Mobile Bay, that pear shaped body of water, with its far reaching system of water tributaries, has been a scene of settlement and fortification since the early days of French attempts at settlement in the New World. There was, to begin with. Fort Louis de la Mobile, which protected the infant first settlement of Mobile, precursor of the city of today. In various guises Fort Louis passed from one to another of the different races of men with which the history of Mobile Bay is associated. Then there are the forts placed on the islands at the mouth of Mobile Bay and the forts at the head of the bay where the big rivers flow in. Finally there is Fort Morgan (Fort Bowyer to begin with) which occupies the point of that long, thin peninsula of land which forms the southern boundary of Mobile Bay, dividing its waters from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Fort Morgan today is in ruins and has never been thoroughly rebuilt since its capitulation to Farragut in one of the hottest battles of the Civil War. The governmental reservation of land on which the works are situated contains about 500 acres and is occupied, as well, by modern defenses. The view from the point on which the old fort is situated gives a wide prospect of blue water and sky. Across the ship channel is historic Dauphine Island, on which Fort Morgan’s sister fort, Fort Gaines, was situated, and where the government today maintains extensive batteries. To the right are the waters of Mobile Bay, with the smoke of the city thirty miles to the north. To the left are the sunny waves of the Gulf.
The first that we hear of Mobile Point as a place of fortification was in 1812, when the Spanish evacuated Mobile. General Wilkinson, in command of the United States forces in the southwest, put nine guns as a battery on Mobile Point and made his way on up to the city, where he commenced to fortify the Perdido. Subsequently Mobile Point appealed to him as a better place for defensive works than a spot so far up the bay, and he placed a fortification here, which was called Fort Bowyer in honor of Lieutenant Colonel Bowyer.
The next occupant of Fort Bowyer was a more picturesque personage than General Wilkinson, none other than Andrew Jackson. Upon his retirement from Pensacola in 1814, Jackson stopped at Fort Bowyer and left a force there of 130 men under the leadership of Major William Lawrence. On September 12 the British appeared before the fort with land and naval strength and demanded the surrender of the little structure. Major Lawrence refused to surrender.
The British strength on this occasion consisted of the Hermes of 22 guns, the Sophia of 18 guns, the Car on of 20 guns. Anaconda of 18 guns, all vessels of large size, under the command of Captain Percy. It was a squadron, which Jackson had driven from Pensacola Bay and it was thirsting for revenge. There was, in addition, a land force under Colonel Nichols of a few marines and about 600 Indians, which assailed Fort Bowyer from the rear.
The battle began early on the morning of the 15th. The word for the day in the American ranks was “Don’t give up the fort,” and this originated an often repeated phrase. A heavy cannonade continued without interruption until 5.30 o’clock in the afternoon. The flagstaff of the Hermes, Captain Percy’s flagship, was shot away and Lawrence gave the order to cease firing while he hailed the vessel to find out whether she had lowered her colors. The only answer was a murderous volley of grapeshot from another quarter. The flagstaff of the fort then happened to be struck, and the Indians and British on shore, thinking that the plucky little garrison had surrendered, ran forward with terrible cries. They were met by a terrific hail of lead, which drove them back for good.
Finally the battered English vessels drew off. The Hermes was found to be in such bad shape that she was set on fire by her crew and abandoned. Her destruction was completed by the explosion of her magazine. The British loss was 232, of which number 163 were killed. The American loss was 4 killed and 4 wounded. The British in this engagement outnumbered the Americans more than six times.
The great adventure of Fort Morgan’s life, however, was in the Civil War at the time of the taking of Mobile. The stronghold had been considerably enlarged and strengthened and had been rechristened by its Confederate possessors at the outbreak of that disastrous struggle between brother and brother. It is described in official records of the time as a pentagonal bastioned work, with a full scarp brick wall, 4 feet 8 inches thick, its armament consisting of 86 guns of various calibers. The garrison, including officers and men, numbered 640.
The force under Farragut consisted of fourteen large wooden steam vessels of war and four ironclads of which the Tecumseh arrived from Pensacola just in time for the engagement. The wooden vessels were lashed together in pairs and the whole column was headed by the ironclads.
It was on the morning of August 5, 1864, that Farragut commenced his passage into Mobile Bay. Long before the break of day through the whole fleet could be heard the boatswain’s whistles and the cheery cries of “all hands” and “up all hammocks.” The wind was west southwest, just where Farragut wanted it, as it would blow the smoke of the guns on Fort Morgan. At four o’clock the fleet set in motion, led by the four monitors. At 6.47 the booming of the Tecumseh’s guns was heard and shortly afterward Morgan replied. The story may now be taken up in the words of an officer on board the flagship Hartford:
The order was to “go slowly, go slowly” and receive the fire of Fort Morgan. At six minutes past seven the fort opened, having allowed us to get into such short range that we apprehended some snare; in fact, I heard the order passed for our guns to be elevated for fourteen hundred yards some time before one was fired. The calmness of the scene was sublime. No impatience, no irritation, no anxiety, except for the fort to open; and after it did open full five minutes elapsed before we answered. In the meantime the guns were trained as if at a target and all the sounds I could hear were “steady boys, steady! Left tackle a little! So, so!” Then the roar of a broadside and the eager cheer as the enemy were driven from their water battery. Don’t imagine they were frightened; no man could stand under that iron shower; and the brave fellows returned to their guns as soon as it lulled, only to be driven off again.
At twenty minutes past seven we had come within range of the enemy’s gunboats which opened their fire upon the Hartford, and as the Admiral afterward told me made her their special target. First they struck our foremast and then lodged a shot of 120 pounds in our mainmast. By degrees they got better elevation; and I have saved a splinter from the hammock netting to show how they felt their way lower. Splinters after that came by cords, and in size sometimes were like logs of wood. No longer came the cheering cry “Nobody hurt yet.” The Hartford by some unavoidable chance fought the enemy’s fleet and fort together for twenty minutes by herself, timbers crashing and wounded pouring down, cries never to be forgotten.
By half past seven the ironclad Tecumseh was well up with the fort and drawing slowly by, when suddenly she reeled to port and went down straightway with almost every soul on board. She had struck a mine.
For a time this appalling disaster spread confusion in the fleet.
“What’s the matter?” was shouted from the flagship to the Brooklyn just ahead.
“Torpedoes,” was the response.
“Damn the torpedoes,” said Farragut, “go ahead.”
Go ahead the fleet did and at length had passed Fort Morgan and was in the sheltering waters of the bay. The cost of this operation in the Union fleet was 335 men. Of the 130 men in the Tecumseh when she was struck only 17 were saved.
Fort Gaines, the works on the western side of the channel, now surrendered. But Fort Morgan kept on fighting. The Union vessels were in Mobile Bay, but they had not yet forced the indomitable fort on Mobile Point to its knees. Admiral Farragut wrote to a friend:
We are now tightening the cords around Fort Morgan. Page is as surly as a bulldog and says that he will die in his ditch
How little people know the risks of life. Drayton made his clerk stay below because he was a young married man. All my staff, Watson, McKinley and Brownell, were in an exposed position on the poop deck but escaped unhurt while poor Heginbotham was killed.
For seventeen days Fort Morgan held out, though bombarded continuously. Then at length she surrendered, her citadel destroyed and her walls nearly blown to pieces. It is this pathetic shell that now greets the visitor’s eye on Mobile Point.