"Damn the torpedoes!" he shouted;" Go ahead!" Pointing between the threatening buoys, the order was given to move on, and with the foam dashing from the bows of his vessel, he swept forward, "determined," he said, "to take the chances."
David Glasgow Farragut was the first rear admiral, vice admiral, and admiral in the United States Navy. He is remembered for his order at the Battle of Mobile Bay, quoted above, which marked the start of a great victory.
Taken from "The Great American Book of Biography," by Hamilton W. Mabie, et al. (Philadelphia: International Publishing Company, 1896). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
NONE OF THE NAVAL HEROES of the great civil war is better remembered than David G. Farragut. The figure of the brave admiral, in the fight in Mobile Bay, standing in the rigging of the "Hartford," with his glass in his hand, directing the movements of the fleet, is one of the most familiar pictures of the war; and no braver man or better sailor than Farragut ever took the deck of a vessel.
The naval career of Farragut began in the War of 1812, when he was a boy only eleven years old. He was in that famous battle in the harbor of Valparaiso between the Essex and the British war-vessels "Phebe" and "Cherub" when the two British vessels attacked the "Essex" while disabled by a sudden squall, and after she had taken refuge in neutral waters. The "Essex," her sails blown away and crippled by the storm, was unable to change her position, and lay helpless at the mercy of her enemies' guns. After a bloody battle of two hours and a half, under such fearful odds, the flag was lowered. In such desperate battles as this, which gave to the American navy lasting renown, the naval career of Farragut began.
In January, 1862, the government fitted out an expedition for the capture of New Orleans, and put it under Farragut's command. His fleet comprised forty-eight vessels, large and small, and all of wood, as the iron-clad vessels of later date were not yet developed. The river was defended by Forts Jackson and St. Philip, lying on opposite sides of the Mississippi, about seventy miles below the city; and many gunboats and rams lay near the forts.
Before attempting to pass the forts, Farragut determined to bombard them from his fleet; and careful preparations were made on all the vessels. It was a grand spectacle when, on the 16th of March, this formidable fleet at last opened fire. The low banks of the river on both sides seemed lined with flame. All day long the earth trembled under the heavy explosions, and by night two thousand shells had been hurled against the forts.
The rebels had not been idle during the delays of the previous weeks, but had contrived and constructed every possible instrument of destruction and defense. On the first morning of the bombardment they set adrift a fire-ship made of a huge flatboat piled with lighted pitch-pine cordwood. The blazing mass, however, kept in the middle of the stream, and so passed the fleet with- out inflicting any damage. At night another was sent adrift. Small boats were sent to meet it, and, in spite of the intense heat, grappling irons were fastened in it, and the mass was towed to the shore and left to burn harmlessly away.
Having at last made all the preparations that he could with the means allowed him, and the mortar-boats having accomplished all that was in their power to do for the present, the 26th day of April was fixed for the passage of the forts. The chain across the channel had been cut a few nights before. It was determined to start at two o'clock in the morning, and the evening before Farragut visited his ships for a last interview with the commanders.
At length, at two o'clock, two lanterns were seen to rise slowly to the mizzen peak of the "Hartford." The boatswain's shrill call rung over the water, and the drums beat to quarters. The enemy was on the lookout, and the vessels had scarcely got under way when signal-lights flashed along the batteries. Then a belt of fire gleamed through the darkness, and the next moment the heavy shot came shrieking over the bosom of the stream. All eyes were now turned on the "Hartford,"as she silently steamed on, — the signal "close action" blazing from her rigging. In the meantime the mortar-boats below opened fire, and the hissing .shells, rising in graceful curves over the advancing fleet, dropped with a thunderous sound into the forts above. In a few minutes the advanced vessels opened, firing at the flashes from the forts. The fleet, with full steam on, was soon abreast of the forts, and its rapid broadsides, mingling with the deafening explosions on shore, turned night into fiery day.
While the bombardment was in progress, a fire-raft, pushed by the ram "Manassas," loomed through the smoke, and bore straight down on the "Hartford." Farragut sheered off to avoid the collision, and in doing so ran aground, when the fire-ship came full against him. In a moment the flames leaped up the rigging and along the sides. There was no panic; every man was in his place, and soon the hose was manned and a stream of water turned on the flames. The fire was at length got under, and Farragut again moved forward at the head of his column.
