August 8, 1864 (Monday)
Col. Charles Anderson held little hope of being able to resist the obviously-coming Federal siege of Fort Gaines in Mobile Bay, which he commanded. On the 5th, he had received a message from James Williams, commanding Fort Powell, who had come to a similar conclusion. Anderson ordered him to “save your garrison when your fort is no longer tenable.” Fort Powell was evacuated and its magazines blown up that night.
Now, it seemed, that his own fort was untenable. The issue was, however, that neither Williams nor Anderson had consulted any higher ranking officer about this. There was at Fort Morgan, across the channel and within sight of Fort Gaines, General Robert Page, who commanded all Confederate forces in the field. Also, there was General Dabney Maury, district commander in Mobile. While it might have been impossible to contact Maury, such was not the case with Page.
In fact, Anderson had been in direct communication with him via the use of the telegraph. “The enemy are planting batteries in the sand-hills within easy range,” he wrote on the 5th. “If the fleet opens upon me from the other direction I cannot cover more than half of my men, but will do the best I can. My situation is critical.”
Page told him to “do your best and keep the men in good cheer.” Anderson, apparently emboldened, enthusiastically vowed that he would.
But the next day, he again expressed doubt as Fort Gaines was bombarded by two Federal ironclad monitors. He wired Page, asking if there was anything that could be done. He also requested that a few other officers drop by so he could pick their brains. Page did not go himself, but sent a few officers to encourage Anderson to stick it out. But when they returned to Page at Fort Morgan, they felt that Anderson was already planning his capitulation.
They were not wrong. On the 7th, Col. Anderson began to seriously consider the surrender of his fort. That morning, he penned a message to Admiral David Farragut, who helmed the Union fleet which had steamed by the forts a few days since.
“Feeling my inability to maintain my present location longer than you may see fit to open upon me with the fleet, and feeling also the uselessness of entailing upon ourselves further destruction of life, I have the honor to propose the surrender of fort Gaines, its garrison, stores, &c.
“I trust to your magnanimity for obtaining honorable terms, which I respectfully request that you will transmit to me, and allow me sufficient time to consider them and return an answer.”
It was the lookout at Fort Morgan who first noticed the small craft moving away from Fort Gaines bearing a flag of truce. General Page was immediately summoned and he shot of the message: “What is the flag of truce boat for? Answer at once.”
But Page received no reply. So he fired a gun, hoping to draw Anderson’s attention, and once more tapping across the line “Hold on to your fort.” Anderson again made no reply. And so Page tried again – firing the gun and sending the “Hold on to your fort” message.
Page had a pretty good idea what this meant, but could not understand why the signal officer at Fort Gaines was silent.
When Admiral Farragut received Anderson’s request for terms of surrender, he immediately called upon General Gordon Granger, commanding the Union infantry on the ground. They mulled it over and came to this conclusion: “The unconditional surrender of yourself and the garrison of Fort Gaines, with all of the public property within its limits.”
Farragut also invited Col. Anderson to come aboard his flagship, the USS Hartford. Accompanied by a Major, Anderson arrived towards evening and the agreement was signed. It was concluded that the surrender would take place at 8am the following morning.
While Col. Anderson was out, the curious and fuming General Page, still unable to get Anderson to communicate with him, decided to pay him a visit.
“I took a small boat and crossed over,” wrote Page in his report, “and can convey no conception of my utter astonishment at finding that the flag of truce of the morning was to ask for terms of surrender from the enemy; that Colonel Anderson had ordered his signal corps not to reply to nor acknowledge any of my dispatches (such being, as he strangely conceived, a breach of honor of the flag of the morning, as I learned form his adjutant); that he was absent in the enemy’s fleet making terms of surrender, and what is still more unaccountable, that he had so far proceeded, though my dispatches of the morning asking the purpose of his flag and ordering him to hold on to his fort had been received and reported to him by his signal corps.”
Toward the end of General Page’s visitation, he saw Col. Anderson returning, but decided not to stick around. Instead, he left orders with a Major Johnson to inform Anderson that he was ordered to annul the terms of surrender unless they were binding. For some reason, he believed that perhaps they were not fully signed. He also thought that Col. Anderson might follow him back to Fort Morgan.
The Confederate flag flew over Fort Gaines at the dawn of this date. Anderson had neither followed General Page to Fort Morgan, nor had he communicated with him through the night. When Page awoke and saw the flag still flying, he fired a gun and telegraphed Anderson: “Stop communicating with the enemy; all terms or stipulations made by you are annulled.”
In a last ditch effort, Page sounded the gun once more, wiring now to the same Major Johnson: “Colonel Anderson is relieved from command. You assume it, and stop communicating with the enemy. All terms annulled.” He waited. But nothing came in reply.
Meanwhile at Fort Gaines, General Granger accepted the surrender. “I have the honor to report that the old flag now floats over Fort Gaines, the entire garrison having surrendered to the combined forces of the army and navy this morning at 8 o’clock.”
This was a fairly substantial haul, gifting the Federals 818 prisoners of war, including 46 commissioned officers. The fort’s 26 guns and a vast supply of ammunition and stores were now also in Union hands.
“I found the fort in excellent order,” wrote Captain Miles McAlester, Chief Engineer. However, it “was utterly weak and inefficient against our attack (land and naval), which would have taken all its fronts in front, enfilade, and reverse.”
As the Rebel flag was lowered and the flag of the Union raised, General Page, watching from Fort Morgan, was sickened. “At 9:30 o’clock the enemy’s flag was hoisted over Gaines, the evidence and the emblem of the consummation of the deed of dishonor and disgrace to its commander and garrison.” In a dispatch to Richmond, Page called it “painfully humiliating.” Col. Anderson’s conduct was “officially pronounced inexplicable and shameful.”
While President Jefferson Davis vowed to put Col. Anderson on trial if he was ever exchanged, he never got the chance. Anderson would sit out the rest of the war in New Orleans.
Admiral Farragut and General Granger now turned their attention to Fort Morgan and General Page. The following day, they would send a message to Page: “To prevent the unnecessary sacrifice of human life, which must follow the opening of our batteries, we demand the unconditional surrender of Fort Morgan and its dependencies.”
General Page, still fuming over Anderson’s disgraceful surrender replied: “I am prepared to sacrice life, and will only surrender when I have no means of defense.” For the next two weeks, Fort Morgan would be systematically bombarded by the army’s artillery and the navy’s gunboats.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p417-418, 426-427, 429-430, 436-437, 439, 442; Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p410, 414-415, 441, 524, 562, 564-567; Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1864 p399. [↩]