Tag Archives: Grant

“Damn the Torpedoes” The Battle of Mobile Bay

Torpedo: 1. electric ray; 2. a large, cigar-shaped, self-propelled underwater projectile for launching against enemy ships from a submarine, airplane, etc.; it is detonated by contact, sound, etc.; 3. a metal case containing explosives, especially one used as an underwater mine.

                                      – Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th edition)

Growing up in the 1960’s, I was a history buff and a big fan of World War II movies. For me, the second definition of “torpedo” came to mind whenever I heard the term.

Admiral David Farragut famously said, "Damn the torpedoes." (Source: NPS.gov)

Admiral David Farragut famously said, “Damn the torpedoes.” (Source: NPS.gov)

You might remember United States Admiral David Farragut’s famous quote, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” a quote which seemed out of kilter with a sea battle that took place in August, 1864. The Confederates had invented the first submarine, the CSS Hunley, but it was nothing like its progeny of the first and second world wars, and it certainly did not launch torpedoes.

My fifth-grade teacher recognized the annual confusion of young boys who watched too many war movies. She explained that during the Civil War, a torpedo referred to the third definition, a metal case containing explosives. “Ohhh,” all of my male classmates nodded as one, “just like the mines the Nazis planted in the English Channel at Normandy in The Longest Day (for the younger readers, The Longest Day was a three-hour 1962 black-and-white movie about D-Day).

The significance of the Battle of Mobile Bay cannot be overstated. Grant’s troops were bogged down at Petersburg. Sherman had not yet taken Atlanta. Lincoln expected to be a one-term President.

Southern-born, Admiral David Farragut led the Union armada. Maryland-born and a former United States Naval Academy superintendent, Admiral Franklin Buchanan commanded the Confederate forces.

The Southerners had built an ironclad, the Tennessee, to thwart the Union’s largely wooden-ship navy. Fully understanding the probable outcome of challenging the iron beast with wooden ships, Farragut waited for the arrival of four ironclads of his own.

Entitled "Surrender of the 'Tennessee,' Battle of Mobile Bay", it depicts CSS Tennessee in the center foreground, surrounded by the Union warships (from left to right): Lackawanna, Winnebago, Ossipee, Brooklyn, Itasca, Richmond, Hartford and Chickasaw. Fort Morgan is shown in the right distance. (Source: history.navy.mil)

Entitled “Surrender of the ‘Tennessee,’ Battle of Mobile Bay”, it depicts CSS Tennessee in the center foreground, surrounded by the Union warships (from left to right): Lackawanna, Winnebago, Ossipee, Brooklyn, Itasca, Richmond, Hartford and Chickasaw. Fort Morgan is shown in the right distance. (Source: history.navy.mil)

Three forts stood in the Union’s path: Fort Powell near Cedar Point, Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, and Fort Morgan at Mobile Point. Chief among these was Fort Morgan. Farragut had hoped to employ a large contingent of infantry on Dauphin Island to keep the rebels at Fort Gaines occupied. Because the Union had lost so many troops in Grant’s Virginia campaign, only 2,000 soldiers were available. The number proved sufficient.

The Union spent weeks attempting to remove the torpedoes in their path. Farragut had doubts about whether they could remove all of them, but found some comfort in reports that many of them had corroded and were no longer effective. On Friday morning, August 5, Farragut’s armada tested the waters. One ironclad, the Tecumseh, hit one or more non-corroded mines. The Tecumseh went down with 94 of her 114-man crew. The commanding officer of the lead ship, the Brooklyn, declined to go forward, for fear of the mines.

It was under these circumstances that Farragut’s flag ship, the Hartford, took the lead. Farragut had climbed the mainmast rigging above the smoke and ordered a sailor to tie him there with a rope. He would not be denied. The line between folly and courage is a thin one. From his vantage point, like Ulysses tied to the mast when skirting the sirens, he shouted his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Not all went smoothly afterward. Buchanan (who previously had commanded the ironclad Virginia) commanded the Tennessee and inflicted considerable damage on the Union fleet before taking a hit that fractured his knee. The ironclad and the rest of his fleet ultimately succumbed to superior numbers. By August 23, all three forts were in Union hands. The victor of New Orleans sixteen months earlier, Farragut had added Mobile Bay to his list of major conquests. With the Union victory, Lincoln’s autumn prospects brightened significantly.

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Grant at His Best

General Sheridan (Source: AmericanCivilWar.com)

General Sheridan (Source: AmericanCivilWar.com)

In my most recent article, I described the battle of Cold Harbor as Grant at his worst and at his best. I said enough about Grant at his worst. Now about Grant at his best. He could have sat at Cold Harbor, numbed by a horrible loss, just hoping to keep Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia at bay while Sherman drove through Georgia. But he obviously did not. He remained resilient.

