The Battle of Mobile Bay: Summary & Significance

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  • 0:05 The Union's Objective
  • 1:35 A Well-Defended Bay
  • 2:22 The Union Enters the Bay
  • 3:34 A Naval Battle
  • 4:47 Tying Up Loose Ends
  • 5:27 The Results
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the events and outcome of the 1864 naval battle at Mobile Bay, Alabama, that pitted Admiral David Farragut's Union navy against Admiral Franklin Buchanan's Confederate ships.

The Union's Objective

In the summer of 1864, the Civil War was slogging through its fourth year. Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's plan to win the war was in full swing in the eastern and western theaters, but the plan also included a naval objective - namely, to close Mobile Bay, Alabama, to Confederate blockade runners.

Because it lacked a strong industrial base, the Confederacy relied heavily on imports from foreign nations. As the war progressed, the Union navy was able to set up an increasingly thorough blockade that sharply curtailed Confederate foreign trade. Daring blockade runners, however, were still able to sneak through the blockade and import necessities, like guns, ammunition, blankets, and medicine.

By mid-1864, Mobile was the last southern port still under Confederate control, and therefore, it was a major stopping point for blockade runners and a prime target for the Union. The North had just the right man to capture the bay, Rear Admiral David Farragut, who commanded a fleet of eighteen ships, including four ironclad monitors. Aboard his flagship, Hartford, Farragut was ready for action in early August.

A Well-Defended Bay

Mobile Bay was actually a challenging target. Two heavily-armed forts, Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan, guarded the bay's entrance. Fort Morgan, with its forty-seven artillery pieces, was especially dangerous. Further, the bay's entrance was lined with three rows of torpedoes, or mines, leaving only a narrow entry channel on the east, directly in Fort Morgan's line of fire. Inside the bay, four Confederate ships were waiting for the Union fleet, headed by the ironclad Tennessee under the command of Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan. The Union faced a difficult task as it prepared to enter Mobile Bay.

The Union Enters the Bay

On August 5, 1864, two lines of Union ships began their progress through the bay's narrow entrance. The ironclad Tecumseh led the four monitors, which were attempting to shield the wooden ships from the heavy fire that erupted from Fort Morgan. Unfortunately for the Tecumseh, it moved a little too far to the west and ran into one of the Confederate torpedoes. An explosion rocked the fleet, and the Tecumseh turned over, reared up, and sunk, all within fewer than thirty seconds.

The remaining Union ships were thrown into confusion, but Admiral Farragut quickly resumed control. Ordering his Hartford to take the lead, he hollered, 'Damn the torpedoes!' and charged into the bay. The Union ships were met by the Tennessee, which immediately challenged the Hartford. The Confederate ironclad was bulky and slow, however, so the Hartford dodged easily. Admiral Buchanan retreated to regroup, but the battle was far from over.

A Naval Battle

After a brief intermission, Admiral Buchanan ordered the Tennessee into its battle stance. His crew was dismayed that the Admiral would directly attack such a large and powerful Union fleet. 'It looked to me that we were going into the jaws of death,' one sailor recalled.

The Tennessee and the Hartford lined up, facing each other like a couple of medieval jousters. A crash seemed imminent as the two ships sailed straight at each other, but the Tennessee turned at the last minute and skimmed by the Hartford, while their crews shouted insults and threw things at each other.

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