The Siege Begins

Major General Dabney Herndon Maury
CSA Major General Dabney H. Maury. Image Credit: Encyclopedia of Alabama
Maj. Gen. Edward R.S. Canby. Image Credit: Benson John Lossing, ed. Harper's Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 2) (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1912)
Minette Bay Union Batteries. Image Credit: Library of Congress
Brig. Gen. Randall Lee Gibson. Image Credit: Library of Congress
Minette Bay Battery today. Batteries Tracey and Huger in the distance. Image Credit: Paul Brueske

March 26-31, 1865

Major General Dabney H. Maury received an ominous dispatch on Christmas Day 1864. From his Meridian headquarters, Lieutenant General Richard Taylor informed him of Lieutenant General John B. Hood’s Army of Tennessee’s “severe reverse” at Nashville. He conveyed his grim belief that U.S. forces would threaten Mobile as soon as Major General Edward R.S. Canby received reinforcements on the Gulf Coast. He urged Maury to make “steady and energetic preparations” for the anticipated attack, instructing him to “push forward with all possible vigor, and, if necessary, you should employ your soldiers” to complete the works.[1]

The Confederate military leaders were concerned about the capture of the Spanish Fort garrison. To ensure the men’s safety, measures were taken to safely withdraw them if all hope for further defense was lost. Toward the end of December 1864, construction of a narrow wooden treadway bridge began from the rear of the fort across the marsh to communicate with Huger and Tracey. The bridge was built with small piles driven into the swamp by hand, with light cross pieces joining them together. Observers described the narrow bridge as 18 inches to four feet wide and three or four feet above the marsh. After the siege began, the Confederates completed the roughly mile-long Treadway on March 30. Before the investment of Spanish Fort, Maury sent 1 Lt. John T. Elmore of his staff to Gibson to manage the completion.[2]    

Minette Bay Union Batteries. Image Credit: Library of Congress

During the 1865 siege of Spanish Fort, Colonel Isaac W. Patton, 22nd Louisiana, commanded the fort’s artillery, in round numbers of about 660 artillerists. Patton sub-divided his command. He managed all heavy artillery on the post, including the Batteries Huger and Tracey from his headquarters at Redoubt 1, while Captain Cuthbert H. Slocomb of the Washington Artillery’s 5th Company commanded all the field artillery batteries as a battalion within the works. More than 300 artillerists were under Major Washington Marks, 22nd Louisiana, at Batteries Huger and Tracey. [3]

During the siege of Spanish Fort, March 26-April 8, 1865, Spanish Fort’s commander, Brigadier General Randall Lee Gibson, wired Fort Blakeley’s commander, Brigadier General St. John R. Liddell: “All going well. Huger’s fire helps us.” He also urged Battery Huger and the gunboat on Blakeley River to open the besiegers’ right. [4]

Early in the siege, the uncomfortable proximity of the incessant cannonading compelled the U.S. XVI Corps to move their camps further to the rear. Patton, who commanded the 300 men garrisoned at batteries Huger and Tracey, maintained telegraphic communication with Major Marks in personal command at Huger—about two hundred men from the 22nd Louisiana and Company C, 1st Mississippi Light Artillery under Capt. Lauderdale A. Collier manned Huger. Captain Ambrose Plattsmier, Company I, 22nd Louisiana, commanded Tracey, with Companies G, H, and I, of the 22nd Louisiana, a force of one hundred and twenty men. One artillerist posted at Huger stated: “It is not such a place as I would select for a summer residence, but then it will do under the circumstances.” [5]

The Apalachee Batteries and the Confederate gunboats on Blakeley River inflicted substantial casualties on the Federal besieging lines. A New York Times correspondent, who endured three weeks in front of Atlanta in a camp bombarded by shells night and day, reported:  “But there was more terror in three shells on the night of the 27th inst. then there was in three weeks of shelling last summer.” It rained hard at the close of the day. On March 27, the reporter went to sleep early, and then an awful shell explosion aroused everyone in the vicinity. “What was that?” “Where did that come from?” No one knew.  They believed that the rebel gunboats had opened upon them. Truman and his comrades went back to bed. An hour later, another monster launched and burst in the same place – in front of Gen. McArthur’s – “scattering enough iron to start a small foundry.” A third came crashing through the camp and buried three feet in the earth, producing an earthquake-like sensation. The men subsequently dug out the giant shell. These extraordinary missiles were scattered throughout the camp that night. The next day, they learned that the shots came from either Battery Huger or Tracey or the gunboats in the river.[6]

The combined shelling from the gunboats, the Apalachee batteries, and the redoubts of Spanish Fort exacted a heavy toll on Carr’s Division, which occupied the most exposed position of the Federal line. “And the casualties, I regret to say, among our brave boys are not few, being nearly if not double that, of any other Division in the army,” reported one newspaper.[7]

The fleet cleared the channel of torpedoes as far as Starke’s landing, the location of Canby’s supply station, and some of the lighter-draft gunboats had come within shelling distance of Spanish Fort. Still, the shallow water, torpedoes, and rows of piles near Huger made it impossible for them to pass the fort and isolate it from Mobile and Blakeley as they had planned. One officer of Garrard’s Division concluded: “This was an investment that did not invest.”[8]

