LAKE CHARLES, Louisiana -- An important artifact from the Battle of Mobile Bay, Alabama, which occurred August 5, 1864, is on display at the Imperial Calcasieu Museum in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
|Admiral Franklin Buchanan|
The battle began at 5:30 o'clock A.M. on the morning of the 5th of August when the U.S. Navy fleet of Admiral David Glasgow Farragut steamed into Mobile Bay. He had 16 warships, including four ironclad monitors, under his command. The objective was to silence the two Confederate forts at the entrance, Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines, and the Confederate fleet inside the bay, under the command of Admiral Franklin Buchanan.
Buchanan's flagship was the Tennessee, which was under the immediate command of Lieutenant James D. Johnston. Other ships in the small Confederate fleet were the Morgan, Gaines and Selma. Also a heavy line of "torpedoes," which would later be called undersea mines, were strung across the entrance of the bay.
On that morning 150-years-ago, the Federal warships lined up in formation outside the bay and immediately ran into serious trouble. The USS Tecumseh, a single turret ironclad with two 15-inch heavy naval guns, was the first to chance entrance and sank within minutes after hitting one of the torpedoes. Perishing in the explosion were 93 men out of a crew of 114. In the best tradition of the sea, Captain Tunis A.M. Craven went down with his ship after giving up his chance to escape to another crew member.
The rest of the Federal fleet, which was also receiving a terrific pounding from the guns in the forts, faltered. This is when Admiral Farragut shouted his famous phrase, the full quote of which is, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead, Drayton! Hard a-starboard! Ring four bells! Sixteen bells!"
Added into the the drama was Farragut's position on his flagship, the USS Hartford. He had himself lashed far above the deck on the Hartford's port main rigging so he could get a better view of the battle above the smoke of the cannons. The 63-year-old admiral was utterly fearless and was a veteran of 54 years of uninterupted naval service at the time of the Battle of Mobile Bay.
But an equally experienced, courageous and aggressive opponent to Farragut was in the person of Franklin Buchanan was on the Tennessee. Buchanan served in the U.S. Navy from 1814 until 1861 when he resigned to join the Confederate Navy. Although a strong Unionist, he was said to have been repelled by the coercive policy of the Lincoln administration. Hopelessly outnumbered, the audacious Buchanan nevertheless personally led his small Confederate fleet out to do battle with the Federals.
The Tennessee was a formidable warship for her time. She was constructed at the iron foundary in Selma, Alabama and was the most powerful casemated ironclad in the Confederate Navy. The Tennessee was 209 feet long from stem to stern, 48 feet abeam and drew 14 feet of water. Her sloping, 3-inch-thick iron plated sides could resist the heaviest fire that could be directed against her. The ship's battery included four 5.4 inch guns in broadside and 7-inch Brooke rifles on pivot mounts on each end of the casemate. She also had an iron ram designed to fatally impale enemy warships.
Using the tactics of a maddened bull, Buchanan had the captain of the Tennessee steer directly for the Federal flagship Hartford. Salvoes from the massive naval guns erupted and the wooden Confederate gunboat Gaines was quickly sent to the bottom of the bay and the Morgan was badly damaged and had to withdraw. The Selma, also a wooden gunboat, fearlessly took up position in font of the Hartford and darted back and forth raking the Federal flagship with deadly missiles. Farragut ordered the USS Metacomet, a wooden vessel, to chase the Selma up the bay where she captured Confederate ship after a sharp engagement.
But contending with the Tennessee was a much more serious challenge to the Federal fleet. Farragut called it "one of the fiercest naval battles on record." While the Tennessee was blazing away with all her guns, the USS Chickasaw and other Federal ironclads pounded her with 11-inch guns while the wooden warship rammed her.
After three hours of such punishment, Admiral Buchanan lay wounded in the leg., the Tennessee's steering chains were shot away, her smokestack had collapsed, all her gunports were jammed shut and she was unable to make steam or maneuver. Now a completely helpless hulk, the proud Southern ironclad surrendered. The Confederate fleet had lost 12 men killed, 20 wounded and 280 captured. The Federals lost 145 bluejackets killed and 174 wounded.
At the moment of surrender a young Confederate sailor, Michael Kennedy, emerged from the Tennessee. He hauled down the ship's flag, tied it around his waist and dove into the water. He swam to shore thus saving himself and the flag from the humiliation of capture.
Kennedy later gave the flag to his foster sister, Florence Newberry Wimberly, who gave it to her son, E.L. Wimberly. Wimberly eventually gave the flag to the late Miss Marie Ryan, who was a charter member of Robert E. Lee Chapter 305, United Daughters of the Confederacy, in Lake Charles. Ryan donated the flag to the Imperial Calcasieu Museum in Lake Charles, where it is on public display.