And now came down the rebel fleet of thirteen gunboats and two ironclad rams to mingle in the combat. Broadside to broadside, hull crashing against hull, it quickly became at once a gladiatorial combat of ships. The "Varuna," Captain Boggs, sent five of the Confederate vessels to the bottom one after another, and finally was herself sunk. When the sun rose through the morning mist, he looked down on a scene never to be forgotten while naval deeds are honored by the nation. There lay the forts, with the Confederate flags still flying. But their doom was sealed. And there, too, driven ashore, wrecked, or captured, were thirteen of the enemy's gunboats, out of the seventeen brought down to assist the forts in resisting the Union fleet.
New Orleans was now at Farragut's mercy. Lovell, commanding the Confederate troops in the city, evacuated the place and left it under the control of the mayor, Monroe. Farragut took possession of the city, and raised the national flag on the City Hall, Mint, and Custom House, which were the property of the United States. He then turned it over to General Butler, and proceeded with his fleet up the river.
In January, 1864, Farragut sailed for Mobile Bay. Morgan and Gaines were the chief forts barring it. Fort Morgan mounted some thirty guns, and Fort Gaines twenty-one. There were three steamers and four rams inside, waiting to receive any vessels that might succeed in passing the forts. Batteries lined the shore, and torpedoes paved the bed of the channel. On the first of March, also, before his preparations for the attack were complete, he saw the Confederate ironclad ram Tennessee steam up the channel and anchor near the forts.
This complicated the situation very much. The contest between wooden vessels on one side, and an iron-clad and strong forts on the other, was so unequal that it was almost foolhardy to enter it. After weeks of waiting, however, the Union ironclad "Tecumseh" at last arrived, and on August 5, 1864, Farragut proceeded to attack the forts.
The vessels were arranged two by two, and lashed strongly together. The fleet, with the "Brooklyn" ahead, steamed slowly on, and at a quarter to seven "Tecumseh" fired the first gun. Twenty minutes later the forts opened fire, when the "Brooklyn" replied with two-pounder Parrott rifles, and the battle fairly commenced.
Farragut had lashed himself near the maintop of the "Hartford," so as to be able to overlook the whole scene. While watching with absorbing anxiety the progress of the fleet through the tremendous fire now concentrated upon it, suddenly, to his utter amazement, he saw the "Brooklyn" stop and begin to back. The order to reverse engines passed down through the whole fleet, bringing it to a sudden halt just as it was entering the fiery vortex. "What does this mean? " had hardly passed the lips of Farragut, when he heard the cry, "Torpedoes! The Tecumseh is going down!" Glancing toward the spot where she lay, he saw only the top of her turrets, which were rapidly sinking beneath the water. Right ahead were the buoys which had turned the "Brooklyn" back, indicating where torpedoes were supposed to be sunk, ready to lift his ship into the air as they had the "Tecumseh."
But now Farragut's sailor blood was up. "Damn the torpedoes!" he shouted;" Go ahead!" Pointing between the threatening buoys, the order was given to move on, and with the foam dashing from the bows of his vessel, he swept forward, "determined," he said, "to take the chances." Wheeling to the northwest as he kept the channel, he brought his whole broadside to bear on the fort, with tremendous effect.
The other vessels following in the wake of the flag-ship one after another swept past the batteries, the crews loudly cheering, and were signaled by Farragut to come to anchor. But the officers had scarcely commenced clearing decks, when the "Tennessee" was seen boldly standing out into the bay, and steering straight for the fleet, with the purpose of attacking it.
