One hundred and fifty years ago this month, on April 12, 1865, Confederate Mobile surrendered to Federal troops. The city’s strategic importance had already been neutralized after Farragut stormed the lower Bay the previous August, closing it to blockade runners. Since then, residents and a few thousand rebel troops had waited behind their formidable earthen fortifications expecting an infantry assault. The Union high command considered these defenses too strong to attack directly; instead, during March of 1865, with the Confederacy everywhere in collapse, the Federals opted to attack Spanish Fort and Blakely on the Eastern Shore. They planned to overwhelm those thinly manned entrenchments and approach the city from the northeast via the Tensaw and Spanish Rivers. Throughout late March and into early April, local residents fearfully listened to the booming artillery and watched the spectacular pyrotechnics from the riverfront. Spanish Fort was evacuated on April 8, and Blakely was overrun the following day. Hundreds of Confederates were captured, and Union gunboats maneuvered across the delta.
April 12 was Mobile’s fateful day. At daybreak, the last of the Confederate cavalrymen rode out of town, torching thousands of cotton bales as they went. Citizens rushed in behind them and put out the blaze, however, saving most of the valuable commodity. For the moment, there was a power vacuum, and as in conquered cities throughout history, a mad rush of looters descended upon anything left unguarded. “The streets were filled that morning as in the season of Mardigras, ” wrote a local merchant named William Rix, “and the tide in the different thoroughfares set in one direction, converging toward the government warehouses on Water street.”
Citizens battered down the heavy wooden doors and helped themselves to the hoarded contents. “All day long, ” Rix continued, “like a colony of ants, men, women and children were rushing through the streets in jealous fear of not getting their share.” Coffee, sugar and rice were popular with the crowds, as were weapons and military accoutrements. Rix was astonished to see women and children carting off “loads of sabers, and bayonets and Springfield rifles, which were found in the original cases.” Lastly, the gleeful rabble reached the boxes of rockets and signal torches, which they ignited in a manic fury. Rix could only shake his head at the spectacle. “The wonder was that the mob was not self-quelled by being blown to atoms.”
The Federals didn’t need long to reassert order. Adm. Henry Thatcher, who had succeeded Farragut, ferried 8, 000 bluecoats across the Bay, landed them immediately below town, and moved a gunboat and several river monitors “directly in front of the city.” Thatcher and army commander Gen. Gordon Granger wrote to Mayor Robert H. Slough: “Sir, your city is menaced by a large land and naval force. We demand its immediate and unconditional surrender.” Years later, one man clearly recalled seeing the mayor hurrying out the Shell Road to meet the Union infantry, barreling along in his carriage pulled by two white horses and flying “a very large white flag on a long pole, which could be seen at a long distance.”
“The city has been evacuated by the military authorities, ” the mayor informed the officers who met him. “Your demand has been granted, and I trust, gentlemen, for the sake of humanity, all the safeguards which we can throw around our people will be secured to them.”
Flags snapping, drums beating, fifes shrilling, long muskets shining in the sunlight and brass buttons flashing on blue coats, the Union troops marched into town as people either sullenly stood by or unleashed their long repressed Union sympathies. One ardent Southerner could hardly contain his spite in a letter to his sister. “I have a sad tale to tell you, ” he began. “At about 4 o’clock the advance of the Yankee army reached the city at the same time one of their boats … arrived at the foot of Govt St. As soon as the negroes and puerile white people saw the boat at the wharf they rushed down the street shouting and hurrahing.” Mingling with the troops aboard the vessel, they clapped and cheered on “the detestable Yankees.”
One youngster was intrigued by the marching soldiers. “The city was resonant with every patriotic refrain, ” he wrote much later, “from the Star Spangled Banner to John Brown’s Soul is Marching On. Every one realized for the first time, as he listened to the ‘tramp, tramp’ of orderly files, that ‘the boys’ had come.”
Rix headed for the Custom House, where he just missed a speech by Granger. A man in the crowd condensed the general’s remarks for him: “O, it is all rose-color. Granger says it is a free country — do as we damn please — only we must not show our noses on the street after dark.” The troops stacked arms and went into bivouac, with white tents blossoming all over town.
With Mobile under military occupation and civic order fully restored, Union authorities assessed their spoils of war. The army counted 400 heavy guns mounted within the earthworks and a large supply of ammunition and military stores. Down on the river, Thatcher found 20, 000 bales of cotton. The navy yard was intact, “but most of its contents had been destroyed, except some lumber and a quantity of soft coal.” There were a few steamers, barges and small boats, which the navy confiscated. The dry dock was still serviceable, and the foundries, machine shops, warehouses, presses and offices along Front and Commerce streets were in good condition.
Despite the general lack of destruction, one correspondent for the Cincinnati Daily Commercial newspaper found the city “a sad picture to contemplate.” The people looked “distressed, ” he wrote, and the stores were “occupied only with the flies and the dust.” There was no money “save the scrip of the Confederacy, ” now worthless. Mobile resident Kate Cumming, just returned home after her exhausting and depressing hospital work, wrote that if “the plague had entered the city it could not have had a gloomier appearance.”
Gloomy or no, the national flag once again fluttered over Mobile, part and parcel of the United States of America.
John S. Sledge is the author of “The Mobile River, ” coming this June from the University of South Carolina Press.
text by John S. Sledge • photos courtesy of the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library