The Confederate Defenses at Mobile Bay

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A Union attack on Mobile Bay and its defenses was a huge undertaking. Triangular in shape, the bay was about thirty miles long—about eight miles wide at the upper end and just over twenty near the mouth. The entrance to the bay, however, was only three miles wide and most of this length toward the western side was extremely shallow. The only deep channel passed on the eastern side of the bay’s mouth by Mobile Point, guarded by Fort Morgan. Once passing this point the trip to Mobile required navigating as many as forty miles because the channel was “so thoroughly obstructed and fastened up as to render the track as crooked as the tortuous course of a serpent.”

Commanding the Confederate naval forces afloat at Mobile was Admiral Franklin Buchanan, a native of Baltimore, Maryland. Entering the navy as a midshipman in 1815, his long and impressive naval career had seen him rise to become one of the most senior officers in the United States Navy in 1861. Obtaining the rank of captain in 1855, he had served many years at sea, had helped establish the US Naval Academy, and had commanded the Washington Navy Yard. In April 1861, he thought that his home state of Maryland would secede and offered his resignation. When he realized the state was to remain in the Union, he tried to withdraw his resignation, but Gideon Welles refused and dismissed him from the service.

Initially, Buchanan served in the Confederate Bureau of Orders and Detail. His senior rank, though, allowed him to become the commanding officer of the ironclad CSS Virginia. Aggressive by nature, he attacked the blockading vessels at Hampton Roads, sinking both the frigate Congress and the sloop Cumberland. A bullet wound prevented him from commanding the ironclad the next day when she fought the Monitor. He spent two months in a hospital recovering. In August 1862, he received a promotion to the rank of admiral. Now the most senior officer in the Confederate navy, he received command of the naval forces at Mobile and the Naval District of the Gulf. A close friend wrote that the admiral had a ruddy complexion, “high forehead, fringed with snow-white hair,” an aquiline nose, thin lips, and steel-blue eyes.

The defenses of Mobile grew stronger daily under Buchanan’s watchful eyes. Yet a lack of materials and building facilities continued to hamper his efforts to build a formidable naval force. When the Union forces attacked, Buchanan would be hard-pressed to defend the bay. The Confederate naval leadership believed that ironclads were the only warships that could defend Mobile from a Union naval attack, and efforts to build ironclads began in both Montgomery and Selma.

In mid-1863, the Confederates began building the Nashville in Montgomery. She was a departure from most ironclad designs because she had paddle wheels. With a limited amount of armor, Buchanan decided to divert armor from this vessel to others. The need to cover the paddle wheels almost insured that the Nashville would never serve as designed. As with most Confederate ironclads, she suffered from slow speed and was worm-eaten and unseaworthy. Due to her lack of armor, she never served in any capacity other than as a floating battery.

The Confederates began the war with ambitious plans to build four ironclads in the industrial center of Selma. Only three were ever completed. In February 1863, the builders launched the Tuscaloosa and Huntsville. They had a similar design as the Albemarle in North Carolina, but they had defective machinery, making them only useful as floating batteries and unable to venture far into the bay. The third ironclad built in Selma was the Tennessee.

The Tennessee proved a formidable warship—about 217 feet long with a beam of 48 feet. Her builders placed five inches of armor on her sides, one layer of 1-inch plates, and two layers of 2-inch-thick armor. Three layers of 2-inch iron-plate armor protected the forward shield, and the armored casemate had sides at a thirty-three-degree angle, which extended six feet below the waterline. Her armament consisted of four 6.4-inch rifled guns in broadside and a 7-inch rifled gun at each end. They could pivot the guns pointing forward and aft through the sides, giving the warship a four-gun broadside. A “formidable” prow gave the Tennessee an extra weapon.

Despite the strength of this ironclad, she also had a number of weaknesses. The power plant was underpowered because the gears designed to convert her side-wheel riverboat engines to turn screws proved inefficient. Thus she could make only five knots at full steam. An additional flaw was the design to lower her heavy gun shutters over the ports after firing. A direct hit on these shutters could jam them closed. The most crucial flaw was the connection between the helm mechanism and the rudder. The chains that connected the two ran in open channels above the afterdeck and lay exposed to gunfire. Concerned about this, Buchanan had one-inch thick “sheet iron” placed over the groove to protect the chains.

