in the conning tower when the explosion occurred, that as both instinctively turned to the ladder, the only means of escape, Craven drew back, saying, "After you, pilot." The commander's noble courtesy cost him his life.4

Captain Alden, in the Brooklyn, leading the column of wooden ships, was a close spectator of the disaster. At this time, or slightly earlier, his lookout reported torpedo-buoys, almost under his bows. Alden at once backed his engines, and then stopped. He was signaled by the admiral to go forward, but he either did not see the signal or, with the torpedoes ahead and the monitors close to starboard, did not know how to obey, for he remained inactive. Meanwhile, the other ships were coming on, and the column was in danger of becoming hopelessly  p337 entangled right under the guns of Fort Morgan. Already the defenders, seeing the confusion, were firing with increased vigor.

Admiral Farragut, from the rigging of the Hartford, had witnessed the destruction of the monitor. He had also seen the Brooklyn stop and back, though he did not know the reason why. On his starboard bow were the Brooklyn and the Octorora athwart the channel, on his starboard were the monitors Winnebago and Chickasaw, while the fleet was rapidly massing together, so that in a minute more even retreat would be impossible. It was, as Mahan terms it, "the supreme moment of his life." On a right and immediate decision depended the crowning victory of his long naval career. An error would mean colossal defeat, of terrible costliness to the Union, and a tragic ending to all his years of preparation and his brilliant exploits on the Mississippi. "In later days, Farragut told that in the confusion of these moments, feeling that all his plans had been thwarted, he was at a loss whether to advance or retreat. In this extremity the devout spirit that ruled his life, and so constantly appears in his correspondence, impelled him to appeal to Heaven for guidance, and he offered up this prayer: 'O God, who created man and gave him reason, direct me what to do. Shall I go on?' 'And it seemed,' said the admiral, 'as if in answer a voice commanded, Go on.' "5

Since the signal to the Brooklyn, to go ahead, had produced no effect, Farragut decided to take the lead himself. And as he could not take the safe course to starboard, he determined to pass to port. Ordering the Hartford to drive her engine forward, and the Metacomet, lashed alongside, to back hers, he twisted short around,  p338 and, passing the stern of the Brooklyn, made directly for the line of torpedoes. There came from the Brooklyn a warning cry of torpedoes ahead.

"Damn the torpedoes!" shouted the admiral, intent only on his high purpose. "Four bells Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!" The Hartford and Metacomet crossed the line of torpedoes, and men on board said they heard some of the primers snap, but no torpedo exploded. The Brooklyn and Octorora followed in their wake, and the column straightened out as by magic.

Meanwhile Farragut had not been forget­ful of the few survivors of the Tecumseh, still struggling near where the monitor had sunk, but directed Jouett to send a boat. Acting Ensign Henry C. Nields, a mere boy, had charge of the boat and pulled within a few hundred yards of the fort, where he was exposed to the fire of both foes and friends. He rescued ten men, and rowing back to the fleet, succeeded in reaching the Oneida, where he remained till the end of the battle.

When the leading ships had passed beyond the danger of the torpedoes, they found the Confederate squadron awaiting them. The three wooden gunboats slowly retreated, firing as they went, and doing considerable damage to the Hartford, which for fifteen minutes was obliged to endure their fire, and because of the narrow channel could not bring her guns into action. Admiral Buchanan, who was commanding the Tennessee, made a dash at the Hartford, but the latter, which was much quicker, easily eluded the ram, and after returning her fire, continued up the bay. Then Buchanan gave his attention successively to the Brooklyn, the Richmond, and the Lackawanna, exchanging shots with each, but causing no serious damage. The Monongahela attempted to ram the Tennessee, but succeeded in giving her only a glancing blow.

 p339  By this time the Hartford had reached a position where she could bring her guns to bear on the three gunboats that had been annoying her; she then quickly drove them off, and so damaged the Gaines that the latter was with difficulty kept afloat till she had reached Fort Morgan. Meanwhile the Metacomet was pursuing the Selma, and succeeded in capturing her. The Morgan, and little later also the Tennessee, took refuge under the guns of the fort.

Shortly after eight o'clock, the Union monitors and all fourteen of Farragut's wooden shape had safely passed the fort, with comparatively little injury except to the Oneida. This vessel, which occupied an exposed position at the end of the column, received a shot from Fort Morgan that penetrated her boilers and completely disabled her. Here the wisdom of Farragut's sending the ships in couples became apparent. The Oneida's consort, the Galena, aided by the tide, brought her through, and into the bay beyond.

