Walking the Battlefield – Fort Blakely, Mobile, Alabama

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Sheritta Bitikofer…

Confederate Works at Fort Blakely

Confederate Works at Fort Blakely

On the evening of April 9, 1865, the same day as Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, another battle was taking place on the opposite side of the Confederacy.

For a week, 16,000 Union soldiers in the Army of West Mississippi under the command of Major General E.R.S Canby had laid siege to the three-mile-long entrenchments occupied by the collective 3,500 Confederates from the District of the Gulf under Major General Dabney H. Maury on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, Alabama.

Nine redoubts connected by earthworks encircled the old site of Blakeley, a once booming port town that competed in trade with Mobile along the banks of the Blakeley River. These redoubts had been constructed by enslaved labor provided from Mobile and the surrounding areas as well as United States Colored Troop soldiers who had been taken prisoner from further north during Lieutenant General John Bell Hood’s Tennessee Campaign between September and December of 1864.[1] In front of the redoubts and earthworks was an impressive system of abatis and cheveaux-de-fris – a mobile defensive obstacle constructed of sharpened poles arranged along a center beam – as well as a wall of fallen tree limbs, brush, and a network of wire strung between the stumps of pine trees to literally trip up any attacking force. If this weren’t enough, torpedoes – what we would consider today as land mines – were buried in various places across the fields along their line.

In front of each redoubt was a wide, dry ditch that would have to be crossed before the steep walls of the small fortifications could be scaled. All the while, artillery pounded away at the invading forces. All the way up to the end of the siege, the Confederate engineers continued to strengthen and shore up any weaknesses in their works, including the construction of bombproofs to protect from Union artillery. [2]

Redoubt Four

Front of Redoubt Four with cheveau-de-fris (author photo, April 2021)

Redoubt Four Interior

Inside Redoubt Four, position of Abbay’s Mississippi Battery (author photo, May 2021)

Zigzag Approaches

Zigzag approaches in front of Redoubt Four (author photo, April 2021)

In this first week of April, the Union soldiers progressively inched their way closer and closer to the Confederates’ works, digging zigzag approaches in the night toward previously established shallow rifle pits. There, they created a new line of entrenchments.[3] By the last day of the siege, three lines had been made, and the Federal troops were within 400 yards of the works – and closer in some places – therefore easily visible to the Confederates. This final line stretched for four miles, arching around the form of the Confederate’s line.

All the while, both sides kept up a continuous firefight, lobbing shells and engaging in several sorties. Confederate Major General St. John Richardson Lidell in command of the Eastern Division of the District of the Gulf was fully aware of the approach of the Federal troops and made efforts to reveal their nightly digging. He told his subordinates, “I want to light up the front of our works, in order to see their dispositions and allow the artillery to be used in effect.”[4] The Confederates began throwing “fire-balls”, shells coated with calcium oxide, or quicklime, that was ignited and fired from the mortars that looked like massive Roman candles.[5]

Union Fort Exterior

Front of Union fortification across from Redoubt Four (author photo, May 2021)

Inside Blakely Fortification

Inside Union fortification (author photo, May 2021)

Federals were not deterred as they began work on a new set of zigzags from their third parallel when some unsettling news filtered through the command. Five miles south, another siege had been taking place simultaneously around Spanish Fort, a garrison occupied by troops under the command of Brigadier General Randall Gibson. On the night of April 8, Confederates began to slip out of the fort, fleeing to Mobile. By the morning of April 9, Federal soldiers stormed into the fort to realize it had been abandoned. Federal officers around Blakeley were fearful that the Confederates within the Blakeley entrenchments would also vacate and make a dash for Mobile. Canby passed the order along the lines that a sweeping, united charge would take place at 5:30pm on April 9th. The charge was not executed at the same time, as some units were slightly delayed. The majority of the line commenced their charge around 5:45pm, beginning with the deployment of skirmishers to flush out the Confederate rifle pits, then followed by a full charge toward the intimidating fortress before them. The 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the 2nd Division, 13th Corps under Brigadier General Christopher Andrews flooded the field in front of Redoubt Four. Troops primarily from Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio would experience the arduous and horrendous task of crossing that field.

