April 12, 1865 – Eight months after the Federal navy sealed off Mobile Bay, Federal troops finally captured the city itself.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had repeatedly urged more aggressive action against Mobile. By late March, Major General Edward R.S. Canby, commanding the Federal Military Division of Western Mississippi, was finally ready to move. His force consisted of 16,000 troops from the reactivated XIII and XVI corps, supported by Admiral Henry K. Thatcher’s naval flotilla patrolling Mobile Bay. The key to capturing Mobile was to neutralize the two main Confederate garrisons defending the city:
- Spanish Fort, east of Mobile, was held by about 3,000 troops under Brigadier General Randall L. Gibson.
- Fort Blakely, five miles north of Spanish Fort, was held by about 4,000 troops under Brigadier General St. John R. Liddell.
Toward the end of March, Canby’s Federals crossed the Fish River and advanced along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. They met enemy resistance outside Spanish Fort, but the outnumbered Confederates quickly fell back behind the fort’s defenses. Canby divided his force and sent one part to lay siege to Spanish Fort while the other, augmented by about 5,000 black troops from Pensacola, moved north to attack Fort Blakely.
The Federals surrounded Spanish Fort as April began. Thatcher provided naval transport for the infantry as well as a battery of three 30-pound Parrott rifles on the banks of the Blakely River. By the 4th, the Federals were shelling Spanish Fort around the clock at a rate of one round every four minutes. They pushed their way to within 700 yards of the fort walls.
The Confederates held out until the 8th, when Federals of the 8th Iowa seized a key part of their defenses. Gibson evacuated most of his men through hidden pathways and marshes, while others escaped in rowboats. About 500 Confederates stayed behind, and they were captured when the Federals entered Spanish Fort. This isolated the Confederates in Fort Blakely.
Federal troops began surrounding Blakely on the 1st and eventually built three rings of fortifications, with the closest ring within 1,000 yards of the fort. The C.S.S. Nashville hampered Federal progress by sporadically firing on them from Mobile Bay. Confederates had also mined the ground in front of the fort to prevent a direct assault.
The defenders held firm until Spanish Fort fell and Canby could concentrate his whole force on Blakely. On the 9th, the Federals opened a massive bombardment using 37 field guns and 57 siege guns. At 6 p.m., Federal infantry advanced, easily avoiding the mines and trip wires. They overwhelmed the defenders within 30 minutes; many Confederates (including Liddell) surrendered while others escaped into the nearby woods. The Nashville tried rescuing Confederates gathering at the riverbank, but Federal sharpshooters drove her off.
Forts Tracy and Huger were the last remaining forts of any consequence still garrisoned by Confederates. The Federals began bombarding them on the 10th, and Major General Dabney H. Maury, commanding Confederate forces in the district, ordered Mobile evacuated. Tracy and Huger were abandoned the next day.
The Nashville and a few other Confederate vessels escaped up the Tombigbee River. Others ships that could not be moved were destroyed. Maury escaped with 4,500 men and 27 guns. The Confederates retreated toward Meridian, Mississippi, where Maury hoped to regroup and then move east to join General Joseph E. Johnston’s command in North Carolina.
Federal troops entered Mobile on the 12th, and Mayor R.H. Slough formally surrendered the city to Major General Gordon Granger, commanding XVI Corps. Federals raised the U.S. flag over city hall at 12:30 p.m. In the three-week operation, Federals sustained 1,578 casualties (232 killed, 1,303 wounded and 43 missing) while capturing about 5,000 Confederates.
Mobile was the last major Confederate city to fall into Federal hands. However, its capture was more symbolic than strategic because General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee had already surrendered the largest Confederate army, and therefore the war was likely over regardless of Mobile’s fate. Nevertheless, the Federals had long coveted this vital seaport city, and now it was theirs.
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