The Battle of Mobile Bay
Commemorate the 150th anniversary of this Civil War battle in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama
By Mark O’Brien
The Battle of Mobile Bay was a showdown between two men who would become Navy legends.
The Confederate ships were led by Franklin Buchanan, who joined the U.S. Navy when he was only 15 and distinguished himself so well that he became the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. But when the Civil War broke out, Buchanan, a Northerner by birth, joined the Confederacy and became its first admiral.
The leader of the U.S. naval forces, Southern-born David Farragut, got his sea legs even sooner than Buchanan. He was a mere 9 years old when he joined the U.S. Navy. When Buchanan and Farragut squared off at Mobile Bay, they had a total of 100 years of Naval experience.
The result: An iconic sea battle that boosted Northern morale and helped Abraham Lincoln win re-election three months later, according to historian Craig Symond.
“Indeed, Farragut’s charge into Mobile Bay in August of 1864 may have been the most dramatic moment of the naval war,” wrote Symond, an authority on the two Civil War navies.
The U.S. Navy had 18 ships; the Confederates had four ships and three heavily armed forts—Morgan, Gaines and Powell—important stops along the Alabama Gulf Coast history tour
. The forts, however, had a fatal design flaw: They were vulnerable to attack from land, and the Union had some 1,500 soldiers and cavalrymen ready to exploit this advantage.
Union forces fired the first shot of the battle on the morning of August 5, 1864, as they entered the bay. But the Rebels scored an early coup when the USS Tecumseh struck a submerged mine and quickly sank.
Other Union ships behind him hesitated at this point, but Farragut, aboard the USS Hartford, hollered at them something along the lines of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
Historians doubt that Farragut said those exact words, and Symond has an interesting view on his decision to charge ahead: “Farragut had little choice at this point but to go ahead. He could not stop under the guns of Fort Morgan and he could not back down with a column of ships behind him, so he went ahead.
"The rest of the Federal ships followed him, careful to stay in his wake. As they passed through the minefield, some sailors later claimed they had heard the primers snapping on the torpedoes. Luckily, no more of them exploded, very likely because of faulty primers.”
Three Confederate ships were soon sidelined. U.S. sailors captured one, Confederate sailors scuttled the second when it was badly damaged and the third fled.
This left the CSS Tecumseh, among the first of the ironclad ships after centuries of wooden ships. But it was badly outnumbered and rendered almost useless as Union ships blasted away at it and rammed it.
A severely injured Buchanan surrendered, some three hours after the battle began.
"Admiral Buchanan sent me his sword, being himself badly wounded with a compound fracture of the leg," Farragut reported in a dispatch to Washington, D.C.
He arranged for medical treatment for Buchanan and the other wounded sailors. Meanwhile, Union soldiers on land combined with the ships to eventually take all three Confederate forts. The South had lost its last major waterway on the Gulf Coast, cutting off its supply line to Mobile.
For his efforts, Congress gave Farragut a $50,000 bonus—equivalent to several million dollars today, as Symond noted. Farragut also became the first admiral in the U.S. Navy.
The U.S. Navy has repeatedly honored both men, naming three ships and a building after Buchanan and five ships after Farragut, keeping alive the memories of two warriors of the sea.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have planned a full lineup of events
August 1–3, including a re-enactment of the siege of Fort Morgan. Order a Vacation Guide
to plan your history tour of the Gulf Coast.