The Bay Fight

(Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864.)

“On the forecastle, Ulf the Red
    Watched the lashing of the ships—
‘If the Serpent lie so far ahead,
    We shall have hard work of it here,’
    Said he.”
                Longfellow’s “Saga of King Olaf.

Three days through sapphire seas we sailed,
The steady Trade blew strong and free,
The Northern Light his banners paled.
The Ocean Stream our channels wet,
    We rounded low Canaveral’s lee.
And passed the isles of emerald set
    In blue Bahama’s turquoise sea.

By reef and shoal obscurely mapped.
    And hauntings of the gray sea-wolf,
The palmy Western Key lay lapped
    In the warm washing of the Gulf.

But weary to the hearts of all
    The burning glare, the barren reach
    Of Santa Rosa’s withered beach,
And Pensacola’s ruined wall.

And weary was the long patrol,
    The thousand miles of shapeless strand,
From Brazos to San Blas that roll
    Their drifting dunes of desert sand.

Yet, coast-wise as we cruised or lay,
    The land-breeze still at nightfall bore.
By beach and fortress-guarded bay,
    Sweet odors from the enemy’s shore.

Fresh from the forest solitudes.
    Unchallenged of his sentry lines—
The bursting of his cypress buds,
    And the warm fragrance of his pines.

Ah, never braver bark and crew,
    Nor bolder Flag a foe to dare,
Had left a wake on ocean blue
    Since Lion-Heart sailed Trenc-le-mer

But little gain by that dark ground
    Was ours, save, sometime, freer breath
For friend or brother strangely found,
    ‘Scaped from the drear domain of death.

And little venture for the bold.
    Or laurel for our valiant Chief,
    Save some blockaded British thief.
Full fraught with murder in his hold.

Caught unawares at ebb or fload—
    Or dull bombardment, day by day,
    With fort and earth-work, far away,
Low couched in sullen leagues of mud.

A weary time,— but to the strong
    The day at last, as ever, came;
And the volcano, laid so long,
    Leaped forth in thunder and in flame!

“ Man your starboard battery! “
    Kimberly shouted—
The ship, with her hearts of oak,
Was going, mid roar and smoke,
        On to victory!
    None of us doubted.
    No, not our dying—
    Farragut’s Flag was flying!

Gaines growled low on our left,
    Morgan roared on our right—
Before us, gloomy and fell.
With breath like the fume of hell,
Lay the Dragon of iron shell,
    Driven at last to the fight!

Ha, old ship! do they thrill,
    The brave two hundred scars
    You got in the River-Wars?
That were leeched with clamorous skill,
    (Surgery savage and hard,)
Splinted with bolt and beam,
Probed in scarfing and seam,
    Rudely linted and tarred
With oakum and boiling pitch,
And sutured with splice and hitch,
    At the Brooklyn Navy-Yard!

Our lofty spars were down.
To bide the battle’s frown,
(Wont of old renown)—
But every ship was drest
In her bravest and her best,
    As if for a July day;
Sixty flags and three,
    As we floated up the bay—
Every peak and mast-head flew
The brave Red, White, and Blue—
    We were eighteen ships that day.

With hawsers strong and taut,
The weaker lashed to port,
    On we sailed, two by two—
That if either a bolt should feel
Crash through caldron or wheel,
Fin of bronze or sinew of steel,
    Her mate might bear her through.

Steadily nearing the head,
The great Flag-Ship led,
    Grandest of sights!
On her lofty mizen flew
Our Leader’s dauntless Blue,
    That had waved o’er twenty fights—
So we went, with the first of the tide.
    Slowly, mid the roar
    Of the Rebel guns ashore
And the thunder of each full broadside.

Ah, how poor the prate
Of statute and state
    We once held with these fellows—
Here, on the flood’s pale-green,
    Hark how he bellows.
    Each bluff old Sea-Lawyer!
Talk to them, Dahlgren,
    Parrott, and Sawyer!

On, in the whirling shade
    Of the cannon’s sulphury breath,
    We drew to the Line of Death
That our devilish Foe had laid—
Meshed in a horrible net.
    And baited villanous well.
Right in our path were set
    Three hundred traps of hell!

And there, O sight forlorn!
    There, while the cannon
        Hurtled and thundered—
(Ah, what ill raven
Flapped o’er the ship that morn!)—
Caught by the under-death,
In the drawing of a breath
    Down went dauntless Craven,
        He and his hundred!

A moment we saw her turret,
    A little heel she gave,
And a thin white spray went o’er her,
    Like the crest of a breaking wave—
In that great iron coffin,
    The channel for their grave,
    The fort their monument,
(Seen afar in the offing,)
Ten fathom deep lie Craven,
    And the bravest of our brave.