Blakely Battlefield 1

Two views of Redoubt Four from the position of an advancing Federal force. Here, the dip in the landscape is nearly imperceptible. (author photo, May 2021)

Blakely battlefield 2

Here, the shadows of the pines around the stumps show the change in terrain past the rifle pits. (author photo, May 2021)

Soldiers saw their comrades shot down and blown to pieces in the charge that took less than half an hour. Captain J.S Clark of the 34th Iowa Infantry recalled, “Now, every cannon of the enemy had on his line, and every rifle, poured forth their deadly missiles on our advancing men. Tempests of bullets, pieces of bursting shell, grape and cannister filled the air and whistled around our ears. We were met by deadly, unseen and unknown dangers in sunken torpedoes, which, when trodden upon, exploded stripping the flesh from the legs and wounding terribly those not killed outright. Fallen trees, abatis and wire stretched along the near ground, impeded our progress and exposed us longer to the enemy’s destructive fire.”[6]

Confederate Redoubt 4

“View from Centre of Second Division Showing Confederate Redoubt No. 4.” – sketch by Brigadier General Christopher C. Andrews (Alabama Digital Archives)

Today, the park is covered in a pine forest, but during the battle the land had been cleared all in front of the earthworks, enabling those charging Redoubt Four to be aware of what was happening almost all across the line. To their right, they could hear members of the 1st Division, composed of three full brigades of US Colored Troops storming Redoubts Two and One. As Sergeant Carlos W. Colby of the 97th Illinois remembered, “I had the grand and thrilling sight of a charge of a colored brigade off to the right… As the storming column passed over the works, I could distinctly hear their yell, ‘Fort Pillow, Fort Pillow.’”[7]

Two dipping ravines directly in front of Redoubt Four and imperceptible from the third parallel compounded their struggle against the abatis, the torpedoes, and the deadly fire of the enemy. Those within the rifle pits or perhaps those who worked on the last zigzag approach might have seen this change in the terrain, but for many that leapt over their works to make that charge it was one more unexpected impediment. Ravines and swales mark this northern portion of the battlefield in front of the neighboring redoubts as well, providing either temporary cover or a killing zone for those in the charge.

Despite the odds, this tidal wave of blue, 16,000 strong, managed to overwhelm the fortifications, engaging in fierce hand-to-hand after the works were mounted. Lieutenant Colonel John Charles Black of the 37th Illinois poetically wrote after the battle, “Fifteen minutes passed in the breathless charge and battle noises were hushed while wild cries of triumph rung over the conquered wall. The rag was down and the last rays of the sun shone full on Old Glory waving over Blakeley Batteries. Oh, the life, the joy, the madness of that hour. Men shouted sung and cheered. They laughed and whooped and hugged each other, stern veterans who a short time before had parted not expecting again to meet oer the whither shore.”[8]

Thirteen medals of honor were awarded for the action at Fort Blakeley, four of which were given to soldiers who participated in the charge against Redoubt Four and Three.[9] The Confederates who didn’t surrender either tried to reform in the thicket beyond their works or ran to the river. A few fled across the river to Mobile, while others were captured or drowned trying to evade. Confederates in Redoubts Two and One where the USCT had charged feared that they would not be treated fairly by their captors and rushed to their neighboring redoubts to surrender to white troops instead.

Patrick Pentzer

Captain Patrick H. Pentzer, 97th Illinois Infantry – received Medal of Honor for being the first to enter Redoubt Four and receiving the surrender of General Cockrell.

Today, Fort Blakeley is one of the best-preserved Civil War battlefields in the deep south, maintained by Historic Blakeley State Park. Several trails follow the former entrenchments and all but three of the redoubts are accessible on the park’s property. Along “Breastwork Trail”, a visitor can walk from Confederate Redoubt Nine to Redoubt Five with each regiment’s location clearly marked by helpful signs along the wayside. “Siege Line Trail” follows the Union earthworks that were established in front of Redoubt Five and takes the hiker directly to Redoubt Four, which has been recreated on the original site of the Confederate fortification for educational and historical interpretation. This sector of the park, known as “The Battlefield”, has been meticulously reconstructed to depict what the 1864 battlefield would have looked like to the common soldier.

