Sunday, October 5, 2014

Farragut 'Touched by Fire'

by Bill Doughty
Admiral David G. Farragut (art by Antonio Verceluz)

Strong Confederate forts. Batteries of guns. Torpedo mines. The iron-clad "ram" CSS Tennessee. All these and more faced the Union Navy led by Adm. David Glasgow Farragut in Mobile Bay in August 1864, 150 years ago this past summer.

The intrepid hero of New Orleans/Mississippi sailed his wooden ships within range of the forts, as described by Farragut contemporary First Lieutenant John Coddington Kinney:
"The central figure was the grand old admiral, his plans all completed, affable with all, evidently not thinking of failure s among the possibilities of the morrow, and filling every one with his enthusiasm. He was sixty-three years old, of medium height, stoutly built, with a finely proportioned head and smoothly shaven face, with an expression combining overflowing kindliness with iron will and invincible determination, and with eyes that in repose were full of sweetness and light, but, in emergency, could flash fire and fury."
Kinney's is one of dozens of first person accounts and memoirs originally published in 1881 by "The Century" magazine and now part of a terrific compilation from 2011, "Hearts Touched By Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," edited by Harold Holzer. The book is divided into five parts, each for a year from 1881 through 1885.

In the introduction to "1864," historian Joan Waugh sets the stage:
"Two Federal naval victories in 1864 mitigated the disappointment of the seemingly endless ground campaigns. On June 19 the war sloop USS Kearsarge defeated the famed Rebel raider CSS Alabama off the coast of France in the Battle of Cherbourg. Writing for Battles and Leaders, the Union ship's surgeon, John M. Browne, recounted the war of wits ..."The second Union naval success carried an even greater lift for Northers at a critical time. On August 5, Admiral David G. Farragut seized control of Mobile Bay in Alabama, bringing an end to Confederate shipbuilding in that city and disabling the port's ability to offer a friendly harbor for Southern ships avoiding the Union blockade ... Farragut's triumph closed the last remaining major Confederate port on the Gulf of Mexico and boosted Lincoln's prospects for a fall victory."
Navy Reads contributor Craig Symonds does a masterful introduction for "1861" helping foreshadow the "horrible slaughter and wholesale destruction that would follow" the early months of the war.

The story of how the first compilation came to be published by "The Century" in 1881 involves some intriguing negotiation with President U.S. Grant after the Civil War. The editors ensured we get an accurate portrayal told in real and vibrant prose, not just dry war plans and reports. Illustrations from the time – paintings and etchings from both the Union and Confederacy perspective – are included.

In "Farragut at Mobile Bay" Kinney describes the fire and smoke of battle where "every minute seemed a second." Admiral Farragut climbed the rigging to get better command and control. He damned the torpedoes, faced and ordered broadsides and took his wooden ships into close battle with the enemy. We can almost hear and feel the wooden Hulls scraping and crashing against the iron-clad Tennessee that had been "strengthened by an artificial prow."

Kinney writes of a brief lull in the action:
"The thunder of heavy artillery now ceased. The crews of the various vessels had begun to efface the marks of the terrible contest by washing the decks and clearing up the splinters. The cooks were preparing breakfast, the surgeons were busily engaged in making amputations and binding arteries, and under canvas, on the port side of each vessel, lay the ghastly line of dead waiting the sailor's burial. As if by mutual understanding, officers who were relieved from immediate duty gathered in the ward-rooms to ascertain who of their mates were missing, and the reaction from such a season of tense nerves and excitement was just setting in when the hurried call to quarters came and the word passed around, 'the ram is coming.'"
Kinney takes us back into the intense fighting as Farragut and his fleet focused on what was thought to be the strongest vessel afloat, "virtually invulnerable." 

"The Tennessee now became the target for the whole fleet, all the vessels of which were making toward her, pounding her with shot, and trying to run her down," he writes. Lashed to the rigging, Farragut directed the battle as his sailors and marines continued the attack, with side-by-side bombardments and fearless full-speed attacks and cannon barrages leading to the enemy's surrender and a Union victory.

"Hearts Touched by Fire" is a fascinating you-are-there set of memories from the soldiers, sailors, leaders and citizens affected by that pivotal war that ended slavery and kept the states united.

(See the Navy Reads post about the Adm. Farragut, the U.S. Navy's first Hispanic admiral, from 2011, "Damn the Torpedoes." Hispanic heritage is celebrated in the United States from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. The Navy Birthday is Oct. 13, 1775.)

No comments: