"Damn the Torpedoes!"
— Civil War Trail, Battle for Mobile Bay —
At 7:25 a.m., August 5, 1864, Admiral Farragut's lead monitor Tecumseh
steered into the torpedo field at the mouth of Mobile Bay. The admiral had ordered Commander Tunis Craven, the Tecumseh's
captain, to engage the ram Tennessee
. Then west of the black buoy marking the eastern limit of the torpedo field, the Tennessee
was steaming further west. Craven was too close to the black buoy to steer east of it; if he was to catch the Ram, he would have to move west of the buoy. He did.
At 7:40, 100 yards away from his prey, Craven's ship hit a torpedo and sank within three minutes. Farragut faced a crisis, too. He could keep his fleet, blocked by the Brooklyn
and the torpedoes, under the guns of the fort, withdraw, or advance and plunge into the torpedo field himself. Warned by his subordinates of the torpedoes, Farragut is reported to have exclaimed, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" and led his fleet into the Bay.
Did Farragut actually say this? No contemporary authority proves that he did. The din of battle was so great that only those within a few feet of the admiral could have heard what he said. Farragut himself said afterward that he prayed for divine guidance, and his pilot, Martin Freeman, remembered that the admiral said he would take the lead and "told me to pick my way [through the torpedoes] and go into the bay or blow up?" Freeman then used his voice tube to convey Farragut's orders to the Hartford's
deck officer. The pilot would have then ordered "four bells!" which means to "go ahead at full speed."
On November 8, 1864, Captain Thornton A. Jenkins, skipper of the USS Richmond
, mailed an article from the New York Commercial Advertiser to the Secretary of the Navy. The article read in part: "The pilot told [the captain of the Tecumseh
] that he was too near the torpedoes; the captain [Craven] pointed to the ram Tennessee
and said ?damn the torpedoes, I am after that fellow; take me alongside."
It does not much matter what Farragut said. It is what he did that is important. Both he and Craven were fully aware of the dangerous uncertainties presented by torpedoes, and both he and Craven took their ships through the torpedo field at full speed. Craven lost his ship and his life, but Farragut took decisive action a moment of crisis and saved his fleet from certain defeat.
The Confederates used two types of contact torpedoes in Mobile Bay: the Singer torpedo and the Rains "keg" torpedo. The Singer torpedo made of iron, tin, or copper, had a spring trigger which, when released, caused a plunger to ignite the fuse. The Rains torpedo, made of oak barrels lined with pitch and coated with tar on the outside, had five or more fuses of glass tubes protruding from the barrel. Contact with a ship would crush those tubes, causing a chemical reaction and explode the keg. Either could be expected to blow a hole 8'x10' in the bottom of a ship. The typical charge used at Mobile was 35 to 50 pounds of black powder. Victor Von Scheliha, an engineer at Mobile, reported that a Singer torpedo sank the Tecumseh.
Inset On Bottom:
Thom Williamson, who, as a young officer, served aboard the USS Hartford
, remembered Farragut ordering him to "Go on!" The young man asked, "Shall I ring four bells??" Excited, Farragut replied, "Four bells-eight bells-sixteen bells-damn it, I don't care how many bells you ring!" Lieutenant John C. Kinney, an army signal officer, was another officer close enough to Farragut to have heard what the Admiral said. Kinney wrote an article about the Battle of Mobile Bay for Scribner's Monthly
in 1881 in which he never mentioned Farragut's alleged "damn the torpedoes!" exclamation. However, in a second essay, written for Battles and Leaders
in 1884, he wrote that the current story held that Farragut had exclaimed "damn the torpedoes!" during the heat of the battle and concluded that this "may have some basis in truth."