Gulf Shores: Fort Morgan and the Commanding View of American History

One of the things at the top of my list in visiting the Gulf Shore was a visit to Fort Morgan. As a military history nut, this is a visit that was an utter thrill. The fort drips with history. It was the most prominent focal point of the Battle of Mobile Bay. It was the scene for the great battle of the ironclads as well as Admiral David Farragut’s famed command of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Though perhaps incorrectly chronicled, the battle was every bit as exciting and worthy as legend.

The fort, originally named Fort Bowyer, was one of the most expensive military constructions of its time.(In the construction in 1833, the costs reached $1,026,777.41). It is also hands down one of my favorite American forts. It was later renamed after the Revolutionary War hero Daniel Morgan (one of my favorite American military leaders).

Built on Mobile Point, it has a lethal position to cover any ships trying to enter or leave the bay. Col. John Bowyer supervised its construction in 1813. With its sloping sides of the Glacis and tunnels, it was virtually impossible to destroy with ship artillery. It had massive guns that would lower upon recoil (taking them out of sight during reloading and protecting them from counter attacks).

The site was under the control of various governments from France to Spain to the CSA to the United States. The flags in front of the museum speak to that history. The museum is a small structure with some great artifacts. The only complaint that I would make is that it is missing a good film and displays on the Battle of Mobile Bay. The written signage on the self-tour are great but it would be fantastic to offer a more developed display at the museum like we have at Civil War battlefield sites like Bull Run.

The site is dripping with history. A sign stated that Marquis de LaFayette gave his final farewell from this location before boarding his ship to return to Europe. Union Major-General William Tecumseh serves as quartermaster and commissary at Fort Morgan in 1841-42. General Andrew Jackson was also at the fort and the first Alabama solider in the Civil War died at this location (It was Noble Leslie DeVotie who served as the first Chaplain and fell off the Engineer’s Wharf and was washed out to sea).

The construction of the Fort is fascinating with tunnels, reinforced magazines, glacis, battery, dry moat, Sally Port, flank casemates, and cisterus. Much of the site was built by slaves supplied by local slaveholders for an annual fee — a bitter fact given the use of the fort to defend the Confederacy during the Civil War.

It is a beautiful location at the very end of the peninsula including beaches looking out on the bay and Gulf, including oil rigs. You want to give yourself at least two hours and you can bring lunch and have a picnic on the beach.

The fort saw action in the War of 1812 and fought off the British fleet and a ground attack. However, on February 11, 1815, a larger force returned and took the fort. Then a few months later, the British received word of the Treaty of Ghent ending the war was signed on December 24, 1814 — before the final battle was waged. The British withdrew from the fort.

Of course, the highlight is the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864. Farragut led the Union fleet with a contingent of soldiers and was opposed by Admiral Franklin Buchanan.  The South had placed a line of what were called “torpedo mines” across the bay.  That is was led to the famous order of Faragut to defy the mines and proceeded forward any way. Farragut believed that the mines had a high failure rate over time in the water.

He was wrong in that the Union ironside Tecumseh was sunk by a mine. Accordingly, when one of his captains hesitated, he ordered “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells. Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!” That would later become  “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

It is notable that this was the largest engagement of ironclads until that time with a variety of monitors in the Northern fleet including Tecumseh, WinnebagoChickasaw, and Manhattan.

Farragut’s gamble however paid off. The rest of the ship ran the minefield and the guns of Fort Morgan. Soon the Confederate fleet was reduced to just the ironclad CSS Tennessee.  That ship bravely engaged the entire Northern fleet. Union ships suffered more damage ramming her than did the ironside itself but the cannon fire eventually left the Tennessee dead in the water and it surrendered. The Union took the fort and the last major port on the Gulf of Mexico east of the Mississippi River — a major blow to the Confederacy.

