The land battles around Mobile Bay started on August 4, 1864 when the Union troops of Brig. Gen. Gordon Granger landed on Dauphin Island in the rear of Fort Gaines.
The overall commander of the Confederate forces in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana was Maj. Gen. Dabney H. Maury. Even though Mobile was the location of his department headquarters, he did not exercise command over the forts at the entrance of the bay. He was not present at the battle or the following siege. Brig. Gen. Richard L. Page exercised local control over the forts.
The three forts were Fort Powell on Tower Island at Grant’s Pass, Fort Gaines on the eastern end of Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan on the mainland opposite Fort Gaines. Fort Powell was the smallest with between 12 and 18 guns and a garrison of 140 men. Fort Gaines was equipped with 26 guns and had a garrison of 600 men. Fort Morgan, the largest of the three, had 47 guns and also had a garrison of 600 at the start of the battle.
After the Union fleet dispatched the Confederate naval forces, Admiral David Farragut dispatched the USS Chickasaw to bombard Fort Powell and assist further troop landings at Fort Gaines. The bombardments of both forts exposed one of the major weaknesses that they had. They were highly vulnerable to attack from the rear.
Lt. Col. James Williams, Fort Powell’s commander, asked Brig. Gen. Page for instructions. What he received was a highly ambiguous response, “When no longer tenable, save your garrison. Hold out as long as you can.” Williams realized immediately that his situation was hopeless. He spiked his guns and blew up his magazines. He then led his men across to the mainland and withdrew to Mobile.
Col. Charles D. Anderson, the commander of Fort Gaines, held out several days longer than Williams. The Union force on Dauphin Island outnumbered his own. They were able to use their naval and land guns to assault the fort from the rear. Anderson, despite orders from Page, opened up communications with Farragut and Granger under a flag of truce. On August 8th, he surrendered the fort and its garrison.
As soon as Fort Gaines surrendered, Brig. Gen. Granger immediately moved his force to invest Fort Morgan. The fort was a star-shaped fort with a total of 47 guns so Granger decided to siege it using traditional methods.His men dug a series of trenches, moving ever closer to the walls. They were assisted by the USS Chickasaw, USS Winnebago and the USS Manhattan. They were joined after a time by the newly-named USS Tennessee. The captured Confederate ironclad was repaired and refitted for combat.
On August 22nd the fort was bombarded from 16 siege mortars, 18 field guns and the guns of the fleet. Fearing that his magazines which contained 80,000 pounds of gunpowder might be hit, Brig. Gen. Page ordered that they be flooded. Realizing that further resistance was futile, Page ordered the guns spiked and surrendered Fort Morgan on August 23rd.
With the capture of Fort Morgan, the campaign for the lower Mobile Bay was complete. Maj. Gen. Edward Richard Sprigg Canby, the commander of the Military Division of West Mississippi, and Farragut had already decided before the first landings on Dauphin Island that the army could not provide enough men to attack Mobile itself.
The Dog River Bar that had impeded bringing CSS Tennessee down now prevented Farragut’s fleet from going up. Mobile did come under combined army-navy attack, but only in March and April 1865, after Farragut had been replaced by Rear Adm. Henry K. Thatcher. The city finally fell in the last days of the war.
If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Mobile Bay and Admiral David Farragut, here are some resources: