Fort Blakeley, AL -The Last Battle of
the Civil War
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April 9, 1865. Palm Sunday. It's 5:00 PM in southern Alabama, CSA. Two hours earlier and 700 miles to the northeast, General Lee had surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. The cessation of hostilities up north doesn't change anything here. The Union army awaits the signal for the final assault on Fort Blakeley, the last Confederate fortification guarding the eastern side of Mobile Bay. It has been under siege and bombarded for days. When that signal comes, 16,000 Union troops will emerge from siege trenches and rifle pits to attack along a three mile front against a semi-circular perimeter defended by 4,000 Confederates. With Blakeley gone, there's nothing to stop the Union army from invading the last prize of the Confederacy - Mobile.
The outcome of the battle is not in doubt. By this point in the war, the Union army is a battle-hardened war machine - competently led and with seemingly endless amounts of arms, ammunition and men. They have complete freedom of movement throughout the area and the defenders can only watch as thousands of Union soldiers in multiple columns dig their way closer and closer. Many of the rebel defenders slipped away from nearby Spanish Fort the previous night in an audacious escape plan. However, there will be no slipping away from Fort Blakeley.
The fort is an inter-connected maze of trenches and obstacles three miles long strengthened at intervals by nine redoubts - strong reinforced positions containing artillery, mortars and bunkers. The flanks of the perimeter are anchored on the banks of the Blakeley River, which is teeming with alligators, snakes and yellow fever.
Inside the perimeter on the bank of the river is the town of Blakeley - or what's left of it. Most of its 4,000 inhabitants are long gone. Once a center of commerce and politics that rivaled Mobile before the Civil War, it has been under fire for days. The rebel defenders have no place to go. They are, however, determined to make a fight of it.
Their commanders, unaware of developments in Virginia, continue to hope that maybe they can make the war long and painful enough for the Yankees to negotiate some sort of favorable outcome. The defenders of Spanish Fort held them up for 12 days before getting out. During that time, two Union ironclads were sunk by mines. Confederate ironclad gunboats are in the river behind them. If all that fails, they can make the Union take Mobile brick by brick.
This is the last stand of the Confederate States of America. Mobile has been relatively untouched by the war in terms of physical destruction. Its factories and shipyards have kept the CSA forces armed and equipped. Its railroads and rivers have kept forces on the move. Its citizens have fed the army and cared for the wounded. Its blockade runners have provided much needed revenue and raw materials. In fact, Mobile is one of two southern ports that remain open for most of the war. (The other is Wilmington, NC.) Along with hardships and shortages, there are also sidewalk cafes and theaters. But Mobile had a huge bullseye painted on it.
Both sides knew it would eventually come to this. Admiral David Farragut, commander of the gulf coast blockade squadron, wanted to attack in 1862, but his theater of operations wasn't a priority. The Confederates spent four years preparing Mobile's defenses. When the Union campaign finally started in August 1864, Mobile, Alabama was one of the most heavily defended places on earth. Defenses, terrain, politics and logistics would drag out the campaign for nine months and bring the reality of war to the city.
Mobile was much smaller in area then. Tucked away in the northwest corner of Mobile Bay, it was protected on three sides by rivers, deltas, bayous, sandbars, islands, swamps and the salt water bay. Additionally, Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley were built on the eastern shore of the bay and additional smaller forts were placed on islands in the delta. Their purpose was to guard the back door into Mobile - an amphibious assault across the delta from the east.
Thirty miles south, the single entrance to the bay was guarded by two massive brick and masonry forts - Fort Morgan on the east and Fort Gaines on the west. Other smaller batteries of dirt and wood were built on channel islands to interdict hostile shipping.
The bay itself was a formidable obstacle. Due to the silt constantly pouring in from the surrounding rivers, the bay was shallow - too shallow for Union ships-of-the-line. There was one deep navigable channel. It ran directly under the guns of Fort Morgan. The Confederates also blocked much of the upper harbor with sunken obstacles, constructed floating batteries and laid mines (then called torpedoes).
What was left of the Confederate Navy was harbored in the southern part of the bay, including the ironclad CSS Tennessee. Built in Selma and outfitted in Mobile, she was part battleship, part ironclad, part battering ram and one of the most dangerous warships in the world. Union ships that got through the Morgan-Gaines gauntlet and the mine fields would have to deal with the Tennessee. No wooden sailing vessel could take her.
The only suitable land attack axis to Mobile was from the west. To counter that, the Confederates constructed three nested defensive belts. Incorporating artillery, infantry, obstacles and mines, these belts could mount 300 guns and 30,000 troops - more than enough to repel any assault the Union could mount.
Yankee planners had no good options, which may have been one of the reasons why the Mobile campaign came so late in the war. They were hoping the war would end before the attack became necessary. Eventually, though, they had to act.
