By Paul Brueske
As Mobile, Alabama deals with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to remember that our great city has endured and overcome many hardships and disasters in the past. Over the years, Mobilians have suffered devastating fires, deadly yellow fever outbreaks, and of course countless hurricanes. In May of 1865, Mobile faced, arguably, one of the worst disasters in our history.
From mid-March to early April 1865, Mobile endured hardships from a protracted siege by U.S. forces. Yet the buildings, homes and businesses comprising the Port City managed to escape unscathed as most of the battles raged across the bay in Baldwin County. Soon after the final surrender of the Confederate forces at Citronelle (in May of 1865), the Port City would suffer a tragic irony. In an instant Mobile would suffer devastation comparable to other hard-hit southern cities that were directly attacked. As one Union officer coldly put it, “Providence ordained that Mobile should pay the penalty of her great political offense.”
On April 12, 1865, Mobile was surrendered and Union occupation began. The Federal occupying force had imprudently used the downtown Marshall Warehouse as their primary ordinance depot. The warehouse was located in the vicinity of the present-day State Docks, near the Mobile River, in a heavy commercial district. The depot stored highly explosive munitions captured from Spanish Fort, Fort Blakeley, and other fortifications around the city. On May 25, 1865 at 2:15 p.m., a tremendous explosion of 200,000 pounds of gun powder and shell occurred there.
The detonation ranked among the largest the world had ever seen up to that time. As one blue-coated soldier put it, “It is probably the greatest explosion ever occurred in the U.S.” The tremendous force of the blast cracked the massive granite of the Custom House, destroyed every pane of glass of the Battle House on Royal Street, and even shattered windows at the village of Spring Hill, six miles distant.
John Kavanaugh, a paroled Confederate soldier, on board the steamer Kate Dale on the Mobile River, was killed instantly by the concussion alone. “Not a mark was visible upon his body,” one newspaper reported. In the words of the correspondent, another man “was blown off the wharf and his leg broken, at the foot of Church street, nearly or quite a mile from the scene of the great disaster.”
The explosion was even felt and the fiery aftermath was visible at Dauphin Island’s Fort Gaines, nearly 28 miles south of Mobile. At first, Union General Thomas K. Smith thought it was thunder when the explosion shook the grounds there. “At night, I discovered a bright light in the north and feared for a while that a steamboat was on fire,” Smith wrote, “but just at this moment the mystery has been solved by the intelligence brought me that the magazines at Mobile have been blown up, half the city destroyed.”
One Union soldier, who was camped three miles from Mobile when the explosion occurred, remembered, “The smoke mounted up in a dark, thick mass and then spread out like an immense umbrella or mushroom, and through it could be seen broken timbers and debris of all kinds flying in every direction.” A Union general from the 13th Army Corps had just woken up from a nap when the explosion occurred four blocks away. “The windows of the room in which we were lying came tumbling in,” he wrote his wife, “the shattered glass of one window falling all over our bed.” At first, he thought the Confederates were attacking in the streets. Shells continued to explode as voices cried out for help. People trapped under buildings were literally roasted alive. The chaos and destruction were horrifying. “Five or six steamers lying at the wharf were shattered into atoms, and two of them burned,” he wrote. The next morning, the general walked through the ruins, which he wrote could not be described by words, but “has to be seen to be fully appreciated.”
A U.S. soldier from Wisconsin reported: “Men, women and children were rushing in fright through ruins and clouds of lurid dust. The groans of the dying and wounded, rising in volumes so as to almost drown the sounds of the still exploding shells and the falling walls, added to the ghastliness of the scene.”
Navy Coxswain John Cooper, the acting quartermaster on Rear Admiral Henry Thatcher’s staff, was awarded his second Medal of Honor for heroic conduct during the explosion. At the risk of being blown to pieces by exploding shells, Cooper advanced through the burning locality, rescued a wounded man from certain death, and carried him on his back to a place of safety. Cooper received his first Medal of Honor for valor on board the U.S.S. Brooklyn during the battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864.
The next morning, Major General Gordon Granger, commander of the U.S. 13th Corps at Mobile, telegraphed his superior at New Orleans of the tragedy. The commanding general directed Granger to have all medical officers in the area provide aid and to issue rations to the affected families.
The loss of life and property was shocking—an estimated 300 people killed, eight city blocks of buildings leveled, and approximately 10,000 bales of cotton destroyed. An estimated 80 acres of downtown Mobile lay in “complete ruin.” Massive fires broke out fueled by large quantities of cotton and rosin. “For days afterward, friends, in delving among the ruins for the missing, would find the bodies of persons till then supposed to be living,” recalled a Wisconsin soldier. “The stench in the vicinity of the disaster soon became intolerable.” Shells continued to explode for three days.
About a week after the explosion, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Salmon P. Chase, who had earlier served as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, visited Mobile. In his journal, Chase wrote: “Rooms at the Battle House windows shattered by great explosion on 25.” He also noted that many lives were lost and “8 to 10 squares completely destroyed.”
The reason for the explosion was never fully explained, although carelessness of workers who were unloading munitions was suspected. The truth will likely never be known as everyone in or near the warehouse was killed instantly.
Despite the hardships and suffering brought on by the Civil War and the unthinkable tragedy of the explosion, the people of Mobile persevered. Mobilians overcame that terrible event, just like they have overcome other disasters and pandemics during our city’s long history.