'Damn the Torpedoes'

By Robert M. Browning Jr.

The Admiral in the Rigging

Just before 0530 on the morning of 5 August 1864, the warships got under way, preceded by the monitors. The first paired warships were the Brooklyn and Octorara , followed by the Hartford (Farragut’s flagship) and Metacomet , with the remaining five pairs following. By 0645 the Tecumseh , at the head of the ironclad column, had steamed to within the extreme range of Fort Morgan’s guns. At about 0700, the lead monitor opened fire about a mile from the fort while the wooden fleet was still half a mile farther away. The fort’s defenders began to reply, and by 0715, the action was general.

At this point in the battle, Farragut was standing on the sheer pole of the Hartford ’s port main rigging. There he was level with, and could speak with, Lieutenant Commander James E. Jouett, the commander of the Metacomet , and Captain Percival Drayton of the Hartford . The battle’s smoke soon obscured the admiral’s vision and to get a better view of the action he gradually climbed the rigging until he reached the futtock shrouds just under the main top.

Farragut made this move so gradually that, at first, no one noticed. Lieutenant John Crittenden Watson, the flag lieutenant, first observed the flag officer’s ascent and spoke with Drayton. Knowing that a shell or splinter might cut the rigging and cause Farragut to fall, Drayton sent Quartermaster John H. Knowles to pass a line around the admiral. Knowles grabbed a piece of lead line, made it fast to one of the shrouds, passed it loosely two or three times around Farragut’s body, and secured it to another shroud. With the admiral stationed there, Lieutenant Arthur R. Yates, just under him, conveyed orders to other parts of the ship. Farragut’s position also allowed him to communicate with the pilot, Martin Freeman, who was just above his head in the main top. Freeman in turn could communicate with the deck through a speaking tube.

The Hartford received her first hit at 0722, when a shot struck the foremast. It was at this point that Farragut’s battle plan began to unravel. The leading monitor, the Tecumseh , was now abreast of a torpedo (mine) field on the western edge of the channel. 

As the Tecumseh entered the bay, her pilot, John Collins, warned Captain Tunis A. M. Craven of the danger of the torpedo field that stretched from the western side of the bay to the edge of the main channel. The Tecumseh ’s skipper, anxious to engage the Tennessee , told the pilot to swing the vessel across the channel and head directly for the Confederate ironclad. 2

The Tecumseh ’s turn across the channel to engage the Tennessee cut directly ahead of the column of wooden ships, forcing it westward. As the Tecumseh and the other ironclads passed in front of the Brooklyn , Captain James Alden had to slow his vessel, along with the gunboat Octorara . This directly affected all the warships in the line behind. Alden had the Army signalman on board relay back to the Hartford , “The monitors are right ahead; we cannot go in without passing them.” 3

Army Lieutenant John Coddington Kinney, the signalman on board the Hartford , began to decipher the signals from the Brooklyn . That ship and her mate now stopped, cut off by the Tecumseh , which was still steaming toward the Tennessee to engage her at close quarters. At 0725, from the deck of the Hartford , Kinney read the “monitors are right ahead” message. It was relayed to Farragut by an aide, and the response sent back was, “Tell the monitors to go ahead and then take your station.” 4

The Tecumseh surged onward with the other three ironclads in her wake. The Tecumseh , though, crossed just west of a red buoy that marked the eastern end of the torpedo field. At 0730, a moment after passing this buoy, a muffled explosion ripped into the ironclad’s hull. A fountain of water went into the air, the Tecumseh shuddered and lurched violently, and her bow began to settle rapidly—“her stern lifted high in the air with the propeller still revolving, and the ship pitched out of sight like an arrow twanged from a bow.” The Tecumseh went down quickly with most of her crew of 114 officers and men. 5

‘Our Best Monitor is Sunk’

The loss threw the entire Union force into disorder. As soon at the Tecumseh sank out of view, Alden ordered the Brooklyn to back her engines, fighting the effects of the channel’s flood tide. Just after 0730, he had a signal sent to the flagship: “Our best monitor is sunk.” The Hartford and the other ships aft of her now slowed and drifted westward, but continued to bear down on the Brooklyn , still backing away from the line of torpedoes. 6

The Union Navy’s advance into the bay now reached a critical point. The lead pair of ships were backing their engines at the opening of the narrow channel into the bay. The warships following the Brooklyn and Octorara were bearing down on them in the flood tide. The Hartford ’s engineers stopped her engines, but still the flagship and the Metacomet continued to drift toward the leading pair. The Richmond and Port Royal , just aft of the Hartford , were also coming up fast. As the Brooklyn backed, her head turned slowly to starboard and her stern came up on the Hartford ’s starboard bow. 

There were three pairs of warships now bunched at the edge of the torpedo field. Farragut’s neatly organized plan had unraveled into chaos. The flood tide was running like a sluice, and the enemy guns were blasting away at the stationary warships. If the column continued, collisions were imminent, and once entangled, the ships might remain under fire for some time before they could separate themselves. With the bow of the Hartford now only yards away from the Brooklyn , Farragut decided to steam around Alden and the Brooklyn to keep the initiative.

The Hartford , though, could not maneuver well because the Richmond and Octorara were too near and the tide continued to pull the flagship and the Metacomet toward the bay. Using a speaking tube, Freeman ordered the Hartford ’s helm put hard to starboard with the engines at maximum power. The Metacomet , meanwhile, backed her paddlewheels. This pointed them both in a westward direction, allowing them to pass the Brooklyn on her port side. Once the two ships were reoriented, Freeman held up four fingers as a signal to Jouett to give his ship four bells, or full power ahead. Farragut led his squadron into the bay and defeated the Confederate naval force in one of the Civil War’s greatest battles.

Immortal Words at a Crucial Moment

Before the Hartford passed around the Brooklyn , the flag officer reportedly uttered a phrase that has become part of America’s naval folklore. For 150 years, historians have speculated on exactly what he said. So, what did he say? Once the ships began to engage the fort and the Confederate vessels, some participants claim that the noise from the gunfire would have “drowned out any attempt at conversation between two ships.” Yet many of the battle’s veterans insist that Farragut communicated at this point in the battle. 7

Farragut died in 1870, and neither Drayton, Yates, Freeman, nor any other officers left any mention of the communication in their correspondence shortly after the event. The first historian to look at this issue in depth was Farragut’s biographer, Charles Lewis, who in 1943 contended that Farragut’s phrase first appeared in 1878, in Commodore Foxhall A. Parker’s small book Battle of Mobile Bay . But a quote actually appeared earlier, less than two weeks after the battle. The 18 August New Orleans Times carried a story that Farragut cried out, after the Brooklyn stopped, “Give her one bell, give her two bells, give her eight bells.” This, of course, refers to the way that the quarterdeck relayed signals to the engine room. Wires connected the telegraphs on the two decks and bell strokes indicated speed. One bell meant to go ahead, two stop, three back and four go ahead as fast as possible. 8

In Foxhall Parker’s account 14 years later, Farragut is quoted as having said: “Damn the torpedoes! Jouett, full speed! Four bells, Captain Drayton!” The following year, Farragut’s son, Loyall, repeated this in his biography of his father, changing it slightly to “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!” 9 None of these sources attribute the quote.

There were other claims by persons who were not on the Hartford . In 1881 Charles H. Baxter, an acting master on board the Genessee , wrote that Farragut had said, “Damn the torpedoes, go ahead.” 10 In his 1893 biography of Farragut, Alfred Thayer Mahan uses Loyall Farragut’s version: “Damn the torpedoes! Four Bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!” 11 Yet, in context, it is obvious that Farragut could only have said this after the Hartford passed around the Brooklyn . If the Hartford was still aft of the Brooklyn , she could not yet go at full speed. 

Ten years earlier, in 1883, while Mahan was compiling information for his Gulf and Inland Waters book, he received a letter from Captain Thornton Jenkins, the commanding officer of the Richmond , which had been directly behind the Hartford . Jenkins claimed that the admiral shouted out in a “shrill + clear” voice to Alden, “What is the matter, sir?” Alden reportedly answered in a “sepulchral tone,” as if coming from a great distance, “ Torpedoes Ahead !” Jenkins then related that Farragut said, “Go ahead sir, d—n the torpedoes.” Interestingly Jenkins also stated in this letter that he and Captain Craven of the Tecumseh met in Pensacola just before the battle. While studying a map of the bay with the obstructions and the torpedoes marked on it, Jenkins wrote that Craven told him, “Damn the Torpedoes,” making it appear that this was a common phrase for the naval officers to use. 12

Multiple Witnesses, Multiple Versions

A number of officers and men on board the Hartford during the battle also discussed Farragut’s utterance. Army signalman Kinney had climbed into the rigging to send messages to and receive them from the Brooklyn . With the exception of Martin Freeman, the pilot stationed above Farragut, Kinney was in one of the best positions to hear anything Farragut articulated.

In articles appearing in 1881 issues of Scribner’s Monthly and Century Magazine , Kinney wrote that Farragut shouted: “Four bells, eight bells, SIXTEEN Bells! Give her all the steam you’ve got.” Yet when the Century article reappeared in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War , Kinney added a caveat: “As a matter of fact, there was never a moment when the din of battle would not have drowned out any attempt at conversation between the two ships, and while it is quite possible that the admiral made the remark it is doubtful if he shouted it to the Brooklyn .” 13

Thom Williamson, the Hartford’s chief engineer, told the story that he was on deck and heard Farragut order “Go Ahead.” Whereby Williamson asked, “Shall I ring four bells, sir?” Then Farragut replied, “Four bells—eight bells— sixteen bells—damn it, I don’t care how many bells you ring!” 14

Isaac S. Milner, one of the men in the main top, stated that when the Brooklyn stopped, Farragut ordered the Hartford’s pilot to “Run to the port of her.” The pilot responded, “Can’t sir, obstructions.” “To starboard then,” said the admiral. The pilot responded, “Channels full of torpedoes.” Milner then relates that without hesitation Farragut cried: “Damn the torpedoes! Go on!” John Crittenden Watson, Farragut’s flag lieutenant, standing on the poop deck during the battle, recounted that Farragut said: “Starboard, ring four bells, sixteen bells.” In another source, Watson claimed that Farragut said: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead, Drayton! Hard a starboard! Ring four bells! Eight bells! Sixteen bells!” 15 Thus, most of the commentaries claim that Farragut uttered some combination of “Ring four bells! Eight bells! Sixteen bells!” Interestingly, this is similar to the phrase that first shows up in print.