It was a thrilling moment. There was a fleet of frail wooden vessels, attacked by a ram clad in armor impervious to their guns. The moment Farragut discovered it, he signaled the vessels to run her down, and, hoisting his own anchor, ordered the pilot to drive the "Hartford" full on the ironclad. The "Monongahela," under the command of the intrepid Strong, being near the rear of the line, was still moving up the bay when he saw the ram heading for the line. He instantly sheered out, and, ordering on a full head of steam, drove his vessel with tremendous force straight on the ironclad structure. Wheeling, he again struck her, though he had carried away his own iron prow and cutwater. The "Lackawanna" came next, and, striking the ram while under full headway, rolled her over on her side. The next moment, down came Farragut in the Hartford, but just before the vessel struck, the ram sheered, so that the blow was a glancing one, and the former rasped along her iron-plated hull and fell alongside. Recoiling for some ten or twelve feet, the "Hartford" poured in at that short distance a whole broadside of nine-inch solid shot, hurled with charges of thirteen pounds of powder. The heavy metal, though sent with such awful force, and in such close proximity, made no impression, but broke into fragments on the mailed sides or dropped back into the water. The shot and shell from the Tennessee, on the other hand, went crashing through the wooden sides of the "Hartford," strewing her deck with the dead.
Farragut now stood off and began to make a circuit in order to come down again, when the "Lackawanna," which was driving the second time on the monster, by accident struck the "Hartford" a little forward of the mizzen-mast, and cut her down to within two feet of the water. She was at first thought to be sinking, and "The Admiral! the Admiral! Save the Admiral!" rang over the shattered deck. But Farragut, seeing that the vessel would still float, shouted out to put on steam, determined to send her, crushed and broken as she was, full on the ram.
By this time the monitors had crawled up and were pouring in their heavy shot. The "Chickasaw" got under the stern and knocked away the smokestack, while the "Manhattan" sent one shot clean through the vessel, and disabled her stern port shutter with a shell, so that the gun could not be used, while a third carried away the steering gear. Thus, with her steering-chains gone, her smokestack shot away, many of her port shutters jammed, the "Tennessee" stood amid the crowding gunboats like a stag at bay among the hounds. The Ossipee was driving toward her under full headway; and a little farther off, bearing down on the same errand, were coming the "Hartford." "Monongahela," and "Lackawanna."
The fate of the iron-clad was sealed, and her commander hoisted the white flag, but not until the "Ossipee" was so near that her commander could not prevent a collision, and his vessel rasped heavily along the iron sides of the ram. He received her surrender from Commander Johnson — the admiral, Buchanan, having been previously wounded in the leg. This ended the morning's work, and at ten minutes past ten Farragut brought his fleet to anchor within four miles of Fort Morgan.
The loss of the Union ironclad "Tecumseh," with her commander and crew, tempered the exultation over this splendid victory. A torpedo was exploded directly under the vessel, almost lifting her out of the water, and blowing a hole in her bottom so large that she sank before her crew could reach the deck. Farragut's impetuous bravery, however, and the picturesque novelty of wooden vessels ramming an ironclad, made this one of the most famous naval battles of the war, and gave to the brave admiral a wide and lasting renown. Officers and men, too, seemed to catch the spirit of the commander, and fought with the most splendid bravery. Several of the wounded refused to leave the deck, but continued to fight their guns; others retired and had their wounds dressed, and then returned to their posts.
A few days later, after a severe bombardment from the Union fleet, both the Confederate forts were surrendered. This completed the Union victory, and put the harbor and city of Mobile again under the control of the government. Soon after this, his health demanding some relaxation, Farragut obtained leave of absence, and sailed for New York in his flagship, the now famous "Hartford." At New York he was welcomed with impressive ceremonies, and received the highest testimonials of appreciation of his services to the nation, a number of wealthy men of New York presenting a gift of $50,000 as a token of their esteem. The rank of vice-admiral was created for him by Congress. His services were not again required during the war, and he returned to his home at Hastings, on the Hudson.
Farragut had just the qualities for a popular hero. Brave almost to the point of recklessness, he was simple and unassuming in appearance and deportment, and kind and genial in manner. A story is told of him that once when traveling in the White Mountains, a man brought his little daughter, at her own urgent request, some fifteen miles to see him, for she would not be content till she had looked on the great admiral. Farragut took the child in his arms, kissed her, and talked playfully with her. He was dressed in citizen's costume, and looked in her eyes very much like any other man, and totally unlike the hero whose praises had been so long ringing over the land. In her innocent surprise, she said, " Why, you do not look like a great general. I saw one the other day, and he was covered all over with gold." The admiral laughed, and, to please her, actually took her to his room, and put on his uniform, when she went away satisfied.