“The uproar of the damned was about us”: The Battle of Spanish Fort

Randal Gibson, the commanding Confederate General in Spanish Fort
Randal Gibson, the commanding Confederate General in Spanish Fort

The situation was grim across what was left of the Confederacy on April 8, 1865. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia was nearly cut off, and along the banks of Mobile Bay, a remnant of the Army of Tennessee faced a blue juggernaut in the form of Gen. Edward Canby’s Department of West Mississippi—a force of more 45,000 men.

Canby began his campaign in late March, moving his bulk forces northward along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, while another column moved out from Pensacola, Florida. Canby’s ultimate goal was to take Montgomery, but he also decided that he could force the evacuation and capture of Mobile, one of the Confederacy’s last remaining cities. To confront him, the Confederate Commander at Mobile, General Dabney Maury, moved men from the city’s garrison to reinforce the meager garrison at Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely.

The troops sent to Spanish Fort, slightly more than 2,000 men, were largely men from the Army of Tennessee who had been sent to Mobile instead of North Carolina as spring dawned in 1865: the men of Gen. Randall Gibson’s Louisiana Brigade, Gen. James Holtzclaw’s Alabama Brigade, and Gen. Matt Ector’s Texas and North Carolina Brigade. As members of the Army of Tennessee, these brigades had been fortunate to miss the battle of Franklin the previous November, but had not been so lucky at Nashville. Now they found themselves entrenching again and waiting for the inevitable blue tide to roll toward their works.

The dapper looking Randal Gibson was given command of the garrison, and he quickly went to work trying to fortify his position. The defenses at Spanish Fort were weak when they arrived, simply consisting of the ancient Spanish Fort and two other redoubts, Fort McDermott and Fort Blair. Gibson set about entrenching a semicircle around Spanish Fort, linking in the existing forts and adding more. The Confederates raced to dig and fortify as Canby’s column moved up from Fort Morgan, accompanied in the Bay by a small force of Ironclads.

Arriving on March 27th, Canby began a siege. For thirteen days, Gibson’s men withstood bombardment from land and sea.

Map Spanish Fort

Finally, on April 8, the garrison’s time was up. Canby ordered an assault to carry the Confederate position.

Among the men in Gibson’s beleaguered garrison were the tiny remains of the 5th Company of Washington Artillery from New Orleans. They had seen much since their first combat almost exactly three years earlier at Shiloh, including the loss of all of their guns in the Tennessee Campaign. Now they occupied Fort Blair and prepared to see the hell of battle once more.

Stephonson, PD
Philip D. Stephenson

Among the gunners was Philip D. Stephenson, who later took pen in hand to recount his final engagement:

The assault did not come until about 3 p.m., but from dawn they had rained upon us from front and flank and rear, from field guns, siege guns, ship guns, and mortars such a tempest of shot and shell that defies description. Think of seventy five or a hundred guns massed in that contracted semi circle around us. Think of those huge mortars belching forth their monstrous contents. Think of the fleet in our rear pouring its fire into our backs. Suddenly that demonic storm burst forth and it ceased not for a moment through all that interminable day. The very air was hot. The din was so awful it distracted our senses. We could hardly hear each other speak. The cracking of musketry, the unbroken roaring of artillery, the yelling, the shrieking and exploding of the shells, the bellowing boom of the mortars, the dense shroud of sulphurous smoke thickening around us. It was through ‘The Pit’ had yawned and the uproar of the damned was about us. Men hoped about, raving, blood bursting from ears and nostrils, driven crazy by concussion. They did all this to get us in a proper frame of mind for their assault. “Tis the usual tactics. It was utterly idle to try to return that fire. After a few rounds we did not attempt to do so. We stood around sheltering ourselves as best we could. Our works were no longer a protection to us except against the fire in front, but that we did not mind. Our thoughts were of the fire from the rear, and, from above all, of those huge descending bombs. Now occurred a strange scene. We deserted the cover of our works and scattered in the open space behind them. There, exposed to the full range of all the rest of that fearful fire, we devoted ourselves entirely to the work of dodging those mortar shells, and they were dodgeable….About 3 p.m. we heard that familiar cry, ‘Here they come!’ So we sprang to our places. The long looked for assault had begun.

But it was a feeble affair where we were and evidently a feint. The main attack was on our extreme left, where we had had no time to extend any works and trusted to the impenetrable marsh. They got through that marsh, however, and pushed back the feeble picket line we had there, got to the bay between us and Blakely, thus cutting us off. There they planted a battery and charged down our line around the semi circle, driving our slender force before them until they got to the fort on our left which they captured. There they stopped! It was only a few hundred yards from us, and we could see them moving about in the moonlight. Why they did not come right on and take us too we could never understand.

Night came at last. It brought silence and a moment to breathe and rest. Oh how delicious, how inexpressibly comforting is the coming of night to the soldier in war. But it gave respite only by a change of scene. With the dusky outlines of our enemies in full view at the captured fort above us, and with all our line beyond there in their possession, we prepared to silently escape. . . . About 10 o’clock, after spiking our guns, we left our works and made directly for the beach on a run. . . . We reached the edge of the steep bluffs overlooking the bay and caught up with our men. What next? Beyond the head of the column seemed to melt gradually into the earth, and as we moved up to supply their place we understood their disappearance. The face of the bluff was precipitous and creased with great fissures opening out upon the water. The head of the column had disappeared down one of these! We followed pell mell, right down the almost perpendicular sides of the gorge clinging to vines, saplings, rocks, anything to keep our hold. And there to our amazement we found the beginning of a treadway, one or two planks wide. At the word, all shoes and boots were off and we stood in our stockings or naked feet in single line upon that narrow treadway . . . .

Stephenson and his comrades made their escape from the doomed Spanish Fort.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!