Admiral David Farragut had planned that the two prongs of the Mobile Bay naval attack, the Navy and the Army, would be simultaneous. However, the naval part of the attack was delayed because the USS Tecumseh didn’t arrive until August 4th.
The Army brigade led by Brig. Gen. Gordon Granger landed on Dauphin Island, to the rear of Fort Gaines, on August 3rd. His force moved to invest the fort of August 4th.
Farragut planned the attack into Mobile Bay with the 4 monitors leading the way. With their shallow draft, they would be able to hug the shoreline and avoid the minefield. Their low profiles and heavy armor plating would protect them from the guns of Fort Morgan. They were to be followed by the wooden warships which would be echeloned to the left of the monitors for protection.
Farragut ordered the smaller gunboats to be lashed to the port sides of the larger vessels. This would not only protect the smaller ships but if the larger vessels engines were damaged, the gunboats could act as tugs and pull them to safety. Once they were past the fort and inside the bay, the ships could then be separated and operate independently.
David Farragut was known as a meticulous planner and the night before the attack proved it. He ordered that any unnecessary spars and rigging be removed to facilitate the speed and maneuverability of his fleet. Chain garlands were hung from the starboard sides of his wooden ships to protect them from torpedoes (mines). Sandbags were stacked “from stem to stern, and from the berth to the spar deck” in order to protect the ships from artillery fire.
At dawn on August 5th, the Union fleet was ready to attack. Although he wished to lead the attack on the USS Hartford, Farragut’s officers convinced him that as the commanding officer, he should not expose himself to that kind of danger. He regretfully agreed with them and placed the USS Brooklyn in the fore with the Hartford in the middle of the battle line.
The attack commenced shortly after 6:30 AM with the USS Tecumseh firing a ranging shot and leading the Union battle line. On the Union side, there were 30 vessels with 252 guns and 3,000 crewmen. The Union fleet included 4 ironclad monitors. The Confederate fleet had one ironclad and 3 wooden gunboats with a total of 22 guns and 473 men. The Confederate commander Admiral Franklin Buchanan exhorted his sailors from his flagship, the CSS Tennessee, “…whip and sink the Yankees or fight until you sink yourselves, but do not surrender.”
Fort Morgan returned fire at 7:10 AM at a range of one-half mile. The Brooklyn returned the fort’s fire, after which as Farragut observed, “the action became lively.” Buchanan brought his four ships out from behind Mobile Point, just behind the minefield, crossing the Union “T”. His ships sent a raking fire down the Union battle line.
The Brooklyn with its superior speed had drawn even with the monitors. If they did not slow down they would be leading the attack. At this point Captain James Alden of the Brooklyn saw a suspicious row of buoys just off his bow. He ordered his ship to back off to clear the hazards but this maneuver compressed the Union line and exposed it to fire from Fort Morgan. The USS Tecumseh was struck by a torpedo and sank in 25 seconds with the captain and 92 members of the crew.
It was at this point in the attack that David Farragut was to make history. Despite his 63 years, he climbed the rigging where he was reluctantly secured by one of his crew. From this vantage point, he was able to see the entire action. Telling his crew, “I shall lead. Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.” On August 5, 1864, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut set an example that has been followed by U.S. naval officers ever since.
With his famous command, Farragut ordered the USS Hartford with the USS Metacomet lashed to its sides across the minefield and into Mobile Bay. By turning the Union ships were able to use their starboard batteries on Fort Morgan and drive the Confederate gunners from their positions. The fort was able to return fire after the large vessels had passed, damaging several of the smaller boats in the rear.
The Union ships began to pound the CSS Tennessee but the heavy armor of the ironclad was barely dented by the broadsides. With the Union fleet, about a mile into the bay, Farragut ordered that the gunboats be cut loose and attack the three Confederate gunboats. The Confederate ships were quickly neutralized with the CSS Selma being captured, the CSS Gaines beached and burned by her crew and the CSS Morgan fleeing the scene.
The Tennessee was a bigger problem with her heavy army and 6 big guns. The three remaining Union ironclads attempted to ram the Confederate flagship, to no avail. The Tennessee also attempted to ram the Union monitors but because of her lack of speed and maneuverability, they were able to avoid the attacks.
Meanwhile, the Confederate ironclad was taking a terrific battering from the Union fleet. Some of her gunports had been jammed, her smokestack had been shot away and the crew was unable to build up boiler pressure. When her rudder chains were parted, the ship lost all steering. The Chickasaw and the Manhattan began to pound her with their big 15 inch guns. Casualties, including Buchanan, began to pile up. A little more than three hours after the Tecumseh opened the attack, Buchanan gave Commander James D. Johnston permission to surrender.
With the surrender of the CSS Tennessee, the naval part of the attack on Mobile Bay’s defenses was over. Farragut and the Army could now turn to the reduction of the forts that were guarding the entrances to the bay. This portion of the campaign would take another two weeks to accomplish.
The total casualties for both sides were low by comparison to other Civil War battles. The Union force of 3,000 lost a total of 151 killed and 177 wounded. This included the 93 men who perished with the sinking of the Tecumseh. The Confederates lost a much higher percentage of men. Of the 473 men engaged, they sustained 319 casualties, killed, wounded or captured. They had one gunboat sunk, another gunboat captured and as well as the ironclad Tennessee taken.