In later years, he acknowledged his failure at Cold Harbor. But he aimed to destroy Lee’s army. To do so, he had to stretch Lee’s troops to the breaking point. If Grant could lay siege to Richmond and Petersburg, Lee knew surrender was only a matter of time. Grant did so in a way that in retrospect may be perceived as reckless, but was bold in design and brilliant in execution.

On Tuesday, June 7, General Phil Sheridan led two Union cavalry divisions northwest toward Charlottesville. Lee had no choice but to order General Wade Hampton to respond in kind, taking his cavalry to intercept Sheridan. The cavalry served as the commander’s eyes, scouting the enemy’s movements. Without Hampton in the vicinity of Cold Harbor, Lee could no longer keep an eye on Grant. Of course, that was part of Grant’s plan, along with an assault by General Benjamin Butler on Beauregard’s forces at Petersburg.

Ten miles downriver from Cold Harbor, Grant’s engineers laid a half-mile pontoon bridge across the James River. Had Lee learned about the crossing in time, he could have destroyed Grant’s army. Sheridan’s diversion and the

Wade Hampton (Source: National Park Service)

Wade Hampton (Source: National Park Service)

Union army’s deliberate withdrawal from Cold Harbor allowed Grant to “steal a march” on Lee. By Monday, June 13, the Yankees were across the James and Grant had set up headquarters at City Point (modern day Hopewell). Lee could only hope to prevent Grant from overrunning Richmond. Lee did that much, in part because of Union generals’ blunders, but he could not prevent the Union siege that would drive the Confederate army and local civilians to starvation.

The South’s hopes now lay in holding out until Tuesday, November 8, the date of the national election. If the South could avoid a major loss before that date, Southern leaders were certain Lincoln could not be reelected and that they could negotiate a peace with Lincoln’s successor. That was a big “if.” Sherman drove through Georgia and the Carolinas and Sheridan laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley. By Election Day the only question was Lincoln’s margin of victory.

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Bloody May: Grant’s 1864 Campaign Against Lee

This month marks the 150th anniversary of Union General U.S. Grant’s campaign to destroy Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Portrait of General Meade (Source: SmithsonianAssociates.org)

Portrait of General Meade (Source: SmithsonianAssociates.org)

As Virginia’s many rivers go, the Rapidan receives scant notice. Its headwaters begin 4,000 feet above sea level near the Big Meadows in the Blue Ridge. From there, the river descends east, gradually widening until it flows into the Rappahannock River northwest of Charlottesville and Fredericksburg. During the winter of 1863-1864, every American identified the river as the boundary line between General Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

On Wednesday, May 4, 1864, Grant sent Meade’s 120,000 soldiers across the Rapidan on pontoon bridges constructed by the army’s engineers at two points: Ely’s Ford and Germanna Ford. Grant was determined to destroy Lee’s 60,000-man army and capture Richmond in the process.

Throughout the month of May, Grant and Lee danced their deadly Tarantella, suffering losses in proportion to their numbers. In the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, the Union army suffered casualties – killed, wounded, or captured – of 36,000 men while the Confederate casualties totaled 24,000. To put the losses in perspective, one has to remember that the United States population today is ten times that of 1864 (taking into account populations both north and south).

Battle of the Wilderness, Attack at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, 1865; Painting by Alonzo Chappel (Source: 1stArtGallery.com)

Battle of the Wilderness, Attack at Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, 1865; Painting by Alonzo Chappel (Source: 1stArtGallery.com)

Despite the heavy losses, Grant continued forward, unlike the Union commanders who preceded him. He made “turn the left flank” the order of the day, and by Thursday, June 2, Union troops had fought their way within ten air miles of Richmond. Both commanders replenished their losses. Grant received 40,000 fresh troops in the second half of May, most from the “heavy artillery” units in and around Washington, who previously had seen action only on Washington’s parade grounds. Lee had to move Confederate troops south of Richmond and in North Carolina to bring his troop strength back to his original 60,000. By doing so, Lee risked a rout from the rear.

June would open with a shocking loss for the Union troops. I will address that in another article.

Most of this brief account is taken from my Civil War era novel, New Garden (pages 275-276), available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel is also available in Greensboro, NC, at the Greensboro Historical Museum and Scuppernong Books.

