Fort McDermott & the Siege of Spanish Fort
The modern city of Spanish Fort, Alabama, was the scene of heavy fighting during the Mobile Campaign of the War Between the States (or Civil War).
The Battle of Spanish Fort took place as thousands of Union soldiers moved up the east shore of Mobile Bay in March of 1865. The march was one prong of a major campaign to reduce the Confederate defenses at the north end of the bay and capture the city of Mobile itself.
Led by General E.R.S. Canby, the massive column of 32,000 Federals began its movement to a staging point at Fish River on the east side of Mobile Bay on March 13, 1865. Some of the men arrived by water, but others marched up from Fort Morgan on Mobile Point.
A smaller column of around 13,000 men, meanwhile, started north from Pensacola at the same time. This force was to break the railroad that connected Mobile with Alabama’s capital city of Montgomery before swinging around to invest the works at today’s under orders to break the railroad connecting Mobile with Montgomery and then swing around to invest the works at Historic Blakeley State Park.
Confederate forces watched this movements and engaged in light skirmishing with the main Federal column under Canby as it started to move north from the Fish River. While Confederate forces fought the smaller column as it moved north from Pensacola, they did little more than skirmish with the massive force moving up the Eastern Shore from Fish River. The defenders were severely outnumbered so they concentrated instead on readying their fortifications at Spanish Fort and Blakeley for battle.
Spanish Fort was the first of these defensive points to face Canby’s onslaught. The city is located directly across the bay from the city of Mobile itself. It takes its name from a fort built there during the American Revolution by the Spanish troops of General Bernardo de Galvez. Spain was a major ally of the fledgling United States during that war and one of Alabama’s little known Revolutionary War battles took place when British forces tried to take Spanish Fort in 1781.
The heights at Spanish Bluff commanded one of the key water approaches to Mobile so the Confederates built massive fortifications and batteries there during the War Between the States. They also obstructed the channel from the bay to the Mobile waterfront, forcing harbor traffic to use a second channel up the Blakeley River which passed directly under the guns at Spanish Fort and Blakeley. If the Federals hoped to take Mobile, they would first have to capture the Eastern Shore citadels.
Canby’s column closed in on Spanish Fort as the Confederate troops withdrew into their fortifications and prepared for siege. The defenders numbered only a couple of thousand men, but for the next twelve days they would contend against a Union army 15 times the size of their own.
The Battle of Spanish Fort began on March 27, 1865, when the Federals came within view of the powerful Confederate fortifications. The engagement escalated over following days as Canby cautiously encircled Spanish Fort to block all of its land approaches. The Union troops dug siege works and began to place artillery of their own. Canby soon had 90 cannon aimed at the Southern lines, while the Confederate defenders had only 47 – many of which were emplaced to defend against an attack by water.
The bombardment of Spanish Fort began on April 8, 1865. Union guns opened from all points of their line while Confederate cannon responded in kind. Flame and smoke enveloped the battlefield while the thunder of the guns caused the ground to shake across the bay in Mobile.
The 8th Iowa Infantry moved forward late that afternoon and managed to break through a section of the Confederate lines on the northern part of the battlefield. The Southern commander, Brigadier General Randall L. Gibson, knew that he did not have enough men to withstand another day of attack.
Gibson had seen this moment coming for some time. His intent all along had been to delay Canby’s army for as long as possible before slipping away. With Union forces blocking the entire land side of his defenses, the Confederate general planned ahead by having his men build a wooden footbridge across the Blakeley River to Fort Huger (also called Battery Huger) on the other side.
The darkness of that night was intensified by the clouds of sulfurous smoke that had risen during the fighting. Under this cover, Gibson and his soldiers silently evacuated Spanish Fort and crossed their footbridge to Fort Huger. They destroyed the bridge behind them and escaped the grasp of General Canby, who expected that his army would snap them up on the next morning.
The Confederate defense of Spanish Fort had been remarkable. General Gibson and his men had waged a valiant fight against overwhelming numbers, holding back a Union army of more than 30,000 men for weeks.
The waterfront location of the Spanish Fort battlefield made it attractive for development in later years and much of the scene is now covered by subdivisions, housing developments and businesses. Earthworks and trenches can even be seen running through the yards of homes in the area.
The best preserved part of the battlefield is Fort McDermott (also called Battery McDermott). This massive fort stood on the highest point of the Confederate lines and survived a massive Federal bombardment. The Fuller family deserves much credit for saving this section of the lines and for donating the three-acre site to Raphael Semmes Camp #11 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV).
SCV members oversaw the development of the site as the Fort McDermott Confederate Memorial Park, a privately held preserve that is open to the public. Trails, footbridges and interpretive signs help visitors understand the importance of the battery and provide an excellent history of the Battle of Spanish Fort.
Fort McDermott is located at approximately 190 Spanish Main, Spanish Fort, Alabama. To reach the fort from Historic Highway 90 (U.S. 90), turn north on Spanish Main and the park will be ahead on your left near the intersection of Spanish Main and Cannonade Boulevard. Parking is limited and Spanish Main is a busy residential street, so please exercise caution. Please respect private property in the area.
Fort McDermott is free to visit. Please click here for more information on Raphael Semmes Camp #11 (SCV).
A second area of interest is the Mobile Bay Overlook on U.S. 98 just north of I-10 in Spanish Fort. Interpretive panels here tell more about the attack on Spanish Fort and the views of the bay are spectacular.
Just a few miles to the north is Historic Blakeley State Park. The campaign shifted to Blakeley following the fall of Spanish Fort.