“Damn the torpedoes” at 150: Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864

August 5, 2014

Julius O. Davidson's painting (published by Louis Prang) of the Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864.

Julius O. Davidson’s painting (published by Louis Prang) of the Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864.

It was 150 years ago today:  Especially with the excellent help of Tom Petty, whose 1979 album “Damn the Torpedoes” propelled him to stardom, the phrase “Damn the torpedoes!” remains one of the most used phrases out of history.

Just try to find someone who can tell you who first said it, and what the circumstances were. It’s a sign that history instruction is not what it should be on some matters.

August 5 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, when the Union Navy under the command of Admiral David Farragut took Mobile from Confederate forces.

U.S. Heritage Protection Services — a division of the National Park Service — gives a straight up, unemotional description of the fight, which was a key victory for the Union, shutting down much of the Confederacy’s ability to trade with foreign nations and supply its army:

Photograph from circa 1855-1865 of then-Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, the commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Mobile Bay, and the man to who is attributed the famous line,

Photograph from circa 1855-1865 of then-Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, the commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Mobile Bay, and the man to who is attributed the famous line, “Damn the Torpedoes!”

Other Names: Passing of Forts Morgan and Gaines

Location: Mobile County and Baldwin County

Campaign: Operations in Mobile Bay (1864)

Date(s): August 2-23, 1864

Principal Commanders: Adm. David G. Farragut and Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger [US]; Adm. Franklin Buchanan and Brig. Gen. Richard L. Page [CS]

Forces Engaged: Farragut’s Fleet (14 wooden ships and 4 monitors) and U.S. army forces near Mobile [US]; Buchanan’s Flotilla (3 gunboats and an ironclad), Fort Morgan Garrison, Fort Gaines Garrison, and Fort Powell Garrison [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 1,822 (US 322; CS 1,500)

Description: A combined Union force initiated operations to close Mobile Bay to blockade running. Some Union forces landed on Dauphin Island and laid siege to Fort Gaines. On August 5, Farragut’s Union fleet of eighteen ships entered Mobile Bay and received a devastating fire from Forts Gaines and Morgan and other points.  After passing the forts, Farragut forced the Confederate naval forces, under Adm. Franklin Buchanan, to surrender, which effectively closed Mobile Bay. By August 23, Fort Morgan, the last big holdout, fell, shutting down the port. The city, however, remained uncaptured.

Results(s): Union victory

World War I recruiting poster showing Admiral David Farragut lashed to the mast of his ship, and offering the quote for which Farragut is famous.

World War I recruiting poster showing Admiral David Farragut lashed to the mast of his ship, and offering the quote for which Farragut is famous. Image from the collection of the Library of Congress, via Wikipedia

Nota bene:

  • Was Farragut lashed to the rigging? Wikipedia’s listing:An anecdote of the battle that has some dramatic interest has it that Farragut was lashed to the mast during the passage of Fort Morgan. The image it brings to mind is of absolute resolve: if his ship were to be sunk in the battle, he would go down with her. The truth is more prosaic; while he was indeed lashed to the rigging of the mainmast, it was a precautionary move rather than an act of defiance. It came about after the battle had opened and smoke from the guns had clouded the air. In order to get a better view of the action, Farragut climbed into Hartford‘s rigging, and soon was high enough that a fall would certainly incapacitate him and could have killed him. Seeing this, Captain Drayton sent a seaman aloft with a piece of line to secure the admiral. He demurred, saying, “Never mind, I am all right,” but the sailor obeyed his captain’s orders, tying one end of the line to a forward shroud, then around the admiral and to the after shroud.[50]Later, when CSS Tennessee made her unsupported attack on the Federal fleet, Farragut climbed into the mizzen rigging. Still concerned for his safety, Captain Drayton had Flag-Lieutenant J. Crittenden Watson tie him to the rigging again.[51] Thus, the admiral had been tied to the rigging twice in the course of the battle.
  • Did Farragut actually say, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead?  Mobile Bay had been mined by the Confederates, to hold off exactly the sort of Union attack Farragut mounted. Mines, in that time, were known as “torpedoes,” not the underwater-missiles made famous by World War II movies.  Farragut had an iron-clad ship, Tecumseh, under his command leading the attack; legend holds that other ships slowed to allow Tecumseh to cross them and move ahead.  Farragut asked why the attack was slowing, and upon hearing that they feared torpedoes (mines), he later was reputed to have said “Damn the torpedoes,” and urged moving at all speed.  Did he say, “full speed ahead?”  Accounts differ on that, even in legend.  In one version he shouted to the ship Brooklyn, “Go ahead!”  That’s unlikely in the din of sailing, coupled with the din of battle.  Another account has him shouting (vainly) to the Hartford, “Four bells, Captain Drayton.”  Yet another version, that almost makes sense, has him shouting to the Metacomet, which was lashed to the Hartford’s side, “Go ahead, Jouett, full speed.”  The entire quote must be listed as attributed, and the only part most versions agree on is “Damn the torpedoes.”  A World War I recruiting poster probably inscribed the quote into history (see the poster in this post).  Alas, Tecumseh hit a torpedo early in the battle, and sank, killing most of its crew.
  • Political importance:  Coupled with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman‘s March Across Georgia, and the Fall of Atlanta, the Battle of Mobile Bay gave credence to the idea that the fortunes of the Civil War had turned in the Union’s favor.  This victory probably contributed greatly to the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln against opponents who urged simply ending the war without victory.
  • Mobile Bay was an important port? Mobile Bay stands as a monument to poor soil conservation practices, today.  Maps of the battle show a much larger bay than exists today; since 1864, silting from the river has filled in the bay, making it much less useful, and much less important to shipping.
H. H. Lloyd & Co's 1861 map of Mobile Bay, Alabama