The land assault from the west was dismissed early on as too costly and too hard to support. At this point in the war, the Confederates would have been hard pressed to muster enough assets to fully man the defensive belts but planners had to assume worst case scenarios. Besides, the western land attack had other problems. With the Union now operating out of Pensacola, Florida an attack from the west would mean extended supply lines through hostile territory and/or a sea bridge along the coast of Hurricane Alley.
Another option was an amphibious attack right up the bay. The Union army had conducted almost 50 seaborne assaults during the war but not one of this scale. Defensive preparations, obstacles and the characteristics of the bay meant it would be almost impossible to get enough concentrated combat power ashore quickly enough to do the job.
These same problems also interfered with a plan to bombard the city into submission. The maximum range of naval cannon was only about a mile. The largest ground based siege mortars could range out to three miles but sacrificed a great deal of accuracy at that distance. Getting within range of the city with enough guns to do the job was not realistic.
That left an attack through the back door. This would be a combined land and sea assault launched from the eastern shore of the bay attacking west across six miles of river deltas. Supply lines were shortest and the operation could be done in phases. One of those phases would be the capture of Fort Blakeley and nearby Spanish Fort. Together, they guarded the best place on the eastern shore from which to launch an attack. Additionally, when those forts fell, the Confederates would have to withdraw all their other delta defenses since they would now be under federal guns on the high ground.
A direct assault on the city was a last resort. Ultimately, military planners hoped that Mobile could be compelled to surrender by increasing pressure on it and demonstrating the futility of resistance. The Union put a noose around Mobile's neck in August 1864. They spent the next nine months tightening it.
At dawn on August 5, 1864, Admiral Farragut commenced the Mobile campaign. His plan was simple - barrel right by Fort Morgan at full speed with guns blazing, get out of the fort's cannon range then engage the rebel fleet in the open water of the lower bay. His fleet of 18 ships included four ironclad gunboats and 14 wooden warships with a total of 192 guns. Seven of the wooden ships were steam-powered side wheelers which needed no sails. The 14 men-of-war were lashed together in pairs so they could drag each other along if necessary. Led by the ironclad USS Tecumseh, Farragut's column headed for the deep water channel guarded by Fort Morgan.
The inbound floodtide added to their speed and would carry damaged ships into the bay. Onshore winds blew their smoke right into Fort Morgan. The Tecumseh opened fire at 0646 and the fight was on. The ironclads were impervious to Morgan's shells and came in close to engage at point blank range. They fired canister at gun embrasures to kill gun crews and suppress fire while the wooden hulls ran the gauntlet. Fort Morgan's 45 guns fired less than 500 rounds total during the whole battle and Fort Gaines was out of range the whole time.
As the fleet entered the danger zone where they were closest to Fort Morgan, the Tecumseh hit a torpedo (underwater mine) right off shore and sank in 30 seconds with the loss of 93 out of 100 crewmen. Farragut's lead ship USS Brooklyn, afraid of sharing the Tecumseh's fate, slowed down which threatened to bottle up the fleet right under the fort's guns. Farragut ordered his flagship USS Hartford to speed around the Brooklyn and assume the lead. It was this action that led to his famous quote "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead." The Union fleet brushed against several mines but they didn't detonate. Besides being primitive and corroded by salt water, Farragut had shrewdly figured that the strong incoming tide would pull the mines under water a bit and angle their detonators away just enough to let the ships go by. There were no more hits.
Now past Fort Morgan, the Union fleet engaged the approaching Confederate warships. Except for the CSS Tennessee, they were hopelessly outclassed and outgunned. All the Tennessee's escorts were out of action in minutes. The Tennessee decided to engage the entire Union fleet on its own and a wild melee ensued.
All unsinkable ships have an Achille's Heel and the Tennessee had several. It was very slow and cumbersome. It could barely make any headway against the tide. It attempted to ram Union ships which were able to dodge her. Additionally, the chain that linked the helm to the rudder was routed over the deck. Once it was blown away, the Tennessee could no longer maneuver. Soon she was surrounded by Union ships ramming her and blasting away muzzle to muzzle from every direction. Finally, she had enough and surrendered. Even with all the punishment she took, she was still afloat and battle worthy. In a matter of days, she had been repaired by the Union and put back into service as the USS Tennessee.
By 10:00 AM, the Union fleet owned the lower bay. It had taken a little over three hours. Casualties had been light, with the crew of the sunken Tecumseh making up the bulk of them. The admiral's attention now turned to the forts.
Capturing a fort requires troops on the ground. Admiral Farragut had 2,000 soldiers under the command of Major General Gordon Granger. Fort Gaines would be first. Located on strategic Dauphin Island, it had been out of range of the naval battle. Dauphin Island had space, excellent anchorages and its own fresh water sources. Granger had already landed on the island two days before the battle in the bay. While Fort Gaines watched the naval engagement, Granger's men were dragging siege guns through the soft sand to within 1,000 yards of the fort undetected.
