A Tale of Two Forts on Mobile Bay: Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan

Written By: Eileen Mattei

Two forts separated by only three miles remained worlds apart in the roles they played over a 195-year span.  From their authorization as Third System coastal defense forts in 1819 to their actions in the important joint Army-Navy Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864 during the Civil War, and their current status as historical landmarks, Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines present a study in contrasts.  On the east, Fort Morgan occupies the tip of the narrow spit known as Mobile Point.  On the west, Fort Gaines sits on the easternmost end of Dauphin Island.  The twin guardians bracketing the entrance to Mobile Bay gained their different places in history because of their leadership and locations

feature_2The War of 1812 demonstrated the need for a system of U.S. coastal defense fortifications.  After the war, Congress authorized two star-shaped forts for the mouth of Mobile Bay in 1819.  Positioned on opposite sides of the main ship channel, the forts were too far apart to be mutually supportive.  They were designed to be exact twins architecturally, but with different missions.  Fort Morgan would guard the ship channel, protecting Mobile by directing artillery fire at ships approaching the narrow channel and attempting to pass into Mobile Bay near the delta of the Alabama and Tom Bigbee rivers.   Fort Gaines would offer sheltered anchorage for shallow draft vessels in Mobile Bay.

Dauphin Island had been a capital of French Louisiana territory in the 1700s, but more importantly the British had held the island during the War of 1812 in preparation for an attack on Mobile.  Denying an enemy the use of the island was one more reason for building a fort there.   Named for Edmund Pendleton Gaines, a brigadier general in the War of 1812 and Indian Wars, Fort Gaines was to be built on the site of the French fortifications.   Construction came to a halt in the 1820s when it was discovered that the site was so low that the parade ground would flood at high tide and that the fort was oriented incorrectly.  Due to budget overruns and flooding, the Army never completed the original fort.  The land and construction site reverted to private ownership.  In 1853, after title disputes were settled, Brigadier General Joseph G. Totten, the Army’s Chief Engineer, presented a revised design that applied the era’s most advanced ideas of military architecture.  Records show the rubble of the original fort’s citadel was used to construct the new masonry fort.

The new, improved Fort Gaines was designed to survive a six-month siege.  Outside the twenty-two foot high walls was a thirty-five foot wide dry moat that provided additional protection.  Corner bastions and connecting tunnels placed it at the fore of contemporary Army posts. Wide brick gun ramps for ammunition carts led to the gun platforms, where a “breast high serpentine wall protected guns and gun crews.”   Circular granite mounts were set into the floor for barbette gun carriages enabling them to traverse across their field of fire.  The ammunition magazines below were shielded by raised earthen sections.  A rain catchment system on the roof of each corner blockhouse directed water down through shell and sand filters to underground cisterns.  The fort also had the advantage of being close enough to sea level to have the latrines flushed by daily tides.

In late January 1861, before the Army completed construction of Fort Gaines and a few weeks after Alabama seceded, Alabama militia took over the not-yet-garrisoned fort.  Confederate forces finally finished it in 1862 and garrisoned it with approximately 400 troops.   Although configured to have ten guns mounted on top of each of the fort’s five walls, Fort Gaines’s armament was considerably less, numbering twenty-six guns.  The largest artillery piece mounted at Fort Gaines was a 10-inch columbiad.feature_4 (2)

The origins of Fort Morgan date back to 1813, when American forces constructed a sand and log fortification named Fort Bowyer, named after Colonel John Bowyer, on Mobile Point’s eastern tip to guard Mobile Bay.  The fort withstood an assault by British land and naval forces in September 1814, but it fell after a second attack in February 1815 following the Battle of New Orleans.  Upon receiving word of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, the British withdrew.