1861 map of Mobile Bay: “H.H. Lloyd & Co’s Campaign Military Charts Showing The Principal Strategic Places Of Interest. Engraved Expressly To Meet A Public Want During The Present War. Compiled From Official Data By Egbert L. Viele, Military and Civil Engineer; and Charles Haskins. Published Under The Auspices Of The American Geographical And Statistical Society. Entered … 1861 by H.H. Lloyd & Co. H.H. Lloyd & Co’s Military Charts. Sixteen Maps On One Sheet.”

LandSat image of Mobile Bay, from NASA, 2003 (via Wikipedia)

LandSat image of Mobile Bay, from NASA, 2003 (via Wikipedia).  The Northern Bay is almost completely silted in by the Mobile River and others.

Whether Admiral David G. Farragut actually said, “Damn the torpedoes!” the phrase remains an often-used quotation to urge action in the face of uncertainty, hopefully, to victory.  Farragut’s forces won the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, a key maritime battle of the Civil War.  Whatever he said, it must have been inspiring.

What torpedoes are you damning today?

More:

This is an encore post.

This is an annual event. Much of this is an encore post.


Quote of the moment, 70th anniversary: Eisenhower’s astonishing D-Day leadership example, “Blame . . . is mine alone”

June 6, 2014

It is a model of leadership, an example more leaders should follow — though few do. It’s one more example of the high caliber leadership Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated throughout his life. In it’s imperfections, handwritten, it should take your breath away.

So again, today, on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, we remember.

Eisenhower's unused statement on the failure of D-Day

Eisenhower’s contingency statement, in case D-Day failed – image from the National Archives

This quote actually isn’t a quote. It was never said by the man who wrote it down to say it. It carries a powerful lesson because of what it is.

In preparing for the D-Day invasion, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower carefully contemplated what would happen if the invasion failed.  What if the Germans repulsed the Allies, and no foothold was established to re-take the main body of Europe from the Germans?

Ike’s answer is a model of leadership:  He would take the blame.  Regardless what happened, Ike took full responsibility for the failure, giving credit to the soldiers who would have sacrificed in vain, perhaps their lives.

The Bathtub recently posted Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s “order of the day” to the troops about to conduct the Allied invasion of Normandy — D-Day — to establish the toehold in Europe the Allies needed to march to Berlin, and to end World War II in Europe. As a charge to the troops, it was okay — Eisenhower-style words, not Churchill-style, but effective enough. One measure of its effectiveness was the success of the invasion, which established the toe-hold from which the assaults on the Third Reich were made.

eisenhower-with-paratrooper-eve-of-d-day.jpg

Photo shows Eisenhower meeting with troops of the 101st Airborne Division, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, on the eve of the invasion. It was these men whose courage he lauded.

