Strike the Colors
The Capture of the Ram CSS Tennessee

     As early as May of 1864, Admiral David G. Farragut had desired to take the blockading fleet into Mobile Bay and reduce the forts within, but for lack of ground support as well as a small force of ironclads to meet those already known to be in service with his enemy. It wouldn't be until July that Major General Edward R. S. Canby would arrive to support with a division of his own troops as well as a group of four ironclads to even the odds.
     Preparations for what would turn out to be one of the great epic Naval battles of the Civil War began in mid July of 1864, when General Order No. 10 was published aboard the USS Hartford. The plan of action was devised as to sail into Mobile Bay, reduce Fort Morgan, and capture or sink the Confederate Ram CSS Tennessee.
Mobile Bay
     Later in the month on July 29th, General Order No. 11 gave further instruction that should battle damage cause reduction in speed to any vessel it was not to hinder the task force but to set a course west and not embarrass the attacking force by attempting to regain their position in line, rather fall to the stern of the last in column, should the ship rejoin the engagement. The monitors roll in the operation was to provide covering fire against the batteries of Fort Morgan and to reduce the batteries which would fire upon the task force as it passed; always keeping the watchful eye for the arrival of the Confederate monitors known to be in the harbor.
CSS Tennessee
     The day was overcast with very little sunshine as eighteen vessels in all got underway at 5:45 am, the morning of August 5, 1864; shortly after six o'clock the first hostile shot opened up from Fort Morgan; the four federal monitors sailing close by to starboard trading shots with the fortress, as Admiral Franklin Buchanan's fleet with his flag aboard the Ram Tennessee, along with CSS Selma, CSS Gaines and CSS Morgan lay in wait just to the northeast.

     The USS Brooklyn leading the formation with the Octorara, lashed to her port side, lit up in answer to the batteries at Fort Morgan. In the smoky region of combat, she sailed right into a row of buoys marking the path of torpedoes that had sunk the monitor Tecumseh with all but ten of her crew, and forced her to yield to Farragut's flag as it sailed on past. The Octorara was unlashed and sent out to join the ship to ship exchange of shots, both Harford and Brooklyn pouring a murderous fire upon the rebel ram.
     The CSS Tennessee, commanded by Commander James D. Johnston, lead the squadron in an attempt to block any further passage of the harbor, however, the federal vessels proved too fast to stop. Contrary to chasing the federal fleet further within, Tennessee stood in close to Fort Morgan and awaited their inevitable return.

     As the shells from the additional combatants began to rain havoc on Farragut's squadron he ordered the USS Metacomet to cast off and go after the rebel gun boats. It was now half past eight and the attacking fleet had succeeded in passing the bastion, only to look astern with Tennessee patiently waiting.
     The signal was sent out to all ships to concentrate on the Confederate ram. The first to approach was the USS Monongahela. Perhaps not best suited for ramming, the warship was the first to strike a blow, followed by the USS Lackawanna; neither of the two causing any serious damage. Admiral Farragut's flagship, the Hartford took the next opportunity by hitting the Tennessee with the bow of the ship, as she passed by unloading a full broadside from port at a distance of no more than twelve feet.
     The Tennessee was being hammered and Admiral Franklin Buchanan was struck and painfully wounded. The ram's wheel chain was carried away, the port covers shot away, the tiller shot away from the rudder head, the smoke pipe became so riddled by shot, it simply collapsed.
     The federal monitors continuously firing their eleven and fifteen inch solid shot against the shield and all other wooden vessels closed in firing separate broadsides at point blank range. To make matters all the worse for Commander Johnston and his ram, the primers for his guns began to miserably fail him. No less than two port covers were completely unshipped by shot and the steering gear became entirely disabled. The federal ships surrounded her on all quarters and continued a destructive fire for perhaps a half hour, the loss of steering as well as the loss of steam when the stack collapsed caused any further resistance to be futile.

     During the course of this inspirational battle, the CSS Gaines had been so peppered she began to sink and ran herself aground. The CSS Selma outclassed in comparison to her federal counterparts was forced to strike her colors and surrendered.
     Badly wounded and now completely outmatched, Admiral Buchanan gave the order for the Tennessee to strike the colors. Commander Johnston himself climbed to the top of the shield just as another federal ship was nearing to strike her again and hauled down the colors, avoiding another collision the warship could not afford.

     The losses aboard the federal fleet had been damaging but acceptable. The sinking of the monitor Tecumseh and loss of nearly all of her crew terribly lamented. Admiral Farragut however could write the Navy Department and claim a resounding success. Shortly after 10:00 am that morning Admiral Buchanan's sword was sent by messenger to the USS Hartford, CSS Tennessee had been fairly won, fallen prize to a master of the old wooden Navy.

Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2005

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at