“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: Frankfurter, on due process

July 9, 2014

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (Artist: Gardener Cox).  Born Vienna, Austria, 1894. Died 1965.

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (Artist: Gardener Cox). Born Vienna, Austria, 1894. Died 1965. Associate Justice, 1939-1962

It is now the settled doctrine of this Court that the Due Process Clause embodies a system of rights based on moral principles so deeply imbedded in the traditions and feelings of our people as to be deemed fundamental to a civilized society as conceived by our whole history. Due Process is that which comports with the deepest notions of what is fair and right and just.

♦  Justice Felix Franfurter, dissenting in
Solesbee v. Balkcom, 339 U.S. 9, 16 (1950)


Quote of the Moment: John Kennedy, June 26, 1963 (51 years ago)

June 26, 2014

Rare color photograph of President John Kennedy addressing a crowd in the then-divided city of Berlin, June 26, 1963

Rare color photograph of President John Kennedy addressing a crowd in the then-divided city of Berlin, June 26, 1963

On the day the U.S. and Germany meet in Brazil in the World Cup, let us remember the ties that bind our nations together, including especially the memorable speech of  U.S. President John F. Kennedy on this day, in Berlin, in 1963.

From the Smithsonian Magazine site:

June 26, 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner”

In West Berlin, President John F. Kennedy delivers the famous speech in which he declares, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Meaning literally “I am a citizen of Berlin,” the statement shows U.S. solidarity with democratic West Berlin, surrounded by communist territory.

View a video of President Kennedy’s speech at American Rhetoric, Top 100 Speeches.

Kennedy’s entire speech was good. It was well drafted and well delivered, taking advantage of the dramatic setting and the dramatic moment. John Kennedy well understood how to give a speech, too.

Below is most of the speech, nearly five minutes’ worth, from a YouTube file — another indication that schools need to open up their filters to allow at least some of the best YouTube material through:

You may also want to note these posts:

German government photo and caption: The masses that greeted Kennedy in front of the West Berlin City Hall and throughout the city were jubilant. (© Press and Information Office of the Federal Government; Steiner)

German government photo and caption: The masses that greeted Kennedy in front of the West Berlin City Hall and throughout the city were jubilant. (© Press and Information Office of the Federal Government; Steiner)

This is an encore post.

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.


Quote of the moment: Darwin, on confidence begotten by ignorance

February 12, 2014

Italian panel depicting Charles Darwin, created ca. 1890, on display at the Turin Museum of Human Anatomy. Wikimedia image

Italian panel depicting Charles Darwin, created ca. 1890, on display at the Turin Museum of Human Anatomy. Wikimedia image.  Darwin sits contemplating two of his works, title in Italian, Origin of Species (1859), and Descent of Man (Origin of Man), 1871

How could I have forgotten this wonderful passage from Darwin?

Maria Popova’s Literary Jukebox reminded me today.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

– Charles Darwin, Descent of Man; Introduction, p. 2.

Today was the 205th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Faithful readers of this blog may recognize Darwin’s thought as very close to a description of the Dunning Kruger Effect, as indeed it is.  How many others, through the years, recognized the phenomenon, and commented on it, before Dunning and Kruger gave it scientific heft?

The quote attributed to Darwin is edited just a tiny bit from his actual statement, though without loss of effect.  Darwin, ever the hard science stickler, had limited his statement much more.  In the introduction to Descent of Man, Darwin wrote:

This work contains hardly any original facts in regard to man; but as the conclusions at which I arrived, after drawing up a rough draft, appeared to me interesting, I thought that they might interest others. It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. The conclusion that man is the co-descendant with other species of some ancient, lower, and extinct form, is not in any degree new.

Any way the knowledge is sliced, creationists are cock-sure they’re right, when they are most solidly in the wrong.

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Quote of the moment, encore: President asks the Senate Majority Leader for help on the debt ceiling issue, November 16, 1983

November 16, 2013

Ronald Reagan preparing for a video address from the Oval Office. (Photo is from 1989; this post is about a 1983 address.)  Wikipedia image

Ronald Reagan preparing for a video address from the Oval Office. (Photo is from 1989; this post is about a 1983 event.) Wikipedia image

In a letter to the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, the President wrote:

This letter is to ask for your help and support, and that of your colleagues, in the passage of an increase in the limit on the public debt.

As [the Treasury Secretary] has told you, the Treasury’s cash balances have reached a dangerously low point.  Henceforth the Treasury Department cannot guarantee that the Federal Government will have sufficient cash on any one day to meet all of its mandated expenses, and thus the United States could be forced to default on its obligations for the first time in history.

This country now possesses the strongest credit in the world.  The full consequences of a default — or even the serious prospect of default — by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate.  Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and on the value of the dollar in exchange markets.  The Nation can ill afford to allow such a result.  The risks, the costs, the disruptions, and the incalculable damage lead me to but one conclusion:  the Senate must pass this legislation before the Congress adjourns.

I want to thank you for your immediate attention to this urgent problem, and for your assistance in passing an extension of the debt ceiling.

Sincerely,

         Ronald Reagan

True then.  Still true now.

Letter from President Ronald Reagan to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tennessee, November 16, 1983.  The Treasury Secretary at the time was Donald Regan.

Tip of the old scrub brush to mainstream media pillar, The Washington Post, where a .pdf of the letter is available.

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Quote of the Moment, October 29, 1941: Churchill, ‘never give in’

October 29, 2013

 Churchill speaking at the Albert Hall in London, 1944, at an American Thanksgiving Celebration.  Churchill Centre image

Churchill speaking at the Albert Hall in London, 1944, at an American Thanksgiving Celebration. Churchill Centre image

Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense!

Winston S. Churchill, address to the boys of Harrow School, October 29, 1941.

More:

This is much an encore post, from 2007, with material added.

 


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