As the Union vessels one by one reached a position four miles above Fort Morgan, where there was a large pocket, they were directed to anchor. Soon the stewards had breakfast preparing, and officers and men were relaxing after the intense strain. Farragut, on the poop of the Hartford, was talking with his fleet-captain, Drayton, who observed that although the engagement was ended they still had their strongest foe, the Tennessee, to meet again. The same thought had been in Farragut's mind, and he had resolved to go himself on the Manhattan, with the other monitors, to attack the ram that evening under the fort; he planned to board her, taking advantage of the darkness to compel the Confederate gunners, if they fired, to shoot at friend as well as at foe. But it proved unnecessary to resort to this desperate measure, for at 8.45 A.M., before all his vessels had anchored, it was  p340 reported that the Tennessee was coming out, and later that she was heading for the Union flagship.

One cannot but admire the daring of Admiral Buchanan in thus boldly advancing in broad daylight, single-handed, to engage an entire fleet. But his act was nothing less than recklessness, and by it he threw away the evident advantages he possessed. With his heavy rifled guns, of much greater range than the smooth-bores forming the chief part of the Union ships' batteries, he could have hammered at the wooden ships from a distance, dealing destruction and receiving no injury in return. If the fleet should have attempted to attack the ram, he could have retreated to the fort, or, choosing a position in shallow water, have prevented Farragut from using his heavier vessels. The Tennessee was too slow to be effective as a ram, so that she had little to gain by action at close quarters. Thus Buchanan, steaming into the midst of the Union fleet, where the water was deep and the channel broad, was offering battle on terms most advantageous to her enemies.

Mess-gear on the Union vessels was hurriedly put away, and preparations were made for another engagement. The stronger wooden ships were ordered to attack "not only with their guns, but bows on at full speed." Dr. Palmer, the fleet-surgeon, who, in going his rounds, happened to be just leaving the flagship in his launch, was dispatched by Farragut with orders for the monitors to attack.

The Union ironclads had already shown themselves slow and difficult to maneuver, and it was the wooden Monongahela, which had not yet come to anchor, that began the second engagement. She struck the Tennessee a blow that carried away her own iron prow and cut‑water (already weakened by the attempt to ram when passing the fort), but did no injury to the Confederate. The  p342 Lackawanna followed close after, and struck the Tennessee at full speed. Again it was the attacking ship that suffered, for though her stem was crushed to the plank ends above and below the water line, the only perceptible effect on the Tennessee was to give her a heavy list. The Lackawanna received two destructive shells through her bows, but, in return, on separating, fired a 9‑inch shell that destroyed one of her enemy's port shutters, driving the fragments into the casemate.

The Hartford was the third vessel to strike the ram. The blow, however, was but a glancing one, for the Confederate had turned towards the Union flagship on her approach. As the Hartford scraped past, she fired her entire port broadside of 9‑inch guns, but the shot bounded off with no effect. The Tennessee in reply was able to fire only one shell, but this, passing through the berth deck of the Hartford, killed five men and wounded eight. When the two vessels came together, Admiral Farragut, who had been standing on the quarter-deck, jumped on the rail, holding to the port mizzen rigging, just above the ram. His flag lieutenant, Watson, fearful for his safety, passed a rope around him and secured it to the rigging — this had been done also on entering the bay, when Captain Drayton, seeing the admiral in the main rigging near the top, ordered Quartermaster Knowles thus to protect him from a fall.

Both the Hartford and the Lackawanna now made a circuit to get into position to charge again on the ram, but while thus maneuvering, the Lackawanna came crashing into the flagship just forward of the mizzenmast, breaking two ports into one, dismounting a Dahlgren gun, and cutting the hull down within two feet of the water. In a moment Farragut was climbing over the side to see the extent of the damage. "Immediately," says Captain Drayton, "there was a general cry all round, 'Get the  p343 admiral out of the ship!' and the whole interest of every one near was, that he should be in a place of safety." Farragut, however, had no intention of leaving the Hartford, and when he discovered that she would still float, he repeated his orders to make for the ram. But again there was confusion in the maneuvers, and the flagship narrowly escaped being rammed a second time by the Lackawanna.