On the morning of August 6, Farragut's ironclads closed in on Fort Gaines and started blasting away. Granger did the same from the land side. The fort's main batteries were destroyed, its walls breached and its ammo supply dangerously exposed within hours. They surrendered the next day.
Fort Morgan would be a tougher nut to crack. It was a massive installation, with inner and outer defensive walls, a wide dry moat and an internal citadel. Farragut started lobbing shells into Morgan at irregular intervals around the clock on August 6. Granger landed east of the fort on August 9 and began digging siege trenches towards the east wall. There was little the fort defenders could do. On August 21, Granger's assault trenches were almost to the outer wall and his heavy siege mortars were in range. He got word to Farragut - "We're ready."
At dawn on August 22, a massive sea and land bombardment commenced. Fort Morgan returned fire but as the hours went by, its fire was less and less while Union fire increased. Twenty four non-stop hours later, the bombardment was totally one-sided. Morgan was a stationary target. The walls were breached, all its guns were out of action and the interior was on fire. At dawn on the 23rd, a powder magazine blew up with a tremendous blast. Other magazines would soon follow. Realizing the game was up, Fort Morgan surrendered.
The imposing brick forts had been defeated rather easily - a trend throughout the Civil War. They simply couldn't stand up to modern firepower. Mobile was now cut off and surrounded. There would be no more blockade running, no more reinforcements and no more sustaining rebel forces. The Union owned everything around Mobile but didn't have the manpower to march on the city. The defenders didn't know that and were expecting an attack any day. Six months later, they were still waiting.
From late August 1864 to early March 1865, there was little action in the Mobile theater. It wasn't originally planned that way, but the Union had its hands full up north and couldn't spare the thousands of troops needed for the final attacks. In fact, the victory at Mobile Bay was one of the few bright spots for the Union through the dark days of the spring and summer of 1864. This was the most dangerous period of the war for the Union and President Lincoln, both militarily and politically.
General Grant was now commanding all the Union forces. His spring Overland Campaign in Virginia was costing tens of thousands of casualties with little to show for it. At Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864, he lost 7,000 men in 20 minutes. It was (and still is) the single most brutal and lopsided military loss in American history.
To replace the thousands of troops he was losing, Grant took manpower from where ever he could. One big source was Washington, DC. At the beginning of 1864, DC was encircled by 70 forts and batteries mounting almost 1,000 guns and manned by 30,000 troops. By late spring, the number of defenders was down to 9,000 and many of them were home guard and convalescing soldiers. Confederate spies reported that the city was weakly defended. General Lee hatched an audacious plan to break the siege he was under at Petersburg and take the war back to the north.
On July 9, less than a month before Mobile Bay, Washington DC came under attack from a very unlikely direction. A Confederate army 14,000 strong commanded by General Jubal Early came out of the Shenandoah Valley and marched on DC from the north. They closed to within 30 miles of the city before being vigorously engaged by a ragtag pickup force at the Battle of Monocacy Junction. The commander of that force was General Lew Wallace, who had commanded the "Lost Division" at Shiloh and been cashiered by Grant. Although Early won that day long battle, he lost a day to the fighting and needed another day to re-group. The two day delay gave Grant enough time to rush 20,000 troops to DC. General Wallace had redeemed himself. Years later, he wrote Ben Hur, a story of redemption and forgiveness.
Early resumed his march on July 11 and engaged Union troops at Fort Stevens, just south of Silver Spring, MD and inside the city limits of the capital. They skirmished and exchanged artillery fire for two days as Early probed for a weakness. During that time, President Lincoln rode out to the fort to watch the action himself. Legend has it that his entourage was engaged by Confederate snipers and the President had to be forcibly dragged to a safer position. Another story goes that Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes yelled at Lincoln "Get down, you idiot." Maybe, maybe not. Lincoln was definitely there, though, and became the second (and last) POTUS to be under fire while in office. The first was James Madison during the War of 1812 when the British burned Washington.
Early finally broke off the attack and headed back to the Shenandoah. Monocacy Junction was the Confederates' biggest victory in the north and the closest they came to the capital. It was a hollow victory though. If they had gotten to Fort Stevens on the 9th as planned, they would have found it defended by old men, young boys and wounded soldiers. The outcome likely would have been very different and a very bad Union summer would have turned into a catastrophe. Early didn't have enough combat power to capture Washington on his own but he could have caused enough damage to dramatically change the course of the war and our nation's history. It's hard to envision how Lincoln could have been re-elected following a successful rebel invasion of the Union capital. He was already facing long odds. The country was tired of the war and this certainly would have amplified those feelings. General Early later wrote in his journals "We didn't take Washington, but we scared the Hell out of Abe Lincoln". Yes they had. Mobile would have to wait.
By March of 1865, the tenor of the war had changed completely. The Union was scoring victory after victory with overwhelming numbers and firepower. The Confederacy was on the run almost everywhere.
In the East, General Sherman took Atlanta, did the March to the Sea and was now rampaging in the Carolinas. General Sheridan finally secured the Shenandoah Valley once and for all, wrecking Jubal Early's army in the process. Richmond and Petersburg were under siege, taking Lee's Army of Northern Virginia from the field.
In the West, Confederate General John Bell Hood's Army of Tennessee was destroyed at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. Many of Hood's men found their way to Mobile. The only active Confederate maneuver force left was General Joseph Johnston in North Carolina and Sherman's army was after him.
Beating the odds, Lincoln was re-elected in November 1864 with 55% of the popular vote and 213 out of 233 electoral votes. On February 3, 1865 he met with CSA vice-president Alexander Stevens in Norfolk, Virginia to discuss a peace treaty. They walked away with nothing. Lincoln and his generals knew it was time to go for the kill. By the time he was inaugurated on March 4, 1865, 45,000 Union troops were on the ground and moving towards Fort Blakeley. The last phases of the Mobile campaign were underway.
Mobile's commander was Major General Dabney Maury. He had about 9,000 men, many of whom had straggled in from the defeated Army of Tennessee. All his defenses were still intact and they had been working furiously to strengthen Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley. Despite the lack of military activity, Mobile was feeling the pressure. They were running out of everything. There had been food riots and civilian unrest. Everyone knew the war was lost and no one, including Maury, wanted to see this beautiful city destroyed in the last days of the war. He planned on putting up as vigorous a defense as possible but not one that would needlessly sacrifice his command or the city. He kept that card close to the vest.
His Union counterpart was Major General Edward Canby. He and Maury were good friends who had served together before the war. Canby had 32,000 men at the lower end of the bay and another 13,000 marching in from Pensacola. The naval squadron, now commanded by Admiral Thatcher, had been scouting the bay for months and now knew they could operate their ironclad gunboats close in along the eastern shore.
Canby's scheme of maneuver was to march his men north up the east side of the bay and lay siege to Spanish Fort. The Pensacola column, led by General Steele, would come in from the northeast and lay siege to Fort Blakeley. Spanish Fort would be attacked first, then everything would be thrown at Blakeley. The ironclads would move parallel with Canby's army as far as possible to provide security and fire support.
The marches were miserable. In addition to the usual swamps, bayous, quicksand, mosquitoes, heat, snakes and alligators it rained buckets for almost the entire month of March. The defenders of both forts sent out scouts and patrols to recon and harass the Yankee columns. Movement was slow but relentless and ultimately successful. On March 27, 1865, General Canby's army arrived at a point about 2,000 yards from Spanish Fort and deployed for their siege. On April 1, General Steel overran an outpost about 1,500 yards east of Fort Blakeley and initiated his siege plan. The last battle of the Civil War had begun.
Siege warfare in 1865 hadn't changed much since the Roman Empire. For your average soldier, it meant one thing - dig. Attackers dug zigzag assault trenches towards the enemy position, dragging artillery behind them. As soon as they got within range, the guns would start firing. The digging, dragging and firing routine continued. Rifle pits were dug and filled with infantry, who moved between them in connecting trenches. These were called "skirmish lines" and they moved forward as the siege progressed, creating a series of parallel trenches that were used to stage more and more troops. It was always dig more, dig deeper, dig faster right up to the enemy's door while bringing increasing firepower to bear.
The defenders, of course, had something to say about this. They dug too and answered fire with fire. Obstacles were placed as far forward as possible, ranged in and covered by fire. Skirmish lines of their own were put forward. Opposing skirmish lines were sometimes only yards apart. The Civil War is full of stories of yanks and rebs yelling jokes and insults back and forth then killing each other the next day.
The defenders would also maintain an offensive posture as long as possible. This meant sending out patrols and raids to engage the advancing enemy, cause maximum casualties and gather information.
Digging was a night time job. There was little fighting at night during the Civil War with the exception of patrols and artillery fire. Shooting was done during the day and snipers were active on both sides. Being above ground during the day within 500 yards of the enemy greatly increased the chances of being killed. So your average trooper on either side fought all day and dug all night - hungry, thirsty, dirty, sleep deprived, under fire and going to the bathroom in some corner of their trench or rifle pit.
Two of the key planning numbers for both sides were 500 yards and 1500 yards. Five hundred yards was the effective range of infantry rifles. Good snipers with telescopic sights could go to 1,000 or more. Once inside 500 yards, rifle fire became prolific and deadly, greatly slowing down the digging of the assault force.
Fifteen hundred yards was the range of the 12 pounder Napoleon, the standard artillery piece in both armies. Used extensively in direct fire mode, it could launch a 12 pound shell accurately for almost a mile. It could also shred infantry assaults with grapeshot, canister and case rounds. In that mode, it was a fearsome weapon.
Defensive warfare is inherently stronger than offense in the short term. The effects of sustained and accurate rifle and cannon fire from a prepared defensive position has many advantages. Overcoming that was a key planning factor in sieges. In the Civil War, that translated to more cannon, more men and more ammo than the defenders had - a lot more.
