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The Siege of Mobile

by Stephen A. Cobb

IN the spring of 1864, President Lincoln sent me a commission as Captain and Commissary of Subsistence of Volunteers, with an order to report for duty to General. E. R. S. Canby, commanding the Military Division of the West Mississippi, at New Orleans. Reporting pursuant to order, I was assigned to duty at Fort Morgan, Alabama, a few days after the terrific land and naval battle which resulted in the fall of the entire outer line of ocean defences [sic] of Mobile, the capture of the rebel rams Selma and Tennessee, and the destruction of the entire rebel navel fleet of the gulf.

Here I found General Joseph Bailey in command. The country will not soon forget him. He it was who, profiting by the rough schooling of his youth in the lumbermens' and miners' camps of the Wisconsin and Black Rivers, with wonderful tact brought his knowledge into use in building a dam across Red River to save our Mississippi flotilla after the disastrous battle of Mansfield, when despair of saving it had already settled upon the mind of its indomitable leader, Admiral Porter. Bailey committed an unpardonable crime in the eyes of the rebels by that act. They never forgave him. A little more than four years since a rebel assassin shot him in the back in Vernon County, Missouri. A braver man never lived. Rude and unlettered, he had no alloy in his devotion to his country. Joseph Bailey, Sheriff of Vernon County, serving a peace-warrant upon a murderous, unrepentant Missouri guerilla in 1867, died as much a martyr to his country as though he had fallen on any of the many battle-fields he had graced by his courage.

This magnificent fort, as the old-school warriors styled it, presented a pitiable appearance at that time. Situated at the extremity of Mobile Point, a narrow neck of low land extending out into the gulf, it is exposed on three sides to the wash of the sea. Owing to the shallow water, vessels can approach it only on one side. The channel is upon the north or bay side. In shape, it is an irregular decagon. Like all our old forts, it had a citadel in the centre. Around the citadel were two lines of casemates, separated by an interval of about one hundred feet between each. On three sides were sally-ports. On the side toward the channel, immediately under the glacis of the fort, were and still are water batteries, that command the channel through which must pass every sea-going vessel, entering or departing from the port of Mobile. The battle of Mobile Bay took place in front of these batteries. The water batteries were the worst enemy Farragut encountered in that engagement. They were worse at long range than at short range, inasmuch as when his fleet came in rifle shot range the sharp-shooters in the rigging rendered it impossible for the men to work the guns.

The entire fort was in ruins. Farragut had peppered it into pieces on the side toward the bay. Two days after, the land forces crossed over from Fort Gaines on Dauphine Island, which had already fallen, to Navy Cove, four miles above the fort on the point, mounted their heavy ordnance, and shelled it for twenty-four hours on the land side. During the bombardment the citadel took fire and burned to a complete ruin. Paige, the rebel commander, seeing all hope of escape cut off, then destroyed what was left in the fort that was destructible, and surrendered at discretion. What with land and naval bombardment, and the malice of its unworthy rebel commander, the United States, when it came to its own again in Fort Morgan, found little else than a mixed pile of brick, mortar, exploded shell and spiked cannon to point out the place where four years before one of its worn out old ordnance-sergeants and his discrepit wife -- Floyd's garrison -- had surrendered the stronghold of the gulf to the Mobile Cadets.

To the eye, this was all that appeared to compensate us for the struggle. But it was not all. Right in front of this old fort, but a few days before, the star of Farragut, that had already shone brighter at Jackson and Saint Philip than Nelson's at Trafalgar, had beamed more radiant then ever before. Two miles down the bay his old flag-ship, the Hartford, and her companions had ridden out the storms of more than two years waiting for the hour. At length the fulness [sic] of time had come; the combinations were complete.

Farragut knew the channel was studded with torpedoes. He devised a way to escape them, but kept the secret to himself.

There was an old Mobile Bay pilot who often went between the blockading squadron and the shore held by the enemy. His name was Freeman. He was a sort of sea-barnacle, and knew ever [sic] channel and inlet of the bay. A short time before the battle, Freeman came out to the flag-ship. Farragut made him a prisoner; for what reason Freeman could not learn. The decks of the fleet were cleared for action. An iron-clad was lashed to every wooden vessel on the side exposed to the fire of the fort. The anchors, so long at rest at the bottom of the gulf, were weighed. When all was ready to move Freeman was ordered aloft. To obey was the only alternative; to disobey, would, he well knew, bring instant death. Farragut, revolver in hand, mounted after the pilot and seated himself beside him. Taking the lead with the flag-ship, he ordered Freeman to pilot the fleet past the fort so as to escape the torpedoes in the channel.

