The Baldwin County community draws its name from an actual fort, which was built by Spanish troops in a classic European design in 1780. It was planned as a defense against the British who had successfully taken Fort Charlotte (Condé) in Mobile. The area holding the new fort had earlier been a French trading post, but in 1781, it became the scene of an important battle when British troops from Pensacola attempted to overtake it.
On Jan. 7, 1781, those British soldiers, with a band of American Indians, attacked the fort. They charged the gates but were driven back by the Spanish, whose fear of being scalped by the Indians was greater than any they had for the Brits.
The site apparently sat unused until late in the Civil War. In 1864, the stronghold was rebuilt with fortifications protecting the Blakeley River. The semicircular walls of the fort were dirt piled with timbers. Based on the assumption that the Yankees would be arriving by water, five large guns were installed facing the river.
In the spring of 1865, a line of Union soldiers stretching 3 miles made its way north through Baldwin County. There were 35 regiments of men totalling 45, 000, against some 3, 500 Confederates attempting to defend the area.
Spanish Fort was commanded by Confederate Gen. Randall Lee Gibson, a Yale graduate and a Louisiana lawyer and sugar planter. Federal troops reached the fort on March 26 and began firing. The sound of the battle could be heard as far away as Dauphin Island.
Gibson knew from the start he was vastly outnumbered. He had his men build numerous fires around the fort to give the appearance that there were far more troops within the fortification. After eight days, the general realized it was hopeless.
A Quiet Exit
On the night of April 2, Gibson had his troops take off their boots. As the hapless Yankees snoozed to the east, Gibson and his barefoot men quietly made it down the hillside to a wooden pier leading to the Blakeley River where boats took them to Mobile.
Sadly, a group of Texas soldiers refused to desert the fort and were massacred the next morning by federal troops who probably wondered how such a small group had been holding them off so long.
A week later on April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered, but it was not until April 12 that Mobile did likewise. (See “Losing the Last Appomattox, ” for more about this time in our local history.) Gibson, who had saved his men from certain annihilation, returned home to Louisiana where he was instrumental in the founding of Tulane University.
Completion of the Cochrane Bridge and Causeway in 1927 opened the way for development of the area. More than half the fort had vanished under development by the 1950s, but the outline of some of the fortifications remains today. The city of Spanish Fort was incorporated in 1993 and celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
On April 27, the city of Spanish Fort will celebrate its 20th anniversary at the 5th Annual Delta Woods and Water Expo.
text by TOM MCGEHEE