African American Troops Played an Important Role in the Battle of Fort Blakely, Alabama
Although Admiral David Farragut’s warships had effectively closed Mobile, Alabama as a port after the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, the city of Mobile itself remained in Confederate hands. It wasn’t until the spring of 1865, late in the war, that Union ground forces attempted to capture the city.
Mobile’s defenses included two forts to the east of the city, Spanish Fort, and Fort Blakely, located north of Spanish Fort. Major General E.R.S. Canby’s 13th and 16th Corps would engage the Confederates in Spanish Fort while a cavalry division and two infantry divisions under Major General Frederick Steele marched west from Pensacola, Florida to attack Fort Blakely.
Steele’s 1st Division was commanded by Brigadier General John P. Hawkins and included three brigades of African American troops. The 1st Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General William Pile, consisted of the 73rd, 82nd, and 86th regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT). The 2nd Brigade, under Colonel Hiram Scofield, included the 47th, 50th, and 51st USCT. The 3rd Brigade, consisting of the 48th, 68th, and 76th USCT, was commanded by Major William E. Nye. (At that time, all officers in the USCT were white).
Canby’s divisions closed in on Spanish Fort on March 25th, and besieged the garrison by March 27th. Steel’s force reached Fort Blakely on April 1st after a difficult march across ground turned
into mud due to heavy spring rains. Fort Blakely backed up to the Tensaw River on its west side; Union forces essentially surrounded it on the other sides. Steele’s division of USCTs were on
the right, or northern end of the Union line. Rebel defenses of Fort Blakely consisted of about 3500 Confederates under the command of Brigadier General St. John R. Liddell.
On April 2nd, the division formed in line of battle and advanced on the Confederate works. Brigadier General Christopher C. Andrews, commanding Steele’s 2nd Division, described the fighting encountered by the USCTs during the advance:
They proceeded without interruption for some distance…when suddenly, from a clump of trees near the edge of the slashings, they were met with handsome volley. The firing soon grew brisk, and the confederate artillery caused them to fall back.
Then Hawkins moved his division out to close in on Blakely, marching obliquely to the right from the Stockton road, through a pine forest, with skirmishers deployed…In the midst of shot, shell, and bullets, they had to cross an abrupt, deep, broken ravine, made doubly difficult, by a dense tangle of undergrowth…
The first earnest resistance encountered was about a mile and a quarter in front of the confederate left, at a stream which runs northwest, through a deep and narrow ravine, and near where it debouches into a wooded swamp. The skirmish line then consisted of six companies from each of the three brigades. Col. J.B. Jones of the Sixty-eighth regiment, was put in charge of it, and the main line halted. A severely contested skirmish combat then took place on ground which became the extreme right of the Federal line of investment. The confederates hung along the brow and slopes of the bluff bordering on the swamp, and Col. Jones found it no easy matter to dislodge them. They were using their artillery vigorously from the redoubts, and a number of the colored division had fallen. Three more companies from each brigade were sent to reinforce the skirmish line so that if finally comprised twenty-seven companies. In course of three hours the confederates were driven back about eight hundred yards. Col. Jones established his line in the slashings within one hundred and twenty yards of the confederates’ outer rifle pits; and it remained as the skirmish line on the right during the siege. Hawkins’ loss was about forty killed and wounded.
The Federals then went into siege operations, digging zigzag trenches to get closer to the Rebel defenses. The division was under both land based artillery fire as well as fire from Confederate gunboats on the river. This trench digging continued through April 8th. Meanwhile, the siege of Spanish Fort continued until that garrison was captured on the 8th; General Canby then directed some of his troops to assist in the capture of Fort Blakely, which would be attempted with an assault on April 9th.
The April 9th assault was set for 5:30 pm, but the 1st Division went into action earlier in the afternoon. Noticing that Confederate sharpshooters had reduced their fire, officers in the 1st Brigade asked General Pile for permission to conduct a reconnaissance to see if the fort was being abandoned. Permission was granted, and approximately 60 members of the 73rd and 86th regiments advanced. At first, they encountered no resistance, and continued on with the goal of taking the outer line of Rebel rifle pits. But as they continued forward, the Confederates opened up with rifle and artillery fire. Reinforcements from both sides joined in the fighting, and the Federals were able to capture some of the rifle pits but were unable to break through the inner defenses.