It suffices to say that Freeman obeyed the Admiral, and was rewarded for his fidelity to orders by a commission in the navy. It has been suggested that this was a genuine case of Federal conscription; but the writer knows that Freeman never viewed it in that light, and always disclaimed being anything else than a volunteer on that occasion.

This history of that great naval battle is familiar to all. It is not my office to tell it again. The bravery and unequalled strategy that captured the steel-walled Tennessee, and in one short hour sunk to the bottom of the ocean every hope of the insurgents in naval success, opening a new and original chapter in naval warfare, has been written by abler pens than mine. Let me, however, rescue from oblivion, if I can, the name of one, an actor in that tragic scene, too worthy to be forgotten, around whose sad fate clusters an ocean of melancholy heroism, the commander of the iron-clad Tecumseh, Captain Cravens.

Some two hundred yards out from Fort Morgan is the sunken hulk of this vessel. She rests there to-day with all on board exactly as she went down in that fearful fray. You remember the story. Cravens was under the charge of cowardice for some former action in the war. This cloud upon his honor chafed his spirit. Together with the necessary officers and men to man the guns he was in the turret of the monitor as she rounded the point in front of the fort. Supposing the vessel to be past the water defence, he cut loose from his consort, and deflected from the channel, in order to press to the front line of action. Just then the Tecumseh stuck the fatal torpedo and sank in three minutes. The gallant captain, in attempting to escape from the turret, refused to pass out in advance of his second in command, and peremptorily ordered him to take the initiative. The aperture of escape was small. Some must go down with the ship. The commander chose to die with his vessel, signaling his death by an act of self-abnegation greater than that of Sidney at Saint Quentin.

This, then, was what we had recovered in redeeming this shattered fort from rebel rule. This shapeless mass had in itself a jewel of inestimable value in added proof of the virtue of American character, in choice gems of heroism worthy the pens of the nation's greatest masters in poetry and prose, in newly-discovered progress in the art of war, in lustre shed upon the American navy that age can not dim, and above all, in the brighter promise -- at that time needed -- of the ultimate triumph of the cause of justice over all her foes.

The next few months around beleagured [sic] Mobile passed without incident worthy of remark. The port was hermetically sealed. The Clyde-built blockade-runners, the Virgin and the Heroine, cooped in the harbor, rusted uselessly at the wharf, their British builders and owners cursing the fates that brought their vessels thither. In the following spring, at Demopolis, up in the heart of Alabama, these ocean vessels became a legal prize to the government they had wronged.

For a few days after the fall of Fort Morgan the low, blue, leaning smoke-stacks of sister ships to these could be seen in the offing reconnoitering the passage. After this they ceased to appear. The Queen City of the gulf became an inland town, without the country about her to support her as such. Business ceased. Her mart was deserted. Her vast cotton-presses, filled with the staple, were unvisited by the broker or factor. Beauty and fashion abandoned the streets. Her walks of pleasure and her famous shell road, extending six miles down the shore of the bay to Magnolia Race-course, were unpressed by the votaries of pleasure. Impending want was at the door of many who never dreamed of such a turn of fortune's wheel. An air of melancholy brooded over the doomed city that the most light-hearted could not conceal or dispel. Gaunt famine, with the poorer classes, stalked in the streets at non-day. The cup of humiliation was at the lips of the last and haughtiest of the considerable cities of the Confederacy -- there to be kept until the very lees and dregs were swallowed.

Mobile had been an open port until the fall of Forts Morgan and Gaines. In spite of the utmost vigilance on the part of the blockading squadron, her swift blockade-runners entered and departed at will. To such an extent had she been able to carry on this contraband trade, that she had not only supplied her market with the luxuries in their season, but had manned her entire network of interior fortifications with ordnance of British manufacture. The music of the hostile shells that greeted us at Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely was for the most part of the Brooks and Whitworth manufacture, instead of the rude castings of the Confederacy. In her fancied security, for more than three years it seemed to the patient lover of his country in Mobile -- and such there was -- that the predictions of her aristocratic Battles, Langdons, Forsythes and others of her original secessionists were true; that indeed a new nation had been born whose corner-stone was Slavery, and that these patriot few were aliens and enemies dwelling therein.

