Damn the Torpedoes? ...Close but Not Quite.
by Gordon Thorsby
An August Morning at the Battle of Mobile Bay by William Heysham Overend
Grant was stuck at Petersburg, Sherman seemed to be stuck around Atlanta, "Devil" Forrest was running all over in the south and Union forces were holed up in towns unable to sally out. The North was almost winless in 1864 up to the time of Mobile Bay and Lincoln foresaw a big loss in November. Farragut was a 63 year-old, Tennessee born Rear-Admiral and he already accomplished several great feats but the Mobile Bay victory on August 5, 1864 was stunning.
The clash would prove to be one of the greatest moments of the American Civil War. However, like many others, controversy followed.
The line of the fleet was carefully sailing into Mobile Bay when it entered a mine field. The monitor Tecumseh forged ahead toward CSS Tennessee when a sudden whoosh threw a spout of water high into the air. The monitor struck a mine, rolled to port, “its bow already down and stern was in the air with the ship’s propeller turning madly in the air.” She was gone in four minutes. It was that fast. Farragut witnessed everything from the rigging of Hartford.
Battle of Mobile Bay Xanthus Smith
It was reported that Farragut was lashed to mizzen shrouds, saw the line of ships slow to a halt so Farragut ordered the line to close on the fort. There was no response so Farragut issued the orders two more times, no response so he ordered the Hartford to take the lead.
The Hartford picked up speed and as the flagship passed Brooklyn, Farragut shouted, “What’s the trouble?” The reply “Torpedoes,” came from Brooklyn, where he responded, “Damn the Torpedoes” and then ordered the Captain in the accompanying gunboat lashed to the Hartford, “Go ahead, Jouett, full speed!" Hmm, that does not have the poetic ring. Why wasn't the story more factual until recently? There wasn’t someone below Farragut with a recording device so the rewritten standard is used and more pithy.
In the latter 1800’s, another debate actually arose as to whether Farragut was lashed into the rigging. Current history explains that Farragut was tied to the rigging so he could better observe the battle. Several authorities had indisputable evidence that Farragut was not tied to any rigging and why would anyone say otherwise? The “not tied” crowd gained steam. This was a dilemma. Why did the controversy even occur?
Some said yes, some said no, and the painters painted without lashings (he looked better.) A sailor, John Hazard Knowles, Signal Quartermaster who spent his career in the Navy was credited for doing the work of lashing the admiral to his elevated perch but the debate continued. If Farragut was sans lashings, Knowles would essentially be a fraud. Would his career be ruined and his reputation be destroyed? Would anyone save Knowles?
John Knowles (Courtesy of Defense Media Network)
Clarity came forward in June,1881 from a reliable and welcome source, Mrs. Virginia Loyall Farragut, widow of the Full Admiral. In a letter to Gustavus V. Fox, retired Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Lincoln Administration, wrote:
“The late discussion as to whether he was lashed to the port main rigging until the fleet got in the bay, or not, … J. Crittenden Watson who assisted in tying him. Lieut. Martin also testified to the fact. I can also testify that [the Admiral] often told me of it with the interesting addition that perhaps he never told to any one but myself and it is that he was glad to find himself so securely fastened in an elevated position as he felt then if ‘I am wounded fatally I may with my dying breath give an order that may lead to victory.’ During the discussion on the subject I felt greatly tempted to give my knowledge to the public but I have such a dread of making myself conspicuous I forbore, it has often been very oppressive to me to be silent when I perceive false impressions have been made about my husband.”
John Knowles’ reputation and the deed he performed was proven. He was a man at peace. Knowles passed away at sixty on April 9, 1895, exactly thirty years later to the day after Appomattox.
Knowles is buried in Annapolis at the Academy
-National Tribune, Thursday, 24 April 1895:
“One of the latest re-enlistments in the Navy is that of John R.[sic H.] Knowles, the sailor who lashed Admiral Farragut to the rigging of the Hartford in her memorable fight with the Confederate ironclad Tennessee in Mobile Bay. Knowles has been in the service 45 years, during 28 of which he has been on duty at the Naval Academy. As he is now 70 [sic actually 60] years old he will spend the remainder of his life at the Naval Academy.”
Farragut’s accomplishment was important but could Knowles deed have delivered a greater impact? If Farragut had been struck during fighting and had fallen, would the battle have been won, and would Lincoln have been re-elected? With Lincoln out would the Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery have been approved?
John H. Knowles may have been just a nobody but he small deed might possibly changed the trajectory of history? Maybe?
Blue & Gray Navies, Tucker, Spencer C., Navy Institute Press, 2006, Ppg. 340-341.
War on the Waters, by McPherson, James M., University of North Carolina Press, 2012, Ppg 210-211.
(Virginia Farragut letter to Gustavus Vasa Fox, in Gustavus Vasa Fox collection, box 13, folder 11, item 31. NHSC – Fox. dated April 23, with no year; probably 1882.
“Damn The Torpedoes, The Battle of Mobile Bay”, by Alice Browne, Ebsco Project cataloger, New York History.org.