August 5, 1864, saw the last major naval battle of the
Civil War when Admiral David Glasgow Farragut led a fleet of Union
ships against Mobile Bay, Alabama, one of the most heavily defended
ports in the South. The entrance to the bay was protected by Fort Morgan
and Fort Gaines, four Confederate ships, including the giant ironclad Tennessee, and
dozens of mines, which in those days were called “torpedoes.” The
Confederates had arranged the mines, which lurked just beneath the
water’s surface, to create a narrow channel running into the bay.
As the attack began, Farragut climbed into the rigging of his flagship,
to get a good view. There he watched in dismay as one of his ships, the
steered into the minefield and hit a torpedo. An explosion erupted
beneath its waterline. The Tecumseh
lurched to one side, stopped dead in the water, and a few minutes later
went straight to the bottom, taking more than 90 men to their deaths.
At once the rest of the fleet faltered and began to drift toward Fort
Morgan. The Confederate gunners raked the Union vessels with deadly
fire. Farragut knew that to hesitate would mean disaster, and he
shouted his famous order: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
Farragut’s ship steamed forward, straight through the minefield. The
horrified sailors heard the mine cases thudding against the hull, but
none exploded. The other ships followed, and soon Mobile Bay was in
Union hands. Farragut’s exclamation has become a rallying cry for
Americans in times that call for meeting danger head-on.