Here was enacted, during that long night of oppression and violence, scenes, the telling of which never fails to moisten the eye of the sympathetic listener. Judge Horton, he who was Mayor of Mobile, and who, in the fall of 1867, fell a victim to rebel hate at Huntsville, has often related to the writer his own checkered experiences at that time. A few of them are briefly given, as types of the class. Highly intelligent and of exemplary Christian virtues, from the very outset of the rebellion Mr. Horton religiously cherished, with patriotic ardor, his love for the Union. Against the whirlwind of passion that swept Alabama into the vortex of secession, he struggled with all his power. But the struggle was vain. In a day the question of the preservation of himself and his family. His property was confiscated. He was cast into prison and made to do menial service upon the fortifications. Released at last, it was to return to a home among strangers. His devotion to his country had made him and his family pariahs. It is hardly possible to conceive the weight of this social ostracism, wherein was included all that was dear to one in his situation and of his sensitive nature. Spies continually dogged his footsteps. To his honor be it written, his most malignant enemies never charged him with quailing beneath their many persecutions. From him I learned that there was one place where his country was daily remembered -- around his own hearth-stone. The Confederate government never was able to suppress the Christian patriot's fireside prayer. From the presence of that fire-tried patriot I never went out without a profounder respect for my race than when I entered it. For more than forty years a resident of Alabama, they killed him at last because he was born in Massachusetts and could not curse the land of his birth.

In December three expeditions menaced Mobile from the coast. One under General Davidson marched from crick Steele from Pensacola, and one from Fort Morgan, under General Granger. The object of the combined movement was explained when we learned that Sherman had captured Savannah. Then most of us thought the movement criminal folly; now we know it to have been splendid strategy. Guarding the jewel of Mobile, the enemy lost the jewel of Savannah.

The winter of 1864 and 1865 in the Gulf Department was one of preparation for that simultaneous movement along all the lines of the army which occurred the following spring, and which resulted in the total overthrow of the insurgent government. The 16th army corps, General A. J. Smith commanding, was brought down the river from the pursuit of Price in Missouri. At Pensacola were collected ten thousand colored troops, in command of Gen. Frederick Steele. The 13th army corps, scattered in detachments through the States bordering on the Mississippi, between Cairo and the Belize, was gathered at Dauphine Island, reorganized and placed in command of General Gordon Granger.

To this old corps, upon the staff of which the writer held a position, I must refer with feelings of pride. Never celebrated for its discipline, its fighting qualities were undisputed. Its regimental banners, by their inscriptions and tattered folds, bore ample testimony that its share in the battles of the Mississippi Valley had not been a stinted one. It was, indeed, an army of veteran freemen -- the best and most desperate fighters in the world.

The commander was worthy of the men. Major-General Gordon Granger deserves more honorable mention than he has received since the war. At the time of which I write, he was unfortunate in having a difference with the General-in-Chief. Since then he has been unfortunate in his political opinions and actions, and in his friendship for the late President Johnson. Writers knowing all this -- for it is his misfortune not to be able to control his lies and dislikes - have tabooed him. His heroism at Chickamauga, where, as the right arm of Thomas, he performed prodigies of valor; his gallantry at Missionary Ridge, and in every battle in which he participated, history must record. Granger was a brave soldier, a true patriot, fit to command.

The whole army, which was composed of these separate commands, was under the command of General Canby.

The direct advance against Mobile began the 10th of March. The 26th of the same month we sat down before Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely; the former a strong position across the bay from Mobile, the latter a little less formidable earth-work, on the Tenesas River. Spanish Fort, together with Forts Huger and Tracy, dependent outposts, fell the night of the 9th of April.

At the siege of Spanish Fort an incident of coolness and ghastly joking occurred worthy of mention. The evening of the day in which we environed the fort, the writer accompanied General Granger in a ride along the skirmish-line. We found a gap between the first and third divisions of the corps, which the general ordered the 21st Iowa regiment to occupy. It was about 10 o'clock at night, dark and raining. A company, having been employed on skirmishes, was placed some one hundred yards in advance of the regiment. The general, taking the regiment in charge and riding with the skirmish-line, advanced them into the gap to some fires built by the enemy. We were in a turpentine orchard. Just as the skirmish-line reached the line of fires, the enemy poured in a heavy fire of musketry upon us from a regiment stationed in front, behind their fires. Whereupon, Granger ordered the skirmish-line to discharge their pieces. The order being mistaken by the reserves, the whole of our own regiment poured its volley into us. The general, on watching the enemy, did not notice the mistake. Riding down the skirmish-line, he gave the precautionary order to the skirmishers to fire low. A wounded soldier, on the skirmish-line near the general, hearing the order, turned up a face ghastly with blood, trickling in the fire-light from an ugly wound in the neck and cheek, replied, "General, they are firing a little too low back there," pointing to the reserve; "I got that shot from the rear."

