At Mobile Bay

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The Federal fleet that hammered its way into Mobile Bay during Adm. David Glasgow Farragut’s damn-the-torpedoes foray a century and a quarter ago did no harm to the city itself, but Mobile has been radically altered by another Yankee innovation that, if not quite as devastating as the Civil War, has left a far greater mark on the landscape: the strip. When I arrived on a warm, fine weekend early last November, I found that recent development had sucked much of the commerce out of downtown Mobile and left it strung out along the big road that leads to the city’s airport. I also found that the process had left a fascinating residue of nineteenth-century buildings and that the city is currently waging a vigorous battle to save its old district.

That district is old. De Soto made his murderous way through the area in 1540, thanking the local Indians for their hospitality by burning their city, Maubila. The name survived to be appropriated by the French. In 1711 they settled on the present site of the city of Mobile, which at first served as the capital of a province that ran from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada.

There is not much tangible to remind the visitor of the French founders—or rather, there wasn’t until 1976, when Mobile reconstructed a good deal of Fort Conde, the original bastion that defended the city. It now serves as Mobile’s visitor’s center, where you will be supplied with everything you need to explore the historic districts.

It won’t take you long to sense an echo of New Orleans. In the dozen or so square blocks that make up the De Tonti district—which may be the only neighborhood in the country still lit by its original gas lamps—the balconies of the old brick buildings are lush with elaborate ironwork. Like New Orleans, Mobile is a port city, and the tidal flow of people from everywhere early made it the most cosmopolitan town in Alabama. In fact, the city is quite conscious of a measure of rivalry with its sexy cousin to the west. In the Church Street Cemetery, among the graves of the Episcopal gentry, the tombstone of Joseph Stilwell Cain (1832–1909) identifies him as THE HEART AND SOUL OF MARDI GRAS IN MOBILE and goes on to declare, WHO HAD MARDI GRAS FIRST—MOBILE OR NEW ORLEANS? MOBILE HAD IT FIRST. BUT, the epitaph concedes, NEW ORLEANS WAS THE FIRST TO CALL ITS CARNIVAL MARDI GRAS.

 

The claims to inventing Mardi Gras are further defended in the appealing City Museum on Government Street, but it is the Civil War that is most impressively represented there. Although Mobile didn’t see fighting until the very end of the struggle, the city made its presence felt early by sending out its devastatingly capable son Adm. Raphael Semmes to raid Union commerce in the Alabama. Meanwhile, Rebels beefed up the forts at the mouth of the bay thirty miles south of the city and made Mobile the Confederacy’s most strongly defended port.

Farragut wanted to seize Mobile as soon as he took New Orleans in April 1862, but more than two years passed before he was able to assemble his squadron for the job. It sounds faintly preposterous to visit the site of a naval engagement—the ships, after all, have gone, and water is water—but in fact, it is well worth your while to drive down the western shore of the bay to where a spectacular three-mile humpbacked causeway brings you to Dauphin Island and Fort Gaines.

Gaines is a brick pentagon, and of the five bastions that cap its corners, the northwest is the best preserved. Its intersecting arches, as handsome an architectural achievement as any of the era, are a tremendous tribute to the nineteenth-century military engineers who could handle brick with such fluency. Over on the northeast bastion I could see, across three miles of water, Gaines’s counterpart, Fort Morgan. To the left Mobile Bay threw its hot, silvery shimmer onto the bellies of low clouds white as aspirin; to the right the Gulf of Mexico opened out forever. It was late fall, but the weather was warm enough to have been the sultry spring that Farragut fretted his way through out in the Gulf, begging for monitors. He did not want to dare those batteries without ironclads.

While he fretted, Alabama shipwrights bolted together a formidable ironclad of their own, the Tennessee. When she showed up in the bay ready for action, Washington finally acted, and Farragut got his ironclads, among them the big new Tecumseh. The Hieronymus Bosch hodgepodge of spars and plates and fat, bottle-shaped cannon that is every Civil War battle fleet was complete. Farragut went in early on the morning of August 5.

The Rebels were ready for him. They had strung torpedoes (mines) out from Fort Gaines, leaving only a five-hundred-yard channel open under Morgan’s guns. Farragut had a tremendous advantage in numbers—four monitors and fourteen wooden ships against three wooden gunboats and the Tennessee—but the land-based batteries would help redress the balance.