When Eisenhower wrote his words of encouragement to the troops, and especially after he visited with some of the troops, he worried about the success of the operation. It was a great gamble. Many of the things the Allies needed to go right — like weather — had gone wrong. Victory was not assured. Defeat strode the beaches of Normandy waiting to drive the Allies back into the water, to die.

Eisenhower wrote a second statement, a shorter one. This one was directed to the world. It assumed the assault had failed. In a few short sentences, Eisenhower commended the courage and commitment of the troops who, he wrote, had done all they could. The invasion was a chance, a good chance based on the best intelligence the Allies had, Eisenhower wrote. But it had failed.

The failure, Eisenhower wrote, was not the fault of the troops, but was entirely Eisenhower’s.

He didn’t blame the weather, though he could have. He didn’t blame fatigue of the troops, though they were tired, some simply from drilling, many from war. He didn’t blame the superior field position of the Germans, though the Germans clearly had the upper hand. He didn’t blame the almost-bizarre attempts to use technology that look almost clownish in retrospect — the gliders that carried troops behind the lines, sometimes too far, sometimes killing the pilots when the gliders’ cargo shifted on landing;  the flotation devices that were supposed to float tanks to the beaches to provide cover for the troops (but which failed, drowning the tank crews and leaving the foot soldiers on their own); the bombing of the forts and pillboxes on the beaches, which failed because the bombers could not see their targets through the clouds.

There may have been a plan B, but in the event of failure, Eisenhower was prepared to establish who was accountable, whose head should roll if anyone’s should.

Eisenhower took full responsibility.

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troop, the air [force] and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

Who in the U.S. command would write such a thing today?  Who else in history would have written such a thing?  Is there any indication that Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, or any other commander of a great army in  a world-turning invasion, considered how to save and perhaps salve the reputation of his troops, though they had failed?

Leadership is more than just positive thinking.

  • The message may also be viewed here. Yes, it’s incorrectly dated July 5 — should have been June 5.  In history, little is perfect.  We can excuse his slip of the pen, considering what else he had on his mind.

 

More:

General Eisenhower speaks with members of the ...

Another  angle of the meeting with the troops:  General Eisenhower speaks with members of the 101st Airborne Division on the evening of 5 June 1944.  Wikipedia image

This is mostly an encore post.


Forgotten Texas history: Bicentennial of the Battle of Medina, August 18, 1913

August 19, 2013

1813?

Back in 2006, reporter Art Chapman in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram makes a plea to remember the deadliest battle for Texas independence, fought years before the Texas Revolution.

In 2013 the Battle of Medina lies buried under seven more years of newspapers and historic events.  We need to fight to remember history.  This is another punch in that fight.

Billy Calzada photo, 2011 Reenactment of the Battle of Medina (in Texas)

Caption from Tropas de Ulramar: Re-enactors dressed as participants in the Battle of Medina fire a musket volley during a ceremony on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011, commemorating the 198th anniversary of the Battle of Medina. The event was sponsored by the Texas Society – Sons of the American Revolution. The Battle of Medina was fought on Aug. 18, 1813, when a Spanish army, attempting to win Texas from the Republican Army of the North, which was supported by the United States and included veterans of the American Revolution, won a battle fought south of San Antonio near Espey. It is thought that about 800 Republicans died in the battle. [Other estimates put the death toll on the Texas side at 1,500]
Photo: BILLY CALZADA

 

The long drive for Texas independence from Mexico may be more clearly seen in the light of the continents-long struggles for independence that included not only the American Revolution, but also revolutions in the nations of Haiti, Mexico, Chiapas, and others across Central America and South America. The Battle of Medina was a part of that earlier history. Fought on August 18, 1813, it was more deadly than any other battle in the wars for Texas independence, it is linked to Mexico’s long history of struggle. It occurred in the same year that Haiti got independence, and in the middle of the War of 1812, which helps to obscure the history of the battle.

Chapman’s report said:

“Contrary to popular belief, the struggle for democracy in Texas did not begin with the Anglo-led revolution of 1835-36,” author and historian James Haley wrote in a recent Austin American-Statesman article. “In fact, the yearning for liberty had its own ongoing legacy in Latin America.

“As early as 1810, movements for independence began simultaneously in Venezuela and Argentina. It was also in 1810, on Sept. 16, that the Mexican priest Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla raised his famous grito, the cry for social justice that opened the Mexican campaign for independence, a date now celebrated as Diez y Seis.”