There was little maneuver in a siege. It was a war of attrition. At some point the attackers would stop digging, increase their bombardment and launch a final assault from their forward positions. When, where and how that happened was totally dependent on the situation. Civil War sieges could last for months, as they did at Vicksburg and Petersburg or only days. That was the case at Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley.
Spanish Fort was so named because it was once...a Spanish fort. It was situated on a high hill with a large flat top that ran north/south, steep sides and easy access to the bay. Natural lines of commerce and communication criss-crossed over and around it. It also got steady breezes off the bay, which cooled it a bit and reduced the mosquito population. In addition to the Spanish, it had been fortified by the French, British and Americans for 150 years. Local Indian tribes occupied it long before that. With a commanding 360 degree view of the land and water around it, it was a strong natural defensive position and controlled any approach to the upper bay from the east. It's one weak spot, which led to its downfall, was an unfinished defensive line at the north end of the fort. Swampy ground, flatter terrain and a high water table made building fortifications difficult. This weakness would be fully exploited by Canby.
Canby's 32,000 men and 100 cannon were facing 1,800 defenders and 40 cannon led by Brigadier General Randall Gibson. Spanish Fort's defenses consisted of trenches, obstacles, land mines and artillery redoubts in a semi-circle two miles long and 1,000 yards wide. Its flanks were anchored on the north by Bay Minette and on the south by the Blakeley River. Further strengthening the position were two hilltop bastions. Fort McDermott, positioned at the southern end of the hilltop, guarded the land approaches. The second bastion, called Old Spanish Fort, was located at the north end of the hill and covered the bay approaches. It was called Old Spanish Fort because it was the location of the original...old Spanish fort.
In addition to all the defensive preparations, Maury ordered Gibson to prepare an escape route along the river to the delta batteries where boats would pick them up. The route was scouted and where necessary, a wooden walkway was constructed to span water and mud gaps. It was covered with dirt and moss to hide it. Row boats were stashed at Fort Huger and Fort Tracy, the artillery batteries out in the delta. Maury left the escape timing up to Gibson. When he decided to evacuate, he was to contact Maury, who would send more boats. They had contact by telegraph for the entire battle, which is amazing considering the shot and shell that were about to rain down on them.
Gibson was a very competent and aggressive commander determined to make the Yankees pay dearly. His men put up a tough fight. They regularly sortied out and conducted hit and run spoiling attacks on federal units. They were so successful that Canby estimated it was defended by 10,000 men. Their snipers were particularly active and made daytime movement extremely hazardous for the Yankees. Their artillery was very accurate and they had an effective counter-battery response to Union guns. Within days, however, the weight of the Union forces was beginning to carry the day. One by one, Gibson's guns were silenced while the Union added more of their own. Union assault trenches were advancing against his left and right flanks, presenting a narrower target.
By April 8, almost all of Gibson's guns were wrecked. Canby's big siege mortars found their range and started raining shells on Spanish Fort. No place was safe. Underground bunkers with six feet of dirt and logs overhead were collapsing. The outer defenses on his left (northern) flank were breached late in the day. One more rush in the morning would end it. It was time to get out of Dodge.
On the night of April 8, Gibson executed his escape plan. He telegraphed General Maury, who sent boats for a Dunkirk-style evacuation. His men spiked the remaining guns and destroyed what they couldn't carry. Then carrying their weapons and as much ammo and food as they could, his men walked barefoot along the planned route literally under the muzzles of Union guns and pickets. Boats launched all night. The row boats went to Fort Blakeley. The steam boats sent by Maury went to Mobile. Overall, almost 1,000 men got out. When Canby's men overran Spanish Fort the next morning, the phantom 10,000 defenders were gone, leaving only a hundred survivors, most of them wounded. Everything else had been destroyed or carried away.
The Battle of Spanish Fort was one of the great defensive stands of the Civil War. Likewise, the night time withdrawal under pressure was a textbook operation. Gibson's command held off a force over 16 times its size for 12 days and then slipped away unseen to fight another day. And that's all it would be - another day. The defenders who went to Mobile were the lucky ones. They had probably seen their last hostile fire. The new defenders of Fort Blakeley landed in a very hot situation. Blakeley had been under siege for seven days and the final assault was imminent.
At about the same time Gibson's men were escaping on the night of April 8, Robert E. Lee and his commanders were meeting to discuss a message from General Grant asking him to consider surrender. Surrounded and cut off, they decided to try one last breakout on the morning of April 9. The plan was to link up with General Johnston in the mountains of North Carolina and continue fighting.
The breakout attempt became the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse. After a sharp early morning fight, Lee found his battered army being converged on from three directions by 100,000 Union troops. Facing annihilation, Lee decided to call it quits.
At about the same time Canby's men were overrunning Spanish Fort on the morning of April 9, Lee was sending word to Grant that he was willing to discuss surrender terms. By 3:00 PM, Lee had surrendered his army. Canby, of course, had no way of knowing this when he sent orders to General Steele to take Fort Blakeley now.