On Tuesday, March 28, 1865, a shell from Battery Huger went overly far to the right the previous day, killing some men of the Spanish Fort garrison. Undaunted,  General Liddell urged its continued use. “I think the improper direction of the gun yesterday ought not to prevent us from using it today,” he argued in a dispatch to headquarters. “Solid shot or percussion-shell can be used effectively and will demoralize the enemy.”[9]

The artillerists at Huger remained optimistic as they fired away at the Federals. “Whilst I write, we are shelling the Yankees – the report is with good effect,” noted a soldier of the 22nd Consolidated Louisiana from his post at Huger. “Skirmishing still continues at the (Spanish) Fort. I believe we are going to whip them.” To boost morale at Huger, two bottles of whiskey went to the cannoneers, who made the best shot.[10]

To counter the damage caused by the Apalachee Batteries and the gunboats, the Federals quietly constructed a strong artillery battery on the bluff of Minette Bay. The Federals intended to keep the batteries concealed behind the small trees growing at the bluff’s edge until all the guns were in position and open a crushing fire. The Confederates on the river observed the partially revealed battery during the night. As soon as the mist cleared and permitted a full view of the battery on Friday, March 31, Lt. John W. Bennett, the captain of the ironclad CSS Nashville, immediately communicated with Major Marks at Huger and prepared to shell themHowever, at 8 a.m., the Indiana artillerists opened up with their 30-pounder Parrots. The Union artillery anticipated Bennett by about fifteen minutes. They unleashed a rapid and accurate fire upon his ironclad, in the midst of which he had to weigh the Nashville’s anchor. By the time Bennett raised anchor, the Indiana battery had the Nashville ranged exactly.[11]

The Nashville moved up a short distance and returned fire from her stern guns. However, the vessel’s guns had limited elevation and could not reach the Indianans on the high bluff.  Being struck eight times forced Nashville to move north of Tracey, out of range. Her relatively light armor could not continue to withstand the repeated shots. With a leaking boiler and no further hope of harming the Indiana battery, the Nashville sought shelter and repair in Mobile.[12]

The Federal battery on the bluffs of Minette Bay targeted the former Confederate blockade runner, Heroine, during her stay at the fort. Another vessel, the Dorrance, brought five wounded men of Gibson’s Brigade back to Mobile. One of the wounded, Captain Henry James of the 19th Louisiana ­ died during the voyage.[13]

The Minette Bay battery also bombarded Huger and Tracey. The Federals supposed their bombardment had silenced them since, as Canby put it, they “gave us no further serious annoyance.”[14]

The Apalachee Batteries remained silent because the Southern defenders ran dangerously low on ammunition. The artillerists were ordered not to reply to the Federal battery. Maury noted less than 200 rounds left for the Brooke guns and over 200 remaining for the ten-inch cannons. “There was no more to be had in the Confederacy,” he recalled. All the batteries at Spanish Fort, Huger, and Tracey preserved their ammunition for any attempt Union Admiral Henry K. Thatcher’s fleet might make to force a river passage. Therefore, the garrisons of Huger and Tracey covered their guns with merlons and sheltered themselves in bombproofs and any other way they could. The Apalachee Batteries silently received fire for the next ten days without replying.[15]

[1] ORA 45, pt. 2, 734.

[2] ORA 45, pt.2, 746; ORA 49, pt. 1, 317; Maury, “Defence of Spanish Fort,” 131; ORA 49, pt. 2, 1129; John T. Elmore, Compiled Service Records, RG 109, NA; Hewitt, Supplement to the Official Records, pt. 1, vol. 7, 942.

[3] Andrews, History of the Campaign of Mobile, 70; George S. Waterman, “Afloat-Afield-Afloat,” Confederate Veteran, Vol. VIII, 23; Morning Report, Randall L. Gibson Papers, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA, hereafter Morning Report, RLG.; Patton had five brothers who faithfully fought for the Confederacy. One of his brothers, Col. George S. Patton, commanded the 22nd Virginia Infantry Regiment of the Army of Northern Virginia and is the grandfather of the famous World War II general George Patton.[3]

[4] ORA 49, pt. 2, 1161 – 1164.

[5] Letter, Mark Lyons to Amelia Horsler, Mar 30, 1865, War Letters of Mark Lyons, Alabama Department of Archives and History, hereafter ML to AH, Mar 30, 1865; Waterman, Confederate Veteran Magazine, Vol. VIII, Jan 1900, 22; Maury, “Defence of Mobile in 1865,” 9-10.

[6] Truman, “Near Spanish Fort, Opposite Mobile.” One relic hunter reportedly found fragments of 7-inch Brooke shells in this area.

[7] Gladieux, 14th Indiana, 27; “From Mobile Bay,” New Orleans Times-Democrat, Apr 6, 1865, 2; ORA 49, pt. 1, 94.

[8] Hill, War Papers, 182.

[9] “By Telegraph,” New Orleans Times-Democrat, Apr 11, 1865, 6; ORA 49, pt. 2, 1173.

[10] Letter, ML to AH, Mar 30, 1865.

[11] Allen, “Operations against the City,” 78; Waterman 1900c, 22; ORA 49, pt. 1, 320.

[12] ORA 49, pt. 1, 320; Waterman 1900c, 22.

[13] “From the Confederacy,” The Times-Picayune, Apr 14, 1965, 2.

[14] ORA 49, pt. 1, 94.

[15] Maury, “Defence of Mobile in 1865,” 9-10; Maury, “Souvenirs of the War,” 4. Merlons are solid upright sections of a battlement.