The city of Mobile, Alabama’s largest, has long been over- shadowed by New Orleans, its neighbor to the west. But those who have traveled to this dynamic, vibrant city know its cosmopolitan charm and progressive development rivals the Crescent City and all its other Southern neighbors. And why not? With a history spanning five centuries and influences derived from its occupation by the three great European colonial powers, Spain, France and England, its history is as diverse as its modern population and culture.
In Civil War history, Mobile can boast about being the last large Southern city to come under Yankee control. For more than three years its docks accepted military and consumer goods offloaded from foreign merchantmen at nearby Caribbean harbors, then spirited into its protected harbor on swift blockade runners. Two major railroads carried war supplies to the fronts and the majority of their tracks remained undamaged by Yankee cavalry raiders, save one minimally successful effort in 1862 and several others late in the war. To be sure, Mobile’s strategic importance did not escape Federal war planners, but with so many other priorities, a strike at the very heart of the Deep South, so far from any area under Union control, seemed a dream at best.
This tour starts and ends in Mobile, which can be reached by any means of transportation—plane, train, bus, car and boat. It is a city that everyone should visit at least once. Not only is it rich in history from its early American Indian and European settlers (it wasn’t ceded to the United States until 1815) through the antebellum, Civil War and postwar periods, it is a city that exudes Southern hospitality and charm. The cuisine is varied and award winning, the accommodations spectacular, the shopping limitless and the atmosphere unhurried and relaxed. Two local passions, football and fishing, are always in evidence. Those seeking the outdoor life can find ample beach, camping, boating and cycling opportunities. There are many golf and tennis facilities, art exhibits, bistros, live music and a nightlife district to rival Bourbon and Beale streets. To tour Civil War Mobile, including the not-to-be missed circle drive to the outlying forts, allow two days. Visitors often find it hard to leave behind this tourist Mecca, with its savory dishes, friendly residents and spectacular scenery.
Although Mobile and its surroundings were hit by the devastating hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina, the damage was not as great as that in Louisiana and Mississippi. The region has all but recovered from the pounding by these storms— which all occurred less than a year apart. Though no Civil War sites were lost completely, some were badly damaged. What better way to affirm the value of such sites to the Civil War community than planning a visit to some or all of these refurbished landmarks? Any donations made to their rebuilding funds will ensure that the energetic custodians of these sites will be able to continue effective interpretation of Mobile’s Civil War history for many generations to come.
From Mobile, take Ala. 163, exit 22 from I-10, south (it merges with Ala. 193) through Cedar Point to Dauphin Island. The Federals occupied Cedar Point on August 25, 1864, but it was not their first visit to the area. A small expedition skirmished with Confederate forces here February 16-29, 1864, during Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Meridian expedition. A series of interpretive markers similar to those used in the Civil War Trails programs in other states is under development on the route. The span from Cedar Point to Dauphin Island crosses Grant’s Pass, the channel that connects Mobile Bay with the Mississippi Sound and Gulf of Mexico to the west. Fort Powell, a tiny fortification built by the Confederates on these bayous, was at about the midway point of the bridge. The fort and the island it was built on washed away shortly after the war. A number of other obstructions were placed in the waterways here by the Rebels, making navigation by even shallow-draft gunboats virtually impossible. The only sea entrance to Mobile was through the 30-mile-long Mobile Bay and its narrow entrance, guarded by two powerful forts.
Upon reaching Dauphin Island, turn left. The small, friendly community here has a wonderful seaside character and has recovered nicely from hurricane damage. Fort Gaines is an unmistakable landmark at the east end of the island. Built on the site of earlier European forts, it was a Third System fort started in 1821 that languished until 1858, when Congress appropriated money for the completion of Gaines and Fort Morgan. The Confederate garrison at Fort Gaines comprised both veterans and green youngsters under the command of Colonel George Anderson when it came to the attention of the Federals as part of the campaign by Rear Adm. David G. Farragut against Mobile. On August 3, 1864, 1,500 Federal soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger landed on the west end of the island, but their advance on the fort was arduous.