In the meantime the monitors had approached and were attacking the ram. One gun of the Manhattan was disabled, but with the other she planted a 15‑inch shot that penetrated the armor and woodwork of the casemate, and was held only by the netting inside. The turrets of the Winnebago would not turn, and her guns could be fired only by pointing the ship; in consequence, her effectiveness was much lessened. But the double-turreted monitor Chickasaw, brilliantly handled by Lieutenant-Commander Perkins (the youngest of Farragut's captains), secured a position under the stern of the Tennessee, and there she stuck, as the Confederate pilot said later, "like a leech."

On the Tennessee, throughout the engagement, Admiral Buchanan superintended the handling of the guns. After the collision with the Hartford, the engineer reported that the ram was leaking rapidly, whereupon the Confederate admiral sent word to Commander J. D. Johnston, in the pilot house, to steer for Fort Morgan. Then it was that the Chickasaw secured her position under the stern and so annoyed the ram.

The wheel chains of the Tennessee, which by a colossal blunder in construction lay exposed on the deck, were carried away. Next, a port cover was struck by an 11‑inch shot from the Chickasaw; the impact instantly killed a machinist who was working there, and threw iron splinters which mortally wounded one of the gunners and broke  p344 Buchanan's leg above the knee. Johnston, to whom Buchanan then gave over the command, did his utmost to save the vessel, but he could do very little. The relieving tackles by which he was steering the ship were shot away, and the tiller was unshipped from the rudder head. The smokestack, riddled by shot, had fallen over when the Tennessee was struck by the wooden vessels, and the steam was going down rapidly. Two quarter ports intended for the after gun had been so jammed that they could not be removed, and two of the broadside port covers had been entirely unshipped by the fire of the fleet. Because of these injuries it happened that in the last half hour of the fight, that is, following the collision with the Hartford, the Tennessee was unable to fire a shot. During this period the Chickasaw had kept up a persistent pounding from her position under the stern, never more than fifty yards away, and had fired fifty‑two 11‑inch shot. Of the monitor's fire Johnston remarks in his report, "the shot were fairly raining upon the after end of the shield, which was now so thoroughly shattered that in a few moments it would have fallen and exposed the gun deck to a raking fire of shell and grape."6

The Tennessee lay helpless as a log, and Buchanan, recognizing her condition, said to Johnston, who had sought him out on the berth deck, "Do the best you can, sir, and when all is done, surrender." The Ossipee was now charging down at full speed, and the Hartford, the Monongahela, and the Lackawanna were seeking another opportunity to ram. Convinced that the Tennessee was nothing more than a target for the Union ships, Johnston went out on the casemate and hauled down her colors, shortly afterwards reappearing and hoisting a white flag.  p345 LeRoy, of the Ossipee, at once attempted to stop his ship, but the momentum carried him on, and he struck the ram on her starboard quarter. The blow, however, did no harm.

The engagement ended at ten o'clock, having lasted three hours and a quarter, with a half hour's intermission. The losses of the Union fleet were large, amounting to fifty‑two killed and 170 wounded. The Hartford suffered far more severely than any other ship; twenty-five of the killed, or nearly one‑half of the entire number, were of her crew. This was because for several minutes she had endured the concentrated fire of the Confederate gunboats without being able to reply, and also twice had entered into close action with the Tennessee. The fire of the Confederate ships did far more damage than that of Fort Morgan. When the men drowned in the Tecumseh are included, the total Union loss mounts to 355. That of the Confederate fleet was in comparison very small, ten killed and sixteen wounded.

On the afternoon of the same day, August 5, the Chickasaw shelled Fort Powell and compelled its evacuation during the night. The following day she attacked Fort Gaines, and, assisting the army, induced that work to capitulate on August 7. Fort Morgan had defiantly refused to surrender, and held out several days longer. When, however, heavy siege guns and the whole fleet, including the three monitors and the captured Tennessee, opened on it, resistance soon became impossible; the defenders endured the bombardment for one day, and on the next, August 23, surrendered.

Farragut, having now complete control of the bay, could seal the port to blockade runners, and had accomplished all that he had contemplated. It was not his purpose to attempt the capture of the city of Mobile — of questionable advantage when it was taken. An army  p346 of 20,000 to 30,000 men, he estimated, would be required for this, and almost as many to hold it; only the lighter-draft monitors and the gunboats would be able in the shallow water to lend their co‑operation. Consequently he was content to clear the lower bay of torpedoes and remain there quickly for several months.