After launching the Tennessee in Selma, the greatest initial challenge was to get her down the Alabama River and over the Dog River Bar. The Dog River Bar was a mud flat that extended from Mobile fifteen miles out into the Bay and had only nine feet of water over it at high tide. The ironclad had a draft of thirteen feet before the additional weight of provisions, coal, stores, and ammunition went on board.

Steamers towed the Tennessee down the Alabama River, into the Mobile River, and down the Spanish River, all to avoid the shallowest points. After grounding several times she arrived at the Dog River Bar. Initially, the authorities tried to use lighters and flats and passed heavy timbers through the ironclad’s ports to lift her. They gave up after several days of useless attempts and realized they would have to float her over the barrier. To do this, the Confederates built “sectional docks” called camels. They built six camels, designed to fasten to the ironclads with chains, three to a side. Unfortunately, two of the camels burned before they arrived, and their replacements would take time to construct, delaying her passage over the bar by two months. Once the camels were lashed in place and the water pumped out of them, they raised the Tennessee just enough to get her over the bar.

On 18 May, the Tennessee floated over the Dog River Bar and into Mobile Bay. Carpenters immediately began removing the camels while the crew loaded provisions, ammunition, stores, and coal. Jefferson Davis had pressured Buchanan to act against the Union naval forces immediately. In February he wrote Buchanan “to strike the enemy before he established himself on the Bay with his land forces.” Buchanan hoped to attack the fleet as soon as he could get his ship ready.

On 22 May, Buchanan hoisted his flag on the ironclad. The admiral addressed the crew, and they gave him three cheers. The men cleared the decks and greased the casemate in preparation to sortie on the blockaders. On the twenty-third Buchanan signaled his fleet to get underway, but the weather was too rough to get outside. The next day the ship was aground when the crew raised anchor, and Buchanan canceled the attack—believing that any surprise was lost.

Farragut learned that the Tennessee was over the bar. He expected “Buck” to come out at any time. Percival Drayton wrote that he feared she will “come out on a bender any fine night in company with a few of the like evil disposed.” Farragut had formulated tactical plans in case the Tennessee attacked. The blockaders to the east, including the Richmond, were to attack on the flank and prevent the ironclad from getting back into the bay. The heavy ships were to keep as close together as possible and to ram her abaft the casemate and to fire on her when only a few yards distant. He directed commanding officers to concentrate their gunfire at the waterline and to fire grapeshot into the gun ports whenever they opened. The Brooklyn and the warships to the westward were to attack on the alternate flank.

The floating defenses of Mobile included nearly every type of naval weapon, including floating batteries, torpedo boats, and submarines. Neither of the latter two was available when the Union attacked. The other warships that Buchanan had under his command were a motley collection. By the summer of 1864, the side-wheel towboat Baltic was nearly worthless. Workmen converted her into a ram, but her armor went to help protect the Nashville. There were three steam gunboats, the Selma, Morgan, and Gaines. The Selma was the ex-packet side-wheel steamer Florida. She had a lightly protected upper deck covered with 3/8-inch iron plate. Two inches of iron plate lay on her sides over the machinery spaces. She carried four guns, all in pivot. The Morgan, built as a warship, carried six guns: two 32-pounder rifles and two 32-pounder smoothbores in broadside; a 7-inch Brooke rifle, pivot-mounted forward; and a 6.4-inch Brooke rifle in pivot-mounted aft. Two inches of armor protected her machinery and magazine spaces. The Gaines, also a side-wheel sister of the Morgan, carried the same armament as the Morgan and had 2-inch iron plate on her sides like the Morgan. These gunboats, however, were no match for the larger and better-armed Union combatants they would encounter.

The other defenses of Mobile were the result of three years of diligent work. The fortifications protected two areas: the head of the bay near the city and the entrance to the bay. Farragut concerned himself with those protecting the entrance. Forts Gaines and Morgan protected the main channel into the bay, and Fort Powell guarded Grant’s Pass.

