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

August 5, 2015

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 151 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 151st 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?

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This is an encore post.

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


Leader to the bone: Eisenhower’s astonishing D-Day leadership example, “Blame . . . is mine alone”

June 6, 2015

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.  Eisenhower was a leader down to the bone.

So again, today, on the 71st 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.

 

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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

This is mostly an encore post.


“Eyes of the world are upon you” – Ike’s orders to the troops for D-Day, June 5, 1944

June 6, 2015

Wikimedia caption and data: General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers prior to D-Day.

Wikimedia caption and data: General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers prior to D-Day. “Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the Day. ‘Full victory-nothing less’ to paratroopers in England, just before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of the continent of Europe.” Eisenhower is meeting with US Co. E, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (Strike) of the 101st Airborne Division, photo taken at Greenham Common Airfield in England about 8:30 p.m. on June 5, 1944. The General was talking about fly fishing with his men as he always did before a stressful operation. Memoir by Lt Wallace C. Strobel about this photo (seen wearing the number 23 around his neck): http://www.historyaddict.com/Ike502nd.html U.S. Army photo via the Library of Congress; U.S. Army photographer unknown.

Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.

– Order of the Day, 6 June, 1944 (some sources list this as issued 2 June)

(This is mostly an encore post.)


Quote of the moment: FDR on government shutdowns

February 24, 2015

One wag, who didn’t want to discuss things after all, referred me to President Franklin Roosevelt’s message to the National Federal of Federal Employees (NFFE), of August 16, 1937 (from the American Presidency Project at the University of California – Santa Barbara (UCSB)).  The wag asked me to confess that FDR was anti-union, and that Wisconsin Gov. Scott “Ahab” Walker had acted in Roosevelt’s path in Walker’s assaults on the unions of policemen, firefighters and teachers in Wisconsin.

I demurred, and pointed out instead that Walker went after the unions despite their having NOT struck, that Walker refused to bargain in good faith, or bargain at all.  I pointed out that Walker had failed in his duty, in the view of FDR.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1936 (Checking to see whether, when and where FDR said that; Robert Reich says he did.)

It’s a good way to send wags packing on Twitter, I’ve learned.  They don’t like to read or think, and they certainly don’t want anyone pointing out that they may have misinterpreted something. Anything.

NFFE had invited Roosevelt to speak at their Twentieth Jubilee Convention; Roosevelt sent a letter declining the invitation. In declining, Roosevelt noted he opposed strikes by government employees.  No doubt there is more history there that deserves our attention.  We can get to it later.

Here’s the meat of FDR’s letter:

Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable. It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that “under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government.”

What do you think Roosevelt would have made of the current and last “do nothing” GOP blocs in Congress?  (Or should we say “blocks?”)

Doesn’t this describe Republicans in Congress today?

” . . . intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”

Is it too much to ask Republicans in Congress to be at least as loyal to the U.S. as the unionized government employees who pledged not to shut down the government?

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Misquote of the moment: Magellan didn’t say it, but it’s still brilliant, “shadow on the Moon”

February 21, 2015

An anonymous portrait of Ferdinand Magellan, 16th or 17th century (The Mariner's Museum Collection, Newport News, VA) Legend:

An anonymous portrait of Ferdinand Magellan, 16th or 17th century (The Mariner’s Museum Collection, Newport News, VA) Legend: “Ferdinan[dus] Magellanus superatis antarctici freti angustiis clariss.” (Fedinand Magellan, you overcame the famous, narrow, southern straits.)

From Wikiquote:

  • The Church says that the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round. For I have seen the shadow of the earth on the moon and I have more faith in the Shadow than in the Church.

    • This quotation is often found on the internet attributed to Magellan, but never with a source, and no English occurrence prior to its use by Robert Green Ingersoll in his essay “Individuality” (1873) has been located. Thus, it it most likely spurious. In that essay Ingersoll states:

It is a blessed thing that in every age some one has had individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions, — some one who had the grandeur to say his say. I believe it was Magellan who said, “The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church.” On the prow of his ship were disobedience, defiance, scorn, and success.

