The Battle of Mobile Bay-- "Buchanan"

Jul 30, 2014

            All week long Alabama Public Radio is taking a look back at events during the War Between the States. One hundred fifty years ago plans were underway for federal forces to attack and capture Mobile Bay from the Confederacy. We remember the ensuing battle with someone with a unique vantage point…

“As far as my friends and people really knowing this information, very few of them do.”

            Julia Hinson lives in Mobile. Her little secret is her family tree and the critical role it played in the history of the city and of the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864…  

            “Buchanan went to sea when he was fifteen years old,” she says.

            There’s a hint of pride as Hinson talks about Franklin Buchanan. The Confederate Admiral is Hinson’s great, great, great grandfather…

            “Ended up being the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. He went to Japan with Perry when he opened up Japan. And then, he was head of the Washington Naval Yard when the Civil War broke out.”

            Hinson’s memories of Buchanan come from stories told by parents, and from the writings of Buchanan’s daughter. She was Hinson’s great great grandmother. Her manuscript is sitting on Hinson’s lap. She reads how famous Buchanan was among residents of Mobile, especially when he went to the theater…

             “Buchanan was given a private box for the season, draped with the Admiral’s flag. Every evening when we were not previously engaged, we would went to the Theater. Whenever my father entered his box, the audience applauded until he stood and bowed, and the band played Dixie.”

            Of course, that was before the battle of Mobile Bay. Things changed afterward because Admiral Buchanan was the man who lost…

            The sounds of cannons and muskets near the mouth of Mobile Bay are just ceremonial now. It’s all part of the show modern day re-enactors do for visitors to Fort Gaines. The scene was a lot different in 1864 when Confederate and Union forces fought over Mobile Bay. Naval forces from the north were led by Admiral David Farragut while the Confederate ships were commanded by Buchanan…

            ‘This started 1862, Farragut goes in and takes New Orleans. Mobile panics, refugees flee New Orleans and come to Mobile,” says David Smithweck, a local historian in Mobile. “Farragut’s intention is to come to Mobile right away, but General Banks orders him to the Mississippi, red river campaign.”

            General Nathaniel Banks commanded the army of the gulf for the Union. He was Farragut’s boss at the time. This delay and panic gave the defenders of Mobile time to plant underwater mines throughout the bay. At that time, these weapons were called torpedoes. The extra time also allowed the Confederates to build up the defenses at the two forts guarding the mouth of the Bay…

            “Fort Morgan was the major post because the main ship channel running through Mobile Bay ran directly under the guns of Fort Morgan,” says Mike Bailey is the site director of the fort.

“It was turned over to the Confederacy in march 1861 by the state of Alabama. And it served as a fort to guard the entrance of Mobile Bay for blockade runners who were bringing necessary supplies into Mobile.” Bailey says the forts were just the first obstacle Farragut and Union forces encountered.

“The confederates to bolster their defenses planted torpedoes and obstructions and built up a four ship confederate naval force centered around the CSS Tennessee which was one of the most powerful ironclads the confederates ever constructed.”

These torpedoes inspired the now infamous line delivered by Admiral Farragut “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” however, there is a problem with that line.

“It’s not David Farragut who said ‘damn the torpedoes’ but Tunis Craven who is the commanding officer of the Tecumseh,” says Bailey.

He adds that Craven disobeyed orders to go into the field. And craven reportedly says, “damn the torpedoes, I want that fellow, take me along-side. And he is talking about the Tennessee.”

            Craven’s ship soon struck a mine, ripping a hole in the ironclad. It sank in just three minutes taking Craven and ninety-three members of the crew to the bottom of the bay.  A buoy near Fort Morgan marks the final resting place of the Tecumseh and the men who went down with the ship.

            “After being wounded during the battle of Mobile bay, he was taken prison and shipped up to New York,” says Julia Hinson.

She prefers the good stories about her famous ancestor. In this account from her great grandmother, Hinson says Buchanan’s fame in Mobile held up even after his defeat.  

   “After the war, when my poor father was left without his profession and penniless, his kind friends there gave him a position in the mutual insurance company which he accepted until he was offered the position of president of the agricultural college in Blandensburg Maryland.”

            Once Fort Morgan was captured, the bay was under Union control. However, the city of Mobile held out until after Robert E Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.  The battle for Mobile Bay was a turning point in the war, the confederacy was effectively cut off from outside supplies and the union received the morale boost it needed. It considered by some to be the first modern naval battle. And it attracted a lot of attention from newspapers of the day. Pat Duggins has that story tomorrow on Alabama Public Radio.