One of the larger naval battles during the American Civil War, and the one that produced the most romantic image of the civil war at sea. By the summer of 1864 Mobile, Alabama, was one of the few Confederate ports still available for blockade runners. The port was well situated for defence at the top of Mobile Bay, thirty miles from the sea. The entrance to the bay was narrow, and defended by a pair of forts - Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan. The main channel was also mined (naval mines were known as 'torpedoes' during the civil war. Inside the bay was a small Confederate fleet, consisting of three side wheel gun boats and the ironclad ram C.S.S. Tennessee.
The Tennessee was the main hope of the defenders. She had been built at Selma, on the Alabama River, and sailed down to the bay at the end of May 1864, with the intention of catching the blockading fleet by surprise, but she had caught out by the tide and missed her chance. Now she was mooring inside the bay, waiting for the inevitable Union attack.
The blockading fleet was commanded by Admiral David Farragut, the hero of New Orleans. When the Tennessee appeared, he had command of a small fleet of wooden ships, and no ironclads. If the Confederates had been able to launch their surprise attack the Union fleet would have been in a great deal of trouble.
Only at the end of July was Farragut reinforced. A division of soldiers commanded by General Gorgon Granger arrived and prepared to besiege Fort Gaines. At sea three ironclads arrived to reinforce the fleet, with a fourth not far behind. Farragut could now plan his attack. His plan was simple but risky. Just as at New Orleans, he intended to run his ships past the guns of Fort Morgan, hoping to avoid the mines in the channel. Once the fleet was in the bay it would fight and destroy the Confederate fleet, and thus close Mobile to the blockade runners.
The most dangerous part of this plan was the first part. The plan was for the four ironclads to take the lead, sailing clossest to the forts, with the wooden ships just behind and a little further out. Farragut's flagship, the Hartford, was second in the line of wooden ships.
Early in the morning of 5 August the plan was put into action. It very quickly began to go wrong. The wooden ships were faster than the ironclads, and began to catch up with them. Just as the fleet was coming into effective range of Fort Morgan's guns, the lead wooden ship (the Brooklyn) stopped! Her captain was worried about taking the lead and being faced by the Tennessee without support. Just after this, the lead ironclad, the Tecumseh, hit a mine and almost immediately sank, with the loss of 93 men. For a terrible few minutes the fleet was static, in front of the guns of Fort Morgan, and with the Confederate fleet firing on them from the bay.
It is at this moment that Farragut entered into naval legend. In order to see over the smoke caused by all the gunfire, the elderly admiral had climbed close to the top of the main mast. There he had been roped to the mast to prevent his being thrown off the mast. From his position high in the rigging, he proceeded to command the fleet until it was safely inside Mobile Bay. He now took a much bigger risk. With the fleet static, and the Brooklyn refusing to move, Farragut ordered his ship to sail past the Brooklyn and take the lead. Legend has it that as the two ships pass, Farragut was warned of the danger of mines ahead, and responded 'damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead', although sadly he probably never said this.
The risk paid off. The Brooklyn and the Metacomet broke through into the bay. The rest of the fleet now knew that his route was safe, and soon followed. For a short period the two ships were isolated in the bay, but the Confederate ships missed their chance. The Tennesseemade an attempt to ram the Brooklyn but missed. Her main weakness was now exposed. Her steering gear had proved to be inadequate, but no time had been found to improve it. Key elements of the steering gear were entirely unprotected by armour! Later in the battle it was to be completely destroyed by Union gunfire.
Once most of the Union fleet was inside the bay the fate of the Confederate fleet was sealed. The Tennesseemade an attack on the rest of the Union fleet, but failed to ram any ship, only firing a few shots into the fleet, before reaching safety under the guns of Fort Morgan. There she remained for some time.
The rest of the Confederate fate was quickly dealt with. The Selma was overhauled and captured by the Metacomet. The Gaines was badly damaged, forced to run herself aground to avoid sinking, and then burnt by her crew to avoid capture. Only the Morgan escaped, taking shelter under the guns of Fort Morgan, and then slipping through the Union fleet under cover of darkness, safely reaching Mobile.
Now the Tennessee reappeared on the scene. The Union fleet was back together, four miles inside the bay. However, the four monitor class ironclads were very slow compared to the Tennessee. If well handled, there was a chance that the Tennessee could do some serious damage to the Union ships. She made directly for Farragut's flagship, the Hartford, and came close to ramming her, but in the end could only strike a glancing blow.
The Tennessee was now exposed to the gunfire of almost the entire Union fleet. It was now that her steering gear was destroyed. Unable to turn, she could not direct her fire on any of the Union ships. Realising this, Admiral Buchanan, her commander, decided to surrender. The Tennessee was one of the most heavily armoured ironclads yet built. Her armour had protected her so well that despite being the target of almost an entire fleet's guns, she only suffered 11 casualties (2 dead and 9 wounded). Total Confederate casualties were only 32 (12 dead and 20 wounded), although 280 crewmen from the Selma and the Tennessee were captured. Union casualties were much higher, a total of 145 dead, 170 wounded and 4 captured (although all but 52 of the dead were killed when the Tecumseh sank.
Farragut's victory in Mobile Bay sealed Mobile off from the outside world, ending its usefulness as a blockade running port. Fort Gaines surrendered on 7 August. Fort Morgan held out longer, only surrendering on 23 August. Mobile itself remained in Confederate hands until the spring of 1865, finally falling on 12 April, but her usefulness to the Confederacy ended on 5 August 1864.