While the 1st Division was fighting, the rest of the Union line remained in place for the ordered 5:30 attack. At that time, the Federals on the left advanced on the run towards the fort in the face of heavy fire. Seeing this attack, the 1st Division joined in the assault. The waves of Union troops had to contend with obstructions, heavy fire, and mines (referred to as torpedoes at that time) as they closed in on the fort. But the Federals had the advantage of greatly outnumbering the fort’s defenders, and overran the rifle pits, and successfully scaled the parapets and stormed inside the fort. Some Confederates tried to swim to boats behind the fort in the river, and while many made it to safety, others were either killed or returned and were captured. General Liddell was among the captured. Fort Blakely was in Union hands.
Each of the three brigade commanders in the 1st Division filed after action reports on the siege and capture of Fort Blakely. First, the report of General Pile, commanding the 1st Brigade:
HDQRS. FIRST BRIG., FIRST DIV., U.S. COLORED TROOPS,
Blakely, Ala., April 13, 1865.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to make the following report of the part taken by my command in the investment and capture of Blakely, Ala.:
The command arrived in the vicinity of Blakely on the evening of April 1. During the succeeding night, in obedience to orders from Major-General Steele, one of my regiments was sent to guard
the bridge on the Holyoke road. On the morning of April 2 I was ordered to form my command in line of battle and advance, connecting my right with the left of the Third Brigade and conforming my movements to the movement of that brigade. This was immediately done, and we soon met the enemy’s skirmish line in front of their works, steadily driving them and advancing until within 900 yards of the works around Blakely. I then, in obedience to orders from the division commander, halted, put my men under the best available cover, and lay down to await the shield of darkness to intrench. During the night of the 2d and the morning of the 3d my first parallel line of intrenchments was made. The regiment sent to the bridge returned during the night and took position in the front line. The ground in my front and rear was a perfect plain, with a strip of low marsh running obliquely across my line of works, affording no opportunity to get my men out of the trenches to rest during the day, and greatly increasing the labor necessary to construct approaches and parallel lines. From April 3 to the morning of April 9 I was constantly engaged in working my way up to the enemy’s works. April 4 the regiment on my right was relieved by the Second Brigade, shortening my front line and enabling me to keep one regiment in reserve. Two additional parallel lines, with approaches, were constructed under an unceasing fire from the enemy’s sharpshooters and occasional fire from their gunboats and batteries, which annoyed me very much, killing and wounding more or less of the command each day. During the night of the 8th and the morning of the 9th I had pushed my skirmish line forward and constructed a new line of rifle-pits 140 yards in advance of the command on my right and about 100 yards in advance of General Andrews’ line, on my left. The fire of the enemy’s sharpshooters and skirmish line occupying rifle-pits inside their first line of abatis was very sharp and spiteful during the morning of April 9, until about noon, when they suddenly became quiet. Word of this change reached me by Lieutenant-Colonel Merriam, commanding Seventy-third U.S. Colored Infantry, and the lamented Major Mudgett, Eighty-sixth U.S. Colored Infantry (killed later in the day), sending to me a statement of the fact and asking permission to feel the enemy. I immediately ordered one officer and thirty select men from each of my regiments in readiness to advance on the enemy’s skirmish line. I also ordered the section of the Fourth Massachusetts Battery stationed on my line to fire a few shots with a view to ascertain if the enemy’s guns were still in position in my front.