The Diggins Possibility

There is also an alternative and creditable explanation using the observations of another individual. By coordinating his account with the sequence of events, his version becomes highly plausible. The witness is Bartholomew Diggins, who was captain of the watch and a gunner on the Hartford ’s deck. After the Brooklyn stopped, Diggins observed Farragut waving his hand and calling, “Go ahead, damn the torpedoes, go ahead.” He also wrote that Farragut “waved his hand several times, crying go ahead, go ahead.” The admiral did not direct these words to Alden or the Brooklyn , because as Kinney noted the noise prevented communication between the ships. Instead, Farragut, excited at the Brooklyn ’s delay, was probably relaying the next message to Kinney, the signalman. At 0735, Kinney signaled over by flag for the Brooklyn to “Go ahead.” An interesting coincidence is the inscription that hung on the half deck of the Hartford into the next century. It read: “Damn the torpedoes. Go ahead”—exactly the text that appeared on a World War I recruiting poster depicting Farragut. 16

We will never know if Farragut ever uttered any of the numerous phrases that his contemporaries attribute to him. The fact that a slogan was in print only two weeks after the battle, and that many of the witnesses related a similar version, makes a strong case for the underlying viability of one of the great bits of U.S. Navy folklore. Diggins’ observations, meanwhile, closely match the sequence of events and perhaps relate the true story of this incident. Certainly all those who left remembrances have spawned a superb debate and have left us with one of the greatest quotes in all of naval history.


1. The background information is taken from the text of Robert M. Browning Jr., “‘Go Ahead, Go Ahead,’” Naval History , vol. 23, no. 6 (December 2009), 28–36.

2. Jenkins to Mahan, 3 May 1883, Subject File OO, Operations of Large Groups of Vessels, Record Group 45, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC; hereinafter all references to Records Groups will be RG and the National Archives, NARA.

3. Copy of Messages Received and Sent on 5 August [1864], by LT. J. C. Kinney, Farragut Correspondence, Letterbooks of Officers of the United States Navy at Sea, Entry 395, RG 45, NARA. J. C. Kinney, “A Great Anniversary,” The Hartford Courant , 5 August 1889.

4. Copy of Messages Received and Sent on 5 August [1864], Farragut Correspondence, Entry 395, RG 45, NARA.

5. Harrie Webster, “Personal Experiences on a Monitor at the Battle of Mobile Bay,” California Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States War Papers ,  no. 14 (1894), 12.

6. Copy of Messages Received and Sent on 5 August [1864], Farragut Correspondence, Entry 395, RG 45, NARA.

7. J. C. Kinney, “Farragut at Mobile Bay,” Robert U Johnson and Clarence C. Buell, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Being For the Most Part Contributions by Union and Confederate Officers (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956), vol. 4, 391.

8. New Orleans Times , 18 August 1864. Charles Lee Lewis, David Glasgow Farragut: Our First Admiral (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1943), 469n.

9. Foxhall A. Parker, “The Battle of Mobile Bay,” Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts (Boston: The Society, 1895–1918), vol. 12, 230. Loyall Farragut, The Life and Letters of Admiral Farragut, First Admiral of the United States Navy (New York: D. Appleton, 1879). This quote also appeared in other publications verbatim. See James Joseph Talbot, “Admiral David Glasgow Farragut,” The United Service , vol. 3 (July 1880), 19.

10. Charles H. Baxter, Reminiscences [1881], Mississippi Valley Collection, Ned R. McWerter Library, University of Memphis. 

11. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Admiral Farragut (New York: D. Appleton, 1893), 278.

12. Jenkins to Mahan, 3 May 1883, Subject File OO, RG45, NARA.

13. John C. Kinney, “An August Morning with Farragut,” Scribner’s Monthly , vol 22, no. 2 (June 1881), 205. Kinney, “Farragut at Mobile Bay,” 391.

14. Note by Thom Williamson Jr., U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 65, no. 11 (November 1939), 1676.

15. Isaac Milner statement (n.d.), Farragut File, ZB Personnel Files, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington DC. John Crittenden Watson, “Farragut and Mobile Bay,” Personal Reminiscences , District of Columbia Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States War Papers , no. 98 (1916), 481. He also wrote in the May 1927 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings and has a similar quote in “Naval Reminiscences,” The Navy , vol. 7, no. 3 (March 1913), 82. Watson also wrote this to Alfred Thayer Mahan (n.d.), J.C. Watson Collection, Library of Congress Manuscript Collection.

16. Diggins earned a Medal of Honor for his actions on board the Hartford at Mobile Bay. Bartholomew Diggins, Recollections, Manuscript and Archives Division, New York Public Library. Hartford Courant , 16 August 1902.

 

 
 

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