Alabama Public Radio is looking back on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay. The Naval engagement helped close off supply lines to the Confederacy, which brought the war to an end. It was also a big deal for newspapers during that time. Before radio, television, and the web—this is how most people got their headlines. We’re in the press room of the Birmingham News. Press manager David Ellis takes around as tomorrow’s issue goes by on rollers. The first thing you notice is the smell. It’s the red, black, yellow and blue ink. Ellis says he doesn’t notice it..usually. “If I’m back from vacation and get back here, I’m like ‘oh yeah, I’m home again,’” Ellis says. “You’re right, it does have a distinct smell to it.”
The edition you hear on the presses now will wind up on doorsteps in a few hours. Back in 1864, the earliest news on the Battle of Mobile Bay took six days to get out.
“The Daily Ohio Statesman, August 17, 1864. We have our first installment of the glorious news from Admiral Farragut’s victorious squadron. The reports furnished are full of the most intense interest, and this latest achievement of the ‘old salamander’ will place him at top of the list of all Naval commanders of the world.”
“One source I read said it was the Naval equivalent of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg,” says Dr. Debra Van Tuyll. She teaches history at Georgia Regents University in Augusta. “That tells me that the writer thought it was indeed a turning point.” Van Tuyll’s specialty is Civil War journalism, and how it worked. The Battle of Mobile Bay appears to have been hot news in 1864.
Just how hot?
“It made page one," says VanTuyll. "Prior to the Civil War, page one was all advertising usually. News actually ran on page two. But, during the war people wanted news so quickly, newspaper editors realized that they needed to put the news on the front page.”
“Chattanooga Rebel, August 26, 1864. The flag of the truce boat returned last evening. The Yankees say Fort Morgan capitulated at two o’clock on Tuesday last. On Monday evening, they concentrated their fire on the fort, which replied sharply. On Tuesday the bombardment was renewed.”
Papers ranging from the New York Times to the Chattanooga Rebel sent correspondents or collected eyewitness accounts on the battle between Admiral David Farragut of the Union and Franklin Buchanan for the Confederacy. This is where historians start to differ on the value of news accounts… “Newspapers are not necessarily the best place to go to find out what happened,” says Dr. Craig Symonds. He taught for thirty years at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Symonds also wrote over thirty books on American military history. His criticism focuses on how, in the 1860’s, newspapers took sides… “So, there were Republican newspapers and Democratic newspapers. And the Republican newspapers would generally say something like ‘what a tremendous victory this is to substantiate our great President’s war policy,’” says Symonds. “And the Democratic paper would say ‘okay, we won this one, but the costs were very heavy and that proves the policies aren’t working and we should throw this rascal out of office.” And that was just in the North. And the rascal Symonds is talking about was Abraham Lincoln who was a Republican.
“You certainly did a majority of Northern newspapers who were 'yay Union,' and the majority of Southern newspapers who were 'yay Confederacy,'” says Debra Van Tuyll. She says Southern papers appeared even more critical of their president Jefferson Davis. “They used terms like despot,” she recalls. “In fact, the Augusta Chronicle once wrote if they had to have a despot, they maybe they should stay part of the Union and have Abraham Lincoln.”
“Richmond Inquirer, August 15, 1864. Fort Gaines has gone the way of Hatteras, Roanoke Island, Pulaski, and Hilton Head. Its isolated position was exposed to the concentrated assault of the Yankee Navy, and a flanking operation of troops debarked upon commanding points. Perhaps the officer in command of the fort may have proven himself a traitor. In that case, eternal infamy awaits him.”
One point all sides appear to agree on is the political value of the news reports of the Battle of Mobile Bay to Abraham Lincoln. His support of the war effort and the abolition of slavery wasn’t widely accepted and election day was coming.” “Lincoln knew he had to be re-elected for his policy to be sustained,” says Craig Symonds. “And when Farragut made his dash into the Bay, there was no clear indication that he would be re-elected.” “At that point, Lincoln as very low in the polls. And it looked like McClelland was going to win the election unless something didn’t turn around,” says Debra Van Tuyll. “And the Battle of Mobile Bay and the capture of Atlanta turned Union opinion around and back favorable of Lincoln, which is what helped Lincoln get re-elected.”
If there’s one thing news coverage didn’t resolve, it’s what Craig Symonds says is the holy grail connected to the Battle of Mobile Bay. It’s one of the famous sayings he used to hear around the campus during his teaching days at Annapolis… “Phrases like ‘don’t give up the ship,’ and ‘we have met the enemy and they are ours,’ those kinds of things,” he says. “And with along with them is ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” As catchy as David’s Farragut’s might have been, Symonds contends a navy man wouldn’t have said it like that. “Another theory is that he said ‘damn the torpedoes, go ahead, four bells’ which doesn’t have the same ring as ‘damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. So, instead of ‘full steam ahead’ like a land lubber might say, he probably said ‘four bells.’”
And apparently, no newspaper account says who’s right and who’s wrong.