Brigadier General Richard Lucian Page commanded the lower defenses of Mobile, which guarded the seacoast. Born in Virginia, he became a midshipman in 1824. His naval career spanned thirty-seven years in the United States Navy and many years at sea around the world. He spent three tours of duty as an ordnance officer. He resigned his commission in 1861 after the state of Virginia seceded from the Union. Appointed a commander in the Virginia Navy, he served at the Norfolk Navy Yard as inspector of ordnance. He later commanded forces afloat at Savannah, and then, as a captain, oversaw the ordnance and naval construction bureau at Charlotte, North Carolina. On 1 March 1864 he received a promotion to brigadier general to command the outer defenses at Mobile Bay.

The Confederate leadership could not have chosen a man with better qualifications. His understanding of naval matters and ordnance was a perfect match for commanding these defenses. Page was a strict disciplinarian, and contemporaries described him as a “tall stately man.” One observer claimed he “looked to be about seven feet high.” His white hair and whiskers gave him a dignified appearance, and his erect bearing earned him the nickname “ramrod.”

The plans to defend the entrance to Mobile Bay began shortly after the War of 1812. Construction of a masonry star-shaped fort on the eastern side of the channel at Mobile Point began in 1819. Named after Revolutionary War Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, construction of this fort was complete in 1834. The massive pentagonal bastioned work could mount 118 guns and garrison nine hundred men in wartime. The Confederates took possession of the fort on 5 January 1861 and continued strengthening the fort’s defenses. They cleared the trees and growth for nearly three miles on the east side of the fort and added trenches and breastworks beyond the brick walls. They also constructed a brick fortification called Battery Bragg about one mile away from the fort near the Gulf, and Battery Gee farther eastward. By the fall of 1864, Fort Morgan mounted forty-six guns, most of them 32-pounders, 10-inch Columbiads, and 7-inch and 8-inch Brooke rifles. The guns directly guarding the channel, however, were only seven in number. They included two 32-pounders, four 10-inch Columbiads, and one 8-inch Brooke rifle.

Fort Gaines defended the western shore of the channel. This fort lay on the eastern end of Dauphin Island, three nautical miles from Fort Morgan. Construction on the fort began in 1821, but it was never completed. In 1853, the fort’s plans were completely changed and then named in honor of Edmund Pendleton Gaines, a War of 1812 general best known for arresting Aaron Burr. Seized by the state on the same day as Fort Morgan, this five-sided fort was largely complete by the outbreak of the Civil War and the Confederates modified it only slightly. Made of brick with 5-foot-thick walls, it mounted thirty guns, three of which were Columbiads and the rest 32- and 42-pounders. This fort, however, was so distant from the channel that it could not fire effectively on warships passing into the bay.

Fort Powell guarded Grant’s Pass, the channel between Cedar Point and Little Dauphin Island. Heavily armed deep-draft ships could not approach this fort due to the shallow water. Its six heavy guns also kept smaller warships at bay. When Union warships bombarded this fortification in February, the incident convinced the Confederates that an attack on Mobile was imminent and all the fortifications around Mobile were improved.

The Confederate static defenses were an important component of the fortifications. The obstructions and torpedoes that guarded the channel kept the Union navy from easily entering the bay. The obstructions consisted of a line of piles stretching from the shallow part of the channel near Fort Gaines, to within five hundred yards of Mobile Point. They could not easily obstruct the deepest part of the channel, which reached from over twenty to sixty-five feet in places. In January 1864 the Confederates did place a floating rope obstruction in the main channel. They found this obstruction difficult to maintain and realized an enemy could easily remove it. Farragut later reported finding a raft designed to “fill the opening” in the channel.

In the spring of 1863, the Confederates began planting torpedoes at Mobile. They initially placed these weapons in Grant’s Pass, and the Confederate leadership considered putting them in the main ship channel as well. By October 1863, there were thirty at the edge of the main ship channel, and by June 1864, they had eighty-six torpedoes planted. By July, the Confederates had three rows of torpedoes numbering 180. On 3 August, when the Union attack was imminent, they sent over fifty additional torpedoes out to the mouth of the bay placed them in the channel.

The Confederates knew the limitations of these weapons. Being near the channel, heavy weather could detach them from their moorings, making them a hazard to their own vessels. At one point, a drifting torpedo floated down on the Tennessee, but a quick-thinking marine fired and sank it twenty feet from the ironclad. The Confederates also had learned from the faulty torpedoes they had planted near Fort Powell. The failure of these weapons to explode as the Union vessels passed back and forth over them in February, showed that they only had a limited lifespan.

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