Damning the Torpedoes in Mobile Bay

The hero of Manila Bay in 1898 cut his teeth with Farragut in Mobile Bay in 1864

    Charles Vernon Gridley was not even 20 years old when he joined the crew of the sloop-of-war U.S.S. Oneida in September 1863. The Indiana native had grown up in Hillsdale, Michigan and attended Hillsdale College before gaining an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and was sent to sea along with the rest of his class in September 1863. The Oneida was his first at-sea assignment, and the ship was nearly as new as Ensign Gridley having moved down the ways at the Brooklyn Navy Yard November 20, 1861. A 1,488-ton screw sloop of war, the Oneida was 201 feet long, more than 33 feet abeam and was armed with 10 cannon, the largest being 30-pounders. A total of 186 officers and men manned the vessel which on a good day could sail along a 12 knots. She was truly a "fast ship going in harm's way."

    The Oneida had been assigned to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron under Admiral David Farragut shortly after being commissioned in February 1862, and had seen much action thus far in the war, including taking part in Farragut's passage of Forts Jackson and St. Philip downstream from New Orleans in April 1862. She had some hard luck later that year when she collided with another Federal steamer on the Mississippi River, but was soon back in the Gulf helping to blockade the port of Mobile, Alabama.

    Ensign Gridley wrote the following account to the Hillsdale Standard shortly after the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864 where the Oneida and its crew performed with great credit; as a matter of fact, a Marine and seven sailors from the vessel were awarded a Medal of Honor for their actions during that battle. Quartermaster John Jones assisted with the signals after the Oneida's wheel ropes were shot away. Landman David Naylor was serving as a powder boy for one of the 30-lb Parrot rifles when his shot-carrying box was shot out of his hands and went overboard; undaunted, Naylor jumped overboard to retrieve it and went back to work serving his gun. Seaman John Preston suffered a severe wound to his eyes, but concealed the injury so that he could assist wounded men below decks and was trying to return to his battle station when the surgeon discovered the extent of his injuries. James Sheridan was in charge of one of the 11-inch guns then took the place of the wounded signal quartermaster.  Coxswain Thomas Kendrick, Seaman William Newland, Seaman Charles Woram, and Sergeant James Roantree of the Marine Corps all were noted for the conspicuous gallantry in the engagement. 

    Charles Gridley would spend the rest of his life in the U.S. Navy, marrying the cousin of Gettysburg hero General Strong Vincent and settling in Erie, Pennsylvania. Gridley is perhaps best remembered for his pivotal role in command of the U.S.S. Olympia during the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish American War of 1898, when Commodore George Dewey famously said, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley." The battle was a complete success for the Navy, but proved to be the last for Gridley who died roughly a month later in Kobe, Japan. Captain Gridley's body was shipped home to his family in Erie, where a monument and city park was later erected in his honor.

Farragut's battle line steams past the thundering guns of Fort Morgan on the morning of August 5, 1864 in this dramatic painting by Louis Prang. The Oneida was the last ship in the column and cannot be seen here due to the heavy smoke from Federal and Confederate batteries. Ensign Gridley reported that his ship was struck 25 times during the battle, one shot knocking out the starboard boiler and scalding 17 men. The sloop lost a fifth of its men during the fight for Mobile Bay including its commander.

U.S. Steam Sloop Oneida, Mobile Bay, Alabama

August 13, 1864

    Thinking you would like an account of the fight in this place, I thought I could not spend my time better than by giving it to you. On the morning of the 5th, Admiral Farragut signaled the fleet to get under way, having previously ordered us to lash together in the following order: Octors, Brooklyn, Monitor, Tecumseh, Metacomet, Hartford, Chickasaw, Port Royal, Richmond, Manhattan, Seminole, Lackawanna, Winnebago, Kennebec, Monongahela, Itasca, Ossipee, Galena, and Oneida. The vessels on the right were the ones that fired, Fort Morgan being on the right of all. The vessels on the left were put there in case the others were disabled so they could take them through. As soon as we were past the fort, they were to cast off and take care of themselves.

Captain Charles V. Gridley

    We being at the end of the line could see more than anyone else in the fleet, and it was a beautiful sight. Each of the vessels had flying as many ensigns as they could possibly carry. The Rebels had to match us three forts, one ram, three gunboats, and 300 torpedoes, besides other gunboats up at the city. We steamed along to within 200-300 yards of Fort Morgan. This was about 7 a.m. and at the same time we were passing the fort, General Gordon Granger was attacking Fort Gaines with a land force, but as we neared the fort they both stopped fighting and looked on. 

