This term is a command to go as fast as you can, at maximum power.
This saying is credited to David Glasgow Farragut (1801-1870) – a US naval officer, who became famous for his service to the Union during the American Civil War. In 1864, at the Battle of Mobile Bay, he refused to retreat, shouting the now famous phrase.
During the Civil War, Union ships imposed a blockade on Confederate ports. One of the few ports to defy the blockade was Mobile in Alabama. In August 1864, Farragut was tasked with closing the port, thus completing the blockade of Southern ports. Mobile was heavily protected, both by on-shore batteries and by tethered naval mines, known as torpedoes.
Farragut ordered his fleet to charge the bay but when one of the lead boats struck a mine and sank, the others pulled back. From his perch high up on the main mast of his flagship, the USS Hartford, Farragut shouted down (using a trumpet), “What’s the trouble?” In response, he was told of the torpedoes. To which he apparently replied, “Damn the torpedoes. Four bells, Captain Drayton, go ahead. Jouett, full speed.”
The bulk of Farragut’s fleet (consisting of four monitors and fourteen wooden steamships) successfully entered the bay and, despite shelling from the guns at Fort Morgan, defeated Admiral Franklin Buchanan’s squadron of three gunboats and the large ironclad CSS Tennessee–blowing a hole in the latter, causing Buchanan to run up the white flag in surrender.
On December 21, 1864, Lincoln promoted Farragut to vice admiral. He was made full admiral in 1866.
I’d always associated “damn the torpedoes” with World War II, when enemy submarines fired torpedos on both military and shipping vessels. Now I know that “torpedoes” graduated from stationary naval mines in the 1800s to huge and deadly underwater bullets in the 1900s.
Well, as “they” say, life gets faster all the time.