For historical sources about Grant’s campaign, I recommend the following:

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Happy Days Are Here Again: The 1869 Inauguration

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States (Source: Whitehouse.gov)

(Source: Whitehouse.gov)

The theme song from the 1930 movie “Chasing Rainbows” was the campaign song for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful 1932 Presidential campaign and would become the unofficial campaign song of the Democratic Party for years to come. But the song’s spirit aptly describes the atmosphere of Ulysses S. Grant’s first inauguration.

Grant’s opponent, former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, had waged an ugly, racist campaign. During the months between his nomination in May and his election in November, Grant had spent most of his time in his hometown of Galena, Illinois, and the rest of his time exploring America’s Great Plains. As was customary in most Presidential campaigns of the nineteenth century, Grant had left the public speaking to others.

The town’s citizens were in a celebratory mood. They had endured four years of war and almost four years with President Andrew Johnson and Congress at each other’s throat, culminating in Johnson’s narrow escape from conviction at his impeachment trial the past spring.

 Julia Boggs Dent Grant (Source: National First Ladies' Library)

Julia Boggs Dent Grant (Source: National First Ladies’ Library)

Although the air was cool and misty on Thursday morning, March 4, 1869, eager onlookers crowded the streets of the nation’s capital. All of them wanted a glimpse of the President-elect, the man who had brought an end to the Civil War. Some in the crowd wanted to see the First Lady, Julia Dent Grant, bringing their spyglasses to determine if there was any truth to the rumor that her brown eyes peered in two different directions.

Grant had won the election in an electoral landslide. Within the next few months, work crews two thousand miles to the west would complete the wonder of the age, the transcontinental railroad. Land-hungry men, North and South, were filling America’s vast territories. Scandals about Congressional bribes and generous payments to railroad companies would come, but on inauguration day citizens took a deep breath and celebrated the war hero who promised to bring peace to a recently reunited nation.

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May 9, 2014 · 7:04 pm

Last Call

Statue of Ulysses S. Grant inside the Capitol

Statue of Ulysses S. Grant inside the Capitol

I find it amusing that some writers direct so much attention to General (and later President) Ulysses S. Grant’s purported drinking problem. At times, I’ve fallen into the same trap, wondering whether some of the speculation is true.

Grant did provide his detractors some material for the charge when as a captain in the army, he was pressured into resigning from the army at Fort Humboldt in 1854 rather than facing a court martial for drunkenness while on duty – a charge that could have been leveled against most of his fellow officers. By that time, Grant had been away from his family so long and missed them so desperately, it took the slightest nudge to put the army behind him.

Any evidence of Grant’s drunkenness after that date is largely speculation. His detractors, both North and South, had plenty of incentive to invent such claims:  Union officers who wanted to advance their own careers by engaging in the age-old practice of disparaging a fellow officer; Southerners who wished to dismiss Grant’s victories on the battlefield as attributable solely to the Union army’s numerical advantage.

This much most historians agree on: Grant never had drinking issues when he was actively engaged in a military campaign or when his family stayed with him at his headquarters (as was the case during the siege of Petersburg). Grant was devoted to both his family and his country’s success in putting down the rebellion.

Another statue of Grant outside of the Capitol

Another statue of Grant outside of the Capitol

Grant succeeded where his predecessors failed. Prior to Grant’s Virginia campaign against Lee, he had notched significant Union victories at Forts Donelson and Henry, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. In Virginia, the Union army primarily fought an entrenched enemy, for which a 3:1 advantage was required for success – an advantage the Union army did not have until Petersburg.

If the Union army was to prevail against a determined well-led enemy, both armies had to suffer casualties at a gut-wrenching level. Both Grant and Lee were brilliant, but both suffered horrendous defeats due to hubris (Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg for Lee) or failure to adequately scout the enemy (Cold Harbor during the Virginia Campaign for Grant), but neither man allowed a single failure to deter him from his larger task.

In brief, the evidence is mixed and should not be cited to some way diminish Grant’s accomplishments. Grant deserves his place in history as the general who “conquered the peace.” At the close of the Civil War, he commanded the largest military force in the world. He won two terms in the White House and probably would have won a third if he had actively sought the Republican Party nomination. He was the most popular man of his time. There’s ample reason the man and his armies are memorialized by statuary on the Washington Mall.

Statue of union troops during the Civil War. Photo taken outside the U.S. Capitol.

Statue of union troops during the Civil War; photo taken outside the U.S. Capitol

For both sides of the argument, go to the following sources:

H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, Doubleday (2012).

Sylvanus Cadwallader, Three Years with Grant, edited by Benjamin P. Thomas, University of Nebraska Press (1955), reprinted by Bison Books (1996) (see pages 70-72 and 113-119 of Bison Books edition).

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