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The battle of Mobile bay.

By Captain J. D. Johnston, C. S. N.

Savannah, Ga., September 22nd, 1881.
To the Editor of the Southern Historical Magazine:
The June number of Scribner's Magazine contains an article under the caption of “An August morning with Farragut,” which is so replete with misstatements that I feel it incumbent upon me, as the senior living actor in the stirring scenes of that morning, to ask the publication in your valued periodical of such corrections as my personal knowledge of the facts will enable me to make. I shall endeavor to be as brief as may be consistent with a clear understanding of these facts, in view of the very partial and prejudiced account of them rendered by the army signal officer who, with unparalleled presumption, undertakes to criticise the movements of men-of-war engaged in a deadly struggle, and commanded by men who were competent for such commands before he was born.

Commodore Foxhall A. Parker, of the U. S. Navy, who was distinguished by his high professional attainments, published a full, accurate and impartial description of “The battle of Mobile bay” in a neat volume with that title, about two years ago, and I had vainly hoped that the subject was thereby exhausted, as it has long since ceased to possess any special interest with me; not only because my time and attention have been engrossed by far different pursuits, but because I felt on that day, and have felt ever since, that the “famous ram Tennessee,” although under the command of one of the most accomplished naval officers who ever lived (Admiral Franklin Buchanan,) failed to achieve the results of which she was capable, and which was so justly expected of her by [472] the government of the Confederate States. This failure was due in a great measure, to a defect in her construction, which was fully appreciated by the Admiral, but which could not be remedied after the vessel had been taken down to her anchorage near Fort Morgan, as it consisted of the exposure of her steering aparatus on the upper side of the after deck, or fan-tail, speaking technically, whereas it ought to have passed under the deck, and would thus have been thoroughly protected. That the efficiency of the vessel was seriously impaired by this defect was abundantly proved by the fact that she was compelled, by the total destruction of her steering gear, to remain as a target for the guns of the fleet without the ability to bring one of her guns to bear on the enemy for more than twenty minutes before her surrender. The result of the engagement would certainly have been changed in some degree, if the vessel could have been kept under the control of her rudder, as upon that alone depended the direction of her battery, but her ultimate destruction or capture by the tremendous power to which she had offered battle, was a foregone conclusion.

But, as it is my purpose only to correct the mistakes in Lieutenant Kinney's article, I will refrain from any further allusion to the causes of the Tennessee's failure to inflict greater damage upon her captors, and confine myself to the original object of this communication. I may be permitted to add, however, that the little squadron of four vessels, manned by about four hundred and seventy officers and men, managed in the brief period of their engagement to place quite their own number hors du combat on board the eighteen vessels of the enemy. This is shown by official reports.

Lieutenant Kinney errs in stating that the guns of the Tennessee were of “English make,” as they were cast in a government foundry at Selma, Ala., under the immediate superintendence of Commander Catesby ap. Rogers Jones. He also states that the “rebels” claimed that a shot from one of their heavy guns penetrated the armor of the Tecumseh and caused her to sink. It has never been questioned by those most conversant with the facts, that she was sunk by a torpedo, but there has always been some doubt as to whether that torpedo was one of those planted by the “rebels,” or was attached to a spar rigged out from the bow of the Tecumseh, and whose explosion was caused by her coming in contact with a large iron buoy, anchored near Fort Morgan to indicate the channel to blockade-runners. It is a well-known fact that the commander of that ill-fated vessel had asked it as a special favor of Admiral Farragut, before entering the bay, to let him take care of the Tennessee, and I can testify to the fact that he had [473] reserved his fire up to the moment of the sinking of his vessel, although then within two hundred yards of his intended victim. Whether this was done for the purpose of trying the effect of the torpedo he is believed to have had suspended from his bow before using his 15-inch guns, is more than any one now living can positively know, but the probabilities point so plainly in that direction that I am convinced of the justice of this belief.

It was the intention of Admiral Buchanan to ram the flagship Hartford and sink her, even if the Tennessee went down with her; but the only possible chance of accomplishing this object was by crossing her course as she steamed into the bay. As for catching a vessel going at a speed of twelve miles an hour with one utterly incapable of more than half that speed, it is to be presumed that even Lieutenant Kinney, of the Army Signal Corps, is seaman enough to comprehend the impossibility of such a feat. While endeavoring to cross the course of the Hartford and run into her, the bow gun of the Tennessee (a 7-inch rifle) was fired at her twice, at point-blank range, but from some unaccountable cause, both shots failed to do any execution. The Hartford had avoided the blow by slightly changing her course, and had passed beyond the ram into the bay without having received any material damage.

Just at this moment of supreme disappointment the crew of the Tennessee began to cheer, and upon inquiring the cause my attention was directed to the leading monitor of the fleet, and looking through one of the narrow slits in the side of the pilot-house, I discovered her to be in the act of going down, bottom upward, and one of her boats engaged in rescuing those who had managed to escape from her. Thrilling as such a scene would have been under other circumstances, the necessity for instant and assiduous attention to those who remained, and were now complete masters of the situation, precluded the possibility of giving more than a passing thought to the fate of the gallant souls who had gone down in the Tecumseh.