The evening of the 10th of April, was fought the last considerable battle of the war -- the battle of Fort Blakely. It was participated in on our side by two divisions of the 13th corps, one division of the 16th corps, and the negro troops. In fifteen minutes after the order was given, our men had charged through three lines of abates, over a line of torpedoes, and the main work, and captured forty-eight hundred men, forty-two pieces of cannon and a large amount of small arms, camp equipage and stores. It cost us nearly a thousand men. The day of this battle Lee had surrendered, but we did not know it; neither did the enemy.

The next day information reached us that the enemy were preparing to evacuate Mobile. General Granger was ordered to take two divisions of his corps and take possession of the city. Making a night march down the bay, ten miles, at daylight we embarked on the transports and crossed over to Dog River Bar, distant some six miles from the city.

The water defences of Mobile elaborate and extensive. From this point to the city the channel was filled with submarine defences of all kinds. Only one narrow pass, called Choctaw Channel, was open for the ingress and egress of light draught vessels. Exactly where to enter this pass was unknown to us. Admiral Thacher, who had relieved Farragut, accompanied us to this point. General Granger requested him to send one of his light draught "tin-clads" to explore the channel. The Admiral declined to do it. The general-in-chief can only request naval assistance; he can never command it.

The captain of our head-quarters boat, the General Banks, was a character. Originally from Maine, he had been in the South many years. Gifted with the shrewdness characteristic of his race, as well as their volunbility, he remained true to the Union, in the midst of the loudest professions of love for the Confederacy, till Butler came and gave him the opportunity to express his real sentiments. Immediately after the fall of New Orleans he entered the service as transport captain. He participated in the Red River campaign, and had his boat, the John Warner, sunk after having displayed the greatest gallantry in its defence, and himself and crew taken prisoners. He was incarcerated, in the prison-pen, at Tyler, Texas. Escaping thence, by being covered with filth and carted out as camp garbage, he made his way to our lines and again entered the service in the command of the General Banks. Turning to him, Granger says, "Captain Dane, can you put this boat into Mobile?" Giving his reply the full weight of his great will in the laconism of impending and probably destruction, he answered, "Yes, or sink it."

In a moment after the wheel began to revolve, and the General Banks was headed toward the doomed city, with little expectation on the part of any that she would ever reach the goal. Without accident we passed through those unknown waters, under the shotted but deserted guns of the two harbor forts, and a floating battery that frowned upon us as we passed, and landed, with the stars-and-stripes floating in the breeze at our masthead, at the Government Street wharf.

In two days after, six vessels were sunk by torpedoes in the very water, seemingly, over which w had passed in safety.

The torpedoes of Mobile Bay were simply immense. They were planted everywhere, alike on the land in the water. Had a creek to be crossed, in our march, the crossings were mined for torpedoes -- seldom without success. Were a fort to be charged a line of torpedoes had to be scaled. Every inlet and bayou was filled with these death-dealing explosives. On the whole, aside from the Tecumseh disaster,-- which might have been avoided by prudence,-- they were not destructive of life, and as a defence for the enemy, of little avail.

The scene that met our view, as we moored the boat at the foot of Government Street, was as novel as it was exciting. This street is the widest and the best street in Mobile. Some two hundred yards up the street, at the crossing of Royal Street, was assembled a motley crowd of five thousand people of both sexes and all ages and colors. In doubt as to our mission or intention, they maintained a breathless silence until the white flag was run up beside the emblem of our nationality, when, with one tremendous cheer, that awoke the echoes in their deserted forts, they rushed down to the "Yankee vessel" -- to it, on board it, over it, through it, everywhere.

