Mobile Bay: Federals Seize the Forts

August 8, 1864 – Confederates surrendered Fort Gaines at the entrance to Mobile Bay, apparently without authorization. This enabled the Federals to focus all their attention on capturing the last fort guarding the bay.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

After Rear Admiral David G. Farragut’s Federal naval fleet captured Mobile Bay, the Federals looked to capture the three Confederate forts at the bay’s entrance: Forts Powell, Gaines, and Morgan. Fort Powell was the smallest garrison, consisting of 18 guns and 140 men under Lieutenant Colonel James M. Williams. It guarded the secondary bay entrance west of the main channel.

Federal entry into the bay on the 5th made Fort Powell irrelevant. Colonel Charles D. Anderson, commanding the Confederates at Fort Gaines, directed Williams to “save your garrison when your fort is no longer tenable.” Williams destroyed his magazines and evacuated Fort Powell that night.

Anderson then telegraphed the ranking Confederate commander in the bay, Brigadier General Richard L. Page, stationed at Fort Morgan, regarding Fort Gaines: “The enemy are planting batteries in the sand-hills within easy range. If the fleet opens upon me from the other direction I cannot cover more than half of my men, but will do the best I can. My situation is critical.”

Page advised Anderson to “do your best and keep the men in good cheer.” On the 6th, Anderson reported that two Federal ironclads were bombarding his fort, and he consulted with several officers (none of whom were Page) on whether to surrender. The next morning, Anderson wrote to Farragut:

“Feeling my inability to maintain my present location longer than you may see fit to open upon me with the fleet, and feeling also the uselessness of entailing upon ourselves further destruction of life, I have the honor to propose the surrender of fort Gaines, its garrison, stores, &c.

“I trust to your magnanimity for obtaining honorable terms, which I respectfully request that you will transmit to me, and allow me sufficient time to consider them and return an answer.”

Page saw the boat leaving Fort Gaines delivering the message under a flag of truce and ordered Anderson, “Hold on to your fort.” Farragut received the message and consulted with Major General Gordon Granger, the army commander whose troops were closing in to lay siege to Gaines. The officers gave their terms to Anderson: “The unconditional surrender of yourself and the garrison of Fort Gaines, with all of the public property within its limits.”

As Anderson came aboard Farragut’s flagship to arrange the surrender, Page continued sending messages trying to stop the process. But Anderson did not acknowledge the messages, and on the 8th, he formally surrendered Fort Gaines to Granger. Granger reported, “I have the honor to report that the old flag now floats over Fort Gaines, the entire garrison having surrendered to the combined forces of the army and navy this morning at 8 o’clock.” The Federals seized 818 prisoners, 26 guns, and large amounts of ammunition and supplies.

Page reported, “At 9:30 o’clock the enemy’s flag was hoisted over Gaines, the evidence and the emblem of the consummation of the deed of dishonor and disgrace to its commander and garrison.” Page called the affair “painfully humiliating,” caused by Anderson’s “inexplicable and shameful” conduct. Anderson was sent to New Orleans as a prisoner of war, where the Confederate government was unable to try him for his disobedience.

Now only Fort Morgan remained in Mobile Bay. Farragut, who had been friends with Page before the war, sent him a message: “To prevent the unnecessary sacrifice of human life, which must follow the opening of our batteries, we demand the unconditional surrender of Fort Morgan and its dependencies.” Page replied, “I am prepared to sacrifice life, and will only surrender when I have no means of defense.”

The Federals began assembling warships, land artillery, and Granger’s 3,000 troops to bombard Morgan into submission. The captured Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Tennessee was towed into a position where she could join in the bombardment of her former comrades. Farragut reported, “We are now tightening the cords around Fort Morgan. Page is as surly as a bull-dog, and says he will die in the last ditch. He says he can hold out six months, and that we can’t knock his fort down.”

By the 17th, all the Federal artillery was in position to lay siege to Fort Morgan. It consisted of 36 cannon and the guns of Farragut’s naval fleet. Page noted that “our brick walls were easily penetrable to the heavy missiles of the enemy, and that a systematic concentrated fire would soon breach them.”

Page ordered the destruction of his ammunition to prevent it from being exploded by Federal shells. During the five days of heavy bombardment, Granger’s troops inched their way to within 200 yards of the fort. A furious bombardment opened on the 22nd that “cut up the fort to such extent as to make the whole work a mere mass of debris.” Page, now with just two functioning guns, reported:

“My guns and powder had all been destroyed, my means of defense gone, the citadel, nearly the entire quartermaster stores, and a portion of the commissariat burned by the enemy’s shells, it was evident the fort could hold out but a few hours longer under a renewed bombardment. The only question was: Hold it for this time, gain the éclat, and sustain the loss of life from the falling of the walls, or save life and capitulate?”

At 6 a.m. on the 23rd, a white flag was raised over Fort Morgan as Page sent the Federals a message: “The further sacrifice of life being unnecessary, my sick and wounded suffering and exposed, humanity demands that I ask for terms of capitulation.” Farragut and Granger required unconditional surrender, “with all of the public property within its limit and in the same condition that it is now.”

However, the Confederates spiked their guns, troops destroyed their rifles, and officers broke their swords to render them useless to the Federals. Farragut angrily reported:

“The whole conduct of the officers of Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan presents such a striking contrast in moral principle that I can not fail to remark upon it. General Page and his officers, with a childish spitefulness, destroyed the guns which they had said they would defend to the last, but which they never defended at all, and threw away or broke those weapons which they had not the manliness to use against their enemies, for Fort Morgan never fired a gun after the commencement of the bombardment…”

The Federals took 400 prisoners, and now all the forts at the entrance to Mobile Bay were under their control. Farragut advised against continuing north to capture the city of Mobile itself because it was too heavily defended. Farragut’s men soon went to work clearing the floating mines (torpedoes) out of the bay. One of them exploded, killing five sailors and wounding nine. Nevertheless, the Federals had complete control of Mobile Bay, which was forever closed to blockade runners. Now only Wilmington, North Carolina, remained as a major functioning Confederate seaport.

As August ended, an exhausted Farragut asked Navy Secretary Gideon Welles for a sick leave:

“It is evident that the army has no men to spare for this place beyond those sufficient to keep up an alarm, and thereby make a diversion in favor of Gen. Sherman… Now, I dislike to make a show of attack unless I can do something more than make a menace, but so long as I am able I am willing to do the bidding of the Department to the best of my abilities. I fear, however, my health is giving way. I have been down in this Gulf and the Caribbean Sea nearly five years out of six, with the exception of the short time at home last fall, and the last six months have been a severe drain on me, and I want rest, if it is to be had.”

Meanwhile, the news of the spectacular Federal victory at Mobile Bay sparked massive celebrations throughout the North. One of Farragut’s New York neighbors informed him that his actions were “doing a great deal more than perhaps you dream of, in giving heart to the people here, and raising their confidence. Your victory has come at a most opportune moment, and will be attended by consequences of the most lasting and vital kind to the republic.”

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 445, 447, 449, 451; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10588-630; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 483-84, 489, 491; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 553; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 553, 556, 559; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 212; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276

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