Not only is Redoubt Four masterfully rebuilt with historic authenticity in mind, but a small Union fortification has also been recreated on a portion of the original trenchworks. The last set of zigzag approaches have also been preserved, along with both Union and Confederate rifle pits. The system of abatis has been reestablished, complete with the line of brush and cheveaux-de-fris. Pine tree stumps remain to give a more complete picture of what the Federals would have seen as they charged forward on April 9th. A visitor can walk from one end of the battlefield to the other, following in the footsteps of the soldiers who gave their all in storming the last defenses of Mobile.

Confederate Earthworks near Redoubt Six

Confederate earthworks near Redoubt Six on “Breastwork Trail” (author photo, 2019)

Fort Blakeley is stunningly well preserved and maintained by the dedicated staff and volunteers who see the historic value of what lies in their own backyard. Because of their hard work, historians and the curious hiker can walk the battlefields and read the testimonies of those who survived the engagement. Their words come alive as one can trace their progress to Redoubt Four, and for just a moment, one can almost hear the thunder of battle carried on the winds.

————

Sheritta Bitikofer is a lifelong student of history with a specific interest in the Civil War era. Along with being a wife, historical fiction author, and fur-mama of two, she is an active member of the Mobile and Pensacola Civil War Roundtables and currently pursuing a bachelors degree in US History at American Public University. She also manages her own modest Civil War blog where she writes about her studies and many travels to battlefields and other historic sites.

Footnotes

[1] William Lee White, 2017. Let Us Die like Men: The Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie. p. 29

[2] Mike Bunn. 2021. The Assault on Fort Blakeley: The Thunder and Lightning of Battle. Mount Pleasant, SC: History Press. pp 24-25

[3] Letters of Major Ephraim Brown, 114th Ohio, April 10 and April 15, 1865, original in Ohio Historical Society; Merriam, “Capture of Mobile,” vol 3, 230-50 – Henry C. Merriam of the 73rd USCT describing the use and construction of zigzag approaches

[4] Lidell Dispatches, April 5 and 8, 1865, Nicolson Collection at Historic Mobile Preservation Society Library on Oakleigh Campus, Mobile, AL.

[5] Bunn, p. 28

[6] Clark, Life in the Middle West, pp. 125 – 126

[7] Bilby, “Memoirs of Military Service,” pp. 24-29

[8] Letter of Colonel Charles Black, April 12 1865, original in Illinois State Historical Library.

[9] Bunn, p 47

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12 Responses to Walking the Battlefield – Fort Blakely, Mobile, Alabama

  1. curtlocklear says:

    Very helpful for a novel I hope to write.

  2. jazzdoc1 says:

    Sheritta, very well done and informative, too. Especially proud of you as member of Pensacola CW Roundrable.
    Norman Vickers

  3. Mike Maxwell says:

    Thank you for expanding reader knowledge of Fort Blakely. Second only to Richmond, Mobile Alabama was arguably the best defended city in the Confederacy; and Fort Blakely was a crucial component of “defense in depth” that ensured Mobile was still standing, even after Richmond fell.

  4. John Pryor says:

    Nice article. However, I looked in vain for any passages identifying the Confederate units involved in the siege. Readers might have found this interesting, as I believe there were some surviving fragments of the Army of Tennessee among them. Not all were sent to North Carolina after Hood’s Great Train Wreck in Middle Tennessee.

    • Good catch. I did happen to leave out any exact mention of Confederate units. At Redoubt Three and Four was the 1st Missouri Brigade under Colonel Elijah Gates, consisting of the consolidated infantry regiments of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Missouri, and the 1st and 3rd Consolidated Missouri Cavalry (dismounted), with the 1st Mississippi Light Artillery at Redoubt Four specifically.
      Most of the troops at Fort Blakeley were from Missouri, Mississippi, and Alabama brigades. Though I haven’t done extensive research into the history of each of the regiments, it would be interesting to find if any fragments form the Army of Tennessee were sent to Mobile. Something to look into for sure!

  5. navyblue77 says:

    thanks Sheritta — this is a great essay on one of those little known or forgotten actions of the Civil War … i’ve always wondered what happened in and around Mobile after the big naval battle in the summer of 1864 … now i know quite a bit more.

  6. John Sinclair says:

    Wonderful piece, Sheritta. Hope to see more from you in the future.

  7. Yes, the 1st Louisiana Heavy Artillery Regiment also defended Mobile, after performing similar duty at Vicksburg.
    Tom Crane

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