Thursday, September 7, 2017

Alabama's Fort Blakeley: By boat or by foot, visitors can take in miles of fortifications stormed in last days of war

Remains of Rebel fortifications at Fort Blakeley
Delta Explorer will be on the water Saturday (Courtesy Historic Blakeley SP)

Forty-nine passengers will board a giant pontoon boat this Saturday morning and glide down rivers lined by the remnants of earthen fortifications that protected eastern approaches to Mobile, Ala., during the closing months of the Civil War.

Leaving the dock on the Tensaw River and peering through shadows cast by live oaks, magnolia and gum trees, they’ll first see part of the Confederate inner lines at Fort Blakeley, scene of the largest battle in Alabama. The Delta Explorer will then pass near Rebel river batteries Fort Tracy and Fort Huger (pronounced u-chee) as it continues on the Apalachee and Blakeley rivers to Spanish Fort, site of Battery McDermott, which is now surrounded by homes. They'll turn back at the entrance to Mobile Bay.

Mike Bunn, director of operations at Historic Blakeley State Park, will give a PowerPoint presentation during the sold-out, 90-minute cruise (the park currently is taking reservations for another Civil War boat ride on Nov. 11).

John Sledge, local author of “These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War,” will make an 11 a.m. lecture at the park’s Wehle Center following the cruise.

Map showing opposing lines in April 1865 (Library of Congress)

The idea is to give patrons an appreciation of why each navy wanted to control the waters and the strategic importance of the fortifications. The Confederate bastions were overrun in a combined Federal infantry and naval operation that saw Blakeley fall on the same day Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox – April 9, 1865.

Notable was the presence of numerous Federal regiments made up of black soldiers.

“We have got miles and miles of extraordinarily preserved Union and Confederate earthworks,” Bunn said of the park. The site draws history buffs, campers and nature lovers to its 2,100 acres a half dozen miles north of Spanish Fort, a bedroom community on Interstate 10 just east of Mobile.

Settlement faded away before war

About 40,000 people venture annually to the state park, drawn by its beauty and signs along Interstate 10 touting its Civil War pedigree. Bunn said some come for both.

The teeming town of Blakeley thrived in the 1810s as white settlers followed Native American habitation. It sat on a long, level piece of land. About 3,000 lived on the river, building docks to make the town a port. But yellow fever and the growth of Mobile made Blakeley’s days numbered.

“It had reached its heyday in late 1820s,” said Bunn. The ground would find a new purpose during the war.

(Courtesy of Historic Blakeley State Park)

The site features primitive group campgrounds, an RV area, trails and all those Civil War fortifications and a few monuments.  More than 90 percent of the Confederate line and most of three Union lines outside them remain in some form. Some fortifications are up to 5 feet tall.

“We’ve opened up some Union battery positions this summer that were never on tour,” said Bunn.

While a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has helped to preserve Battery McDermott in Spanish Fort, not much else beyond a stretch of trenches remain. “The sites of the fortifications at Spanish Fort have been lost to development,” says a web page describing the Civil War Trust’s contributions to preservation of Fort Blakeley.

Spanish moss accents a tree at the park (Library of Congress)

Road to Mobile starts here

Bunn wrote an article for the Encyclopedia of Alabama about the Battle of Fort Blakeley. Although Union Adm. David Farragut bottled up Mobile in the summer of 1864, the city remained in Confederate hands and had three rings of defenses to the west. 

Brig. Gen. Liddell
The arrival of additional Federal troops in early 1865 brought about the campaign to take Fort Blakeley, Spanish Fort and other guardians east of Mobile, a vital transportation and supply center.

“There are good elevations around here,” Bunn told the Picket. “If you want to take Mobile the easiest route would be via the eastern shore … and come from the north.””

By this time, Confederate commanders used soldiers and slaves to build these earthen fortifications. Fort Blakeley was built following designs typical for a defense against a ground attack. It was commanded by Brig. Gen. St. John R. Liddell.

Click this Mobile campaign map to enlarge (Library of Congress)

Black troops played significant part

Officials say the park has some of the best-preserved fortifications remaining from the Civil War.

A self-guided tour takes visitors to the remains of nine defensive redoubts, trenches, Union gun emplacements, rifle pits and more.

Union troops laid siege of Blakeley for about a week. On the day of the assault, 16,000 blue-clad warriors quickly overwhelmed Brig. Gen. John Lindell’s 3,500 Confederates, half of whom were veteran troops.

Among the stops on the tour is a “zig zag” trench.

“This approach trench, dug under fire a short time before the final charge, served as a protected connection between the main Union line and advanced rifle pits. It is designed to protect troops from enfilade fire. As the siege proceeded, ‘zig-zag’ trenches such as this would ultimately help form new lines.’”

Redoubt #4 (Courtesy of Historic Blakeley State Park)

The campaigns for Blakeley and Spanish Fort included more than 4,000 U.S. Colored Troops, among the heaviest concentration of black soldiers in one battle.

“The siege and capture of Fort Blakeley was basically the last combined-force battle of the war. African-American forces played a major role in the successful Union assault,” the National Park Service says. Mobile fell within days.

An interesting side note: Confederates placed ineffective land mines, called "subterra shells," on the approaches to the fort.

Fierce, but brief, fighting

Maj. Gen. Canby
Maj. Gen. Edward Canby’s forces first surrounded Spanish Fort on March 27, 1865. Most of the Confederate troops escaped to Mobile or Blakeley and the fort fell on April 8. Two Union commands combined to storm Fort Blakeley the following day, unaware of Lee’s surrender in Virginia.

Sheer numbers breached the Confederate earthworks, compelling the Confederates to capitulate,” the National Park Service says.

Bunn, in his encyclopedia article, describes the scene:

A view or redoubt #6 (Courtesy of HBSP)

“Once the Union troops reached the Confederate line, fierce, close-quarters combat briefly raged. Some defenders threw down their arms and surrendered or turned and ran after the Union troops had overrun their position, but others fought on even after being surrounded. Despite their resistance, the Union attackers overwhelmed the Confederate line and the fighting was over within 30 minutes. A very small number of Confederate soldiers, perhaps a few dozen, escaped via the river.”

Fort Huger sat in this spot on river near main fort

About 75 Confederates were killed and the Union lost 150, with several hundred wounded.

“Allegations that some Confederates were shot even after they surrendered to USCT troops surfaced almost immediately after the battle and the truth of what happened in its chaotic last moments continues to be the subject of research and speculation today,” Bunn wrote. “Available evidence indicates some Union soldiers indeed may have fired on Confederates who had surrendered, but there was no large-scale massacre.”

As for the land mines?

“Some of the Union casualties occurred after the battle, as the mine-ridden battlefield continued to claim victims until captured prisoners were forced to point out their locations,” Bunn wrote.

Historic Blakeley State Park has Civil War tours several times a year and the Delta Explorer makes journeys related to nature and Mobile. A Civil War re-enactment and living history is held in late March or early April. The next Civil War cruise is set for Nov. 11. Please call 251-626-0798 to register. Tickets are $27 for adults, $15 for children ages 6 to 12.

Interpretive panels on site (Courtesy of HBSP)

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