    The fort opened on the Brooklyn as soon as she could be brought to bear then the ball opened in earnest. The officers in Fort Gaines said it was a beautiful sight. The monitor Tecumseh under Captain Tunis Craven ran into a torpedo and was immediately sunk. All the rest of us got by safe, only to meet the Rebel ram Tennessee, the pride of the Rebel navy. I omitted to mention that in passing the fort, the Tennessee came near us and put a rifle shell into our starboard boiler, bursting it and scalding some 17 men, four or five of whom have died, the others are doing as well as could be expected. Our whole loss on the Oneida was 14 or 15 killed, five severely wounded, and 18 slightly wounded. It was a dreadful sight to see those poor fellows running around on deck with the skin nearly scalded off from them.

    The Tennessee was run into by the Monongahela and Lackawanna, but it did not injure her in the least. At last her wheel ropes were shot away and she could not steer. The Monitor and Brooklyn, Hartford, Richmond, Lackawanna, Monongahela, and Ossipee then commenced throwing shot at her as fast as possible. We could not assist as we had to be towed wherever we went. At last she hoisted the white flag and we knew that she was ours. The Metacomet in the meantime had captured the gunboat Selma, so we had two prizes. The gunboats Morgan and Gaines went down under the guns of Fort Morgan and at night the Morgan succeeded in running up the bay towards the city. The Gaines was burned to prevent it from falling into our hands.  

Commander James Robert Madison Mullany commanded the Oneida during the fight in Mobile Bay; he ended up losing his left arm to amputation after being wounded in the engagement, but served with the Navy until his death in 1887.

    Admiral Franklin Buchanan was wounded in the leg but will not lose it. He with the rest of the captured wounded men were sent to the hospital at Pensacola. They allowed us to send a steamer out and return. Commander J. R. Madison Mullany of this vessel lost an arm in the fight and was sent also the hospital. The prisoners were distributed around among the different ships. Fort Gaines surrendered around 800 prisoners. As soon as the fleet reached the fort, the signal corps on shore made the signal "God Bless the Navy." We have armed signal officers on board nearly all of the vessels of the fleet. 

    The following is a general letter issued by Admiral Farragut to the fleet:

    Flagship Hartford

    Mobile Bay, August 6, 1864

    The Admiral returns thanks to the officers and men of the vessels of the fleet for their gallant conduct during the fight. It has never been his good fortune to see men do their duty with more cheerfulness; for though they know the enemy was prepared with all devilish means for our destruction and witnessed the almost instantaneous destruction of our gallant companions in the Tecumseh, and the slaughter of their own friends, mess mates, and gun mates, still there was not the slightest evidence of hesitation to follow your commander-in-chief through the lines of torpedoes and obstructions of which we knew nothing except from the exaggerations of the enemy. They claimed we would all be blown up as certainly as we attempted to enter. Fort his blind confidence in your leader, he thanks you.

    D.S. Farragut, Rear Admiral

Admiral David Farragut famously lashed himself into the rigging of his flagship the U.S.S. Hartford so that he could better the see the action above the smoke of battle. 

    The Hartford lost in killed and wounded 59; the Brooklyn lost 34, the Lackawanna 40, while the Tecumseh took down probably 100 souls, only 12 or 13 escaped and were picked up by a boat from the Metacomet. Fort Morgan is closely invested by land and water and will have to fall soon. 

    The following letter we received from the commander of Fort Gaines explains itself:

    Mobile Bay

    Feeling my inability to maintain my present position longer than you may see fit to open fire upon me with your fleet, and feeling the uselessness of entailing upon ourselves further destruction of life, I have the honor to propose the surrender of Fort Gaines, its garrison, store, etc.

    I trust in your magnanimity for obtaining honorable terms which I respectfully request that you will transmit to me, and allow me sufficient time to consider them and return an answer. This communication will be handed to you by Major W.R. Browe.

    I am respectfully, your obedient servant,
    C.D. Anderson, Col. commanding

    After consultation with General Granger, the Admiral concluded to turn it over to the army. The officers, however, had their choice to surrender their swords to the army or the navy, and all 37 of them surrendered to the navy! It has been a glorious victory but it was dearly bought.

    Mobile city is 30 miles from here and as it is shallow water, nothing but the small vessels can go up. However, the city is no good to us. We have stopped blockading and that is the principal thing. We were struck 25 times in the fight.



Letter from Ensign Charles Vernon Gridley, U.S.S. Oneida, Hillsdale Standard (Michigan), September 6, 1864, pg. 2

Gridley Monument in Erie, Pennsylvania


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