Fort Blakeley was a lousy place to defend. It was not a natural defensive position. From a defenders standpoint, the terrain had few if any redeeming features. It was flat to gently rolling ground that offered no advantages in terms of observation or fields of fire. Once heavily forested with pine trees, they had been clear cut to support the war. The entire area was open and covered with deadfall, both in front of and behind the defenders. This would hinder movement but it could cut both ways.
There were blind spots in front of them and several deep ravines that went right through the perimeter. There were no cooling breezes at Fort Blakeley. In addition to the Yankees, they were under attack by the springtime onslaught of mosquitoes. So why put a fort here in the first place? To deny access to the town of Blakeley.
Blakeley was an early 1800's trade and transportation boomtown that peaked in the 1820's with a population of 4,000 people. It was named for the man who founded it, Josiah Blakeley. To him, it was a speculative business venture, selling lots in Alabama's next great sea port. His town was situated along the Blakeley River in a natural bowl that sloped gently right into the water and could accommodate deep draft ships. However, the bowl was infested with disease-carrying
mosquitoes. Yellow fever epidemics decimated the population and land grabbers ran up the price of real estate to unaffordable levels. By the beginning of the Civil War, it was almost deserted. Wartime support brought the population back up to several thousand people but that's not what the fort was defending. Blakeley had buildings, fresh water, roads and river-side docks with deep water access all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It was perfect for staging, launching and supporting the Union's planned amphibious operations against Mobile. A force loaded on boats could enter the river here, navigate through the entire delta region unseen and pop up anywhere - as demonstrated by General Gibson's escape. The fall of Blakeley made a successful defense of Mobile impossible.
Given the lousy terrain, the commander of Fort Blakeley, Brigadier General Liddell, did the best he could. His lines basically ran south to north along the rim of the bowl to the east of town. Covering a straight line distance of 2500 yards, they meandered for almost three miles in total length. The fort was anchored by nine strengthened dirt and wood redoubts placed at key points. Redoubt #4 was at the center of the line, almost sticking out by itself, and was also the biggest and strongest. It had four field guns and a mortar along with a large contingent of infantry. Liddell's headquarters was right behind it. All the redoubts had well-constructed artillery positions, covered bunkers and protected ramparts with firing steps for infantry. They were connected by trenches and there was a covered trail behind the lines to facilitate movement along the perimeter.
In front of the lines, obstacles of all sorts were placed in depth. These included two rings of abatis, wire, tanglefoot, mines and sharpened stakes placed 100 and 200 hundred yards out. Most but not all were covered by fire. Uncovered obstacles were placed in dead space and blind spots. Around each redoubt, a trench was dug and filled with thorns and the Civil War version of punji sticks. Each artillery piece had a ready supply of canister rounds to use when the Union troops were hung up in the obstacle belts. Also in front of the line, Liddell put out skirmishers to provide early warning and to prevent easy access to the ravines by Union scouts. To do that he had to put his skirmishers beyond his obstacle belts. In fact, by the time of the final assault, the Confederate skirmishers were as close to the Union lines as their own. In many respects, it was a textbook defensive plan.
What was lacking was any defense in depth or a reserve. These are critical to deal with breakthroughs to prevent one gap from compromising the entire line, but Liddell had none. Again, the terrain played a factor. From the frontline, it was all downhill to the town. There really wasn't any place to stop and mount a secondary defense or counter-attack. Once Fort Blakeley's line was breached, it would be a foot race to the river. It was a hold or die situation.
General Steele's column deployed into their initial positions in front of Fort Blakeley on April 1 when they ran into Confederate outposts about 1,500 yards out. Since they were already in range with their Napoleons, they engaged immediately and started digging. The actions around Redoubt #4 are the best documented and had the most influence on the battle.
The Union commander storming Redoubt #4 was Colonel Frederick Moore, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division of General Granger's XIII Corps. He had infantry regiments from Ohio, Iowa and Illinois along with artillery from Massachusetts. They had been sent here as reinforcements from Spanish Fort several days earlier and found themselves facing the strongest and most strategic point on the Blakeley line.
Artillery fire and digging were continuous for the next week. Not only did the cannon fire protect the troops digging forward, it inflicted casualties and damage on the redoubt and demolished much of the obstacle belts. The defenders returned fire but the Union siege trenches moved forward relentlessly.
By April 6, Moore's brigade was 500 yards from Fort Blakeley. His lead skirmish line was 100 yards closer and literally a stone's throw from Confederate skirmishers. A large parallel trench had been dug next to the artillery battery as well as a zigzag trench to the rifle pits. Those can all still be seen today.
The night of April 6, the engineers and artillerymen built a strong artillery position that had direct line of sight with Redoubt #4. The next day, the two sides engaged in a direct fire artillery duel. The Confederate guns blew apart the Union artillery's new position and took the battery out of action temporarily.