America was drawn into that campaign when it funded a small force under the control of Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara, one of Father Hidalgo’s emissaries. A former Army officer, Augustus Magee, went along with the expedition to offer military advice. The Gutierrez-Magee Expedition, also called the Green Flag Rebellion because of its banner, soon captured Nacogdoches. All went well for the expedition — too well — and Texas independence was quickly claimed. Spain took immediate measures to quell the insurrection.

It ended at the Battle of Medina, “the biggest, bloodiest battle ever fought on Texas soil,” a South Texas historian says.

Spanish forces slaughtered more than 1,000 of the rebels, perhaps as many as 1,500. The battle methods, and total extirpation of the losing forces, would recur in the Texas Revolution.

Fewer than 100 republic troops survived the battle, Thonhoff said. Those not killed in the battle were later chased down and executed. Retaliation went on for days. Royalist forces swept into San Antonio and took revenge on anyone they suspected of aiding the rebel forces. One of the royalist officers was a young Lt. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

The bodies of soldiers killed in battle were left where they fell. It would be nine years before their bones were gathered and buried in a communal grave.

This story should translate well to the Texas-required 7th-grade history course. Here is a cause — the archaeological excavation and historical marking of the battlefield itself — which lends itself well to getting students to write letters to state legislators and state education authorities. Here is news of an archaeological site that could provide work for a generation of diggers, and experience for countless school kids taken on tour. And the story of the battle is one of those relatively unknown gems that excite students who realize, after they discover it, that they know something that most others do not know.

English: Medina Battle -State Marker- Near Lem...

Medina Battle -State of Texas historic marker Near Leming, Texas. Wikipedia image

As well, this should be supplement to world history courses, which in my experience too often overlook the independence wars and successes in Central and South America. The article mentions independence movements in Argentina and Venezuela. The United States fought Britain in the War of 1812, which was the western fallout of England’s simultaneous war with Napoleon (who was on the road to getting his comeuppance in Russia). Haiti’s drive for independence from France racked that Caribbean nation. A mapping exercise showing the various independence movements occurring between 1800 and 1826 provides links to parts of the narrative of American nations’ independence that often gets overlooked.

The battle also ties together several otherwise loose threads in the Texas history curriculum.

  • The Gutierrez-McGee Expedition falls into that time period and that type of movement to steal Texas known as the filibusters.
  • The treachery of the Green Flag Rebels in executing the Spanish officers in San Antonio after the Spanish had surrendered raises issues of ethics in battle that are rich for discussion.
  • Incompetence with which the Texian forces were led into the battle, missing completely the feint the Spanish troops made until they were already into a classic battle trap, is another place to emphasize the importance of having good leaders especially in rebellion (this will become clear to students, perhaps, when they study the events of 1775 and 1776 and Washington’s leadership, in the 8th grade curriculum in Texas).
  • Santa Anna’s presence as a young officer at the Battle of Medina suggests that he got the idea of “no quarter” early in his career; see how the tactic plays out 23 years later at the Battle of the Alamo, the Battle of Coleto, Goliad, and the Battle of San Jacinto, with an older Santa Anna in command.
  • In the context of Texas’ becoming a “majority-minority” state with a very large population with historical ties to Mexico, the Battle of Medina deserves greater consideration in Texas history curricula.

Partly due to the brutality of the Spanish victors to the survivors, wounded and dead, the battlefield itself was not cleaned up for years — bodies lay across a wide area.  Medina was a touchy point, a point of embarrassment perhaps to local Mexicans and Texians, a loyalty test for the Spanish rulers.  So the battle site was ignored and hushed up.  200 years later, we don’t know the exact site of the battle.  A lot of work remains to be done, exploration of archives in Spain, Mexico and Texas, exploration of map collections, archaeological and paleontological work on the suspected sites of the battle.  But every year this work remains undone, the story becomes that much more difficult to find.  It is unlikely we’ll ever know all that we probably should about the Battle of Medina.

Other sources you may find useful:


Remembering Leonidas and the 300 Spartans: died August 11, 480 B.C.

August 11, 2013

300 popped up on some movie channel back in 2008 as I was preparing to teach world history again.  I did not major in history, and my high school history instruction featured no AP courses (Pleasant Grove High, in Utah, didn’t offer such things then; I assume they do now, but I don’t know).