Ironically, Fort Gaines’ array of 32- pounder smoothbores and 8-inch Columbiads had little effect on the naval Battle of Mobile Bay. The Confederate defense of the approximately two-mile entrance to the bay included obstructions and a torpedo field on the west side, forcing enemy ships closer to the more powerful Fort Morgan on the east side. Once Federal ships gained entrance to the bay, Fort Gaines was targeted in a land and sea assault from August 6 until its surrender the next day.
Artillery power is immediately evidenced by two Parrott rifles on display at the fort’s main entrance. These guns, which weigh 16,500 pounds each, are similar to those used in the siege of Fort Gaines and countless other siege operations. Touring the fort is a wonderful experience. Many Civil War era features are well preserved. As part of the U.S. coastal defense system, other elements were added in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but these take nothing away from the facility’s Civil War image. Markers along the east-facing bastions orient visitors to the Battle of Mobile Bay. Besides the fort, its museum and gift shop, the park has a full-service campground, boat dock, trails and a fishing pier. Nearby is the entrance to the Mobile Bay ferry.
The ferry ride across the roughly two-mile mouth of Mobile Bay is a must for Civil War enthusiasts. It’s a calm, delightful cruise. From there, one can experience the view as the captains and sailors did aboard Farragut’s ships, which steamed through the narrow channel, constricted even more by obstructions and “infernal machines,” as the tars called Confederate torpedoes.
At daybreak on August 5, the Federal ships—four ironclad monitors followed by 14 screw vessels and steamers, lashed together for protection and power— entered the 200-yard-wide channel next to Fort Morgan, the only waterway open to passage, in two columns. The idea of running the forts was getting to be old hat for Farragut and his men. He had done it in 1862 below New Orleans, twice at Vicksburg and once at Port Hudson. And yet every detail was meticulously planned. Farragut even worked out tabletop scenarios, using wooden blocks for vessels, during the weeks he was awaiting the arrival of his ironclads and army support.
The Rebels in Fort Morgan, under the command of U.S. Army and Navy veteran Brig. Gen. Robert Page, a cousin of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, opened fire with the fort’s big guns and water battery as soon as the first vessel, the single-turret monitor Tecumseh, appeared at the head of the column at 6:20 a.m. Inside the bay waited four Confederate ships; their commander, veteran Admiral Franklin Buchanan, had been preparing for battle since 5:45 a.m. on his flagship Tennessee. A 209-footlong casemate ironclad with six large Brooke rifles, Tennessee had been the most talked-about ship in the Confederate Navy since its keel was first laid far upriver at Selma, Ala.
But the Confederate ships would not be tested yet. The Union Navy was having other problems. The slow-moving monitors were backing up the wooden ships directly under Fort Morgan’s withering fire. Then something happened that shocked every member of the Federal fleet. A giant water geyser exploded skyward, followed by the still turning screw of Tecumseh, which was thrust out of the water and then disappeared beneath the waves. Seeing Tennessee before it, Tecumseh had charged directly for the Confederate ironclad and hit a torpedo. Though a few men aboard Tecumseh escaped, Captain Tunis A.M. Craven and 91 sailors went down with the vessel in a matter of minutes.
The leading wooden vessel, Brooklyn, which was backing away from Tecumseh’s disastrous path, blocked the only good channel route and was being pummeled by Fort Morgan’s guns. It was then that Farragut, perched as usual in the rigging of his flagship, Hartford, made a fateful decision that he attributed to Providence and which has been paraphrased into one of naval warfare’s most famous quotes: “Damn the torpedoes— full speed ahead!” With that, Hartford and the rest of the Federal ships steered directly into the minefield where Tecumseh had gone down. Even Brooklyn followed, escaping Fort Morgan’s furious shelling. Though there were some anxious moments, none of the torpedoes exploded, and the Federal fleet entered Mobile Bay without the loss of another ship. Farragut had augmented Providence with reconnaissance—a few Confederate mines had been stolen from the harbor and examined, revealing that their powder was damp and their percussion primers were fouled.