As in most Civil War battles, the commanders often knew and liked each other.  One such example is engagement with Confederate gunboats SelmaGaines, and Morgan which were chased under fire by the superior Union fleet. The Metacomet under Commander J. E. Jouett chased the Selma after the Morgan and Gaines were knocked out of commission. The Selma fought valiantly but was forced to surrender. When its commander, Lt. Murphy, went aboard the Metacomet to surrender his sword, he was met by his friend, Jouett, who said “Pat, don’t make a fool of yourself. I have had a bottle on ice for the last half hour!” Jouett then treated his friend to an elaborate breakfast of oysters, crabs, and beefsteaks.

The fort continued to be used through World War II, but in 1947 was finally handed over to the State of Alabama.

As you can tell, this was the top of my list for this trip and it was even more thrilling than I anticipated. I admit that I am a military history nerd, but I think everyone would find this site incredibly interesting. You will need to drive to the site.  It is roughly 50 minutes from the Lodge and the Gulf Shore Park area. It is an straight shot so keep driving until you can drive no more on the peninsula. Go in the morning and have a picnic on the beach.

For my part, I intentionally left a visit to Ft. Gaines on Dauphin Island for my return visit. (A trip to Ft. Gaines requires taking a ferry).

Here are some pictures from the trip:

9 thoughts on “Gulf Shores: Fort Morgan and the Commanding View of American History”

  1. Jonathan: As a “military history nut” you describe your visit to Fort Morgan as an “utter thrill; the fort drips with history”. It certainly does but probably not the part you are interested in. You prefer to talk about the Fort as an engineering marvel–costing a substantial sum at the time. The ugly truth about the Fort is that its construction, under the supervision of the US Corps of Engineers, was mostly built by slaves. We know very little about how many slaves were used, where they were housed nor how they were treated. Most treatments of Fort Morgan give only passing reference to this dark history of the Fort by white historians. Most white Alabama politicians don’t like critical race theory and don’t want school children to learn about the history of slavery that built the Fort. And that’s why only about 8% of high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. The Alabama Historical Commission admits the Fort was built “through the use of African-American slaves”–hardly an accurate description. Slaves were property, not “American”. The American Battlefield Trust goes a little further. Its website describes Fort Morgan as a “massive fort [that] contains more than 40 million bricks and pays tribute to skilled masons many of whom were enslaved African-Americans (sic)”. Just curious. On your trip through the Fort did you see any plaque that “pays tribute” to the slaves that built it?

    I like military history as well. But when it comes to the Civil War I prefer the Battle of Fort Wagner–depicted in the movie “Glory”. On July 18, 1863 the 54th Massachusetts, a black regiment, stormed Fort Wagner, a confederate fort on Morris Island in Charleston Harbor. The regiment was ultimately rebuffed by confederate soldiers. A lot of black union soldiers died that day. But the Battle demonstrated that black soldiers were willing to die for the Union in their fight for freedom. As a scholar and teacher I would think you would want to mention that Fort Morgan was built on the back of slave labor. I guess not, which reveals more than anything that “whiteness” is part of your DNA.

    1. Oh, Dennis. So pleased to see you continue to be the life of the party.
      Another day, another time, another article for your “teaching” moment, eh?

  2. It’s delightful to see how ‘utterly thrilled’ you are by so many things in life and that you share with us your enthusiasm for them all: military history, travel, nature, hiking, festive family holidays, delicious food, interesting people, photography, teaching, law, politics….you sir, are an utterly delightful human being.

  3. Thank you Prof. Turley, for the historic past of this wonderful place. I hope to visit one day and to seabrznsun, I will be sure to go to Ft. Gaines as well.

  4. You you have time, hop on the ferry at Ft. Morgan and cross Mobile Bay to Ft. Gaines on Dauphin Island, which is also a beautiful and history filled island.

    1. Professor Turley, this was a wonderful account. You brought the history to life for us. Enjoy the rest of your stay with your son. We look forward to more reports of your adventures.

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