Lashed in the rigging of Hartford’s mainmast high above the deck, Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut had a bird’s-eye view of his squadron of eighteen ships as it fought past the booming guns of Fort Morgan into Mobile Bay, Alabama. Everything was going according to plan until the monitor Tecumseh suddenly rolled to starboard, her bow knifing into the water and stern rearing up with the propeller still spinning, then plunged out of sight like an arrow shot from a bow. Farragut knew instantly that Tecumseh had struck a torpedo, as mines were called in those days. As the gunfire from the Confederate fort intensified, Brooklyn, the lead ship in the main column just ahead of Hartford, started backing down, her skipper reporting a line of torpedoes across the channel.
Farragut realized that the decisive moment had arrived. The column was bunching up under the enemy guns. To try to maneuver around the torpedoes would lengthen the ships’ exposure to the cannonade. To go forward would hazard the fleet against the torpedoes. To retreat was out of the question. Farragut reflected on everything he knew about the Confederate defenses, offered a silent prayer, and then acted. “Damn the torpedoes!” he shouted. “Full speed ahead!”
Farragut’s ships passed through the enemy’s underwater defenses to confront a Confederate squadron of four ships. The Union ships quickly defeated or ran aground the three smaller ships. The fourth ship, a heavy ram, surrendered after an intense hour-long battle. The last major Confederate port in the south was now sealed.