What I knew about Sparta and the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae came from my reading encyclopedias as a child, and culture.  Never had an occasion to write a speech about the events, though had I known the history better, I might have found some opportunity.  Sen. Orrin Hatch would have loved a compare and contrast speech between the stand of the Spartans and his work against the labor law reform bill in 1977 and 1978; more likely, we could have used the simple historical facts that the stand of the 300 at the same place today would be impossible due to poor soil conservation practices of the local farmers, which has created a plain broad enough for a Persian Army to march through with impunity, never fearing drowning in the sea that no longer exists there.  Thermopylae is a grand historical metaphor for a good orator.  The simple facts of history are important, too — Churchill knew Herodotus’s stories well, and considered them when planning military actions in the area in two world wars.

The movie came up from students in the previous year; it offered, perhaps, a hook for an introduction to world history, explaining why we bother to study it at all.

I got a time delay recording to watch it, which I did, mostly.  Interesting stylization.  Cartoonish characterizations, which one should expect from a movie intended as homage to the graphic novel that directly spawned it, more than an instruction about history.  We might doubt that the Persians had trained and armored rhinoceroses in their armament.  Dialogue — well, this is Hollywood.  It would have been in some dialect of Greek, and no Hollywood scriptwriter would have been able to reproduce it.

What about the battle itself.  World history courses in U.S. high schools should pay attention to this battle, I think.

A monument to Leonidas I - Inscription, Molon Lave, which roughly translates to Come and get it!

A monument to Leonidas I – Inscription, “Molon Lave,” which roughly translates to “Come and get it!”

Several sources dated the climax of the battle as August 11, 480 B.C. — 2,493 years ago. (The battle is said to have occurred during the Olympics that year, too.)

World history classes dig through that period of history in the first semester.  Teachers, it’s time to think about how we’re going to facilitate this history this year.  As always, some bright student will wave a hand in the air and ask, “Mr. Darrell!  How do they know what happened if no one survived, and nobody had their Sony videocorder?”

At least one other student in the course of the day will be surprised to discover the movie wasn’t a filmed-on-the-spot documentary.  But apart from that, how do we know the events well enough to pin it down to one day?  And, since the Greeks surely didn’t use the Gregorian calendar, since it wasn’t invented until the 18th century — how do we know the date?

The short answer is “Herodotus.”  The longer answer may resonate better:  This is one dramatic battle in a year-long fight for the history of the world.  The Greeks were understandably and justifiably proud that they had turned back Xerxes’s armies and navy (The Battle of Salamis, a bit after Thermopylae).  So, these events were preserved in poetry, in the chronicles, in song, in sculpture, and in every other medium available to the Greeks.  Your AP English students will probably tell you the movie reminds them of The IliadThere’s an entré for discussion.

Turning points in history:  Had Xerxes succeeded in avenging his father’s, Darius’s, defeats, and subjugated the Greeks, history would be much different.  The culture the Romans built on, the trading patterns from east to west and around the Mediterranean, the technologies, the myths, and the stories of the battles, would be different. (Remember, one of Darius’s defeats was at the Battle of Marathon, from which we get the modern marathon racing event, the traditional close of the modern Olympics.)

How do we know?  How do we know?

How do you handle that question?  (Tell us in comments, please.)

I like this battle for the way it ties together many of the loose threads that vex high school sophomores.  Is history exciting?  It can be, as the Frank Miller graphic novel and and the Zack Snyder movie demonstrate.  How important is accuracy in making the story exciting?  (Do the rhinoceroses improve the story of the courage of the Spartans, or merely offer a good graphical metaphor for the overwhelming forces of the Persians?)  What happens when one nation invades another — who has the advantage?  Is knowledge of geography important — in battle, for example?  The philosopher Santayana notes that those who do not remember history are “condemned” to repeat it.  Xerxes tried to apply the lessons of the history of his father’s failed invasion; was he successful?  Remember this point:  Napoleon failed in his invasion of Russia in 1812; Adolf Hitler assigned his generals to study Napoleon’s failure, for Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941; so convinced were the Germans that they knew the lessons, they invade Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion.  Did it go any better?  George Washington consciously patterned his life on the great Roman warrior and leader, Cincinnatus — especially in turning over rule once the task was done, as Washington did twice.  What if Washington had, instead, patterned his life after Leonidas?  How might the American Revolution have turned out, and how might the United States have developed, had Washington sacrificed himself as Leonidas did?

The story of the Battle of Thermopylea, the bravery and cunning tactics of Leonidas and the 300, the wars between Persia and the Greek City States, form a good foundation for a study of history at any point after.  It is the stuff of great history, and the stuff of great rhetoric.  It could be the stuff of great AP essays and good writing exercises in general.   Damn the Common Core State Standards*, and damn the misguided Texas critics of CSCOPE, this is a topic I wish more world history teachers would spend some good, profitable time on

Resources and commentary on Thermopylae, Leonidas, and the 300:

More:

Livius.org map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought

Livius.org map of the area where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought. Note that, in purple, the map shows where a plain now exists, which was an ocean the Spartans could use to squeeze the Persian Army, about 25 centuries ago. What a difference 25 centuries can make.

_____________

*  Common Core State Standards in social studies actually would support what I’m asking here, if only they weren’t filtered through state school boards who do not value scholarship, but instead wish history to be a checklist of faux-patriotic bullet points to regurgitate.  Here in Texas, we are not affected by Common Core — but we are affected by meddling in history standards by people whose agenda does not include making history exciting and good.  Common Core standards — technically — do not mention Thermopylae.  However, this is the sort of material, including the original texts of Herodotus, whose study the Common Core standards encourage, especially for analysis of the sort I think Thermopylae invites.  Texas TEKS allow mention of the battle, though the Battle of Thermopylae has been purged from the actual standards; Texas lesson plans frequently suggest “watching a film on the Battle of Thermopylae,” and “Answer questions on the battle; trade and grade.”  Teachers infuse those dull words with life — we hope.  Teachers’ actual practice in the classroom is the saving grace for this important history, in Texas; Texas world history teachers face their own Xerxes.  The Texas Lege recently removed the requirement that students study world history, instead giving them a choice of either world history or world geography.  And so the dumbing down of history by (probably well-meaning, but not well-thinking) legislators continues.


“Damn the torpedoes” Day, Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864

August 5, 2013

Julius O. Davidson's painting (published by Louis Prang) of the Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864.

Julius O. Davidson’s painting (published by Louis Prang) of the Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864.

Especially with the excellent help of Tom Petty, whose 1979 album “Damn the Torpedoes” propelled him to stardom, the phrase “Damn the torpedoes!” remains one of the most used out of history.

Just try to find someone who can tell you who first said it, and what the circumstances were. It’s a sign that history instruction is not what it should be on some matters.

August 5 marks the 149th anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, when the Union Navy under the command of Admiral David Farragut took Mobile from Confederate forces.

U.S. Heritage Protection Services — a division of the National Park Service — gives a straight up, unemotional description of the fight, which was a key victory for the Union, shutting down much of the Confederacy’s ability to trade with foreign nations and supply its army:

Photograph from circa 1855-1865 of then-Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, the commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Mobile Bay, and the man to who is attributed the famous line,

Photograph from circa 1855-1865 of then-Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, the commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Mobile Bay, and the man to who is attributed the famous line, “Damn the Torpedoes!”

Other Names: Passing of Forts Morgan and Gaines

Location: Mobile County and Baldwin County

Campaign: Operations in Mobile Bay (1864)

Date(s): August 2-23, 1864

Principal Commanders: Adm. David G. Farragut and Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger [US]; Adm. Franklin Buchanan and Brig. Gen. Richard L. Page [CS]

Forces Engaged: Farragut’s Fleet (14 wooden ships and 4 monitors) and U.S. army forces near Mobile [US]; Buchanan’s Flotilla (3 gunboats and an ironclad), Fort Morgan Garrison, Fort Gaines Garrison, and Fort Powell Garrison [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 1,822 (US 322; CS 1,500)

Description: A combined Union force initiated operations to close Mobile Bay to blockade running. Some Union forces landed on Dauphin Island and laid siege to Fort Gaines. On August 5, Farragut’s Union fleet of eighteen ships entered Mobile Bay and received a devastating fire from Forts Gaines and Morgan and other points.  After passing the forts, Farragut forced the Confederate naval forces, under Adm. Franklin Buchanan, to surrender, which effectively closed Mobile Bay. By August 23, Fort Morgan, the last big holdout, fell, shutting down the port. The city, however, remained uncaptured.

