The Moonlight Assault of Spanish Fort

     In the closing days of the Civil War, a Federal army known as the Army of West Mississippi laid siege to a Confederate fortification that protected one of the land approaches to the city of Mobile, Alabama. The major combat components of this army, under the command of Major General Edward R.S. Canby, were the 13th and 16th Army Corps, both well-traveled organizations that had seen action from the very outset of hostilities in Missouri, through Shiloh, Vicksburg, and the hard 1864 campaigns in Louisiana and Mississippi.

    The immediate objective of this force was called Spanish Fort; a series of earthen fortifications that lay on the east side of Mobile and had a garrison of roughly 2,500 men. The closure of the port of Mobile, the South's fourth largest city, had been effected the previous summer at the Battle of Mobile Bay, but the Union army continued the push to subjugate the last remnants of the rebellion in the deep South. In March 1865, the Federal army landed on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay and marched north to subdue Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely, the only two remaining obstacles to the seizure of Mobile itself. 

    Among the troops who participated in the siege of Spanish Fort was Adjutant Wales Wallace Wood of the 95th Illinois. The 95th Illinois had enlisted in the summer of 1862, seeing its first action during the assaults on Vicksburg, and had earned a reputation as a solid hard-fighting unit. In June of 1864, the regiment had suffered heavily at the battle of Brice's Crossroads losing its colonel Thomas W. Humphrey, before going on to help defeat the Confederate army at Nashville in December 1864. With the war in Tennessee and Mississippi virtually at a close, the 16th Army Corps (the 95th Illinois was assigned to the First Brigade of the Third Division) was shipped south to New Orleans to take part in the operations against Mobile, Alabama. 

The Federal capture of Spanish Fort on the night of April 8, 1865 set the stage for the assault on Fort Blakely the following day as depicted above. On the same day 800 miles to the northeast at a little-known country crossroads called Appomattox Courthouse, General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant.  The twin captures of Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely doomed Mobile which fell on April 10, 1865; the end of the Confederacy came within weeks of the loss of Mobile.

    Adjutant Wood wrote the following account of the siege of Spanish Fort mere days after the event; I've supplemented Wood's account with quotes from a letter written by a soldier who wrote under the nom-de-plume Gun Powder:

From the beginning of the siege on the 27th ultimo until its close, the 95th Illinois performed an important part in the reduction of the stronghold and held a strong and advanced position in the Federal lines. The first day of our appearance before the enemy's works, the regiment, under a galling fire of musketry and artillery, took a position within 500 yards and nearly in front of what was familiarly known during the investment as the Red and White Forts. We arrived there at 11 a.m. on the 27th, drove the enemy into his well-constructed works, from which during the remainder of the day, he treated us to shot, shells, and bullets in abundance. Although at our time our whole army (the 13th and 16th Army Corps), the former occupying the right, the latter the left of our whole line, was in easy charging distance, yet it was soon evident that a general charge would have been attended on that day with great slaughter to our men and that the enemy's line of works could not be held if taken by assault as the Rebel ironclads in the Bay and their sand batteries nearby commanded the position and must necessarily have made sad havoc had a general assault been ordered.
Adjutant Wales W. Wood
95th Illinois

    On the night of the 27th, therefore, the whole army commenced entrenching and on the following morning our first line of works greeted the gaze of the Confederates over the way, who seemed disappointed that instead of charging we had gone to digging. The 95th Illinois occupied their first line the morning of the 28th having thus, during the night, advanced their position to within 300 yards of the forts already mentioned, and this under a continuous and annoying fire of Rebel sharpshooters. The rifle pits of the regiment were daily and nightly pushed forward by the constant and untiring working of the men until the 8th instant, our skirmishers fought from behind good earthworks at a distance of 25 yards from the opposing line. It was not the 13th day of the siege and at 5:30 p.m. of the 8th, all the artillery along our lines opened the terrific fire upon the still defiant fort. Those who served in the siege of Vicksburg, the campaign of Nashville and elsewhere, testify that this was the most terrible cannonading witnessed by them during the war. Every day since the commencement of this siege on the 27th ultimo, heavy cannon , mortars, and siege pieces of different caliber had been accumulating on our line and were now all in position, at proper intervals, ready to pour a concentrated and deadly fire into the enemy's works.

The 13th and 16th Army Corps depicted landing on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in March 1865.

    Promptly at the appointed hour on the 8th, the contest opened and a hundred Federal cannon belched forth the missiles of death and destruction with ruinous and demoralizing effect upon the Confederate stronghold. It seems impossible for mortals to have survived long under such a shower of solid shot, burning shells, and whizzing bullets raining in upon them, and the subsequent events of the day and night proved that it was very true. The bombardment continued with unabated fury on our part, and within little or no reply from the enemy for more than an hour, when, unexpectedly to everybody (for no general charge had been ordered), the Third Brigade of our division [Colonel James Geddes, 81st, 108th, 124th Illinois, and 8th Iowa] holding the extreme right of our whole line, commenced charging the enemy's works on his extreme left. 

