The Battle of Fort Blakeley
The Battle of Fort Blakeley, fought on April 9, 1865, was the largest open-field battle of the Civil War in the state of Alabama and one of the last major actions of the conflict. The fall of Blakeley led directly to the capture of the city of Mobile, the last major Southern city to remain in Confederate hands. The brief but bloody battle pitted some 16,000 Union troops against approximately 3,500 Rebel defenders of Fort Blakeley, culminating in a climactic charge after a week-long siege.
Fort Blakeley was not a single fortified position, but rather a three-mile long interconnected series of earthen fortifications arranged in an arc around the town of Blakeley, then the seat of Baldwin County. The northern and southern ends of the Confederate line were located on the bluffs overlooking the Tensaw River, with the central sections of the fort extending out into the ravine-filled plains up to a mile from the waterfront. The fort, along with a smaller but similar position to its south at Spanish Fort, played a vital role in protecting Union approach to Mobile from the east and guarded against access of the Tensaw by Federal forces. Mobile was still one of the largest cities in the Confederacy and an important transportation and supply center for the flagging Southern war effort in 1865 even though access to the gulf from the city had been shut off by the defeat of Confederate forces at the Battle of Mobile Bay in August of 1864. Fort Blakeley bristled with approximately forty pieces of artillery and was supported by a small squadron of Confederate gunboats operating in the Tensaw, but the infantryman stationed there under the overall command of Brigadier General St. John Richardson Liddell had dramatically different levels of experience. About half of them, the majority a part of the famed Missouri Brigade led by General Francis M. Cockrell, were hardened veterans of battles such as Vicksburg and Nashville. The other half, mostly recent conscripts organized as the 62nd and 63rd Alabama infantry under the command of Brigadier General Bryan Thomas, were teenagers who had seen no previous action in the war.
Advancing against them were detachments of the more than 40,000-man Union army sent to capture Mobile, under the overall command of General Edward R.S. Canby. Canby's main column advanced north from Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines in mid-March 1865. A second force,
led by Major General Frederick Steele, at the same time made its way west from Pensacola, along the way fighting several small but sharp skirmishes as it advanced. Steele’s column included nearly 5,000 African-American soldiers, making the coming Battle of Fort Blakeley one of the largest concentrations of former slaves and free blacks to fight in any battle of the Civil War.
Union troops arrived in front of Blakeley on April 1, 1865 and immediately began to lay siege. The armies skirmished day and night for more than a week as the Union engineers constructed three parallel systems of earthworks located progressively closer to the Confederate position. Liddells men attempted to slow the Union advance under cover of dark by launching several
small scale attacks designed to disrupt their progress. They also enlisted the aid of Confederate warships, including the CSS Huntsville, Nashville, and Gaines, lying in the Tensaw River, which shelled the Union lines until eventually driven off by artillery. Federal forces steadily advanced on Blakeley despite these efforts, and the Union command planned its final assault on the fort for the afternoon of Sunday, April 9, 1865 after learning of the evacuation of the Rebel garrison at Spanish Fort the night previous. Unknown to either army, earlier that very day Confederate commander general Robert E. Lee would surrender his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
The attackers faced a daunting task at Blakeley. Utilizing a combination of slave labor and troop work details, the Confederates had constructed a series of barriers to enemy approach. They had cleared trees and brush for several hundred yards in front of the main line to create clear fields of fire, and had erected lines of abatis, or tangles of fallen trees with branches pointed toward the
enemy, as well as stringing telegraph wire between stumps to impede the attackers. In addition, they dug a series of rifle pits, in which teams of skirmishers were deployed, a short distance in advance of these obstructions. In what would become a point of major controversy, Liddells men had also buried dozens of land mines, a recent invention at the time called subterra shells
in the ground in their front. Any advance on the main Confederate line would have to be made through these several obstacles and under constant and intense fire.
The Federal assault began about 5:30 p.m. In what would be remembered as one of the grand spectacles of the war, across a nearly three-mile-long front, Union troops emerged from trenches in places less than 1,000 yards from the forts defenders and charged virtually simultaneously. They began taking casualties almost immediately, coming under rifle and artillery fire as well as
tripping some of the land mines. The surging blue-clad wave of men nevertheless soon reached the Confederate skirmishers, who were forced to retreat to the main line. Pressing on with wild yelling and cheering, they advanced up to the Confederate earthworks and scaled the ramparts of the fortifications where fierce, close-quarters combat briefly raged all along the line. Some defenders threw down their arms and surrendered or turned and ran after the Union troops had overrun their position, but others fought on to the bitter end even after being surrounded. Despite the spirited resistance, the Union attackers at length overwhelmed the Confederate line and the fighting was over within about thirty minutes from the start of the charge. The great majority of the garrison was captured, although a very small number of Confederate soldiers, perhaps a few dozen, escaped via the river. Exact casualty figures are unknown, but it is believed that about 75 Confederate defenders were killed during the assault, with Union troops suffering about 150 killed and around 650 wounded during the entirety of the siege and assault. Some of the Union casualties occurred after the battle, as the mine-ridden battlefield continued to claim victims until
captured prisoners were forced to point out their locations. Several Union soldiers were later recognized with the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery during the assault or for having captured flags at Blakeley. With the fall of both Fort Blakeley and Spanish Fort, only two isolated artillery positions on islands in the Delta remained between the Union army and Mobile. Both were abandoned in short order, and on April 12, Mobile surrendered to Union forces and closed the last major combined-forces operation of the Civil War.