At Mobile Bay

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As the Federal squadron approached the channel, Fort Morgan opened fire, and the little Southern fleet came out to give battle. As soon as he saw the Tennessee, Capt. Tunis A. M. Craven of the Tecumseh left the line and went straight at her. He hit a mine almost at once. Craven, at the foot of the ladder that led to the ship’s only escape hatch, stepped aside: “After you, pilot.” But the pilot said later, “There was nothing after me… .” As he scrambled out, the Tecumseh disappeared beneath him, taking her skipper and ninety-two other men down with her.

A few hundred yards from Fort Gaines is the terminal of the bright orange car ferry that shuttles across the mouth of the bay. As you cross, the low, powerful profile of Fort Morgan takes on definition, and you are surprisingly close by the time you can see the buoy that marks Tecumseh’s grave.

The American line fell into disorder at the sudden extinction of the ironclad. Farragut, high in the rigging of his flagship Hartford, gave the order that, with the exception of the one about the whites of their eyes, is the most famous command in American military history: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Or, at least, he may have given it. Nobody attributed the remark to him until fourteen years later, but the effect was the same. The Hartford led the line into Mobile Bay, passed the pounding batteries, passed the broadsides of the slower Tennessee, scattered the Rebel gunboats, and dropped anchor.

Aboard the Tennessee Adm. Franklin Buchanan stared at the Yankee squadron three miles up the bay. He knew what the odds were. He also knew what he required of himself and of the infant Confederate navy. After a while he spoke to his captain: “Follow them up, Johnston. We can’t let them off that way.” And he took his 6-gun ship into action against the seventeen vessels and 157 guns of Farragut’s fleet.

It lasted an hour. Then, with her steering gone and her admiral’s leg all but shot away, and unable to bring a single gun to bear, the Tennessee surrendered. Mobile Bay belonged to Farragut. Union soldiers landed, and Fort Gaines gave up almost instantly, to the immense disgust of Brig. Gen. Richard L. Page, Fort Morgan’s commander. When he received the properly worded request to surrender in order “to prevent the unnecessary sacrifice of human life,” Page replied, “I am prepared to sacrifice life… .”

The most cosmopolitan town in Alabama, Mobile is conscious of a rivalry with its sexy cousin to the west, New Orleans.

Fort Morgan is remarkably well preserved; it is both stronger and larger than Gaines, and it’s easy to see how it could have stood a good deal of pounding. Nevertheless, after two weeks of bombardment all but two of Page’s eighty-six guns were out of action, and the commander had to ask for terms.

That was the end of blockade running in the Gulf of Mexico, but Mobile itself held out until the very end. In the spring of 1865 Gen. Edward R. S. Canby finally moved against the city and early in April he fought the last infantry battle of the war, at nearby Blakely.

There is a good deal left of the city the dilatory conquerors entered, and there is also a good deal that has vanished. Between a pair of especially attractive mid-nineteenth-century buildings you’ll find the plaintive ruin of a tire store that could have caught Walker Evans’s eye for recent desuetude. But this intermingling of preservation and decay has life to it. A couple “of hours before I left town, I stopped in the Admiral Semmes Hotel, which was refurbished in 1984. Behind the bar a young woman named Pamela assembled one of the bloody marys that are her specialty and spoke about how Mobile roused itself to retrieve its downtown. Hurricane Frederic’s brutal 1979 object lesson on how frail the ties with the past really are was a particular spur. “That’s when most everyone looked around and saw how things were just slipping away. It was like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, folks, this is where we came from.’” She moved down the bar to deliver the drink, then came back. “I mean, this is our history. This is us.”

—Richard F. Snow TO PLAN A TRIP