"We halted until about midnight when the colonel commanding our brigade, elated by the success of Geddes' brigade, made up his mind that we could take in some of the Johnnies. So we double-quicked back to our old pits, but we stopped not there. We scrambled out of our works and without Colonel at our head who said 'Come on boys,' we made for the fort. On and on we rushed, the moon shining very bright so we could see objects in front of us almost as plainly as at noon-day. We thought not of the torpedoes (for afterwards found the ground planted thick with them) but with yell after yell we rushed on over logs and through brush until we came to a very strong cheveaux-de-frise; to smash it without guns and pull it apart was quick work. This obstacle out of the way, we came to the ditch and scrambled into and scrambled up the walls of the fort. The 95th Illinois was the first on the Red Fort. Once in, the Rebels ran, but we captured a large number with two pieces of artillery. Once on the fort, you should have heard the the old 95th yell." ~ Gun Powder

    At this unlooked-for movement by that brigade, the 95th Illinois sprang to arms and the whole regiment filed into its works occupying the advanced rifle pits and prepared for a forward movement over the Red and White Forts with a yell and a will if ordered. We had not remained in that position long, however, before an order came for the regiment to retire from its own front and go at once to the support of the Third Brigade which was then charging. This order was executed promptly and by the time we arrived at the point of support indicated, the charging brigade, having successfully advanced, had occupied that portion of the enemy's line of works, and then halted from the prosecution of the gallant work they had performed without orders and it seems, on their own hook.

Adjutant Wood later wrote the
95th Illinois regimental history

    It was after dark when our regiment arrived at that point, yet the artillery was still thundering from both sides and did not cease its angry tones and savage work till quite late in the evening. We remained within close supporting distance of the Third Brigade until midnight of the 8th when it was decided that we should go back to our own works and moved forward into the enemy's from that point, as there was now every indication that he was evacuating Spanish Fort and giving up everything. It turned out to be so and soon after arriving again in our rifle pits, the 95th Illinois rushed over our newly dug trenches, advanced rapidly to the cheavaux-de-frise placed by the enemy to obstruct our progress, tore it down, and yelling like so many fiends charged over the Red and White Forts, taking possession of them before any other Federal force had appeared at that point. The Confederates had been terror-stricken and completely demoralized by our artillery fire, which prisoners declared was altogether too hot, and entirely consistent with the preservation of life, and when the First and Third Brigades of our division made this night charge at midnight very little resistance was offered by the enemy, who was now fleeing in confusion through the adjoining woods and swamp endeavoring to effect an escape. 

"Headed by our colonel, we rushed by the left flank along the parapets making more noise than the shrieks of 40,000 fiends, but a new danger stared us in the face. The 13th Corps, which lay to the left of the 16th Corps, and not knowing of the charge of our brigades, opened upon us with their guns, hearing the noise and supposing the Rebels were coming out. But Colonel Blanden in a loud voice called out that they were firing on their own men. 'Who are you?' they asked. 'Third Division, 16th Army Corps,' he answered. You should have heard the cheer they gave us. While in the fort, the gunboats began to shell us but were soon signaled that we held it and stopped. It was a grand sight to see the marines come up over the other side of the fort, each with a lantern in their hands. The boys were not long in finding the Rebel commissary and went for it; they consisted of flour, cornmeal, hams, sugar, etc. At 4 in the morning we were ordered back to camp and as we marched along, it was enough to make the gravest man laugh to see us. Every man had a sack of flour or a ham on his back. In all we have captured 36 pieces of artillery and about 600 prisoners." ~ Gun Powder

This map depicts the array of Confederate fortifications surrounding Mobile Bay in early 1865.

    Our men were engaged until 3 a.m. the morning of the 9th securing the Rebel encampments, taking prisoners and guarding many of the cannon thus captured. We had all been under arms on constant duty since 6 p.m. of the previous day, soon after the bombardment began and had made an all night's job of it. The excitement among the charging brigades was intense and long after we had returned to camp, the boys clustered around their camp fires and passed the early hours of the morning discussing, rather noisily, the bombardment, the charge, and the capture of Spanish Fort and all the other connecting Rebel works. Over 40 pieces of artillery and 500 or 600 prisoners were here captured, along with four battle flags and on the morning of the 9th, the stars and stripes greeted the gaze of the Mobilians waving triumphantly from those battlements where on the previous day at sunset their own rag of secession fluttered defiantly.

Colonel Louis Blanden
95th Illinois

    The loss in our army throughout the siege has been comparatively small. During the occupation of the enemy's works on the 8th, no one was injured though they were all the time in advanced positions of danger sustaining the good reputation the regiment built up in the army during the siege of Vicksburg under the command of the brave and lamented Humphrey. On the 9th instant, we moved toward Fort Blakeley to support our forces then investing it, and on the same day that stronghold was stormed successfully and over 20 cannon and 3,000 prisoners captured. So the forts which have long prevented the Federal approach to Mobile city have all fallen, and today comes the report that the flag of the Union is now waving over the city itself. Meanwhile, news reaches us of the taking of Richmond and Petersburg, the evacuation of Lee, and the probable annihilation of his army by Grant. Glory to God in the highest and Peace on Earth and good will towards  men- after the rebellion is crushed and Rebels cease polluting the land with their footsteps.

A detailed map of Spanish Fort showing the red approach lines of the Federals closing in on the fortifications of the Rebels


Letter from Adjutant Wales W. Wood, 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Belvidere Standard (Illinois), May 9, 1865, pg. 2

Letter from "Gun Powder," 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Belvidere Standard (Illinois), May 2, 1865, pg. 3




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