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.
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:
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
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
- 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.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. 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.
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?
- FULL STEAM AHEAD: Fall River gears up for Navy Day (tauntongazette.com)
- Mobile Press-Register 200th Anniversary: The Civil War in Alabama (1860-1869) (al.com)
- Secret submarines used by Confederates in the Battle of Mobile Bay
- Gulfquest: interactive site on archaeology in the silt of Mobile Bay
- Navy History article on David Farragut, after whom five Navy ships have been named; Farragut Square in Washington, D.C., is named for the hero, and features his statue. Farragut was named Rear Admiral by President Lincoln, America’s first Admiral — the highest Navy rank had been Captain. Farragut’s statue was cast in bronze salvaged from the propeller of the Hartford, the ship he commanded at Mobile Bay.