What trip through the Deep South would be complete without Civil War history? While in Gulf Shores, we drove to Fort Morgan and here is a look at what we learned on site, at the museum and through our guided tour…
On August 5, 1864, Alabama’s gulf coast was the stage for one of the final major battles of the Civil War…the Battle of Mobile Bay. A key factor in that battle was Fort Morgan which still stands and welcomes visitors interested in this point of history. Before we take a look at the fort itself, allow me to give a little more background on the importance of this battle.
Battle of Mobile Bay
By 1864, Mobile was one of the few ports left for the Confederacy. Cotton left Mobile for Cuba, and armament arrived there from the British. Fort Morgan was positioned at the entrance to Mobile Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. It was originally built to protect Mobile, but it was designed to fight against ships with sails. By Civil War times, the fort was now faced with steam run ships which put it at a disadvantage. Not sufficiently able to protect Mobile on its own, the fort’s new role was to guard blockade runners and keep the supply lines open. Several Confederate ships were also guarding Mobile Bay, and the city itself had plenty of its own defenses. The port’s significance to the Confederate forces made it a prominent target for the Union by 1864, at the same time of Sherman’s advance to Atlanta.
On August 5, as the Union ships began their attack by attempting to enter the bay, it was the first time that they faced torpedoes (what we now call underwater mines). The Confederates had sunk mines throughout the entrance to the bay, but they were known to be unreliable. Upon entering the area, the USS Tecumseh struck a torpedo and sank. The Union commanding admiral, David Farragut, mustered his courage and continued ahead. Some of those near him at the time reported that he exclaimed, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”, but Farragut never claimed the quote, so we will never know for sure if he did make that statement. Regardless of what he did or did not say, he showed his bravery by facing the torpedoes head on. He passed the torpedoes unscathed, and the rest of the fleet followed exactly in his path. Afterwards, they reported hearing the flints go off around them, but no mines actually exploded.
Once in the bay, the Union forces faced the Confederate ships, who also exhibited outstanding acts of courage in the battle despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered. After defeating the ships and taking Fort Gaines (across the bay from Fort Morgan), the Union forces landed and laid siege to Fort Morgan. Fort Morgan’s demise came when the roof of the citadel caught fire during the siege. The blaze forced the Confederate defenders to dump all of the fort’s powder in fear of a terrible explosion. The next day, the Confederates surrendered.
While the city of Mobile was never captured due to its strong defenses, the port was closed to Southern blockade runners. The Union forces had defeated the Confederate ships and all three of the forts, including Fort Morgan. The defeat at Mobile Bay and Atlanta were definitive in hastening the end of the Civil War.
At Fort Morgan, 17 men died during the siege. The captured were first sent to New Orleans for imprisonment, but so many escaped there that the remaining p.o.w.s were moved to Elmira, New York. 150 men died in prison in New York, which speaks to the conditions there, and reminds us of the brutality of Civil War prisons on both sides.
Visiting Fort Morgan Today
The fort was built from 1819 to 1833 on the location of Fort Bowyer which was part of the War of 1812. The Army Corps of Engineers used rented slaves for Fort Morgan’s construction. (I had never heard of the army’s use of slavery to serve its construction needs, and it was considered a profitable business and was used until the Emancipation Proclamation.) It took the slaves 30 million bricks to complete the project. Many of those bricks are still standing and give a visitor the shell of how the original fort looked.
Here is a view of the fort from its western side. The water on the left is Mobile Bay and the water on the right is the Gulf.
A closer look at the brick…
What is no longer visible is the citadel, which served as the soldier’s barracks and encompassed much of the parade ground (grass area). Here is a photo of what the citadel looked like following the battle, after its roof had burned…
Fort Morgan Fun Facts
- William Tecumseh Sherman served at the fort in 1842.
- 97 medals of honor were given for the Battle of Mobile Bay; which puts it second after the Battle of Vicksburg for most medals of honor awarded in a battle in U.S. history.
- Fort Morgan was also active during the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II.
- When visiting, there is a $7 fee per adult. Check the fort’s website when planning your visit, as they do offer tours on different parts of the fort’s history.
- There is also a small museum and gift shop on the grounds.
- From Gulf Shores, expect about a 30 minute drive to the fort.