Construction on the brick-walled Fort Morgan, named for Revolutionary War Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, the hero of the Battle of Cowpens, began on 479 acres at Mobile Point in 1819.  Because of its isolated location, building materials, including forty million slave-made bricks, were delivered by ship to the engineers’ wharf, located north of the fort.  Captain Rene DeRussey of the Corps of Engineers took over the construction from private contractors in 1821 and became chief engineer for the project.  The ten-sided citadel, the brick barracks that occupied the parade ground, was completed in 1825.  The arched casemates that fronted the parade ground were used for storage and living quarters as well as shelter during bombardment.  A brick oven or furnace was designed to heat cannonballs that could be fired at wooden ships to set them on fire.  The fort’s solid masonry walls tapered at the top.  Interior walls were filled with soil and rubble.  Four cisterns held rainwater captured by the bastion’s roof.  By 1832, with the brickworks nearly done, crews installed a sand parapet.  The outer walls were shielded by a forty-foot sand glacis.  A lighthouse battery and a water battery stood outside the walls, with their guns aimed directly on the channel into Mobile Bay.

When construction was completed in 1834, Captain F. S. Belton of Company B, 2d U.S. Artillery, commanded the garrison for the first eighteen months the fort was active.  At the end of 1841, the troops were pulled out, and the fort was maintained by an ordnance sergeant and a caretaker detachment.  On 3 January 1861, Colonel John B .Todd and four companies of Alabama volunteers seized Fort Morgan—eight days before Alabama seceded—and moved the eighteen heaviest guns to face the channel.  Many of the fort’s thirty-five cannon were obsolete, smoothbore guns incapable of outgunning the U.S. Navy’s more powerful rifled artillery.  East of the fort, Rebel forces built redoubts and trenches to thwart any land attack.

After a Union naval squadron led by Captain David Farragut neutralized the defenses around New Orleans, Federal troops occupied the city on 28 April 1862.  With New Orleans in Union hands, Mobile was now the Confederacy’s largest port on the Gulf of Mexico and the South’s primary port for exporting cotton.  Sixty percent of Confederate arms and most of its gunpowder, salt, and cloth were smuggled into Mobile, where river and rail routes moved munitions and other supplies into the interior.  Mobile, one of the most heavily fortified cities in the Confederacy, had three lines of defenses protecting its western side.  In the first seven months of 1864, blockade runners in shallow-draft vessels made twenty-two attempts to get past the Union blockade.  Nineteen of those successfully evaded the Union warships, spiriting cotton out to sell in Europe and returning with war materiel.

To further protect Mobile, the Confederates drove wood pilings into the shoals of the bay stretching from Fort Gaines eastwards to the main ship channel, the only area deep enough to allow passage of the Union Navy’s blue water ships.  On the west side of the channel, the Confederates placed 180 submerged explosives called torpedoes, or what are called mines today, in three east-west rows.  The contact torpedoes were made from both lacquer-coated wooden kegs and cone-shaped metal barrels.  Packed with thirty to fifty pounds of black powder and primers by a seven-man submarine battery stationed at Fort Morgan, the torpedoes were anchored to the bottom to float two to three feet below the surface.  They became water-logged within three months, forcing the Confederates to regularly replace them.  The torpedoes effectively narrowed the channel width to only 500 yards and forced ships into the range of Fort Morgan’s guns.

Brigadier General Richard L. Page, General Robert E. Lee’s cousin and a former U.S. and Confederate naval officer, took command of Fort Morgan and all lower Mobile Bay defenses in March 1864 upon his promotion to brigadier general.  Page was known as a strict disciplinarian.  Colonel Charles Anderson led Fort Gaines’s 800-man garrison, which included a battalion of cadets aged twelve to sixteen from the Pelham Military Academy in Mobile.  Anderson had orders to hold the fort at any cost.  Though Fort Gaines was the more modern of the two forts guarding Mobile Bay, Union forces believed that Fort Morgan was the more powerful post.  In fact, on several occasions, the officers of the Union naval squadron blockading Mobile thought the Rebels had abandoned Fort Gaines.

Only after Rear Admiral Farragut had secured Union Army support and the use of four ironclad monitors was he prepared, as commander of the Western Gulf Squadron, to cut off the blockade runners’ homeport and choke the Confederacy’s supply chain.  As the fleet assembled in July 1864 and waited for the ironclad USS Tecumseh, Union naval forces made four reconnaissance trips into Mobile Bay but failed to see signs of the torpedo field that deserters had mentioned.  The fleet bombarded Fort Morgan with one- and two-hundred-pound shells, inflicting enough damage that Page’s chief engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Victor von Scheliha, reported, “it is obvious that Fort Morgan, in its present condition, cannot withstand a vigorous bombardment.”   feature_8

The Mobile Bay joint land-sea operation began when Major General Gordon Granger landed with 1,500 Union soldiers on the west side of Dauphin Island, seven miles from Fort Gaines, on 3 August.  The Confederate troops burned their outbuildings and retreated into the fort the next day as Granger’s forces moved within 1,700 yards of the fort.