The smaller Union gunboats that were lashed to the frigates were set free to pursue the three small Confederate vessels, Selma, Morgan and Gaines. The slow-moving Tennessee was still spoiling for a fight, but after raking the line of Federal warships with little success, the ironclad ram retired to the protection of Fort Morgan’s guns. Selma was chased down and offered for surrender, and Gaines was trapped, then beached and burned by its crew, but Morgan escaped beyond Mobile’s defenses. It would later participate in the fight to take that city.
Aboard the Federal ships, all but one of which were now safely inside Mobile Bay, the wounded were being treated and breakfast was being prepared shortly after 8 a.m. Then a lookout sighted Tennessee advancing at full speed. “Old Buck” Buchanan was giving it one more try. His target was Hartford, and even though a cluster of enemy vessels surrounded the big Confederate ironclad, close-range shots bounced harmlessly off its slanted sides. The Rebel shots were equally ineffective against the Federal monitors, but damage was inflicted on the wooden warships. Finally USS Chickasaw got astern of Tennessee and shot away its steering chains and other vital parts. With Buchanan wounded, the ironclad was finally offered for surrender. The Federals pragmatically used it in the bombardment of Fort Morgan a few days later.
The rest of the day was spent recovering from the great battle. Gunboats sent by Farragut earlier in the day to approach Fort Powell from the west pummeled it until after dark, when the Confederates finally blew it up and abandoned it. With Fort Gaines in Federal control a few days later, Granger’s troops were landed east of Fort Morgan on August 9. Page was not about to give up his bastion without a fight. A land and sea bombardment continued for days—3,000 shells were fired at the fort on August 22 alone. With fires raging and only two working guns left, Fort Morgan surrendered on the morning of August 23.
Fort Morgan is yards away from the ferry landing. Like Fort Gaines, it is an excellent example of a Third System fort with a double scarp, placements for 40 guns, hot shot furnaces and other well-preserved features. Operated by the Alabama Historical Commission, it has a museum, gift shop and interpretive signs, including markers outside the fort describing the Federal siege. There is a full complement of recreational activities. Check the contact information at the end of this article for more on hours and fees.
After spending time at Fort Morgan, proceed east on Ala. 180. Take Ala. 59 north to Foley, then U.S. 98 west and north toward Mobile. Watch for new interpretive Civil War markers along this route. Once Mobile Bay was sealed off to Confederate commerce, its importance to the Federal war effort again waned. But in early 1865, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant wanted Mobile captured as part of a plan to smash the war effort in the Deep South and to divert attention from Sherman’s march north through the Carolinas. The task fell to Maj. Gen. Edward R.S. Canby, head of the Military Division of West Mississippi. It would be no easy task. Mobile was ringed with three sets of fortifications to the west and the Confederates began to develop two new strongholds east of the city—Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely—after the Federal victory at Mobile Bay. Under the overall leadership of Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, who had achieved numerous victories over the Federals in Louisiana, the Mobile defense forces were commanded by Maj. Gen. Dabney H. Maury.
The Federals advanced on two fronts. Approaching from the south were units under Maj. Gens. Granger and A.J. Smith, advancing up the east side of Mobile Bay while Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele proceeded west from Pensacola. Gunboats and ironclads fought under Farragut’s successor, Rear Adm. Henry K. Thatcher. In an attempt to cut the water route between Mobile and the two forts, Thatcher ran into stiff resistance from mud shoals and water batteries in the Dog River bar and fire from some pesky Rebel gunboats, including Morgan. More important, Thatcher lost two ironclads and another vessel to Confederate torpedoes despite having swept the east portion of Mobile Bay for them. Still, the Federal ships played an important role in besieging the two forts.
