Sunday, December 11, 2005

Dock of the Bay

My German immigrant great great grandfather, who I discovered on the internet during the past two years, spent the last six months of his life on the Gulf Coast in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas in the final months and aftermath of the American Civil War. He took part in only one real battle, the assault on Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley, the forts on Mobile Bay that kept Mobile from falling into Union hands until after Robert E. Lee had already surrendered in Virginia in April, 1865.

A few weeks ago I mentioned a recent book by Andrew Ward called 'River Run Red', an account of the Fort Pillow Massacre, which took place on the Mississippi River north of Memphis in April, 1864, an event about which I knew nothing until I encountered Ward's book. To be honest, I had never even heard of Fort Pillow, an incident in which surrendering Union soldiers, mostly 'colored troops', were given no quarter and slaughtered by their Confederate captors. But I have since uncovered a few articles about the fall of Mobile which suggest that the memory of Fort Pillow figured prominently in the battle that delivered Mobile to Union occupation.

Michael Fitzgerald, a history professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, wrote an article published in 2001 in the Alabama Review entitled 'Another Kind of Glory: Black Participation and Its Consequences in the Campaign for Confederate Mobile.' According to Fitzgerald nearly one fourth of the 50,000 or more Union troops assembled for the assault on the forts defending Mobile were "colored troops", largely freed slaves from southern plantations recruited and trained specifically for the siege of Mobile.

"Remember Fort Pillow," was apparently the battle cry heard from the 'colored troops' massed along the river on the right flank at Fort Blakeley as they charged the Confederate lines a full half hour before the signal to attack was given. So many of the Confederate defenders in the trench line around the fort had moved to the flank to repel the premature charge, according to Fitzgerald, that the center of the line offered little resistance when the main attack ensued.