Early on 5 August, Farragut, aboard the USS Hartford, entered the main ship channel behind the USS Brooklyn.  The lighter gun boats were lashed to the west side of the larger ships. Bristling with armaments, the four ironclad monitors were expected to pour such heavy fire on Fort Morgan that its gunners would be unable to return fire and have to seek shelter.  The monitors led the fleet from the right flank, interposed between the guns of Fort Morgan and the wooden vessels.  Farragut’s fleet had 199 guns, compared to the Confederates’ twenty-six guns at Fort Gaines and forty-six guns at Fort Morgan.

Despite being obsolete, at close quarters Fort Morgan’s muzzle-loaders were accurate and deadly when used against wooden-hulled ships, although their projectiles did no damage to the ironclad monitors.  The firing on both sides became incessant as the fleet passed within 150 yards of the Rebel pieces.  One Confederate soldier wrote, “The roar of cannon was like one continuous peal of thunder, deafening to the extreme.”   Farragut climbed into the rigging to see above the smoke as his ships battled past the fort.

When the Tecumseh, the leading monitor, veered west to pursue the Confederate ram CSS Tennessee, it crossed in front of the Brooklyn.  Within minutes, it nosed into the torpedo field and struck a mine. The ironclad exploded and sank immediately, trapping the Union fleet behind it in the ship channel as Fort Morgan’s guns raked the warship’s decks.  Farragut, up in the rigging, decided the possibility of death in the minefield was better than certain death and destruction from the enemy gunners blasting the immobilized fleet.  He told pilot Martin Freeman that the Hartford would take the lead and ordered Freeman “to pick my way (through the torpedoes) and go in the bay or blowup.”  The pilot ordered four bells:  “Go ahead at full speed.”  Farragut’s actions came to be colorfully portrayed as “Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead”—clearly his intent if not verbatim.

As the fleet followed the Hartford through the torpedo field, crews reported feeling the gunpowder-filled torpedoes bouncing against the ships’ hulls.   Fortunately, no additional torpedoes exploded, and the fleet passed beyond the range of artillery.  (It was later determined that only one in ten mines was operational.  The rest were waterlogged.)  Three Confederate gunboats and the ram Tennessee were taken by 1000.  In the Battle of Mobile Bay, Fort Morgan suffered five casualties, while the Union fleet had fifty-two fatalities, in addition to the ninety-three sailors that went down with the Tecumseh.

Meanwhile, Fort Gaines, with only one gun able to reach the channel, inflicted no damage on the Union fleet.  Granger’s troops had begun shelling the fort, intent on using it as a staging area in the taking of Mobile.  The sand dunes gave Federal sharpshooters the advantage of looking down into the fort, like a shooting gallery.  In addition to the land-based artillery, the Union monitors Chickasaw and Winnebago lobbed shells at the fort from the north.  The officers’ quarters and quartermaster’s building, which stood higher than the fort’s walls, took damage.

feature_10On 6 August, the majority of Fort Gaines’s officers presented a petition to Anderson, declaring their position indefensible and therefore requesting the fort be surrendered.  Although Anderson disagreed with his officers’ sentiments, the veiled threat of mutiny prompted Anderson to respond to Farragut’s demand for surrender.

Page, angry about Fort Gaines’s failure to respond to signals, was rowed across the shoals on 7 August to confront Anderson, who at that moment was aboard the Hartford.  Page told the second in command, Major Charles B. Johnston, that Anderson had no authority to surrender and would be court-martialed.  He ordered Johnston to relieve Anderson, not realizing that Johnston had also signed the surrender petition.