Results(s): Union victory

World War I recruiting poster showing Admiral David Farragut lashed to the mast of his ship, and offering the quote for which Farragut is famous.

World War I recruiting poster showing Admiral David Farragut lashed to the mast of his ship, and offering the quote for which Farragut is famous. Image from the collection of the Library of Congress, via Wikipedia

Nota bene:

  • Was Farragut lashed to the rigging? Wikipedia’s listing:An anecdote of the battle that has some dramatic interest has it that Farragut was lashed to the mast during the passage of Fort Morgan. The image it brings to mind is of absolute resolve: if his ship were to be sunk in the battle, he would go down with her. The truth is more prosaic; while he was indeed lashed to the rigging of the mainmast, it was a precautionary move rather than an act of defiance. It came about after the battle had opened and smoke from the guns had clouded the air. In order to get a better view of the action, Farragut climbed into Hartford‘s rigging, and soon was high enough that a fall would certainly incapacitate him and could have killed him. Seeing this, Captain Drayton sent a seaman aloft with a piece of line to secure the admiral. He demurred, saying, “Never mind, I am all right,” but the sailor obeyed his captain’s orders, tying one end of the line to a forward shroud, then around the admiral and to the after shroud.[50]Later, when CSS Tennessee made her unsupported attack on the Federal fleet, Farragut climbed into the mizzen rigging. Still concerned for his safety, Captain Drayton had Flag-Lieutenant J. Crittenden Watson tie him to the rigging again.[51] Thus, the admiral had been tied to the rigging twice in the course of the battle.
  • Did Farragut actually say, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead?  Mobile Bay had been mined by the Confederates, to hold off exactly the sort of Union attack Farragut mounted. Mines, in that time, were known as “torpedoes,” not the underwater-missiles made famous by World War II movies.  Farragut had an iron-clad ship, Tecumseh, under his command leading the attack; legend holds that other ships slowed to allow Tecumseh to cross them and move ahead.  Farragut asked why the attack was slowing, and upon hearing that they feared torpedoes (mines), he later was reputed to have said “Damn the torpedoes,” and urged moving at all speed.  Did he say, “full speed ahead?”  Accounts differ on that, even in legend.  In one version he shouted to the ship Brooklyn, “Go ahead!”  That’s unlikely in the din of sailing, coupled with the din of battle.  Another account has him shouting (vainly) to the Hartford, “Four bells, Captain Drayton.”  Yet another version, that almost makes sense, has him shouting to the Metacomet, which was lashed to the Hartford’s side, “Go ahead, Jouett, full speed.”  The entire quote must be listed as attributed, and the only part most versions agree on is “Damn the torpedoes.”  A World War I recruiting poster probably inscribed the quote into history (see the poster in this post).  Alas, Tecumseh hit a torpedo early in the battle, and sank, killing most of its crew.
  • Political importance:  Coupled with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman‘s March Across Georgia, and the Fall of Atlanta, the Battle of Mobile Bay gave credence to the idea that the fortunes of the Civil War had turned in the Union’s favor.  This victory probably contributed greatly to the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln against opponents who urged simply ending the war without victory.
  • Mobile Bay was an important port? Mobile Bay stands as a monument to poor soil conservation practices, today.  Maps of the battle show a much larger bay than exists today; since 1864, silting from the river has filled in the bay, making it much less useful, and much less important to shipping.
H. H. Lloyd & Co's 1861 map of Mobile Bay, Alabama

1861 map of Mobile Bay: “H.H. Lloyd & Co’s Campaign Military Charts Showing The Principal Strategic Places Of Interest. Engraved Expressly To Meet A Public Want During The Present War. Compiled From Official Data By Egbert L. Viele, Military and Civil Engineer; and Charles Haskins. Published Under The Auspices Of The American Geographical And Statistical Society. Entered … 1861 by H.H. Lloyd & Co. H.H. Lloyd & Co’s Military Charts. Sixteen Maps On One Sheet.”

LandSat image of Mobile Bay, from NASA, 2003 (via Wikipedia)

LandSat image of Mobile Bay, from NASA, 2003 (via Wikipedia).  The Northern Bay is almost completely silted in by the Mobile River and others.

Whether Admiral David G. Farragut actually said, “Damn the torpedoes!” the phrase remains an often-used quotation to urge action in the face of uncertainty, hopefully, to victory.  Farragut’s forces won the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, a key maritime battle of the Civil War.  Whatever he said, it must have been inspiring.