Lieutenant Kinney states that the “great ram,” after making an unsuccessful effort to sink or injure any of the Union vessels, and after receiving a heavier blow from the Monongahela than it had inflicted, also retired to the Fort, and almost in the same breath, he says that both that vessel and the Lackawana had their own prows destroyed, and were otherwise injured, by ramming the Tennessee, while the “huge iron frame of that vessel scarcely felt the shock.” This, however, is a mere inconsistency, and conveys the truth; it can, therefore, be the more easily excused in one who attempts to become the historian [474] of events which, although an eye-witness, he was not capable of comprehending. The same pardon cannot be extended, though, to a direct perversion of the truth, and of this he is certainly guilty when he says that the “great ram” retired to Fort Morgan, after failing to sink any of the flying fleet. The idea of retiring to Fort Morgan never entered Admiral Buchanan's mind, as his order to me, immediately after the fleet had passed into the bay, was to follow them, which was done with all the speed of which the vessel was capable, but in changing her course for this purpose it is not improbable that her head may momentarily have been pointed towards the Fort. The gunboat Gaines was run on the beach near the Fort early in the action to prevent her from sinking, having received several shots below her waterline, but she had done her duty nobly up to this moment. She was burned by her own crew soon afterward. The Morgan was placed at the wharf near the Fort to avoid the fate of the Gaines, and during the following night steamed up to Mobile, through the vessels of the fleet, while their crews slept upon their victory. The Selma was chased by two gunboats and captured a few miles up the bay.

When the Tennessee had approached a point within a mile of the fleet, the entire number of vessels composing it seemed to vie with each other in the rapidity of their firing, and in efforts to prove their efficiency at rams, by endeavoring to sink the devoted “Rebel,” who had failed to exhibit his qualities in this modern style of warfare, from lack of the important element of speed. It afterward appeared that in their zeal and haste some of the vessels of the fleet came near sinking their own flag ship, as she was rammed twice by the Lackawana.

The result of such a contest could not have been changed except by the miraculous destruction of the opposing fleet, and if, as Lieutenant Kinney states, there ever was a “moment when he hesitated (Farragut) the fortune of the day must have been against us.” I feel quite sure that were the distinguished officer to whom he refers now living, he would scout the idea of such a possibility having ever existed. The forts had virtually been passed without sustaining any injury, save the sinking of the Tecumseh by a torpedo, and nothing remained for the fleet to do but to capture or destroy three little hastily improvished wooden gun-boats and one iron-clad, with a force ten times their superior in every possible element, excepting only the daring and patriotism which impelled Buchanan with his single vessel of six guns and 170 men to attack such a fleet. Had he been enabled by any means in his power to change the fortunes of the day, he would certainly have been justly hailed by the civilized world as the greatest naval commander who [475] had ever lived. But, though no one could have a more exalted opinion of Admiral Farragut's qualities as an officer or gentleman than I have, I cannot avoid the conviction that he always felt within himself, however he may have welcomed the plaudits of his countrymen at this achievement, that there was a degree of buncombe about the furore created by it, which was repugnant to his nature. He was singularly insensible to the grandeur of the position he occupied professionally, and in his personal character as gentle and unobtrusive as a woman, while possessing all the qualifications of a naval officer of the highest class. There were but few of those under his command who had been favored with a more intimate acquaintance with him, or cherished more kindly personal feelings toward him than myself, and far be it from me to attempt to pluck one leaf from the laurel crown which victory placed upon his brow. But while awarding a just meed of praise to his merits, let it not be said of those who should, with equal pride, remember his gallant and distinguished adversary on the occasion under review, that sectional feeling blinded their eyes to the equally grand and noble qualities of that adversary, especially as they were both Southern men.

In this connection, I must be permitted to express my conviction that the remark which Lieutenant Kinney attributes to Captain Percival Drayton: ( “Cowardly rascal, afraid of a wooden ship,” ) was never made by that officer. There never was the slightest cause for any such remark, and Drayton knew Admiral Buchanan too well to ascribe any action of his on such an occasion to any other motive than a brave and intelligent use of the force under his command. Before he became a “Rebel” he was ranked among the first naval officers of the world, and certainly no one in the navy of the United States before the war, was more universally regarded as the beau ideal of a naval commander; nor was there one whose personal courage had been more frequently or positively demonstrated, as could be attested by numerous anecdotes well known to a majority of the senior officers of the present day. Moreover, Drayton's first remark to me, on receiving me on the quarter deck of the Hartford, after the surrender of the Tennessee, was: “Well, Johnston, it must be said that you have nobly defended the honor of the Confederate flag to-day,” a compliment which I cheerfully relegate to the gallant officer under whose orders I was proudly serving.

Lieutenant Kinney states that “if Buchanan had possessed the grit of Farragut, it is probable that moment would have witnessed the destruction of both vessels,” referring to the moment when the Tennessee approached nearest to the Hartford, and he also states that the former vessel avoided giving the latter a direct blow with her prow, [476] “not being desirous of so much glory,” and struck her “only a glancing blow.” This is such a positive and direct violation of the truth that it is difficult to ascribe it to anything short of a wilful perversion of facts. As the commander of the Tennessee, I was stationed in the pilot-house, on the forward part of the shield, to watch the movements of the enemy's vessels, and keep her in position to afford the best opportunities for placing her fire effectively, and it is in my power to prove, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that but for the superior speed of the Hartford and the changing of her course to prevent the contact, the prow of the Tennessee would certainly have entered her side amidships. To these causes alone are due the escape of the Hartford, and she was never touched by the hull of the Tennessee.

But as I have, so far as is practicable in this brief space, corrected the errors in the article to which it is intended as a reply, it only remains for me to disclaim any personal grievance toward its author, and to express the hope that time will point to the history of the gallant souls who shared in “The battle of Mobile bay,” on either side of the contest, with equal pride. Both the principal actors in that tremendous scene have long since passed to others of a more peaceful nature, leaving their deeds of valor and their social virtues as the inheritance of their descendants, and it therefore devolves upon those who once had the honor of being their associates, to see that while history gives due honor to the victor the vanquished shall not be defamed.

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