Ask McGehee: What was the cause of the great explosion in Mobile at the end of the Civil War?

The 1865 Federal ammunition warehouse explosion in Mobile. Courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society

Although the war had ended with Mobile largely unscathed, that all changed at 2:15 p.m. on May 26, 1865. An explosion larger than any imagined during the wars rocked the city and killed hundreds. Citizens would later describe hearing a rumble like an earthquake followed by explosions. Many thought the world was coming to an end.

Diners in the Battle House Hotel panicked as the windows facing St. Francis Street shattered along with large mirrors as part of the plaster ceiling crashed down. The food being served was ruined by falling debris, but as an observer noted no one there had an appetite at this point. 

Across Royal Street, every window on the north and east sides of the U.S. Custom House was blown out. Pedestrians were knocked to the sidewalk while horses dropped dead in the street as if shot; those that survived were stunned into a state of shock.

At the Mobile Register, reporters wrote that they had been thrown from their office chairs as windows imploded. Over at the Evening Telegraph offices, a heavy piece of iron smashed through the roof, striking a heavy cabinet which kept it from going on through to the first floor.

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The windows of John Lawrence’s Coffee Saloon on Government Street east of Royal Street were shattered. Likewise, those of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception were broken and there was extensive damage to the orphanage across Conti Street. A crack developed in the exterior wall of what is now the Richards-DAR House on Joachim Street.

Above the din could be heard the frantic ringing of the bell atop the guard house summoning the city’s volunteer firemen.

A steamer anchored in the river was torn to pieces and then burst into flames. A schooner leaving the dock bound for New York sank, taking its passengers and crew with it. A man standing on a wharf at the foot of Church Street was thrown into the water and suffered a broken leg.

What Blew Up?

The explosion took place in a former cotton warehouse located at the corner of Lipscomb and Common streets, north of Downtown. The building had been converted into a federal Ordinance Depot by troops occupying the Port City. The contents were described as consisting of a large percentage of the ammunition surrendered by Confederate forces. Within the warehouse were 200 tons of ammunition, 30 tons of gun powder and a large assortment of shells.

And what ignited it? Northern newspapers immediately blamed an unknown Confederate saboteur who had placed a bomb. Southerners put the blame on the carelessness of the men handling the dangerous contents inside that warehouse. 

Whatever the cause, the explosion sent a great cloud of black smoke high into the air followed by the sound of bursting shells. Carried skyward were an assortment of bricks, timbers, stones, wagons, barrels, horses and humans. What was described as a “rain of death” fell from the sky as explosions continued.

Four or five full blocks were described as a “conglomerated mass of ruins, two-thirds of which were in flames. Every two to three seconds, a shell exploded, and fragments whizzed through the air… Everyone in or near the warehouse was instantly killed, burned or crushed beyond recognition.” Sturdy doors which had been locked were blown inward frame and all. 

Rescue Efforts Begin

When rescuers entered the blocks of destruction, they looked for survivors, but as one reporter wrote, “they brought forth the writhing and dead victims…with legs and arms blown off and heads bashed in. It will never pass from the memory of those who saw it and I hope in mercy’s sake to never see it again.”

In a bizarre twist, three horses within a stable in the vicinity were discovered “alive and kicking and without a scratch.” 

Adding to the horror of the scene were “the shrieks of wives, mothers and daughters attempting to identify their missing loved ones.” Rows of bodies were laid out. One of those mothers was crying hysterically over what she thought was the body of her son. When the boy, sooty but alive, walked up and said “Mother. I’m not hurt,” she fainted. The exact death toll will never be known but is believed to have been around 300.

In the days after the disaster, an Ohio journalist observed, “Here for eight or 10 squares, was one waste of broken brick and mortar, still smoldering and smoking and still — horrible thought — roasting its human victims beneath. Solid warehouses, cotton-presses, machinery had all been flattened as a wind might flatten a house of cardboard.”

The bodies which could not be identified were buried in a mass grave on Adams Street. Another large grave was dug for the hundreds of dead horses and mules.

The explosion and fire not only took lives and buildings but turned as many as 10,000 bales of cotton into ashes. That cotton was the principal asset owned by hundreds of private citizens and was largely uninsured. The estimate for the destruction that day was eventually placed at $729,000, or roughly $13.8 million today.

An Investigation

The Mobile Daily Times reported on August 5, 1865, that the Committee to Investigate the Mobile Explosion set up a Court of Inquiry and had completed their investigation. They stated that “the Marshall Warehouse had been as fit a building for the storage of powder and ammunition as could be procured.” Secondly, that Captain W. S. Beebe “had selected proper and efficient experts for moving and storing the ammunition.” 

That official may have had “experts,” but the committee also cited “gross carelessness” in the handling of the ammunition that day. The article concluded, “The court finds it impossible to render an opinion as to the immediate cause of the explosion as so far as it is known, no person at or in the building survived the explosion.” No blame was assigned to any nefarious former Confederates.

A newspaper in Sumter County that same day had this to say about the situation in Mobile: “The scene of the late terrible explosion in Mobile is beginning to wear a changed appearance. Improvements are being made quite rapidly.” 

At the site of the blast was a crater over 10 feet deep. In time, it became a pond of sorts and remained a watery reminder of the catastrophe for years.

Mobile would face many challenges in the years ahead but has never suffered a disaster on that scale again.

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