Canby had delayed the operation so long due to logistical concerns that Sherman was approaching the Virginia border when the campaign began. Nevertheless, Spanish Fort was under siege by March 28. By April 8, the Confederates abandoned the works to seek refuge at Fort Blakely. That Federal operation began on April 1. Fort Blakely (spelled Blakeley today, named after a colonial river town on the Tensaw River it fronted) was a masterful line of Confederate fortifications. The Federals matched the Rebels’ spadework, advancing their own fortifications from the east.
At the center of the Rebel line were Redoubts 3 and 4, manned by Brig. Gen. Francis M. Cockrell’s legendary Missouri brigade and a Mississippi brigade, both veteran units of the Army of Tennessee. Opposing them in Steele’s corps was Brig. Gen. John P. Hawkins’ force of U.S. Colored Troops. It is said that at Blakely, blacks opposed blacks in the battle, but those on the Confederate side were actually a Creole mix. Certainly no one would question the bravery exhibited by soldiers on both sides in the Federal charge that broke the Confederate line on April 9, just as Lee and Grant were sitting down in Wilber McLean’s parlor. The defeat at Blakely, the last great battle of the war, broke the resistance at Mobile, and the city fell on April 12.
Continue north on U.S. 98 and cross I-10. A short distance away at the top of a hill is the intersection of U.S. 98 and U.S. 31. Across U.S. 31 is the entrance to Spanish Fort Estates, a housing development. Several Alabama State historical markers describe the action here, and the main street, Spanish Main, as well as Southern Way, Pirate’s Cove and General Canby Drive feature more markers describing the action. Check the Web site at the end of the article for continuing development of interpretive features at Spanish Fort. Leave the development, turn left on U.S. 31, then make a partial left on Ala. 225 and go north. After about 11⁄2 miles, you’ll come to an elementary school. Park nearby and walk into the woods west of the school, where there are visible remains of where the Federal trenches at Spanish Fort crossed the Rebel earthworks after the Confederates withdrew to a shorter line.
About 41⁄2 miles north of Spanish Fort on Ala. 225 is the entrance to Historic Blakeley State Park. There, you will find several of the best examples of actual Civil War earthworks and rifle pits in the country, both Federal and Confederate. There are traces of other locations important in the battle and siege, as well as evidence of the colonial town and American Indian occupation of the area. Access to the river and nature preserve are also highlights of the park, which encompasses more than 3,000 acres. A host of daytime recreational activities and special events are available, including boat rides to the remains of the water batteries that challenged Thatcher’s warships. Contact the park for more details on activities.
Return to Mobile by taking I-10 or U.S. 31 west. A good first stop might be the waterfront welcome center, which features a reconstructed 1720s French fort, Fort Conde, and Battlefield Park, home of USS Alabama. There are several buildings with Civil War connections to see, including City Hall, Barton Academy, the Grand Hotel (where there is evidence of the impact of an artillery shell) and Christ Episcopal Church, where Leonidas Polk, the South’s fighting bishop, once presided.
Magnolia Cemetery contains the remains of General Braxton Bragg and five other Confederate generals. There is also an area called the “Confederate Rest,” where Southerners who died defending Fort Blakely and Spanish Fort, as well as others who died in the Mobile area, are buried. The adjacent Mobile National Cemetery contains remains of Federal soldiers killed in the Mobile area actions and sailors from USS Brooklyn whose bodies were moved when the Fort Powell area was lost to the sea. Confederate privateer Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes and Father Abram Ryan, the poet priest of the Confederacy, are buried in Mobile’s Catholic Cemetery, and there are statues of both men downtown.
The last stop on the tour is the small town of Citronelle on U.S. 45 northwest of Mobile. While driving west out of the city, take a look at the lunette on the grounds of Mobile Infirmary on St. Stephen’s Road (U.S. 98). This earthwork and Fort McIntosh on Oyster Shell Reef (only visible at low tide) are the only currently known remains of the imposing Mobile defenses. In Citronelle there is an interpretive marker indicating the place where on May 4, 1865, Taylor surrendered all remaining Confederate land forces east of the Mississippi River to Canby. From Citronelle visitors can head back to Mobile or proceed to I-65 or I-59 and on to other areas rich in Civil War history.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.