The Day They Drove Old Mobile Down

Residents of Mobile, Alabama in 1865 well knew of the destructive fate suffered by other captured Southern cities. They had read the reports of Union soldiers burning, looting, and pillaging that occurred elsewhere in the Confederacy. Having themselves already suffered horrifying losses of their family members and friends, loss of the economic viability of their city and of their personal fortunes, they believed attack, destruction, and subjugation were imminent.

Outnumbered Confederate garrisons on the Eastern Shore at Fort Blakely and Spanish Fort used courageous tactics while they defended the City of Mobile. Fourteen trying days between March 26 and April 9, 1865, Union forces under General Edward R.S. Canby besieged the forts. On April 8, Spanish Fort was evacuated and the capture of Fort Blakeley occurred the following day. Forts Tracy and Huger on the Apalachee River were the only obstacles that stood to block the overwhelming Union juggernaut. For two grueling days artillerists from Louisiana and Mississippi manned their big guns, covering the evacuation of the remnants of Southern General Dabney H. Maury’s small army before finally escaping themselves.

Thousands of soldiers of the U.S. 13th Army Corps under General Gordon Granger embarked from a wharf in present-day Daphne on the morning of April 12, 1865. An armada of transports and gunboats headed west across Mobile Bay. The foggy morning was recalled by one Union soldier, “but soon the sun shone out merrily upon the rippling waters, and lit up a scene of military splendor such as we had never beheld.”

Granger’s command disembarked on the Western Shore just south of modern-day Brookley Field. “We expected to land under a desperate fire, found no enemy to resist us. Everything was joy and hilarity,” exclaimed U.S. General James Slack of the unopposed landing around 11 am. The astounded Union forces were oblivious that the Confederate forces departed Mobile earlier that morning heading to Meridian, Mississippi. After disembarking his men a few miles south of the city, General Granger was transported by the steamer General Banks up the bay to Mobile’s Government Street wharf.

Rolling swiftly south on the Bay Shell Road in a carriage with a large white bed sheet flying above it, Mobile’s Mayor Robert Slough met the approaching soldiers and promptly surrendered the city to representatives of the U.S. Army and Navy.

Despite Slough’s peaceful surrender, many Mobile residents were alarmed as the blue-coated soldiers approached the city. “Started to the graveyard but a gentleman sent me word I had better get back home at once for that the Yankees were coming into town,” resident Laura Pillans wrote in her diary. “I hastened back as fast as I could but my heart was convulsed with irrepressible emotion.” Considering the destructive fate suffered by other captured Southern cities, her feelings of distress were understandable.

“ ‘The Yankees are coming,’ was the word passed around the city,” remembered B. B. Cox, who was a young boy at the time. “The old bell in the guard house tower pealed forth in thunderous tones and everything that had a steam bellowed forth the notification.” Cox recalled being frightened because they had been taught that the Yankees had horns and tails and they did not know what was going to happen to them.

U.S. Navy sailors raced to hoist their flag, the flag that the Confederacy of Southern States has repudiated, in the city as the soldiers entered Mobile. “They climbed up on each other’s shoulders to get to the flagstaff on the roof [of the Battle House],” recalled one sailor of the ironclad gunboat U.S.S. Cincinnati. “Twenty-five minutes after our ensign was hoisted, a party of cavalry came tearing in, their horses all in a foam. They went up to the roof of the custom house, across the street from the Battle House, and the first thing they saw was our flag and our men across the way.” Though chagrined the soldiers proceeded in hoisting flags over the custom-house, city hall, post office, and Southern market.

“They were perfectly unconcerned while marching through the city as if they had been here a month,” young resident William Fulton remembered. “The despicable gridiron was then raised over the Market. In a little while the officers were riding all about the city. As one group passed by me, I gave them three hearty groans.” Mayor Slough and a Federal officer stopped in front of the Custom House made a short speech to the crowd which had gathered around; telling the citizens to go to their homes and to behave quietly as possible.

Shortly after his soldiers entered the city, General Granger debarked the General Banks at the government street wharf. He reported an enthusiastic reception from the happy and cooperative Mobilians. Granger also made a brief speech at the Custom House, stating that it was a free country; however, everyone needed to be off the streets after dark.

Biased against the Confederacy, northern newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer claimed that “Thousands [of Mobilians], it is said, are ready to throw off the accursed yoke of military despotism which has kept them down for so long a time, and return to the protection of a Government they deserted.”

Mobile’s Confederate nurse Kate Cumming, away from the city when the surrender occurred and seeing the Northern press extolling the surrender and occupation, remarked that “I see by the northern papers that General Canby, who captured Mobile, says he has received a heartier welcome from the Mobilians than he has any place he has taken yet. How can the people there so soon forget their dead? Why, even the enemy can’t respect us when we can be guilty of such heartlessness,” Later, when Cumming returned to Mobile, she learned the newspaper reports were misleading.

