Siege of Fort Morgan is forgotten turning point in Civil War

By Allison Marlow
Posted 8/25/17

In the summer of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln believed all was lost. There wasn’t a single bit of good news from the frontlines.

In a memorandum to his cabinet, he warned that he would most …

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Siege of Fort Morgan is forgotten turning point in Civil War

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In the summer of 1864, President Abraham Lincoln believed all was lost. There wasn’t a single bit of good news from the frontlines.

In a memorandum to his cabinet, he warned that he would most likely lose the upcoming election in November.

Then, at dawn on Aug. 22, Union troops opened a massive bombardment of Fort Morgan.

The Union Army and Navy fired 6,000 rounds over the walls of the coastal defense over a 24-hour period. Fires burned out of control inside the compound. Food and water were destroyed. Soldiers couldn’t rise above the top of the wall to defend themselves without risking immediate injury or death.

The next morning, as the sun rose, so did the white flag of surrender. Nine days later, Atlanta fell. Lincoln’s win in the November election was secure.

At the time, the Siege of Fort Morgan, part of the Battle of Mobile Bay, was hailed as a major victory for the Union. And it was. But over time, that significance has been forgotten.

Mike Bailey, senior historian at Fort Morgan, said recently historians have looked at the history of the siege through fresh eyes and now call it one of the most politically significant moments of the Civil War.

“For the cost of just 160 killed in action, on both land and sea, they blocked Mobile,” Bailey said. “The political significance of this battle is enormous.”

Fort Morgan is administered by the Alabama Historical Commission and is open to the public year-round as an Alabama heritage site.

Lucky visitors will catch a glimpse of the same cannon that fired on those Union troops 153 years ago this week, as it thunders to life again.

Bailey and a crew of historians and re-enactors fire the 32-pound seacoast gun several times a year. It’s one of their favorite parts of the job.

“We’re recreating an art that is gone and passing this down to generations,” Bailey said. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to do it and fire a piece that was in service during the war.”

Unfortunately for those defending Fort Morgan, the seacoast guns were not enough to keep the Union away. The rounds it fired bounced off the ironclads and did minimal damage to wooden hulls.

Troops inside quickly learned how out of date their weapons were.

The Federal siege made great use of high arcing artillery from short barreled, smoothbore guns that could drop exploding shells inside the fort. The explosions caused the barracks building to catch fire.

In an effort to keep their own gunpowder from exploding the troops inside the fort dumped 60,000 pounds of cannon powder into their water supply, leaving them with nothing to drink.

Any unit that tried to peak above the wall to fight the enemy was wounded or worse. Every member of a gun crew form the 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery was wounded after they took to the wall and fired their first round.

“From the descriptions we have read it was just horrendous,” Bailey said of the siege.

No water. No food. No way to fight back. The fort’s defenses were obsolete. The siege would become the second greatest bombardment on a single target during the entire Civil War, second only to the siege on Fort Sumter.

By daybreak, the fort surrendered. The last major blockade running port of the Gulf was gone.

One soldier there that day, Robert Tarpley, wrote in a letter, ‘When we had orders to march out, we went without a second bidding’.