Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!
On August 23, 1864, the Union navy captured Fort Morgan, Alabama, breaking the Confederate dominance of the ports of the Gulf of Mexico. As the Union fleet of four ironclad and fourteen wooden ships sailed into the channel on August 5, one of the lead ships, the Tecumseh, hit a mine, at the time known as a “torpedo.”
In reply to the warning, “Torpedoes ahead!” given by the forward ships, commander Admiral David Farragut called out, “Damn the torpedoes!” and, taking the lead with his flagship the Hartford, sailed over the double row of mines and into Mobile Bay.
Although the bottom of the ship scraped the mines, none exploded, and the rest of the fleet followed Farragut’s flagship to victory in the engagement with the Confederate flotilla. During the next weeks, the Union Navy consolidated its hold on the bay by dispersing and capturing Southern ships and tightening the blockade. With the surrender of Fort Morgan, the Union was able to cut the South off from its overseas supply routes.
A Southerner who lived through the Civil War remembered the effects of the Union’s coastline blockade:
…we had to get our cotton to Brownsville during the war and send it through Mexico to the markets in Europe…. One could see, the long wagon trains of cotton…as they slowly mended their way to the Mexican border…the Texas ports were blockaded and all the time enemies were on the watch to confiscate produce of any kind, and especially cotton…
[Mr. Edwin Punchard]. Miss Effie Cowan, interviewer; Riesel, Texas, ca 1936-40. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
Others recounted tales of the privations caused by the blockade and the makeshifts necessitated by them:
We scraped the salt from the floor of the old smoke houses that were used in the days before the war when all those things were so plentiful.
[Sarah Ann Poss Pringle]. Miss Effie Cowan, interviewer; Marlin, Texas, ca 1936-40. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
Mrs. Ida Baker explained:
Everybody had to use parched wheat, parched okra seed or parched raw sweet potato chips for coffee. Not even tea came in. We used sassafras and other native herb teas both daily and at parties when the herb teas were in season. Some were good, but the substitute coffee was not.
[At Christmas Times]. Mrs. Ida Baker, interviewee; Caldwell Sims, interviewer; Spartanburg, South Carolina, Jan. 12, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
On the blockade was one Admiral Farragut,
Who was noted for being a very brave man;
Who never was known to be scarified, ne’er a bit,
And his vessels in all kinds of ructions he ran.
He gave a large party one day to his squadron,
Officers and men he invited them all;
And if you’ll pay attention, I’ll just try to mention,
The row and the ructions at Farragut’s ball.
Farragut’s Ball, a Parody on Lanigan’s Ball. By J.E.V., U.S. Steamer Richmond; R. H. Singleton, Bookseller; Nashville, Tenn. America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
- Search on blockade and Confederacy in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 for more accounts of Southerners’ experiences during the Civil War.
- To learn about Confederate ships, Liberian-bound emigrants, and canal travel search on the term ship or boat in Documenting the American SouthExternal. Comprised of diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and ex-slave narratives, Documenting the American South is a digital publishing initiative of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill including:
- Visit the collections Civil War Maps and Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints to view a wealth of primary source material illustrating the war. In the former collection, see, for example, a Chart Showing the Entrance of Rear Admiral Farragut into Mobile Bay. In the latter see, for example, a portrait of Commander Matthew F. Maury, C.S.N., the “Father of Oceanography.”
- Search Today in History on Civil War to find features about the First Battle of Bull Run, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg (July 1, July 2, and July 3, 1863), Lee’s surrender to Grant, and many other events of the Civil War.
- View Rear Admiral David Farragut’s photograph and his signature on his carte de visite in the Civil War Photograph Album, ca. 1861-65 contained in the collection James Wadsworth Family Papers: John Hay Papers, 1861-1959; Civil War Photograph Album, ca. 1861-1865. The album, probably compiled by President Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, contains two hundred of these photographic calling cards.
- See and learn more about Watercolors of Civil War Ironclads painted by Ens. D. M. N. Stouffer, ca. 1864-65, which are found in the David Dixon Porter Papers held by the Manuscript Division.
- Read a nineteenth-century song about Farragut’s battle, “Farragut’s Ball, a Parody on Lanigan’s Ball,” an undated sheet of lyrics found in the collection America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets. The lyrics of the first verse are noted above. The tune meant to accompany them was a popular melody of the period, “Lanigan’s Ball; The Popular Irish Song External,” (1863), available in Historic American Sheet MusicExternal, from the Duke University Libraries.