'Damn the torpedoes' and more at Fort Gaines

Posted Online: April 20, 2013, 9:00 am
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By Jackie Sheckler Finch
FORT GAINES, Ala. — As the first light of dawn streaks the sky, a fleet of ships steams slowly toward the coast of Alabama.

It'is Aug. 5, 1864, and the 18 Union ships led by Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut aim to get past Fort Gaines into Mobile Bay. But Confederate defenders of the fort have other ideas.

At 7:30 a.m., as cannon fire reaches a crescendo, the leading Union monitor, the USS Tecumseh, strikes a mine — known as a torpedo during the Civil War. The Tecumseh sinks within a minute, taking most of the 100 crewmembers with her.

The sudden disaster throws the Union fleet into confusion, causing it to hesitate under the guns of Fort Gaines. At this critical moment, Farragut gives his famous order, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

The rallying cry pushes the remaining vessels past the fort, through the minefield and into Mobile Bay. "Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan were very important because Mobile was the last supply port for the Confederacy," said park ranger Mark Lyman.

Fort Gaines now is managed by the Dauphin Island Parks and Recreation Board.

Fort Gaines withstood the Union army and navy bombardment for three days. "But on Aug. 8, 1864, the Confederates at Fort Gaines surrendered," Lyman said. "And the rest is history."

Today, Fort Gaines is a good place for visitors to see where history spans three centuries.

Located on the east end of Dauphin Island, Fort Gaines is very walkable and on this sunny day is bustling with re-enactors and visitors. As often happens, I find it sad that such a lovely place should have such a violent past.

"The French originally called it Massacre Island because when they first visited, there were piles of human bones scattered about the sandy soil," Lyman said.

Despite the burial ground, French explorer Pierre Le Moyne de'Iberville decided to locate a colony on the island because of the abundant timber, reliable supply of fresh water and great harbor. Massacre Island soon became the headquarters for French colonization along the Gulf Coast. Imperial powers in Europe squabbled over the site for the next 100 years.

The War of 1812 proved that America needed adequate defenses for its long coastline. Although construction of a fort in 1819 on Dauphin Island became an important part of national defense, the project was plagued from the start.

One of the major problems was that engineers sited the fort so close to Mobile Bay that water actually entered the works at high tide.

Erosion still is so severe that Fort Gaines was placed on the list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2011.

Construction on the fort ceased in 1821 and didn't restart for more than 30 years.

"It wasn't until 1853 that construction started again," Lyman said. "It was the Confederacy that completed the construction."

The fort was named for Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines, who died in 1849. Gaines won fame for his tenacious defense of Fort Erie on the Niagara River during the War of 1812. While still a young officer, Gaines also gained national recognition when he led the detachment that captured former Vice President Aaron Burr, who had been accused of treason.

Opened to the public in 1995, Fort Gaines is one of two mirror-image fortifications in the shape of stars in Mobile Bay. Fort Gaines is on Dauphin Island; Fort Morgan is on the peninsula. The two brick structures were the sentries that once protected Mobile and its bay from the enemy-laden seas of the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, visitors can see the actual cannons used in the Battle of Mobile Bay, as well as the huge anchor of Admiral Farragut's flagship, the USS Hartford.

"That is all that's left of the Hartford," Lyman said. "We're lucky to have it. They waited too long to try and salvage the rest of the ship."

Rooms in the fort are excellent examples of brick mason skills. Accessed by long tunnels from the courtyard or spiral stone staircases to the cannons above, the vaulted brick ceilings are impressive. Even more striking are the small munitions rooms at the end with brick walls lacking straight angles and appearing more like the flowing hull of a ship.

"You have to remember that Fort Gaines was designed to operate as a city during times of conflict," Lyman said. "And you also have to remember that the average age of the soldiers stationed here was 14 to 17 yeas old. The average age of a drummer boy was 9 to 12 years old. Desertion was very common back then. These were just young boys."

You can see the original kitchen, bakery and blacksmith shop. A blacksmith often is at work, and some of the items created are for sale in the gift shop — iron triangle dinner bells, candleholders, nails and copper flowers.

There even is the original fort latrine, which is quite unusual. It's basically a 10-seat outhouse with rifle ports allowing those so inclined to turn and fire even as they were relieving themselves.

"You had to do what you had to do during battle," Lyman said. "You had to take care of business no matter what."

A hidden room below was connected by tunnel into Mobile Bay. Each day, the high and low tides would flush clean the system. Rain was routed to underground drainage tunnels and channeled to the huge kitchen cisterns. Other structures include the officers quarters, quartermaster building, command office and guardhouse.

Preparing to give a rifle demonstration, Lyman explained that the bayonet on a rifle was an important tool. The goal of an experienced soldier was to wound his enemy, Lyman said, not to kill him.

All in all, Lyman concluded, "more men were killed from disease and infection in the Civil War than from bullets."

Fort Gaines: 251-861-6992, dauphinisland.org.

Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism: 800-745-7262, gulfshores.com.

Staying where: Renting a condominium is a popular way to spend a vacation with family. Check out the possibilities on gulfshores.com and click through to lodging. We stayed at Turquoise Place (turquoiseplaceal.com), a lovely spacious resort that gets its name from its two majestic towers, encased in shimmering turquoise glass. Fun to step out of the condo onto the white sand of Orange Beach and watch the sun set on the Gulf of Mexico.

Getting there: Driving is the most popular mode of transportation for vacations to the Gulf Shores of Alabama, although major air carriers serve the area through Pensacola International Airport, about 30 miles from Orange Beach.

Dining, too: On our way to Fort Gaines, we stopped at Tacky Jack's (tackyjacks.com) for breakfast. A favorite with visitors and local alike, this Orange Beach spot serves its famous Farmer's Omelet (on Alabama's top 100 foods list): potatoes, onions, eggs, green peppers, mushrooms, sausage, ham, plus American and cheddar cheeses both inside and out. Figured we would walk it off at Fort Gaines. Prices are right in the Gulf Shores area so dining out with the family is more economical than many coastal locations.


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