Where did Ingersoll get that thought? Wouldn’t he claim it as his own, had he invented it?

And, is it true? Can we tell anything by the Earth’s shadow on the Moon?  EarthSky.org discusses the reality, when can we really see the Earth’s shadow?  Turns out, we don’t have to wait for a lunar eclipse. More, is this false attributing perhaps the source of the old, incorrect claim that many in the days of Columbus thought the Earth to be flat, and not spherical?

Wikiquote, and the rest of us, need more sleuthing on this one.

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Quote of the moment, for politics at the end of 2014: Ebenezer Scrooge, “darkness is cheap”

December 23, 2014

Roberto Innocenti, Scrooge on a dark staircase

Ebenezer Scrooge, up a dark staircase; “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Illustration by Roberto Innocenti, via HornRimmedMagpie

Quote of the moment (an encore post for the season, with a bit of context thrown in later):

Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1

I think of that line of Dickens’s often when  I read of the celebrations of calumny that pass as discourse in Republican politics these days. Although, with the 2008 renewing of Limbaugh’s contract, it may no longer be true that his particular brand of darkness is cheap.

Cheap or not, darkness remains dark.

John Leach, Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want

Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want, the products of his stinginess (drawing by John Leech, 1809-1870)

 

Drawing by John Leech (1809-1870), to illustrate Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Work in the public domain (available at WikiSource).

Here is the sentence Dickens put before the quote, to add a little context; Scrooge was climbing a very large, very dark staircase.

Half-a-dozen gas-lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark with Scrooge’s dip.

Up Scrooge went, not caring a button for that. Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.

Speaking of darkness, a longer excerpt from Dickens’s story:

‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, ‘but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?’

‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

‘Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!’

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’ The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

A Christmas Carol, Stave 3

Christmas is a festival to celebrate light, what many Christians call “the light of the world?” If so, let us work to stamp out the darkness which the unrepentant Scrooge so dearly loved.

Darkness may be cheap, but it is not good.  Light a candle, and run into the darkness, spreading light. We need more light.

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December 2: Millard Fillmore’s Guano Day!

December 1, 2014

Why December 2?

(You couldn’t make this stuff up if you were Monty Python.)

English: Millard Fillmore White House portrait

Millard Fillmore’s White House portrait, via Wikipedia

President Millard Fillmore, in the State of the Union Address, December 2, 1850

Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price. Nothing will be omitted on my part toward accomplishing this desirable end. I am persuaded that in removing any restraints on this traffic the Peruvian Government will promote its own best interests, while it will afford a proof of a friendly disposition toward this country, which will be duly appreciated.

Did any other U.S. President spend so much time thinking about guano?  Did any president ever mention it in a State of the Union Address?  The curious case of Millard Fillmore, Seer, just grows.

Guano, or bird poop (and its relative, bat poop), contains phosphorus, which is an essential element for life.  Consequently, it turns out to be a key ingredient in effective agricultural fertilizers.  In international competition for supremacy in farming and farm exports, guano became a key resource to fight over, in the 19th century.

It’s almost safe to say the fights were economic; but guano did play a key role in wars in South America (see Andrew Leonard’s article, noted below).

Fillmore figured out that the substance had great importance, coupled that with the rather esoteric knowledge that sea birds tended to deposit guano in great abundance on certain islands, often unoccupied, and ordered the U.S. Navy to claim islands found to contain guano deposits that were not claimed by other nations.

By the American Civil War, the importance of phosphorus to the production of gun powder became an issue for the armies of the North and South.  Millard Fillmore had set the stage for the North to win an important advantage in gun powder production, just one of many that led to the defeat of the South.

It’s one more thing we should thank Millard Fillmore for doing. Our study of history should inform us that it is, indeed, important for politicians to understand the importance of guano.

Fillmore knew his guano.

Take a moment on December 2 to toast Millard Fillmore’s prescience, on Guano Day!

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