March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
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.
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… .”
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.”