Damn the Torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead

“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”  Most readers have heard that quote at one time or another.  Those were the words uttered in the heat of battle by Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, of the United States Navy.  The date was August 5, 1864.  You might wonder . . . who had torpedoes back then?

In the mid eighteen hundreds, what we in the twentieth century know as mines, were called torpedoes.  They were moored (anchored) to the bottom in waterways where enemy warships were expected to travel.  Upon contact with a warship, a torpedo would detonate, hopefully sinking the enemy’s ship.

The practice of exploding gunpowder beneath the water’s surface actually began ninety years earlier during the Revolutionary War.  In the late seventeen hundreds, American David Bushnell undertook to sink British warships with floating kegs of explosives.  Such underwater warfare was further refined by American Engineer Robert Fulton.  He was later famous for his success with steam driven vessels.

Okay, back to “Damn the torpedoes.”  Why did Admiral Farragut shout those words during the Civil War?  During his attack on Mobile, Alabama, he lost his lead ship to a torpedo.  He knew that he had to pass through a field of deadly torpedoes in order to reach the enemy fleet.  Legend has it that upon his decision to do so he shouted “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”  He beat the odds that day.

Admiral Farragut went on to either sink or capture all enemy ships in that battle.  He returned home a hero and the U.S. Congress created the rank of Vice Admiral, to which he was immediately promoted.  He was the first in U.S. history to hold that rank.  Up to that time, the highest rank in the U.S. Navy was that of Rear Admiral.  Two years later, he was the first to hold the newly created rank of Admiral.

Born near Knoxville, Tennessee in 1801, Farragut went to sea in 1811 aboard the U.S.S. Essex.  At the age of 12, he commanded a seized enemy ship, which in those days was referred to as a “Prize.”  Years later got the nickname of “Old Salamander” after skillfully commanding a difficult operation at New Orleans where his ships “slipped by” the heavily armed enemy forts ashore.

Admiral Farragut was a prominent U.S. Naval figure for which an academy was named on Toms River, New Jersey.  The Admiral Farragut Academy was a private school that was in operation until the mid-nineteen nineties.

The chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis has stained glass windows as memorials to four “sea heroes” of the past, one of which is Admiral Farragut.  Farragut Field, also at the Naval Academy, is home to the Academy’s “150-pound” football team.

Surely, if Admiral Farragut were still with us, he would approve of today’s Navigation Rules.  Prior to the current Nav Rules, the “International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea” existed.  Maritime nations have collaborated since the eighteen forties to establish a uniform protocol which would prevent collisions at sea.

As mariners, we face many of the same issues as they did in Admiral Farragut’s time.  A fire at sea is no less disastrous, men still fall overboard and vessels of all sizes run aground.  Some things never change.

Until next time, we wish you clear skies, fair winds and calm seas!


World Wide Marine Training, LLC, is a U.S. Coast Guard Approved facility authorized to give examinations for captain’s licenses up to Master 200 Tons, Able Seaman up to Unlimited, STCW Basic Training, Radar, ARPA and other Endorsements. Please visit www.worldwidemarinetraining.com or call toll-free 866-249-2135.