Then, in that deadly track,
A little the ships held back,
    Closing up in their stations—
There are minutes that fix the fate
    Of battles and of nations,
    (Christening the generations,)
When valor were all too late,
    If a moment’s doubt be harbored—
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 starboard,
    And the Hartford passed ahead.

Ahead lay the Tennessee,
    On our starboard bow he lay,
With his mail-clad consorts three,
    (The rest had run up the Bay)—
There he was, belching flame from his bow,
And the steam from his throat’s abyss
Was a Dragon’s maddened hiss—
    In sooth a most cursed craft!—
In a sullen ring at bay
By the Middle Ground they lay,
    Raking us fore and aft.

    Trust me, our berth was hot,
    Ah, wickedly well they shot;
How their death-bolts howled and stung!
    And the water-batteries played
    With their deadly cannonade
Till the air around us rung;
So the battle raged and roared—
Ah, had you been aboard
    To have seen the fight we made!

How they leaped, the tongues of flame,
    From the cannon’s fiery lip!
How the broadsides, deck and frame.
    Shook the great ship!

And how the enemy’s shell
    Came crashing, heavy and ofit.
    Clouds of splinters flying aloft

And falling in oaken showers—
   But ah, the pluck of the crew!
Had you stood on that deck of ours,
    You had seen what men may do.

Still, as the fray grew louder,
    Boldly they worked and well;
Steadily came the powder.
    Steadily came the shell.
And if tackle or truck found hurt,
    Quickly they cleared the wreck;
And the dead were laid to port.
    All a-row, on our deck.

    Never a nerve that failed,
    Never a cheek that paled.
Not a tinge of gloom or pallor—
    There was bold Kentucky’s grit,
And the old Virginian valor.
    And the daring Yankee wit.

There were blue eyes from turfy Shannon,
    There were black orbs from palmy Niger —
But there, alongside the cannon.
    Each man fought like a tiger!

A little, once, it looked ill.
    Our consort began to burn—
They quenched the flames with a will.
But our men were falling still,
    And still the fleet was astern.

Right abreast of the Fort
    In an awful shroud they lay,
    Broadsides thundering away,
And lightning from every port—
    Scene of glory and dread!
A storm-cloud all aglow
    With flashes of fiery red—
The thunder raging below,
    And the forest of flags o’erhead!

So grand the hurly and roar,
    So fiercely their broadsides blazed,
The regiments fighting ashore
    Forgot to fire as they gazed.

    There, to silence the Foe,
    Moving grimly and slow,
They loomed in that deadly wreath,
    Where the darkest batteries frowned—
    Death in the air all round,
And the black torpedoes beneath!

And now, as we looked ahead.
    All for’ard, the long white deck
Was growing a strange dull red ;
        But soon, as once and agen
Fore and aft we sped,
    (The firing to guide or check,)
You could hardly choose but tread
    On the ghastly human wreck,
(Dreadful gobbet and shred
   That a minute ago were men!)

Red, from main-mast to bitts!
    Red, on bulwark and wale—
Red, by combing and hatch—
    Red, o’er netting and rail!

And ever, with steady con,
    The ship forged slowly by—
And ever the crew fought on,
    And their cheers rang loud and high.

Grand was the sight to see
    How by their guns they stood,
Right in front of our dead
    Fighting square abreast—
    Each brawny arm and chest
All spotted with black and red,
    Chrism of fire and blood!

Worth our watch, dull and sterile,
    Worth all the weary time—
Worth the woe and the peril,
    To stand in that strait sublime!

Fear? A forgotten form!
    Death? A dream of the eyes!
We were atoms in God’s great storm
    That roared through the angry skies.

One only doubt was ours,
    One only dread we knew—
Could the day that dawned so well
Go down for the Darker Powers?
    Would the fleet get through?
And ever the shot and shell
Came with the howl of hell,
The splinter-clouds rose and fell,
    And the long line of corpses grew—
    Would the fleet win through?

They are men that never will fail,
    (How aforetime they’ve fought!)
But Murder may yet prevail—
        They may sink as Craven sank.
    Therewith one hard, fierce thought,
Burning on heart and lip,
Ran like fire through the ship—
        Fight her, to the last plank!

A dimmer Renown might strike
    If Death lay square alongside—
But the Old Flag has no like,
    She must fight, whatever betide—
When the War is a tale of old,
And this day’s story is told.
    They shall hear how the Hartford died!

But as we ranged ahead,
    And the leading ships worked in,
    Losing their hope to win
The enemy turned and fled—
And one seeks a shallow reach,
    And another, winged in her flight.
    Our mate, brave Jouett, brings in—
    And one, all torn in the fight,
Runs for a wreck on the beach,
    Where her flames soon fire the night.

