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Image of a Union warships similar to the monitor Tecumseh (foreground) and scout/dispatch boat Phillippi (left rear) sunk by Confederates off Fort Morgan-Mobile Bay Aug. 5, 1864. 

Leading the federal naval attack into Mobile Bay was the Tecumseh.  The Confederate defender’s heaviest cannon was a 10-inch Columbiad, less than half the weight of the incoming Union projectiles from the Tecumseh. A federal surgeon on the Lackawanna described the first of the Rebel shells fired from Fort Morgan:

“It is a curious sight to catch a single shot from so heavy a piece of ordnance.  First you see the puff of white smoke upon the distant ramparts, and then you see the shot coming, looking exactly as if some gigantic had has thrown in play a ball toward you.  By the time it is half way, you get the boom of the report, and then the howl of the missile, which apparently grows so rapidly in size that every green hand on board who can see it is certain that it will hit him between the eyes.  Then, as it goes past with a shriek like a thousand devils, the inclination to do reverence is so strong that it is almost impossible to resist.”

The Union fleet bombarded Fort Morgan with 100-and 200-pound shells.  One historian noted the fort’s gunners were firing obsolete muzzle loaders that “were accurate at close quarters and deadly when used against wooden-hulled ships, although their projectiles did no damage to the ironclad monitors.”  As Union Admiral David Farragut’s fleet passed within 150 yards of the Rebel cannon, a Confederate soldier wrote, “The roar of cannon was like one continuous peal of thunder, deafening to the extreme.”   Farragut climbed into the rigging to see above the smoke as his ships battled past the fort. 

When the Tecumseh was 200 yards in front of Fort Morgan’s water battery manned by the First Tennessee Heavy Artillery (and a dozen men from the Covington area), one or more Confederate mines (“torpedoes”) exploded under her. In seconds Tecumseh went down prow first.  She sank at 7:45 a.m.  Four of the crew swam ashore and were captured. Until the Tecumseh went down, most naval experts believed that the monitor warships were unsinkable.  A Confederate described final moments of the ill-fated ship:  “She careens, her bottom appears! Down, Down, Down she goes to the bottom of the channel, carrying… 93 of her crew, confined within her ribs, to a watery grave.” 

The sinking of the Tecumseh stalled the Union fleet.  Fort Morgan’s gunners fired 491 projectiles into the Union warships. Morgan’s commander, General R. L. Page wrote:  “The wooden gunboat Phillippi, attempting to pass the fort… was sunk by the second shot, and being run ashore was deserted by her crew, and afterwards burnt by a boat from the C. S. gunboat Morgan.”  A recent study reports:

“Farragut, up in the rigging, decided the possibility of death in the minefield was better than certain death and destruction from the enemy gunners blasting the immobilized fleet.  He told pilot Martin Freeman that the Hartford would take the lead and ordered Freeman “to pick my way (through the torpedoes) and go in the bay or blowup.”  The pilot ordered four bells:  “Go ahead at full speed.”  Farragut’s actions came to be colorfully portrayed as “Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead”—clearly his intent if not verbatim.”

By about 8 o’clock, the Federal fleet had passed the Confederate forts suffering little loss.  Fort Morgan had sustained terrible damage leading an engineer to report: “It is obvious that Fort Morgan, in its present condition, cannot withstand a vigorous bombardment.” 

To be continued.

Lisa DeLancey is a staff writer for The Leader, focusing on education. She is a 2016 graduate of The University of Memphis. 

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