On 8 August, Page saw the Stars and Stripes flying over Fort Gaines and condemned the surrender as a traitorous act.  Left alone to hold off Union forces, Page was determined to fight and “only surrender when I have no means of defense.”  Equally outraged by the actions of the soldiers manning Fort Gaines, Fort Morgan’s garrison of 580 vowed they would hold to the bitter end and remove the stain caused by Anderson’s surrender.

Newspapers accounts in Mobile pointed out that Fort Gaines’ action was the only time during the Civil War that a Confederate fort had surrendered without a major battle.  Many of the civilians in Mobile believed Fort Gaines should have held out longer.  The garrison had sustained forty-three casualties, including three fatalities, but damage to the fort was minor and quickly repaired by Union troops.  Anderson, writing later to explain the surrender, said “We could render Mobile no assistance.  We could render Morgan no assistance, and we could have done no harm to the enemy.”

While Fort Gaines had been neutralized, Union forces attempting to capture Mobile still faced a major obstacle.  Until Fort Morgan was taken, Farragut and his fleet were locked inside Mobile Bay.  Transports ferried Granger’s men to Navy Point, three miles east of Fort Morgan and, on 9 August, and the siege of Fort Morgan began.

The Confederacy may have held the Mobile forts since 1861, but the Federals had built them and held all their engineering plans.  As a result, they knew Fort Morgan’s weaknesses and gun placements.

Over the next twelve days, Fort Morgan received sporadic shelling from the heavy guns of the three Union monitors and the captured Tennessee as Granger’s forces leapfrogged their artillery closer to the beleaguered fort.  The first siege parallel occupied a line of abandoned Confederate trenches and, by 14 August, four 30-pounder Parrott rifles and four siege mortars were shelling the masonry fort.  Union sharpshooters prevented the fort’s gun crews from returning fire during the day.  Page, observing the damage inflicted by Union artillery, ordered 30,000 pounds of gunpowder destroyed, fearing the magazines would take a shell and detonate, with catastrophic results.

On 22 August, with sixteen siege guns and fourteen siege mortars in the second parallel only 200 yards from the fort, Granger ordered the beginning of a massive bombardment from land and sea.  The Union monitors, only 100 to 200 yards offshore, began shelling Fort Morgan, backed by long-range fire from the rest of the fleet at the rate of “one round per minute for four hours.”  An Iowa artillery officer wrote, “The gunners seemed to perform their duty with wild enthusiasm, stripping themselves of all superfluous clothing, and blackened, begrimed with the smoke, and dirt, and sweat of battle, their eyes sparkling through the hazy air…they might well have been taken for so many Vulcans forging thunderbolts for the gods.”  One private with the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery noted that, “the grains of sands danced to the water’s edge.”

The bombardment immobilized Fort Morgan’s gun crews.  After a break, Federal forces spent the next twelve hours throwing 3,000 artillery rounds at the fort.  One soldier wrote that, “three to four shells were in the air all the time.”  That evening, exploding shells from the siege batteries ignited the wooden roof of the citadel.  The massive fire silhouetted the fort and threatened the magazines.  Page ordered the final 60,000 pounds of powder dumped into the cisterns and the guns spiked.  With no means of defense, Page unconditionally surrendered the severely damaged fort on the morning of 23 August.  Before surrendering, Page allegedly broke his sword over his knee rather than relinquish it to the Yankees.

Fort Morgan’s capture meant Farragut’s fleet could safely leave Mobile Bay and that supply ships and troop transports could enter.  Granger, however, did not have enough troops to attack and capture Mobile because Union armies were occupied elsewhere.  It was not until March 1865 that 45,000 Federal troops, under the command of Major General Edward S. Canby, launched a campaign from Forts Gaines, Morgan, and Barrancas against Spanish Fort, Fort Blakeley, and Mobile.  Mobile fell on 12 April, three days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Virginia.