Things heated up the night of April 7. The Confederates sent a raiding party to attack the artillery position as it was being repaired and spike the guns to render them useless. Union skirmishers intercepted them and fought them off.
On April 9, Spanish Fort fell and the order to assault Fort Blakeley was issued. In front of Redoubt #4, the 83rd Ohio filled the parallel trench by the artillery battery. Other units filled in behind them. The 83rd would lead the attack. Its plan was to move into the wide ravine between them and the redoubt, get through it quickly and make a quick charge from the other end. The ravine offered a covered and concealed approach to within 75 yards of the redoubt. Many of the obstacles had been blown away and the defenders couldn't bring fire to bear in the ravine.
At 5:45 PM, the attack commenced. The 83rd Ohio came out of their trenches and moved forward in a skirmish line. The men in the rifle pits joined them as the Napoleons fired furiously overhead. The 83rd's regimental band swapped instruments for axes and accompanied the front wave as pioneers. They battered down obstacles under fire to clear lanes of attack.
Both attackers and defenders started dropping almost immediately. Confederate skirmishers initially tried to fight off the assault but quickly realized this was the real thing. Those who weren't killed or captured headed for the safety of the redoubt. The Ohioans were close behind and flowed into the ravine. Seeing their progress, Colonel Moore sent his follow on waves along the same route. In a matter of minutes, 2,000 Union soldiers were rapidly advancing on Redoubt #4.
Re-entering friendly lines in combat can get pretty dicey. Doing it under fire and being chased by the enemy is downright hazardous. No doubt the Confederate skirmishers were running full speed at the redoubt screaming at their comrades to hold their fire. They did. There was a momentary lull in the firing. The Confederate skirmishers got to the safety of their lines just as the 83rd roared out of the ravine and sprinted toward the redoubt. It was so quick the artillery didn't get a chance to depress their guns for canister. The Union troops leapt up on the ramparts and swarmed around the flanks. Confederate resistance disintegrated and they either surrendered on the spot or made a run for it. This scene was repeated up and down the line. Fort Blakeley was taken in 20 minutes.
The defenders raced downhill to the town with the Yankees in hot pursuit. Some of the Confederates tried to make stands but were quickly overwhelmed. An estimated 200 jumped into the river to escape, their ultimate fates unknown. By the time the mopping up was done, over 3,000 Confederate defenders were prisoners. Four hundred of them had been taken at Redoubt #4, including Brigadier General Liddell.
Overall casualties had been light. Both sides had about 100 killed and 400 wounded. These were amazingly small numbers for a war that had seen thousands of casualties in similar battles.
The POW's were destined for a prison camp at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island just off the coast of Mississippi. But first, they had one more duty to perform. As part of their defenses, the Confederates had buried thousands of "sub-terra rounds." Today we call them land mines. They were crude and ineffective, having inflicted no casualties on the Union attackers. However, they were potentially devastating in a post-war environment, since each one was an artillery round buried in the ground with a pressure plate to set it off. The POW's were given a choice - dig them up or you'll march back and forth until they've all exploded. They dug. Imagine a U.S. force trying to do that today.
Word of the defeat soon reached Mobile. Now the big question was, "What will Maury do?" Surrender? Evacuate? Or street fight?
On April 10, Major General Maury mustered 4,000 troops and marched out of Mobile following a rail line to the northwest. True to his word, he would not sacrifice the city or his soldiers but he was not ready to give up the fight. His plan was to join General Johnston in North Carolina.
That same day, Mayor Robert Slough ordered white flags put out and declared Mobile an "open city", meaning it would not defend itself. On April 11, General Canby's staff met with city officials to coordinate the turnover.
Union troops marched into Mobile at noon on April 12.
General Maury's mission to continue fighting was short-lived. Union cavalry went after him and fought several skirmishes with his rear guard. He burned several railroad bridges to slow his pursuers and harass the Union. When he found out that Lee and Johnston had surrendered, he did the same at Citronelle, Alabama on May 5, 1865.
After the war, Grant openly criticized General Canby, saying the attack on Fort Blakeley had been unnecessary. It's hard to see how Canby had any other choice. He was still in a hot war and General Maury clearly intended to keep fighting. Maybe Canby told Grant, "Cold Harbor was unnecessary too." Grant of course went on to become the 18th President of the United States in 1868. He served two terms and ran unsuccessfully for a third. He died of throat cancer in 1885 and is buried in Morningside Heights, Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River. The famous Grant's Tomb is a National Memorial maintained by the Park Service.
Immediately after his surrender, Robert E. Lee said goodbye to his troops and went home, but not to his beloved 1,100 acre estate on the Potomac River overlooking the Washington Mall. That was seized by the Union for Arlington National Cemetery, in part to ensure that Lee never came back. The first burials were in his wife's rose garden. He became the President of Washington College (now called Washington and Lee) in Lexington, Virginia and put it on the path from a sleepy southern school to a major regional university. He was still there when he died of a stroke in 1870 and is entombed at the college. In 1883, the US Government paid his heirs $150,000 for the estate. The deal was brokered and signed by Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's son.
