The Fall of Ship Island

September 16, 1861 – Federal forces seized an important base for future operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ship Island lighthouse built in 1853 | Image Credit:
Ship Island lighthouse built in 1853 | Image Credit:

Located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, Ship Island, Mississippi was deemed “indispensable” by the Federal Blockade Strategy Board. The failure of Captain William Mervine to capture Ship Island was partly responsible for his removal as commander of the Federal Gulf Blockading Squadron. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had told Mervine that he found it “difficult to understand the reasons for the apparent inactivity and indifference that have governed in this matter. You have large ships, heavy batteries, and young and willing officers, with men sufficient to dispossess the insurgents from Ship Island.”

A week after Mervine’s removal, the U.S.S. Massachusetts under Commander Melancton Smith bombarded the partially completed fortifications on Ship Island and drove the Confederates off. A Federal landing party came ashore and took possession, marking the second successful Federal army-navy operation of the war (capturing Hatteras Inlet the previous month being the first).

Although the capture was not considered a major accomplishment at the time, Ship Island became an important staging and refueling site that enabled the Federals to patrol the entrances to the Mississippi and Mobile Bay, as well as the eastern delta outlets and passes down from Lake Pontchartrain. It also provided a base for a future attack on the Confederacy’s largest city: New Orleans.



Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 77; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 66; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 119; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 370; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 36; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31


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