Monday, August 4, 2014

Farragut At Mobile Bay 150 Years Ago: "Damn The Torpedoes!" - Fact or Legend?

Farragut At Mobile Bay 150 Years Ago: "Damn The Torpedoes!"  - Fact or Legend?

The ironclad monitor leading one column into Mobile Bay hit an underwater mine, exploded, and sank in under a minute.  The "unsinkable" wooden man-o-war leading the other column reduced speed to avoid striking similar "infernal machines" -  all while gunners in Fort Morgan and two other harbor forts began ranging in on the remaining 13 Union warships.  His ships being pounded, and the mighty Confederate ironclad ram CSS Tennessee and her consorts steaming toward the fleet, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut ordered his captains to "Damn the Torpedoes" and go "Full speed ahead."

That, at least, is how the legend goes.

Or maybe that is not exactly what happened, says Civil War historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor emeritus at Princeton James McPherson.

As he noted in his latest book, War Upon the Waters, and reiterated in a talk at the New York Historical Society two years ago,  Farragut might - or might not have said exactly those words.. Even if he did, says McPherson, the "damn" part might very well have been an exclamation of surprise (or a curse).   

Other source report that Farragut remained extraordinarily cool, and that "Damn the Torpedoes" Full speed ahead" is an abbreviated version of a a much longer statement, a clear set of orders to the captain of the USS Hartford (Captain Percival Drayton) and the commander of the gunboat USS Metacomet, James Edward Jouet, which was lashed to the far side of the larger warship to give it some protection from the Rebel shore batteries.

"Damn the Torpedoes! Four bells, Captain Drayton! Go ahead. Jouett, full speed!"
Again, there are conflicting reports about whether the "go ahead" was part of the command to Drayton or to Jouett, although it seems more likely that command was meant for the later, as it directed him to separate from the protective shield of the USS Hartford, thus freeing him for action.

Then, again, as McPherson muses, it might all just be a combination of what officers and men present on the deck THOUGHT they heard - and with mines exploding, ships sinking, shells blasting overhead, engines churning and guns roaring on both sides, who can be certain what anybody said?

Whatever he really did say, or how he phrased it, Farragut did get his fleet moving from underneath the batteries and into the bay, where they could engage the Rebel flotilla and direct their broadsides at the Confederate ships and forts.   The attack started out looking bad for the Union, but by the end of the day, Farragut had won the U.S. Navy's greatest victory of the American Civil War.

Rebel Raiders on the High Seas allows players to recreate this epic fight at the strategic level, with ships and cards and counters for the forts, ironclads, warships, admirals and even the "torpedoes" that Farragut allegedly damned that day 150 years ago.

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