And the Ram, when well up the Bay,
    And we looked that our stems should meet,
(He had us fair for a prey,)
Shifting his helm midway,  
    Sheered off and ran for the fleet;
There, without skulking or sham.
    He fought them, gun for gun,
And ever he sought to ram,
    But could finish never a one.

From the first of the iron shower
    Till we sent our parting shell,
’Twas just one savage hour
    Of the roar and the rage of hell.

With the lessening smoke and thunder.
    Our glasses around we aim—
What is that burning yonder?
    Our Philippi,— aground and in flame!

Below, ’twas still all a-roar,
As the ships went by the shore.
    But the fire of the Fort had slacked,
(So fierce their volleys had been)—
And now, with a mighty din,
The whole fleet came grandly in,
    Though sorely battered and wracked.

So, up the Bay we ran.
    The Flag to port and ahead;
And a pitying rain began
    To wash the lips of our dead.

A league from the Fort we lay.
    And deemed that the end must lag;
When lo! looking down the Bay,
    There flaunted the Rebel Rag—
The Ram is again underway
    And heading dead for the Flag!

    Steering up with the stream,
        Boldly his course he lay,
Though the fleet all answered his fire.
And, as he still drew nigher,
    Ever on bow and beam
        Our Monitors pounded away—
        How the Chicasaw hammered away!

Quickly breasting the wave.
    Eager the prize to win.
First of us all the brave
    Monongahela went in
Under full head of steam—
Twice she struck him abeam,
Till her stem was a sorry work,
    (She might have run on a crag!)
The Lackawana hit fair.
He flung her aside like cork.
    And still he held for the Flag.

High in the mizen shroud,
    (Lest the smoke his sight o’erwhelm,)
Our Admiral’s voice rang loud,
    “Hard-a-starboard your helm!
Starboard! and run him down! “
    Starboard it was— and so.
Like a black squall’s lifting frown,
Our mighty bow bore down
    On the iron beak of the Foe.

We stood on the deck together,
    Men that had looked on death
In battle and stormy weather—
    Yet a little we held our breath.
    When, with the hush of death,
The great ships drew together.

Our Captain strode to the bow,
    Drayton, courtly and wise,
    Kindly cynic, and wise,
(You hardly had known him now,
    The flame of fight in his eyes!)
His brave heart eager to feel
How the oak would tell on the steel!

    But, as the space grew short,
        A little he seemed to shun us.
Out peered a form grim and lanky,
    And a voice yelled— “Hard-a-port!
Hard-a-port!—here’s the damned Yankee
        Coming right down on us!”

He sheered, but the ships ran foul
With a gnarring shudder and growl—
    He gave us a deadly gun;
But as he passed in his pride,
(Rasping right alongside!)
    The Old Flag, in thunder tones,
Poured in her port broadside,
Rattling his iron hide,
    And cracking his timber bones!

Just then, at speed on the Foe,
    With her bow all weathered and brown,
    The great Lackawana came down,
Full tilt, for another blow j
We were forging ahead.
    She reversed— but, for all our pains.
Rammed the old Hartford, instead.
    Just for’ard the mizzen chains!

Ah! how the masts did buckle and bend,
    And the stout hull ring and reel,
As she took us right on end!
    (Vain were engine and wheel,
    She was under full steam)—
With the roar of a thunder-stroke
Her two thousand tons of oak
    Brought up on us, right abeam!

A wreck, as it looked, we lay—
(Rib and plankshear gave way
    To the stroke of that giant wedge!)
Here, after all, we go—
The old ship is gone!— ah, no.
    But cut to the water’s edge.

Never mind, then— at him again!
    His flurry now can’t last long;
He’ll never again see land—
Try that on him, Marchand!
On him again, brave Strong!

Heading square at the hulk,
    Full on his beam we bore;
But the spine of the huge Sea-Hog
Lay on the tide like a log.
    He vomited flame no more.

By this, he had found it hot—
    Half the fleet, in an angry ring,
    Closed round the hideous Thing,
Hammering with solid shot.
And bearing down, bow on bow—
    He has but a minute to choose;
Life or renown ?— which now
    Will the Rebel Admiral lose?

Cruel, haughty, and cold,
He ever was strong and bold—
    Shall he shrink from a wooden stem ?
He will think of that brave band
He sank in the Cumberland—
    Aye, he will sink like them,

Nothing left but to fight
Boldly his last sea-fight!
    Can he strike? By heaven, ’tis true!
    Down comes the traitor Blue,
And up goes the captive White!