As we consider the importance of the battle of Mobile Bay, it is evident that the perfecting of the blockade in the Gulf States, accomplished by the capture of the forts and the possession of the bay, was of greatest moment. More than that, Farragut's victory came at a political crisis, and, because it was opportune, strongly affected a decision of vital consequence to the republic.

Near the close of summer, 1864, the friends of Lincoln, looking forward to the election of the following November, had become greatly alarmed. Reliable reports from Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania needed that those States were strongly opposed to the administration and its policies. They were tired of war. And the platform adopted by the Democratic party at its national convention — in substance, resolved, that the war is a failure — indicated what kind of policy was likely to be substituted if Lincoln were not re‑elected. But the battle of Mobile Bay and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sherman's capture of Atlanta, which followed shortly after and gave it a cumulative force, put a new aspect upon the war. As Seward, in a brief speech at Washington, said, "Sherman and Farragut have knocked the bottom out of the Chicago [democratic] nominations." In September, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sheridan won his brilliant successes at Winchester and Fisher's Hill. The political campaign was now prosecuted with vigor. Lincoln's adherents had little need to argue; they had but to point to recent events. On November 8, when the election took place, the people gave Lincoln 212 electoral votes to his opponent's twenty‑one. "In spite of burdensome taxation,  p347 weariness of war, and mourning in every household, they had decided on this election day of 1864 to finish the work they had begun."7

After his exploits in Mobile Bay, Farragut had been ordered to command the expedition planned against Fort Fisher. But his long service in the Gulf States had been unusually severe; any man, no matter how young, must have felt the strain, and Farragut, who was past sixty-three, could not go on indefinitely. Accordingly, the command of the expedition was given to Admiral Porter, and Farragut was ordered north. His arrival in New York City, December, 1864, was an occasion for universal rejoicing. A committee of municipal officers and representative citizens waited on him, inviting him to make New York City his home, and accompanying their invitation with a gift of $50,000. The same month the Government showed its appreciation by creating for him the grade of vice-admiral. In July, 1866, Congress passed an act making him admiral, an honor which it had never conferred before, and has but twice since. The following year, when commanding the European squadron, he was received with marked attention by the crowned heads of Europe, and everywhere was greeted "with the enthusiasm and distinguished consideration that were aroused among naval officers by the presence of the man who had bestowed upon their profession a lustre unequalled by any other deeds of that generation."8

The Authors' Notes:

1 Loyall Farragut, Life of Farragut, p405.

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2 For Farragut's report of the battle, see the Naval War Records, XXI, 405 ff.

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3 From Farragut's notes on the battle, quoted by his son (Life of Farragut, p422). Immediately after this the admiral added, "He ran just his breadth of beam too far westward, struck a torpedo, and went down in two minutes." There is, however, a lack of agreement in the reports of various officers as to just where the Tecumseh ran on the torpedo. This is important, for on it hinges the question, did Craven disobey the admiral's orders? Mr. Julian M. Spencer, who, as first lieutenant on the Morgan, was an eye‑witness of the disaster, says, in a statement made to the authors, "The Tecumseh was well to the east of the red buoy. Craven did not strike the line of torpedoes, but he must have run upon a torpedo that was adrift and in the ship-channel. This I am positive of, not only because I saw the Tecumseh when she sank, but also because it was what the other officers of the Morgan remarked when we talked over the fight afterwards in the wardroom." Supporting this view, at least in part, is a letter of Captain J. W. Whiting, of the Confederate Army (quoted in the Naval War Records, XXI, 598): "I was on duty at Fort Morgan when the enemy's fleet entered the bay on the morning of August 5, and saw the monitor Tecumseh when she went down. I am of the opinion that she sank before reaching the line of torpedoes. This opinion is entertained by such other of the officers of the fort as witnessed the sinking, and by the pilots on lookout duty, and privates who had been detailed to assist in planting the torpedoes."

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4 Narrated in Parker's Battle of Mobile Bay, p27.

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5 Mahan, Admiral Farragut, p277.

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6 Buchanan's and Johnston's reports will be found in the Naval War Records, XXI, 576‑581.

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7 Rhodes, History of the United States, IV, 539.

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8 Mahan, Admiral Farragut, p298.

Thayer's Note:

a A complementary account, from the standpoint of the Confederate forces commanded by Admiral Buchanan, is given in C. L. Lewis, Admiral Franklin Buchanan, chapter 15, Through Fire in Mobile Bay.

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