New York Times war correspondent and Union Major Ben C. Truman reported: “No unpleasant demonstrations by either the citizens of Mobile or by our soldiery upon the occupation. The public buildings and stores were closed, and the private residences looked like houses of mourning.” The Union blockade and the subsequent siege contributed to food shortages in Mobile. Truman described the condition of the people as “in extreme want, the poorer classes of which immediately besieged our soldiers for something to eat.”

Even one of Granger’s staff officers, Stephen Cobb, described a contrast of resentment and gladness. “Some were silent—a part with malice and hate, others too overjoyed to give utterance to their feelings…To depict that scene in its true colors is like painting the rainbow. Down the cheeks of old men coursed tears, in channels that had been dry for years. For nearly half a decade of years the banner at the mast-head had not waved in pride of Mobile.”

Was Mobile a predominately pro-Union city as sometimes reported? “You will hear that there is Union sentiment in Mobile, perhaps that not more than ten per cent of its people are secessionists,” wrote the commander of the Department of Southern Alabama U.S. General Thomas K. Smith, “but my word for it, that not a man, woman, or child, who has lived in Mobile the last four years, but who prays death and destruction to the damned Yankees.”

“The Mobile people are quite sore, and are at present only loyal because they have to be,” wrote one New York Times correspondent. According to a Mobile woman who left before the occupation there was “no Union sentiment among the intelligent classes” and that only “poor white trash” wanted a return to the Union.

Many residents detested the mere sight of the bluecoats on the streets of Mobile. “The commonest, dirtiest looking set I ever saw,” grumbled Mary D. Waring in her journal entry of April 13, 1865. On the same day, Laura Pillans protested in her diary, “From my window I see the yankees pass constantly. A most hated sight.” Pillans did admit the good behavior of the blue-coated soldiers, noting, “They have only conducted themselves according to the rules of civilized warfare, but they are so seldom accustomed to act with such moderation that some of our people seem to be carried away by such unexpected treatment.”

Union bands failed to leave a good feeling with some residents. In a letter to her son Gillist, Mobile resident Riketta Schroeder wrote, “I have not seen any demonstrations of rejoicing, but heard very distinctly the hurrahs & bands of music as the troops entered, it was very humiliating to hear Yankee doodle instead of Dixie altho’ I hear they play that often.” Schroeder’s account provides another example that the Union army were unwelcome by many in the city.

“A regiment of the house-burners marched through the streets of Mobile to the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle,’” wrote William Fulton. “They came in very quietly with the poorest bands in the army.” Fulton noted they had no brass instruments when the first regiments entered the city. A couple of hours later more brigades arrived complete with a brass band “playing Columbia, Yankee Doodle, and Columbia the Gem of the Ocean.”

But not all Mobilians were revulsed. There were citizens, primarily from the poorer classes, that were glad to see the arrival of the besiegers. The Northern soldiers marched through the city with their bands playing Yankee Doodle. “Everybody except the white folks, turned out to see us,” recalled one soldier from Iowa. “The bands played most beautifully, and the boys cheered most loudly,” Union General James Slack described in a letter to his wife. “Streets were crowded, windows and doors were filled, everything was calculated to cheer the boys and inspire them with good feeling.”

In a letter to his sister on the day of the surrender, young William Fulton noted seeing African-Americans and some “white people” rushing down the street to greet Granger’s boat “shouting and hurrahing” as it docked at the foot of Government Street. Fulton wrote, “They shook hands with the detestible [sic] Yankees and were invited by them to go on the boat.” The same day Laura Pillans echoed that “Yankees after being received with loud hurrahs by assembled traitors who rushed to the wharf to greet their friends and hoisted the hated evil banner of tyranny over the ‘Battle House’ & then marched quietly to the suburbs.”

The Dauphin Street Raid

While most of the U.S. soldiers camped in the outskirts of town, higher-ranking U.S. officers checked in at the Battle House Hotel. Hoping to enjoy a good meal, the officers reportedly only found corn bread and bacon. Apparently, the stay at Mobile’s finest hotel was nevertheless a pleasant one. “I went out to Battle House and got a bed, with clean linen sheets, and assure you slept most soundly,” General Slack wrote to his wife. “Marched all the night before without a wink of sleep, moved all day, and you may be assured was tired.” Sentries were posted.

The Confederate rearguard covertly observed the Federals enter the city from the “Orange Grove” area on the northern outskirts of town. Seeing an opportunity to strike, the southern troopers made a bold dash into the city. “That evening at sundown, while half the town were sitting in the plazas and balconies in the sweet fancy of security, their attention was called to the dust of cavalcade rising in the air far up Jackson Street,” recalled one resident. Soon a company of cavalry in the well- known gray galloped by their doors at a dashing speed. The daring horsemen captured Federal sentinels at Dauphin Street’s McGill shoe shop and the Battle House barber shop. The prisoners, some of the last Federals captured of the war, were carried out behind the cavalrymen’s horses, and sent to General Maury’s headquarters at Meridian. Thus, finished one of the most eventful days in the history of Mobile. As evening fell on the port city, its effort in the cause of Southern independence ended. While it only took a day to change the flags flying in the city, years would pass before Mobile would be free of Federal occupation and generations before the scars of that terrible war would become a distant memory.

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