Siege & Battle of Spanish Fort
​Spanish Fort, Alabama

The Fight for the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay

The Siege and Battle of Spanish Fort took place during the final days of the War Between the States or Civil War as Union forces drove up the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, Alabama.

The site is mostly built over by the modern city of Spanish Fort, but traces of the battlefield still exist and Battery or Fort McDermott - an essential Confederate installation - is beautifully preserved. Historical markers and interpretive signs line modern streets, allowing visitors to explore key points of the action.

Mobile was one of the three largest ports on the Gulf Coast when war erupted between North and South in Spring 1861. The other two were New Orleans, Louisiana, and Apalachicola, Florida. Its connections to the rest of the South by rail and the strong defenses of Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines at the entrance to the bay made Mobile especially crucial after the fall of the other two cities in 1862.

Recognizing that Mobile must hold, the Confederates devised a plan to protect the city against Union attack. The first line of defense, which rested on Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines, was strengthened lines of pilings, torpedoes (mines), and earthen forts and batteries to guard all channels into Mobile Bay. Three lines of breastworks and fortifications ringed the city itself, while pilings and more torpedoes blocked the entrance to the Mobile River.

The Confederates left open a second channel or "back door" through which Confederate blockade runners and warships could reach the city by going up the Blakeley and Tensaw Rivers near the Eastern Shore, and then back down the Mobile River to the piers of the town. Maj. Gen. Dabney H. Maury (CSA) supervised the construction of massive fortifications and powerful batteries at Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley to protect this route. Additional strong points including Battery Huger and Battery Tracey added firepower, as did the ironclad warships CSS Tennessee, CSS Nashville, CSS Huntsville, and CSS Tuscaloosa.
Battery or Fort McDermott occupies the highest point in the Confederate lines at Spanish Fort, Alabama. It is the best-preserved spot on the battlefield.
The critical day of the battle was April 8, 1865. Some 90 pieces of Union cannon blasted the Confederates, who replied with around 30 cannon of their own. The ground shook as clouds of smoke rose over the scene. The concussion from the guns was so severe that thousands of stunned fish floated to the surface of adjacent waters.

, at 5 p.m., Col. James Geddes attacked a weak point near the far left of the Confederate defenses. The colonel was severely ill but refused to leave the battlefield with the critical moment of the battle at hand. Ordering the 108th and 124th Illinois Infantry regiments to maintain a massive fire on the opposing Confederates, he sent forward two companies of skirmishers from the 8th Iowa Infantry to test the Southern left:

...Perceiving that my skirmishers were advancing rapidly along the enemy’s works from the left to their right, and that the enemy’s fire was mostly directed to his front, apparently unconscious of the danger threatening his flank, I immediately ordered the remaining portion of the Eighth Iowa to advance in support of the skirmishers. This order was promptly and nobly executed; the men, leaping over the gabion approach, rushed through the intervening obstructions and were on the enemy’s works in a moment. - Col. James Geddes, 8th Iowa Infantry, April 9, 1865.

Geddes immediately ordered the 81st, 108th, and 124th Illinois regiments to support the breakthrough, and the Federals soon took control of a one-half mile section of the Confederate defenses. Gen. Gibson ordered Col. F.L. Campbell, who temporarily commanded the general's brigade, to move from the right to the left of the lines and attack the Union troops. Campbell carried out this maneuver but was unable to drive Geddes back.
Confederate cannon fired from these emplacements during the Siege and Battle of Spanish Fort., holding Union troops at bay for days.
 Spanish Fort, named for a much smaller Revolutionary War outpost, was straight across the bay from Mobile itself. Its heavy guns stood guard over the mouth of the Blakeley and Apalachee Rivers, which merged into one channel just north of the defenses. 

Breastworks, batteries and earthen forts ringed the landward side of the river battery. Key points along this line included the "Sandbag Battery," the Red Fort, and most impressively Battery or Fort McDermott. 

The first Union move against Mobile came on August 5, 1864. Admiral David G. Farragut led a double-line of Federal warships through the channel between Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines and into Mobile Bay. The admiral supposedly yelled "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!" after Confederate torpedoes or mines sank the ironclad USS Tecumseh at a critical point of the battle. His vessels then turned their combined firepower on the ironclad CSS Tennessee, which battled fiercely before being pounded into submission.

Fort Gaines surrendered to U.S. forces three days later. Fort Morgan held out longer but finally capitulated on August 23, 1864. The next phase of the campaign was slow in coming, but Maj. Gen. Edward R.S. Canby (USA) launched the final Union effort to capture Mobile on March 17, 1865. 

Canby started thousands of Union soldiers on a march from Fort Morgan up the Mobile Point peninsula around Bon Secour and Oyster Bays to the mouth of the Fish River at the head of Weeks Bay. Union transport steamers carried more soldiers across from Fort Gaines and Dauphin Island to meet this force, while Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger led another army north from Fort Barrancas near Pensacola. The three columns totaled more than 40,000 men.

The soldiers from Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines joined forces at Fish River by March 24, forming a single column of 32,000 men under the direct command of Gen. Canby. The Fort Barrancas column drove up the railroad from Pensacola, battling Confederate forces at Canoe Station, Pine Barren or Pringles Creek, and elsewhere before taking the post at Pollard, Alabama. Granger then turned back west and invested Fort Blakeley, five miles north of Spanish Fort, as Canby led the main army up the Eastern Shore.

The Federal troops faced only light skirmishing action until they came within sight of the strong defenses at Spanish Fort. The Confederate commander, Brig. Gen. Randal Gibson, was outnumbered by more than ten to one but planned to fight.
Scars of war, like Union Siege Battery Number One (seen here), survive in lawns and neighborhoods throughout the city of Spanish Fort, Alabama.
Gibson was under orders not to risk the capture of his command, and he now realized that the moment to retreat was at hand. It is interesting to note that the Union breakthrough came on the same day that the Confederates sent hundreds of African-Americans to Spanish Fort to assist in its defense:

…It was always a difficult and delicate task to decide, but I thought the moment had at length arrived, contemplated by my instructions, when, however painful to the devoted defenders, the position had to be given up. The guns were ordered to be spiked, and time was allowed for this purpose; the few remaining stores were issued; the sick and wounded were carefully removed; the infirmary corps and several hundred negroes who arrived that evening to be employed in the defense, and, finally, in good order, the whole garrison was withdrawn. The retreat was along a narrow treadway, about eighteen inches wide, which ran from a small peninsula from the left flank across the river, and over a broad marsh to a deep channel opposite Battery Huger. - Brig. Gen. Randall L. Gibson (CSA), April 16, 1865.

Gibson withdrew his men under cover darkness and it was not until the next morning that daylight revealed to Federal commanders that their opponents were gone. Union troops raised the U.S. flag over Spanish Fort but had little time to savor their victory. Gen. Canby immediately moved five miles north to join Gen. Granger's command at Blakeley for a final attack. Please click here to learn more about the Battle of Fort Blakeley.

The best-preserved part of the Spanish Fort battlefield is Fort McDermott. The Admiral Raphael Semmes Camp #11 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) now owns the fort, which is open to the public. Interpretive panels, monuments, and other features help visitors learn the story of its impressive earthen walls and commanding position. 

Fort Dermott Confederate Memorial Park is Spanish Main Street in Spanish Fort, Alabama. See the map below for directions. 

Other key points of the battle are scattered throughout the residential areas of Spanish Fort. Markers and interpretive panels mark these and traces of earthworks and trenches can be seen in the yards of homes and along the sides of streets.
Mobile Bay is seen here at sunset from the high bluffs at Spanish Fort, Alabama. Union warships fired from these waters during the battle and siege.

The Siege and Battle of Spanish Fort began on March 27, 1865. Gen. Gibson's Confederates opened fire from their batteries of cannon as the Federal troops closed in around them. 

Gen. Canby believed that the works were too strong to take by storm, so he ordered his men to begin siege operations. The two sides exchanged increasing cannon and rifle fire over the week that followed. The Union and Confederate navies both entered the action, shelling the opposing armies. The Federals built siege batteries and dug lines of entrenchments closer and closer to the Confederate fortifications along a three-mile front, even as the outnumbered Southern troops clung to their earthworks and fought back.

The Union lines stretched from Bay Minette on the north, where the African-Soldiers of the USCT (U.S. Colored Troops) Brigade anchored the right flank, all the way around the Confederate position to D'Olive Bay on the south, where Battery No. 1  and U.S. Navy vessels engaged the Confederates at Fort McDermott.

Click the play button below to learn more in a free video about the Battle of Spanish Fort, Alabama: