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.

New Jersey’s ‘Mutinous’ 33rd

toffeyNow available on New York Times Disunion is the story of John James Toffey and how he came to receive the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry when he saved a skirmish line at Chattanooga.

An excerpt:

The order to begin what came to be known as the Battle of Orchard Knob (or Indian Hill) was given about 3:30 a.m. Toffey recalled, “We were ordered to charge a very strong position on the extreme right of the rebel line. It was well fortified and surrounded by dense woods, while in front there was an open field over which we had to charge.”

Confederate infantry and sharpshooters concealed themselves in the woods and in rifle pits dug into the banks of Citico Creek, and arranged themselves under cover of a railroad bridge and nearby buildings.

The Southerners opened up a murderous fire almost immediately after the 33rd started forward — no more then 20 paces according to one account. Rebel lead struck the Jersey boys with deadly accuracy. The Confederates, Toffey noted, “were directing their attention to the officers.”

Read the full story.

I first wrote about Toffey in my 2004 book, Faces of the Civil War: An Album of Union Soldiers and Their Stories.

New on Disunion: A Regiment is Sacrificed at Gettysburg

BrownleeMy latest contribution to Disunion is now available. Corp. James Brownlee of the 134th New York Infantry suffered multiple wounds during the first day’s fight at Gettysburg. An excerpt:

Union forces along the northern edge of Gettysburg, Pa., occupied a precarious position on July 1, 1863. Advancing Confederates poured deadly volleys into the rapidly thinning blue ranks as a steady stream of wounded trickled into the normally peaceful Pennsylvania town.

A federal division commander in the thick of the fray, Gen. Carl Schurz, was running out of options. A former German revolutionary who became an influential voice among fellow political refugees, he sent his aides in search of reinforcements. While he waited for help, he received reports that Union troops on his right and left had buckled under the intense pressure of the Confederate juggernaut.

A mile south, Cpl. James Brownlee watched and listened to the raging battle from the heights of Cemetery Hill. A farmhand who had emigrated from Ireland with his family when he was a boy, Brownlee and his comrades in the 134th New York Infantry could clearly see the fighting where Schurz was hotly engaged.

Read the full profile.