The Siege of Fort Morgan – Abandoned Coastal Defenses of Alabama

 What follows is an exclusive excerpt from my photographic history Abandoned Coastal Defenses of Alabama, available now.

Fort Morgan is a pentagonal fort with two primary seacoast walls bearing on the channel, two secondary seacoast walls facing the Gulf and Bay, and a fifth wall defending the landward approach. It is protected by five bastions and a dry moat, making a direct assault on Fort Morgan, at best, a pyrrhic victory for any enemy – the only practical way to take the fort was by siege.

  On August 9, 1864, four hundred Union soldiers came ashore some miles east of Mobile Point, manhandling their heavy cannon and mortars over sandy dunes. After establishing siege lines to the east of Fort Morgan, they heaped a blistering salvo on the fort and its outworks. Simultaneously, Farragut’s ships battered Fort Morgan from their position in the bay.

   By August 16, the Confederate defenders had abandoned the outer defenses, retreating behind the curtain walls of Fort Morgan. The U.S. Army moved its mortars to within five hundred yards of the fort and rained down an even more concentrated hell from above.

Even during Fort Morgan’s prime, weeding the gaps in the masonry fort was a perpetual chore – the terraplein, the banquette (a raised firing position, partially visible here), the parapet (a masonry wall shielding all action on the second level from enemy fire), even the casemates themselves – required regular attention, lest some irksome root system pry the structure apart before an enemy’s artillery fire ever found their range.

   Whether or not Fort Morgan’s General Page wished to admit it, the end was near.

   A Union artillery officer described the devastating final bombardment Fort Morgan, a collaboration between the Union Navy and Army which commenced on August 22, “The gunners seemed to perform their duty with wild enthusiasm, stripping themselves of all superfluous clothing, and blackened, begrimed with the smoke, and dirt, and sweat of battle, their eyes sparkling through the hazy air…they might well have been taken for so many Vulcans forging thunderbolts for the gods.”

A 7-inch Brooke rifle on display at Fort Morgan, similar to ones deployed at the fort during its Civil War heyday. Such rifles were the Confederacy’s answer to the Union’s far more numerous Parrott rifle. Both guns could fire an exploding projectile farther and with greater accuracy than traditional smoothbore cannon, numbering the days of masonry forts like Morgan and Gaines.

   Recalling the sorry condition of siege-weary Fort Morgan on the evening of August 22, General Page reported:

   At daylight the fleet was reported moving up to encircle us, and shortly its batteries (in conjunction with those on land, which numbered thirty-six (36) guns and mortars) opened a furious fire, which came from almost every point of the compass, and continued unabated throughout the day, culminating in increased force at sundown; after which the heavy calibres and mortars kept it up during the night.

   This fire disabled all the heavy guns, save two, which did not bear on the land approach, partially breached the walls in several places, and cut up the fort to such extent as to make the whole work a mere mass of debris. Their mortar practice was accurate.

   Early in the night the woodwork of the citadel was fired by the mortar shells and burned furiously for some hours, the enemy during the conflagration pouring in his missiles with increased vigor. With great efforts the fire was arrested and prevented extending around near the magazines, which would have been in imminent danger of explosion.

Upon exiting Fort Morgan’s postern tunnel, a visitor comes face-to-face with an unusually splendid sally port, displaying the fort’s name and its dedication date in finely hewn granite.

   Should Fort Morgan’s magazines – containing enough powder to resist months of siege – ignite, the entire fort would likely have been leveled, killing most every man inside. In desperation, Page ordered around 60,000 pounds of powder doused.

   Robert B. Tarpley, 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery, recalled, “This was a terrible job. The powder was in kegs. These we had to roll under the flames of the citadel and knock the heads in, then pour the contents in the cisterns. All this time the enemy kept up a continual fire from land and sea. The shells were bursting all around us. By one o’clock we had all the powder under water. There was not enough dry powder to shoot a musket.”

The terraplein is a flat masonry walkway behind the firing positions on the upper level of a fort. At Fort Morgan, between bombardment from Civil War artillery and decades of sun, sea salt, and temperature extremes, it’s easy to understand why its edges have begun to fray.

Abandoned Coastal Defenses of Alabama is a down-and-dirty guided tour through Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines, documentary evidence of a rich past slipping inexorably into ruin. For nearly two hundred years, these hauntingly beautiful Third System forts have stood stubbornly between the Yellowhammer State and a sometimes hostile world beyond. Threatened by a rising sea, disintegrating under the weight of centuries, Forts Morgan and Gaines have been named “one of the nation’s ten most endangered battle sites” by the American Battlefield Trust.

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