August 6, 1864 (Saturday)
“I must evacuate tonight or surrender in forty-eight hours,” came the message from Lt. Col. JM Williams, the Confederate commander at Fort Powell on an island in Mobile Bay. The day previous, the Union fleet under David Farragut had steamed past the forts standing guard.
“When no longer tenable, save your garrison,” came the reply from General Richard Page, overall commander. “Hold on as long as you can.”
Fort Powell, the smallest of the three forts, was hit only five times during the initial shelling, and even according to Lt. Col. Williams, “not particular damage was done.” The fort wasn’t really the focus of the Federal attack until the afternoon, when a couple of Union ships drew to withing 700 yards and commenced shelling.
Due to the location of the Federal vessels, Williams’ artillerymen could only reply with one gun. But even that was nearly pointless as it couldn’t be depressed enough for “ricochet firing.” They managed to fire only three times. “One shot struck the bow with no apparent effect.” Though he could hardly respond, the Union ships were scoring hit upon hit.
“The shells exploding in the face of the work displaced the sand so rapidly that I was convinced unless the ironclad was driven off it would explode my magazine and make the bombproof chambers untenable in two days at the farthest.” This was when Williams wired Page at Fort Morgan.
When the reply to hold out as long as he could was received, it was nearly dark. The Union fleet largely seemed to be ignoring Fort Powell. “I could not expect to have another opportunity to escape,” continued Williams in his report, “and I decided promptly that it would be better to save my command and destroy the fort than to allow both to fall into the hands of the enemy, as they certainly would have done in two days.”
The tide was low enough for Williams to march most of his garrison from the island to Cedar Point to the north. In many places, they made their way through the water, damaging ammunition and losing a few muskets along the way.
Remaining in the fort was a detachment of troops “With orders to prepare a train and match to explode the magazine as soon as he discovered that I had gained the mainland.” The guns were to be spike, as well. Then, around 10:30pm, the magazine was blown up and the rest of the troops joined their comrades at Cedar Point, making their way to Mobile not long after.
One of the ships firing upon Fort Powell was the USS Estrella, a converted steamer that had been a Rebel blockade runner. G.P. Pomeroy, commanding the vessel, witnessed the 150 or so Rebels abandoning the fort, even noticing the few remaining. “They seemed to be in great haste,” he wrote, “as they took nothing with them.” When the magazine was blown, the Estrella, still the closest ship to the fort, took no notice.
Through the night, however, reports of a great fire burning in or near Fort Powell was reported by several ships. Farragut then ordered the Estrella to see what was going on. At 7am on this date, Pomeroy landed on the island.
“I found it had been blown up,” he wrote, “turning the center directly out over the parapet. It is nothing but a heap of rubbish and ruins, with a deep tunnel-shaped hole in the center, which was filled with water. There are some remaining portions of the magazines for shell and some shell in them in good order. It had the appearance of being evacuated in great haste, as some of the clothing of men and officers were still remaining in their quarters.”
As he was examining the fort, Pomeroy ordered the United States flag to be run up the staff. This was noticed by nearly every ship in the fleet:
“At 7:10 the stars and stripers were hoisted from Fort Powell, it having been evacuated during the night.” – USS Brooklyn
“At 7:10 a boat’s crew from the Estrella ran up the flag of our Union over Fort Powell.” – USS Conemaugh
“At 7 saw stars and stripes floating over Fort Powell.” – USS Hartford
“During the forenoon of this day the American flag was hoisted over Fort Powell, which had been evacuated during the night by the enemy.” – USS Ossipee
“At 7:35 saw the stars and stripes flying over Fort Powell. Cheered ship.” – USS Port Royal
“At 7:25 saw the American flag flying over Fort Powell.” – USS Seminole
“At 6 she [Estrella] came to anchor and sent a boat in and hoisted the American ensign on the fort.” – USS Stockdale
The act of abandoning and destroying Fort Powell may have saved the Confederate garrison, but it did not set well at all with General Dabney Maury, commanding the District of the Gulf from Mobile, Alabama.
“This report is unsatisfactory,” he concluded, referring to Lt. Col. Williams’ summation. “Col. Williams should have fought his guns. They were not more exposed than those in every wooden ship, and vigorously served would probably have compelled the monitor to haul off. Fort Powell should not have been surrendered. Colonel Williams is relieved from command until a full investigation can be had.”
In a month or so, Williams would be acquitted of the charges brought against him, but it would not change General Maury’s mind. Maury once more suspended him until forced to reinstate Williams in December.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p435-436; Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p 504-505, 510, 519, 521, 559-561, 784, 787, 790, 794, 800-801, 825, 842, 852, 854. [↩]