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Quote of the moment: Eisenhower’s astonishing D-Day leadership example, “Blame . . . is mine alone”

June 6, 2013

Eisenhower's unused statement on the failure of D-Day

Eisenhower’s contingency statement, in case D-Day failed – image from the National Archives

This quote actually isn’t a quote. It was never said by the man who wrote it down to say it. It carries a powerful lesson because of what it is.

In preparing for the D-Day invasion, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower carefully contemplated what would happen if the invasion failed.  What if the Germans repulsed the Allies, and no foothold was established to re-take the main body of Europe from the Germans?

Ike’s answer is a model of leadership:  He would take the blame.  Regardless what happened, Ike took full responsibility for the failure, giving credit to the soldiers who would have sacrificed in vain, perhaps their lives.

The Bathtub recently posted Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s “order of the day” to the troops about to conduct the Allied invasion of Normandy — D-Day — to establish the toehold in Europe the Allies needed to march to Berlin, and to end World War II in Europe. As a charge to the troops, it was okay — Eisenhower-style words, not Churchill-style, but effective enough. One measure of its effectiveness was the success of the invasion, which established the toe-hold from which the assaults on the Third Reich were made.

eisenhower-with-paratrooper-eve-of-d-day.jpg

Photo shows Eisenhower meeting with troops of the 101st Airborne Division, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, on the eve of the invasion. It was these men whose courage he lauded.

When Eisenhower wrote his words of encouragement to the troops, and especially after he visited with some of the troops, he worried about the success of the operation. It was a great gamble. Many of the things the Allies needed to go right — like weather — had gone wrong. Victory was not assured. Defeat strode the beaches of Normandy waiting to drive the Allies back into the water, to die.

Eisenhower wrote a second statement, a shorter one. This one was directed to the world. It assumed the assault had failed. In a few short sentences, Eisenhower commended the courage and commitment of the troops who, he wrote, had done all they could. The invasion was a chance, a good chance based on the best intelligence the Allies had, Eisenhower wrote. But it had failed.

The failure, Eisenhower wrote, was not the fault of the troops, but was entirely Eisenhower’s.

He didn’t blame the weather, though he could have. He didn’t blame fatigue of the troops, though they were tired, some simply from drilling, many from war. He didn’t blame the superior field position of the Germans, though the Germans clearly had the upper hand. He didn’t blame the almost-bizarre attempts to use technology that look almost clownish in retrospect — the gliders that carried troops behind the lines, sometimes too far, sometimes killing the pilots when the gliders’ cargo shifted on landing;  the flotation devices that were supposed to float tanks to the beaches to provide cover for the troops (but which failed, drowning the tank crews and leaving the foot soldiers on their own); the bombing of the forts and pillboxes on the beaches, which failed because the bombers could not see their targets through the clouds.

There may have been a plan B, but in the event of failure, Eisenhower was prepared to establish who was accountable, whose head should roll if anyone’s should.

Eisenhower took full responsibility.

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troop, the air [force] and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

Who in the U.S. command would write such a thing today?  Who else in history would have written such a thing?  Is there any indication that Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, or any other commander of a great army in  a world-turning invasion, considered how to save and perhaps salve the reputation of his troops, though they had failed?

Leadership is more than just positive thinking.

  • The message may also be viewed here. Yes, it’s incorrectly dated July 5 — should have been June 5.  In history, little is perfect.  We can excuse his slip of the pen, considering what he had on his mind.

This is much of an encore post.

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General Eisenhower speaks with members of the ...

Another  angle of the meeting with the troops:  General Eisenhower speaks with members of the 101st Airborne Division on the evening of 5 June 1944.  Wikipedia image


Fly your flag today? Remembering D-Day, 1944 – 69 years ago

June 6, 2013

First Flag on Utah Beach, June 6, 1944

First Flag on Utah Beach, June 6, 1944 – Photo by Mark Wainwright

Today is the 69th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy in World War II, a date generally called D-Day.  I usually get at least one e-mail request:  No, you don’t have to fly your flag.  This is not one of the days designated by Congress for flag-flying.

But you may fly your flag, and probably, you should.  If there are any D-Day veterans in your town, they’ll appreciate it.

This is mostly an encore post.


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