The majority of our visitors were loud in their demonstrations of gladness at our coming. Some were silent -- a part with malice and hate, others too overjoyed to give utterance to their feelings. To depict that scene in its true colors is like painting the rainbow. Down the cheeks of old men coursed tears, in channels that had been dry for years. For nearly half a decade of years the banner at the mast-head had not waved in pride in Mobile. Loving it, the friend of their youth, they had seen it dishonored. Its coming now -- and so proudly, too -- brought to the fount of recollection the good old days and their early love. To them it was like the resurrection of Lazarus to the mourning sisters. It was a brother but now dead, now restored to life, with the warm motions, the vitality, the affection of a living brother. To them it brought emancipation, freedom from the exactions of military despotism, the privilege and the opportunity to once more earn and enjoy the bread of plenty. Not to old men alone, but to all, every color, sex and condition, was the rescript. Taking a dilapidated carriage, the general and his staff rode to the Battle House, established headquarters, posted pickets throughout the city, and breakfasted on corn bread, rye coffee and spoiled bacon. Thus the last city of importance in the kingdom of Jeff. Davis had ceased to be of the Southern Confederacy.

Then came, thick and fast, the news of victories everywhere. First that Lee had surrendered, and then that Dick Taylor had surrendered to Canby at Citronville. Next, Wilson had penetrated to the heart of Alabama with his cavalry, and captured Selma and the Capital. Then the surrender of Johnston and his army; and finally the dispersion of the rebel hosts west of the Mississippi.

Mobile had escaped the punishment of a siege, and the war was at an end. Her splendid line of interior fortifications, reared at vast expense under the eye of Beauregard, embracing a complete line of earthworks around the city, from the bay on the one side to the Alabama River on the other, then covered with forty-two redoubts commanding every point in the line, were unmoved by the track of a hostile shell. Not a missile from our army and navy had fallen in her streets. But there was punishment in store for Mobile. The 25th day of May, 1865, a magazine containing 200,000 pounds of powder and shell exploded in the city, and in one brief moment wrought more destruction to property and to the lives of the citizens than befell Vicksburg during the entire siege of 1863.

The explosion occurred about three o'clock in the afternoon. The material was stored in Matthew's cotton-press, near the bank of the river. The writer was in his office, which was situated about forty rods distant from the magazine, at the time. The first notice of the disaster was heralded by a deluge of shell and falling walls, accompanied by a wave of sound so powerful as to render it impossible to keep his feet. Rushing out, in consternation, to save myself from being engulfed in the earthquake, as I supposed it to be, the sights and sounds that struck the senses were fearful. On every side the buildings in the narrow streets were shattered and falling. Many of them were already mere piles of rubbish. Others, with great gaps in their seared and smoking walls, threatened momentarily to fall. Men, women and children were rushing in fright through ruins and clouds of lurid dust. The groans of the dying and wounded, rising in volumes so as to almost drown the sounds of the still exploding shells and the falling walls, added to the ghastliness of the scene. Every house in the city was shaken from turret to foundation. In the vicinity of the magazine an area equal in extent to eighty acres of the best business portion of Mobile was laid in a complete ruin. The force of the explosion at Spring Hill, a beautiful suburb of the city six miles distant, was so great as to shatter the windows of the dwellings. Every window-pane in the Custom-House and Battle House, which are situated opposite each other on Royal Street, half a mile distant from the scene of the explosion, was destroyed. The massive granite of the Custom-House was seamed and cracked in various parts.

To add to the horror of the situation, fires broke out in the rubbish of the fallen buildings, among large quantities of cotton and rosin, and created the greatest conflagration the writer ever witnessed. In the midst of all this, the shells in the magazine, not ignited at the first explosion, continued to explode for hours afterward, throwing their fragments over the city and endangering the lives of the people. The extent of damage to property in Mobile rose to the magnitude of millions. The loss of human life could never be definitely ascertained. It was estimated that not less than five hundred men, women and children must have perished by the calamity. For days afterward, friends, in delving among the ruins for the missing, would find the bodies of persons till then supposed to be living. The stench in the vicinity of the disaster soon became intolerable. To attempt to paint the scene is to picture men, women and children buried beneath falling timber and walls, dying with thirst and wounds, too feeble to make known their condition and whereabouts by their cries, or too remote from human aid to have their cries heard and distinguished, all the while suffering a thousand deaths in anticipation of the approach of the fires that were to end their miseries with tardy death. Then, too, came those worst of human characters, the camp followers, to rob and steal. Thus every phase of human woe and vice met in this melancholy carnival; and thus, too, Providence ordained that Mobile should pay the penalty of her great political offence.