Forts Morgan and Gaines remained largely unchanged for the next three decades following the Civil War.  With the Endicott Board updating coastal fortifications and harbors beginning in 1895, both forts had a series of concrete batteries installed starting in 1899.  Fort Morgan’s first, Battery Bowyer, had four breech-loading rifles with disappearing carriages that were too light and ineffective to go against modern naval vessels, but two additional batteries completed in 1900 allowed the fort to engage contemporary warships.  Battery Duportail had two 12-inch rifles on disappearing carriages that could fire half-ton projectiles at vessels more than eight miles away.  The Buffington-Crozier carriages used the guns’ recoil to drop the artillery from sight, allowing gun crews to reload in greater safety.  Battery Dearborn had twelve rifled mortars placed to target specific zones with designated charges and projectiles.  Two smaller batteries with rapid fire guns defended the new minefield.  Fort Gaines’s new armament consisted of 6-inch disappearing guns.feature_9

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Army began scrapping its Civil War era artillery. Because Fort Morgan was still an active military post, its obsolete armaments were scheduled for destruction.  Ordnance personnel stuffed explosives down the muzzles of the 15-inch Rodman columbiads to destroy the guns.  The metal fragments were then loaded onto ships docked at the engineers’ wharf.  Fort Gaines, which was considered a sub-post of Morgan, was difficult to access, so its guns were left in place, providentially for future historians.

By World War I, the batteries at Forts Morgan and Gaines were again obsolete.  The guns remained manned by coast artillery units, and both forts served as training bases.  The Army deactivated the two posts by 1923.

As World War II approached, the Army reactivated Fort Morgan to protect Mobile’s ship building industry with the Army, Navy and Coast Guard using the post.  The minesweeper USS Guide patrolled from the updated engineers’ wharf.  For two years, Battery F, 50th Coast Artillery Regiment, manned the guns at Fort Morgan, which now included five 155mm cannon set in concrete gun mounts that allowed broader fields of fire.  Fort Gaines, in greater disrepair, had less to offer as a fort, although it was used by a Coast Guard unit patrolling the Gulf Mexico for German U-boats.  The forts were again deactivated in 1946 and have remained inactive since that time.    

Fort Gaines, which had been sold to the City of Mobile in 1926, is now owned by Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board.  The Fort Gaines Historic Site is considered one of the best preserved examples of nineteenth-century American coastal fortifications, but due to coastal erosion, it is also on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the most endangered historic places.  Nine rifled 32-pounder cannon from the Civil War remain in place as well as marked damage from the guns of the USS Chickasaw.  The northwest bastion, diagonal from the ship channel, is well-preserved in its original condition, as is the south flank firing station.  The original bakery and blacksmith shop are operational and used in living history demonstrations.  Enthusiastic tour guides clad in Civil War-style clothing show the fort’s operation, from the movement of munitions up the wide brick gun ramps to the tide-flushed latrine system before ending with a big bang with the firing of a 12-pounder Napoleon.  A small museum, open daily, contains artifacts relating to the fort’s history.

Fort Morgan State Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark, is now administered by the Alabama Historical Commission.  It has been ranked among the finest examples of masonry star fort architecture of the nineteenth century.  Somewhat like a geological fault, the red brick of the original fort bears concrete intrusions from the 1899-1900 batteries.  Icicles of salt stalactites slide down the high-arched ceilings and walls of the casemates.  The powder magazines retain the davits used to hoist ammunition to the gun crews above.  Two 24-pounder Civil War flank defense howitzers were returned to Fort Morgan in 2001 and remounted after an absence of nearly 100 years.  The two guns had been part of a Civil War monument in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Wildflowers have rooted in the cracks of the concrete batteries.

The Fort Morgan Museum, outside the fort’s sally port, uses photographs, letters, weapons, uniforms, and other artifacts to help visitors understand the fort and its history.  A Harper’s Weekly sketch from August 1864 depicts a shattered Fort Morgan on the day it was surrendered.  Today the fort offers twilight candlelight tours on Tuesdays during the summer, an artillery salute to American independence, and Battle of Mobile Bay Civil War encampments.

On 2-3 August of this year, both forts participated in the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Battle of Mobile Bay.  Commemorative programs at Fort Morgan consisted of two full days of artillery displays to convey the intensity of the Battle of Mobile Bay and the siege that followed 150 years ago.  Fort Gaines had cannon firings along with period military drills.  The commemorative programs at Forts Morgan and Gaines reminded attendees of the proud historical legacy of both forts that played a vital role in the Civil War and in the overall defense of port of Mobile for decades after that conflict.