Up went the White! Ah then
The hurrahs that, once and agen,
Rang from three thousand men
    All flushed and savage with fight!
Our dead lay cold and stark,
But our dying, down in the dark,
    Answered as best they might—
Lifting their poor lost arms,
    And cheering for God and Right!

Ended the mighty noise,
    Thunder of forts and ships.
        Down we went to the hold—
O, our dear dying boys!
How we pressed their poor brave lips,
    (Ah, so pallid and cold!)
And held their hands to the last,
    (Those that had hands to hold).

Still thee, O woman heart!
    (So strong an hour ago)—
If the idle tears must start,
    ’Tis not in vain they flow.

They died, our children, dear.
    On the drear berth deck they died;
Do not think of them here—
Even now their footsteps near
The immortal, tender sphere—
(Land of love and cheer!
Home of the Crucified!)

And the glorious deed survives.
    Our threescore, quiet and cold.
Lie thus, for a myriad lives
    And treasure-millions untold—
(Labor of poor men’s lives,
Hunger of weans and wives.
    Such is war-wasted gold.)

Our ship and her fame to-day
    Shall float on the storied Stream,
When mast and shroud have crumbled away
    And her long white deck, is a dream.
One daring leap in the dark,
    Three mortal hours, at the most—
And hell lies stiff and stark
    On a hundred leagues of coast.

For the mighty Gulf is ours—
        The Bay is lost and won,
        An Empire is lost and won!
Land, if thou yet hast flowers.
Twine them in one more wreath
    Of tenderest white and red,,
(Twin buds of glory and death!)
    For the brows of our brave dead -
        For thy Navy’s noblest Son.

Joy, O Land, for thy sons,
    Victors by flood and field!
The traitor walls and guns
    Have nothing left but to yield—
    (Even now they surrender!)

And the ships shall sail once more,
    And the cloud of war sweep on
To break on the cruel shore—
    But Craven is gone.
    He and his hundred are gone.

The flags flutter up and down
    At sunrise and twilight dim,
The cannons menace and frown—
    But never again for him,
    Him and the hundred.

The Dahlgrens are dumb,
    Dumb are the mortars—
Never more shall the drum
    Beat to colors and quarters—
    The great guns are silent.

O brave heart and loyal!
    Let all your colors dip—
    Mourn him, proud Ship!
From main deck to royal.
    God rest our Captain,
    Rest our lost hundred.

Droop, flag and pennant!
    What is your pride for?
    Heaven, that he died for,
Rest our Lieutenant,
    Rest our brave threescore.


O Mother Land! this weary life
    We led, we lead, is long of thee;
Thine the strong agony of strife,
    And thine the lonely sea.

Thine the long decks all slaughter-sprent,
    The weary rows of cots that lie
With wrecks of strong men, marred and rent,
    ‘Neath Pensacola’s sky.

And thine the iron caves and dens
    Wherein the flame our war-fleet drives;
The fiery vaults, whose breath is men’s
    Most dear and precious lives.

Ah, ever, when with storm sublime
    Dread Nature clears our murky air.
Thus in the crash of falling crime
    Some lesser guilt must share.

Full red the furnace fires must glow
    That melt the ore of mortal kind:
The Mills of God are grinding slow,
    But ah, how close they grind!

To-day the Dahlgren and the. drum
    Are dread Apostles of his Name;
His Kingdom here can only come
    By chrism of blood and flame.

Be strong : already slants the gold
    Athwart these wild and stormy skies;
From out this blackened waste, behold.
    What happy homes shall rise!

But see thou well no traitor gloze,
    No striking hands with Death and Shame,
Betray the sacred blood that flows
    So freely for thy name.

And never fear a victor foe—
    Thy children’s hearts are strong and high;
Nor mourn too fondly—well they know
    On deck or field to die.

Nor shalt thou want one willing breath,
    Though, ever smiling round the brave,
The blue sea bear us on to death,
    The green were one wide grave.


U.S. Flag Ship Hartford, Mobile Bay,
August, 1864.


From War-Lyrics and Other Poems ( Boston, Ticknor and Field, 1866). This poem is in the public domain.

About this Poem

During the Civil War Brownell war poems caught the public’s imagination and they became among the most popular. Two in particular brought him fame “The River Fight”, telling of the 1862 advance of Farragut’s fleet past Forts Jackson and St Philip and up the Mississippi to New Orleans, and “The Bay Fight” an account of Farragut’s 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay.

During this fight Brownell was with Farragut on the USS Hartford. It is said that as he stood on deck in the middle of the fighting he wrote stanzas for “The Bay Fight.” He was so well known in those years that his contemporary the famed writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. called him “Our Battle Laureate.”