Today in History

Today in History: August 23

Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!

Rear Admiral David G. Farragut
Rear Admiral David G. Farragut,
Brady National Photographic Art Gallery,
between 1860 and 1865.
Selected Civil War Photographs

Farragut's Flagship Hartford
Farragut's Flagship Hartford,
c1905.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

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.

H. H. Lloyd & Co's. Campaign Military Charts Showing the Principal Strategic Places of Interest
H. H. Lloyd & Co's. Campaign Military Charts Showing the Principal Strategic Places of Interest,
Egbert L.Viele and Charles Haskins, military and civil engineers,
c1861.
Military Battles and Campaigns in Map Collections
The Union army used this chart, which includes sixteen maps of strategic areas of the United States. Use the zoom feature for a closer view of the section showing the Mobile Bay area and its forts.

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,"
Siesel, Texas,
Miss Effie Cowan, interviewer, circa 1936-40.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

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,"
Marlin, Texas,
Miss Effie Cowan, interviewer, circa 1936-40.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

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,"
Spartanburg, South Carolina,
Caldwell Sims, interviewer, January 12, 1938.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

For more information in American Memory related to the U.S. Civil War:

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,"
R. H. Singleton, Bookseller; Nashville, Tennessee,
America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets