The Mobile Bay joint land-sea operation began when Major General Gordon Granger landed with 1,500 Union soldiers on the west side of Dauphin Island, seven miles from Fort Gaines, on Aug. 3, 1864. Confederate troops burned their outbuildings and retreated into the fort the next day as Granger’s forces moved within 1,700 yards of the fort. The Union navy next moved into action.
Admiral David G. Farragut had joined the Navy at age 9. During the War Between the States, he commanded the largest and most powerful force that had ever been controlled by any American naval officer. Former Tennessee Governor James D. Porter wrote: “The results of (Farragut’s) operations of that force in the waters of the Mississippi were more fatal to the Confederacy than any of the military campaigns.” On August 4th, Farragut wrote his wife, “I am going into Mobile Bay in the morning if God is my leader as I hope he is.”
One Union officer noted the morning of the 5th “was beautiful, the sea smooth and the sky unclouded.” It was about 6 a.m. when Farragut’s 14 wooden ships and four monitors began their run past the Confederate forts in Mobile Bay. The total weight of metal of the advancing Union fleet was 14,246 pounds; that thrown by it at a broadside 9,288 pounds. Farragut’s fleet had 199 guns, compared to the Confederates’ 26 guns at Fort Gaines, and 46 guns at Fort Morgan (Men from Covington served guns of Fort Morgan’s water battery.)
The first objective of Farragut, who was on board the flagship, USS Hartford, was to destroy the Rebel ironclad ram Tennessee and three wooden gunboats’ Morgan, Gains, and Selma, under command of Admiral Franklin Buchanan. Meeting the Union advance, Southern gunboats emerged from Fort Morgan and took position in single echelon, across the three-mile channel with their port batteries bearing upon the enemy fleet.
Farragut’s four ironclad monitors were ordered to pour such heavy fire on Fort Morgan that its gunners would be unable to return fire and have to seek shelter. The monitors led the fleet from the right flank, interposed between the guns of Fort Morgan and the wooden vessels.
It was 6:47 a.m. when the Union’s lead ship, the ironclad Tecumseh, “fired her guns merely for the purpose of scaling them, and then loaded each with 60 pounds of powder and a steel shot in readiness to engage the ram (C.S.S. Tennessee).” At 7:06 a.m. the Rebel guns of Fort Morgan opened fire, and was replied to by the U.S.S. Brooklyn. Within minutes “the action became general on both sides.”
Brigadier General Richard L. Page, General Robert E. Lee’s cousin and a former U.S. and Confederate naval officer, commanded Fort Morgan and all lower Mobile Bay defenses, wrote:
“After an early breakfast the men were sent to the guns. Everybody was in high spirits… At 6 o’clock a.m. the enemy’s ships began to move in with flags flying. They gradually fell into a line, consisting of twenty-three vessels, four of which were monitors. Each of the first four of the largest wooden ships had a smaller one lashed on the side opposite the fort, and was itself protected by a monitor between it and the fort. The smaller ships followed in line.
As they approached…I fired the first gun at long range, and soon the firing became general, our fire being briskly returned by the enemy. For a short time the smoke was so dense that the vessels could not be distinguished, but still the firing was incessant.”