General Edward Canby stayed in the Army and held a variety of staff positions during the Reconstruction. In 1870, he was assigned to the Pacific Northwest. In November 1872, he found himself involved in the Modoc War - a three way conflict between the Modoc tribe, the Klamath tribe and the US government. In April 1873, he went to parlay with the Modocs. At the parlay site, they jumped him and cut his throat. President Grant attended his funeral in Indianapolis and several Union generals served as pall bearers. Afterwards, the US Army intervened in force, caught the killers and rounded up the rest. His killers were hanged in October. Canby was the only General to be killed in the Indian Wars of the late-1800's.
Admiral David Farragut very possibly saved Lincoln's presidency with his timely victory at Mobile Bay during the dark summer of 1864. Transferred shortly after the battle, he continued his career as one of the most distinguished officers in U.S. Naval history. He first went to sea in 1810 at the age of nine and was in his 60th year of active duty when he died of a stroke in Portsmouth, NH in 1870. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
General Dabney Maury was destitute when he left the Confederate Army and struggled financially for years. After the war, he served in a number of positions in government, business and education. He became a prolific writer and was a major advocate of the "Lost Cause" view of the war, which he vigorously supported for the rest of his life. He died of natural causes in Peoria, IL in 1900 and is buried there.
Brigadier General Randall Gibson, who led the magnificent stand at Spanish Fort, was a Kentucky native raised on his father's sugar plantation in Terrebone Parish, Louisiana. He graduated from Yale in 1853 followed by law school at the University of Louisiana (which later became Tulane University). He joined the Confederate Army in 1861 and fought the entire war, seeing action at Shiloh, Chickamauga and Atlanta before being sent to Mobile. After the war, he returned to the practice of law and entered politics. In 1875, he was elected to Congress and served three terms before being elected to the Senate in 1882. During his post-war career, he was also a Regent for the Smithsonian Institute and President of the Board of Directors of Tulane University, which he helped found. He was in his second term as a senator when he died of natural causes at Hot Springs, Arkansas in December 1892 at the age of 60. He is buried in Lexington, Kentucky. Gibson Hall at Tulane is named after him.
In school, the history books teach that the surrender of Robert E. Lee ended the Civil War. That is not true. He only surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia. There were still thousands of troops and commanders from Virginia to Texas that were ready, willing and able to continue fighting.
An unrepentant Jefferson Davis, who fled Richmond on Lee's advice two days before the surrender, ordered General Johnston in North Carolina to keep fighting. He did but not for long. Recognizing it was hopeless, Johnston surrendered to General Sherman on April 26.
Davis was captured in Georgia on May 10. By some accounts, he was headed to Texas to join General Kirby Smith and re-establish the Confederate government. Smith's Texas units were among the last to surrender on May 26 but fought right to the end.
The CSS Shenandoah, a commerce raider, was sinking Yankee whaling ships in the Aleutian Islands in July when they found out the war was over. Rather than surrender in a U.S. port and face piracy charges, she sailed to Liverpool, England via Cape Horn. Every warship in the U.S. Navy was out looking for her, but she managed to evade or outrun them. She entered the harbor on November 6 with the Confederate colors hoisted high.
The Shenandoah had circled the globe, crossing the equator four times and traveling 58,000 miles in a continuous 12 1/2 month mission. She captured or sank 38 ships - most of them after Lee's surrender. The British negotiated a very quiet repatriation on the crew's behalf and gave the ship to the U.S. government. They also paid the U.S. 15.5 million dollars in damages. Was the Shenandoah a combatant or a pirate? That depends on your point of view.
The end of the Civil War wasn't quick and it wasn't clean. For that reason, there is an ongoing argument among authors and historians about what was really "The Last Battle of the Civil War." Some say Blakeley. Some say Columbus, Georgia. Some say Palmito Ranch, Texas. Still others say it was the Shenandoah's attacks on the high seas. A case can be made for all depending on what conditions and assumptions are factored in.
This web site has no interest in getting involved in that discussion. We are here to educate and enlighten about things that are off the beaten path. The Battle of Fort Blakeley certainly qualifies.
If you like forts, battlefields, museums, shipwrecks, Civil War history, back country roads, ghost towns, seafood, beaches, hiking, biking, canoeing, friendly people and geocaching, the Mobile Bay area is for you. KidsRN and I have spent the better part of the last three winters there enjoying all of it. There's still plenty of stuff to do yet.
Here's a sampling of our expeditions.
If you are a history nut and battlefield addict like me, there's one last resource worth checking out - Clive Cussler's shipwreck site. He's explored Mobile Bay and found some fascinating things about shipwrecks here, including casualties from the Civil War battles described on this web page.
I hope you enjoyed this page and also learned something. We welcome your feedback.
Semper Fi......Out here......Alpha6