No reply was elicited from the enemy. I was starting to the front intending to advance my skirmish line supported by the selected men above referred to, when Major-General Osterhaus, chief of staff to Major-General Canby, came onto my lines and went forward with me. After examining the ground he directed that half of the men already selected get into a ravine immediately in front of my right regiment, deploy, and advance to a crest held by my skirmish line, and at a given signal they with the remainder of this select party (who were to spring out of their rifle-pits on the left of my line) were to charge, and, if possible, capture the enemy’s line of abatis and the rifle-pits occupied by their sharpshooters and skirmish line. This was done in the most gallant manner by Captain Jenkins, Eighty-sixth U.S. Colored Infantry, and Captain Brown, Seventy-third U.S. Colored Infantry (who was mortally wounded), assisted by the skirmish line commanded by Captain Greenwood, Eighty-sixth U.S. Colored Infantry. The enemy immediately opening a heavy artillery and musketry fire on me, I ordered five companies forward to support this advance and hold the ground gained, with instructions to intrench immediately in rear of the enemy’s abatis. This movement on my part was followed up by the Second Brigade on my right, and the work of intrenching had been progressing under heavy fire forty minutes, when cheering on my left notified me that General Andrews’ division was moving forward. Still ignorant of whether this was an assault on the enemy’s main works or merely a following up of the movement already made by me, I sent a staff officer to my left to report if their advance continued beyond the first line of abatis and parallel with my advance, who immediately signaled that General Andrews’ division was advancing to assault the main works. I immediately ordered the entire brigade to charge. About the same time the Second Brigade on my right advanced their entire line, and the general assault commenced, resulting in the capture of the enemy’s entire line of works in my front, containing seven pieces of artillery, many small-arms, and prisoners. To the Seventy-third U.S. Colored Infantry belongs the honor of first planting their colors on the enemy’s parapet. Many of the enemy garrisoning these works threw down their arms and ran toward their right to the white troops to avoid capture by the colored soldiers, fearing violence after surrender. All my officers and men behaved splendidly. My staff officers discharged their respective duties faithfully, promptly, and fearlessly. Sergt. Edward Simon, Company I, Seventy third U.S. Colored Infantry, has been recommended by his regimental commander to be mentioned in orders for his bravery. The Eighty-second Regiment U.S. Colored Infantry, although in reserve and consequently late in starting on the charge, preserved their regimental organization throughout, the officers exhibiting both skill and bravery. A list of the casualties has already been furnished you.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
WM. A. PILE,
Capt. SAMUEL B. FERGUSON,
Asst. Adjt. Gen., First Division, U. S. Colored Troops.
Lieutenant Colonel Henry C. Merriam of the 73rd USCT was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions leading his troops in the assault.
The report of Colonel Scofield, commanding the 2nd Brigade:
HDQRS. SECOND BRIG., FIRST DIV., U.S. COLORED TROOPS,
Blakely, Ala., April 11, 1865.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to report the part taken by my command in the siege and capture of Blakely, Ala.:
During the first two days of the siege, commencing upon the 2d instant, the brigade which I have the honor to command was, by the order of the general commanding the division, retained in reserve, and though subjected to a heavy artillery fire without the privilege of in any manner returning it, calmly and coolly labored in the construction of gabions and fascines to be used by our more fortunate comrades who were in the front. Upon the second day of the siege, April 3, 1865, officers and men received with pleasure the order to move to the front, taking the center of the division, relieving a regiment from each of the other two brigades. The Fiftieth and Fifty-first Regiments were placed in the trenches, the former on the right, the latter on the left, the Forty-seventh Regiment being held in reserve. The ground over which the advances were made was flat and wet and very unfavorable for the health and comfort of the men, confined as they were to the trenches; but stimulated by the love of country and pride of soldiers, neither labor, hunger, nor danger caused any murmurs. Heavy skirmish lines were pushed out and supported under a heavy fire of artillery and musketry. The men were compelled to fight with the musket at the same time that they labored with the spade, and in this manner the lines were advanced about 400 yards. Upon the