Damn the Torpedoes! What Did Farragut Really Say at Mobile Bay?

The actual words by Adm. David Farragut during the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay that became paraphrased as “Damn the torpedoes, full speed speed ahead” are still something of a mystery 150 years after they were uttered.

Several sources note that Farragut originally cried, “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells. Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!”

But according to a newly discovered primary source, the true words spoken by Farragut were: “Damn the torpedoes! Go on! Put the helm a-starboard, Captain Drayton!”

Brownell-Henry-H-USN-FThe provenance of this version is an inscription in a gilt-embossed green buckram 1864 pamphlet “Bay-Fight” by Henry H. Brownell (pictured), acting ensign and clerk to Farragut during the Battle of Mobile Bay. The pamphlet was recently sold on Cowan’s Auctions.

Brownell’s poem, “Bay-Fight,” was first published in “Harper’s Monthly” magazine. The author presented this particular copy to Fleet Surgeon James C. Palmer.

Brownell never mentions the “Damn the torpedoes” phrase in his poem. He wrote:

From the main-top, bold and brief,
Came the word of our grand old Chief—
“Go on!”—’twas all he said—
Our helm was put to the starboard,
And the Hartford passed ahead.

But in this pamphlet, Surg. Palmer put a hand-written asterisk next to “Go on!” with this explanatory note:

page02*All Mr. Brownell heard. Or, perhaps, the Admiral, who was not a profane man, told him to suppress one phrase. When the pilot reported from the “Metacomet” that we were edging down the torpedo-field, Admiral Farragut called, from under the maintop, in these words: “Damn the torpedoes! Go on! Put the helm a-starboard, Captain Drayton!” So we held our breath, and screwed over the bank. -J.C.P.

Two references worthy of mention. The “Metacomet” is one of the Union vessels present and in the thick of the battle. Use of the word “screwed” refers to the action of the screw-propeller engine that drove the ship.

Brownell’s carte de visite is new to my collection, and now available on PinterestTumblr, and Flickr.

Book Talk at Reynolds Community College

ghazala-ronI’m overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the fine team at Reynolds who made last night’s book talk a reality. Heartfelt thanks to Lisa, Ashley, and especially my good friend Ghazala Hashmi (pictured here). The friendship Ghazala and I share extends all the way back to high school, and I’m so happy to reconnect with her after so many years. She and I caught up over dinner at a local Thai restaurant before the talk.

The event took place in the Massey Library auditorium on campus and was well attended. I was delighted to see a number of young faces in the audience, and applaud the teacher who gave one group of high school students extra credit for attending the presentation. I was also impressed with the raffle—four copies of “African American Faces of the Civil War” were given away, and another four copies of the book written by the author who will appear at the next event. In all the talks I’ve participated in, the book raffle is a first.

All of this happened on my birthday, and at the end of the presentation, event coordinator Lisa Bishop stepped up to the podium and asked everyone to wish me a happy birthday on the count of three. That was icing on the cake!

After the event, we all walked out into the lobby of the library for refreshments and a book signing. I met and signed books for a number of attendees, including Wendell, a teacher who planned to use the book in his class.

Great day!

The State of the Navy Is Strong!

Last summer, I announced on Facebook that my next book in the Faces series will focus on the fourth great narrative of the Civil War—the stories of sailors who served in the Union and Confederate navies.

I’m pleased to report that the state of the navy is strong! Over the last six months, I’ve located 27 original, wartime photographs of navy men, and have received permission to include them in the forthcoming book. Research is underway for the majority of the men, and two profiles are finished.

dana-williamOne of the images acquired for the book is included here. Acting Ensign William S. Dana (standing) is pictured with Richard S. Dana. The two are likely brothers or cousins. The back of the photograph is dated October 1863, which coincides with Ensign Dana’s graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy. Less than a year later, Dana numbered among a small group of officers who received a formal thanks from Admiral David Farragut for the destruction of the blockade runner Ivanhoe, which was chased aground by federal warships near Fort Morgan at the mouth of Mobile Bay. On July 6, 1864, Dana commanded one of several small boats that attacked the Ivanhoe in a daring nighttime raid. Dana and his comrades managed to set the stranded boat afire while hundreds of Union sailors and soldiers observed the action. “The entire conduct of the expedition was marked by a promptness and energy which shows what may be expected of such officers and men on similar occasions,” announced Farragut with evident pride.

Dana went on to a distinguished career in the navy.

This is one of the 77 soldier stories and images that will ultimately appear in the book.

I am delighted with the progress to date, and will continue to post updates at six-month intervals. The manuscript is scheduled to be delivered to my publisher, The Johns Hopkins University Press, in December 2015.

“African American Faces” in the Baltimore Sun

sunFred Rasmussen, who writes the popular column Back Story for the Baltimore Sun, featured African American Faces of War yesterday. Fred attended my recent book talk at the Johns Hopkins Club, and I thoroughly enjoyed having he opportunity to meet him. Fred was born in raised in Dunellen, N.J., only a mile or two from my boyhood home in Middlesex.

An excerpt from Back Story:

Some 200,000 African-Americans enlisted in the Union army or navy — some of them were free while others were runaway slaves. They served as soldiers, servants or laborers.

Not only did Coddington, who lives in Arlington, Va., draw on his own collection, he turned to other collectors, historical societies and libraries such as the Beinecke Library at Yale University, which had images of the 108th Infantry of the U.S. Colored Troops in its collection, for instance.

He selected only images of men who were identified by name, which allowed him to go to the National Archives and the Library of Congress, where he was able to go through pension records, revealing a great deal of biographical information on the individuals.

Read the full column.

Book Talk at the Polk County Historical Association

Polk County logoI presented a talk about African American Faces of the Civil War at the Polk County Historical Association in Columbus, N.C., on Tuesday. I had a great time thanks to PCHS president Anna Conner, who made all the arrangements, and Al Creasy, who made sure the projector was up and running. (It was!)

This was a homecoming for me. My mother Carol has lived in the area for 35 years. She and my brother Gary and sister-in-law Wendy came out, and I did not heckle me off the podium! Also in attendance was my great friend Allan Pruette, who came with a folder full of clips of my work from my days at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and elsewhere.

I met a number of local folks, including Craig, Garrett, and the venerable James Payne. Thanks to all for attending.

I truly enjoyed my visit, and having the opportunity to share the stories and photos of these men who participated in the Civil War. Book sales were strong, and I appreciate the support.

The talk was captured on video, and will be available on CD for members to borrow from the PCHS library. Kudos to the association for making this service available. Anna pointed out several of the videos that were oral histories of now-deceased citizens of the county.

Fun fact: Polk County is not named for the eleventh president, but William Polk, a Revolutionary War colonel who survived Valley Forge and participated in numerous engagements with Washington’s army.