seventh day of the siege the Fifty-first Regiment was placed in reserve and reluctantly yielded its place to the Forty-seventh Regiment. Not until the eighth and last day of the siege did the command receive the support of artillery, and then of only two light pieces, which, owing to what would seem a mistake of the engineer in the plan of the work to cover them, could not be used upon the enemy’s guns in our front. Upon this last day of the siege our hearts were made glad by the report of the capture of the Spanish Fort, and each one seemed animated by a desire to emulate the example of our comrades in arms. The enemy’s skirmish line yielded less stubbornly to-day and the artillery fire was not so heavy as formerly. This caused a general belief that the place was being evacuated, and fears were entertained and expressed that the prize was slipping through our fingers. About 4 p.m. the skirmish lines were almost simultaneously advanced around the whole line, and without, so far as I can learn, any orders; and as the enemy rallied, offering a more stubborn resistance, our skirmishers were strengthened, and such was the enthusiasm of the troops that had there been concert of action it is believed the place might then have been captured. As it was the rebels were driven within their works, from which they opened a withering
fire of musketry and of grape and canister, temporarily checking the advance. The order was then given to intrench and hold the ground gained. The reserve regiment was then brought up to the advance line of intrenchments. About this time the order came to advance the skirmish line and feel of the enemy’s force and position, stating that it was believed the place was being evacuated. This order had been already obeyed, disclosing the fact that the artillery, though before silent, had not been removed, and that there was at least a strong force of the enemy remaining. Just at this time other portions of the line advancing, permission was obtained to move forward and assault the enemy’s works. The order was at once given to the Forty-seventh and Fiftieth Regiments to advance, supported by five companies of the Fifty-first Regiment, the balance of that regiment, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Buck, being retained in the advanced line of rifle-pits as a reserve. The command moved with a yell through the abatis and over torpedoes, several of which exploded, driving the rebels from their works and guns, and in conjunction with the regiments of the other brigades which entered the works almost simultaneously, captured a large number of prisoners. The day was won, and Blakely, with all its garrison and munitions of war, was ours. I cannot mention with more praise than they merit Col. Charles A. Gilchrist, commanding Fiftieth U.S. Colored Infantry; Col. A. Watson Webber, commanding Fifty-first U.S. Colored Infantry, and Lieut. Col. Ferd. E. Peebles, commanding Forty-seventh U.S. Colored Infantry, who led their regiments in the thickest of the fight, racing with each other, though in the most friendly manner, in deeds of noble daring. Instances must be very rare in which better officers than those named were supported by better officers and men. The spirit and enthusiasm of the troops could not be excelled. Men actually wept that they were placed in reserve and could not go with their comrades into the thickest of the fight. To the impetuosity and bravery of the charge may, I think, be attributed the comparatively small number of killed and wounded. The ground covered by the fire of the enemy’s guns was soon passed over, and the enemy, intimidated by the determined bravery of the men, sought safety in flight. Quite a number of men were killed or wounded by the explosion of torpedoes, which were exploded by stepping upon them. One man, Private Josias Lewis, Company K, Forty-seventh U.S. Colored Infantry, was, while under my own observation, severely wounded, losing a leg by the explosion of one of these infernal machines while guarding prisoners to the rear after they had surrendered, claiming the rights of prisoners of war. To the members of my staff–First Lieut. T. Sumner Greene, Forty-seventh U.S. Colored Infantry, acting assistant adjutant-general; First Lieut. Silas L. Baltzell, Forty-seventh U.S. Colored Infantry, aide-de-camp; First Lieut. George W. Weeks, Fifty-first U.S. Colored Infantry, aide-de-camp; Second Lieut. Ebenezer Denney, Fiftieth U.S. Colored Infantry, picket officer–great praise is due for the prompt and fearless manner in which they discharged their duties. Inclosed I send you the report of regimental commanders, together with a full list of casualties.I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Col. Forty-seventh U.S. Colored Infantry, Comdg. Second Brigade.
Capt. SAMUEL B. FERGUSON,
The report of Colonel Drew, commanding the 3rd Brigade:
HDQRS. THIRD BRIG., FIRST DIV., U.S. COLORED TROOPS,
Blakely, Ala., April 13, 1865.
SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of my command from the commencement of the siege to the occupation of Blakely by our troops:
On the night of April l my brigade was ordered to encamp in line of battle to the right of the Stockton road about two miles and a half from the enemy’s works, which was done in the following order: The Sixty-eighth Regiment on the right, the Seventy-sixth in the center, and the Forty-eighth on the left, the command occupying the advance and extreme right. The next morning about 7.30 our pickets becoming warmly engaged, I formed line as quickly as possible, when I received an order to advance in line of battle. I immediately ordered two companies from each regiment deployed forward as skirmishers, and commenced the advance, which was continued for two miles through a thickly wooded and broken country, my skirmishers fighting about half the way. Notwithstanding the numerous obstacles in the way, there was scarcely a break in the line the whole distance. The precision maintained by the line, as well as the bold and steady advance of the skirmishers under a heavy fire, were sufficient, I think, to command the admiration of all. Arriving within half a mile of the works I received an order to halt, which order was at once communicated to the skirmish line. Our position was then immediately in rear of a ravine about half a mile from the works of the enemy, my right resting on the swamp and my left connecting with General Pile’s brigade. By direction of the general commanding division I afterward moved my command into the ravine for protection from the enemy’s artillery, but not, however, until two shells had exploded in the ranks of the Forty-eighth Regiment, wounding fifteen men. From this time up to the 9th instant we were engaged running saps and parallels toward the enemy’s skirmish line, in which attempt we were quite successful, although at times, from the severity of the fire constantly kept up, it was necessarily slow. During this time my command built a strong earth-work, Battery Wilson, in rear of the right of my skirmish line for the introduction of four 30-pounder Parrotts, intended to drive off the gun-boats which had been constantly shelling my skirmishers with disastrous results. On Saturday, at 2 p.m., everything being ready, the wood was cleared away in front and the battery opened on the Morgan with good effect. She as well as the Nashville, which lay under cover of the wood below, returned the fire for some time with considerable spirit, but were finally compelled to drop downstream to trouble us no more. The battery then turned its attention to the ironclad Huntsville and soon placed it hors de combat. Sunday, the 9th instant, I ordered the Sixty eighth and Seventy-sixth Regiments (then in the trenches) to double their skirmish lines at 5 p.m. and drive the enemy from his rifle-pits, and if necessary to do it I should order out the regiments entire. Before the work was fairly commenced, however, I heard cheering on my left and saw the skirmishers of the First Brigade advancing. I immediately gave the command forward, and forward the entire command (except the Forty-eighth Regiment left in reserve) swept with a yell. In this advance my extreme right reached a point within 150 feet of the enemy’s parapet, but so reduced in numbers and exhausted that I ordered them to fall back to a ravine where they would be safe from the fire of the enemy’s gun-boats (which were getting upstream) until I could order up the Forty-eighth Regiment and charge the works with some hope of success. Before I could get up with the regiment they had fallen back to the abatis. The Forty eighth Regiment coming up was deployed behind the abatis, and when the charge became general they, with the rest, went forward with a shout and did all that brave men could do. The result was soon accomplished and Blakely was ours. I cannot speak in terms of too much praise of the officers and men of my command. Each and every one did willingly all that was asked, working incessantly night and day a large portion of the time. The support and assistance rendered me by regimental commanders entitles them to my warmest gratitude. I could ask for none better. The casualties, as will be seen by regimental reports, herewith inclosed, amount to 5 officers killed and 11 wounded, and 23 enlisted men killed and 166 wounded. Total, 28 killed and 177 wounded. Aggregate, 205.
All of which is respectfully submitted.
CHAS. W. DREW,
Colonel Seventy-sixth U.S. Colored Infantry, Commanding.
Capt. S. B. FERGUSON,
Total casualties for the 1st Division in the campaign were 48 killed and 323 wounded.
With the fall of Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely, the city of Mobile could no longer be defended. Confederate forces pulled out and Union troops occupied the city on April 12th. The end was fast approaching for the Confederacy; on the same day that Fort Blakely fell, Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.
History of the Campaign of Mobile; Including the Cooperative Operations of Gen. Wilson’s Cavalry in Alabama by C.C. Andrews.
Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau.
Land Operations Against Mobile by Richard B. Irwin. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume IV edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XLIX, Part 1
Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau
Amazon affiliate links: We may earn a small commission from purchases made from Amazon.com links at no cost to our visitors. For more info, please read our affiliate disclosure.