By early 1865 it was clear that the Confederacy was nearly dead. The primary army in the west had been smashed beyond repair, Petersburg was on the verge of collapse, Union armies were advancing on every front, and the will to maintain the struggle was disappearing even at the very top of Confederate government. Vice President Alexander Stephens wanted to sue for peace and despite his reservations President Jefferson Davis approved an attempt at negotiations. A team of Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Senator R. M. T. Hunter of Virginia contacted Union officials with an offer to parlay. Meeting with President Lincoln on February 3rd the trio found to their regret that negotiating from a position of obvious weakness could accomplish nothing. Lincoln refused to recognize the “two country” basis of discussion insisted upon by Davis stating that the only hope for peace was for “those who are resisting the laws of the Union to cease that resistance.” It was surrender on his terms or nothing.
The rebuff at the negotiating table inspired a renewed interest in further resistance. The call for rejuvenated effort had little to focus on. One area that had remained relatively untouched by the war, however, was southern Alabama. At the beginning of 1865 the port city of Mobile represented the second largest city remaining in Confederate control. The city was surrounded by a triple set of defenses and was considered impregnable. Actions against Mobile had been contemplated since Admiral David Farragut, after two years of planning, finally made his triumphant entry into the bay in August of 1864. In a well coordinated effort MG Gordon Granger landed troops on Dauphin Island and eventually took the surrender of Fort Gaines on August 8th. The more formible Fort Morgan held out on Morgan Point until August 23rd before being forced to surrender. With the twin guardians of the main shipping channel gone the Union forces had unfettered access to the bay.
Unfortunately, the victory on the bay did not lead to immediate success against Mobile. Despite Sherman’s June 1864 guidance that “what is done should be done at once” to grab the city no follow up action was taken. Troops requested by MG Edward R. S. Canby for a move agasinst the city went unheeded as other missions prevented him from being reinforced. Six months would pass before Mobile would once again rise to the top of the priority list. In January of 1865 Grant issued orders for troops to be assembled for the final drive on the city.
After deciding to target Mobile LTG Grant informed MG Edward R. S. Canby that his “command would be materially re-enforced from the Army of the Cumberland” for the campaign. The assembly and transporation of these men to the area of operations further delayed the start of the campaign for three months. Most of the projected force was stretched along the Mississippi River and had to be moved by river transports or rail to New Orleans. From there they had to loaded on ocean going vessels for the trip to the consolidation point at Fort Barrancas at Pensacola, Florida. This cumbersome process was further complicated by an additional move to the final concentration point at Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island.
MG A. J. Smith’s XVI Corps troops were a perfect example of the difficulties that could arise when attempting such a mass movement. The condition of the railroads south of Eastport, Mississippi made water movement the only viable option adding considerably to the distance traveled. On the 5th and 6th of February a fleet of 50 boats and barges arrived to begin the movement of the corps an MG James H. Wilson’s cavalry division. Eight days later the flotilla arrived at Vicksburg where by some confusion in the orders the entire force was disembarked.
After four days of back and forth messages the situation was resolved and the infantry were reloaded and continued down the river. On February 21st the men were unloaded at New Orleans and went into camp to await ships for the final leg of the journey. It was not until March 7th that they finally arrived at Fort Gaines.
Having waited months for the opportunity to begin the campaign MG E. R. S. Canby, commanding the Military Division of West Mississippi, had ample time to make plans for the operation while the troops were assembled. His orders were complete to the most minute detail, including such items as the number of mounted and unmounted orderlies allowed at each level of command. The concept of the operation was wisely designed to avoid the strongest sections of the Confederate defense. To accomplish this an attack from the western shore of the bay was discounted. Instead Canby planned to establish a base of operations at the mouth of the Fish River on the eastern shore and then move around the top of the bay, reducing Spanish Fort and Fort Blakely along the way, to attack the city from the north where the fortifications were considered the weakest. Canby’s organic cavalry, BG Thomas Lucas’ division, would operate against enemy “communications by railroad” and a small diversionary attack on the western shore would complete operations in the bay area.Two additional movements were planned to support the main effort. A USCT division, under the command of MG Frederick Steele, would move north from Pensacola on a diversionary strike toward Montgomery and MG James Wilson’s cavalry would also strike into central Alabama from the north to occupy Forrest’s Confederate cavalry and prevent further reinforcement of the Mobile defenses.
Such a massive movement of men and equipment could not fail to be detected by the enemy and it was not. As early as 30 January reports of the Union movements were being sent to LTG Richard Taylor by MG Dabney Maury that accurately designated the target of their movement as Mobile. Taylor had replaced Hood as commander of the badly battered remnants of the Army of Tennessee. Taylor understood the desperate situation of the Confederate cause and dismembered the remaining organization of the once proud army by shipping the units to the remaining endangered areas of the Confederacy. Included in these movements were reinforcements sent to Maury, including MG Samuel French’s division and Holtzclaw’s Alabama brigade. At the start of the campaign the Mobile defenses consisted of approximately 12,000 men. Opposing them were about 42,000 Union troops.
Establishing a Base of Operations
The initial movements of the campaign began on March 17th as COL Henry Bertram’s 1st Brigade of the 2nd Division, XIII Corps marched up the peninsula from Fort Morgan. They were preceded by thirty troopers of the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry acting as scouts. The advance column made nine miles before going into camp. The following day a march of thirteen miles brought them to Bayou Portage. The swampy nature of the ground and a steady rain badly hampered progress. The main column led by BG William Benton’s 3rd Division made only four miles before darkness on the 20th.
The 21st saw no improvement in the weather or the road conditions despite massive efforts to corduroy the way. The support wagons and artillery of the main body could not even get out of camp before they sunk to their hubs. Long ropes pulled by regimental sized details worked feverishly to extricate the mired wagons, artillery, and teams. Progress was limited to under two miles for the advance of the primary force expected to provide the impetus for the assault on the first Confederate stronghold, Spanish Fort.
Meanwhile, in the van, Bertram’s Brigade, traveling lighter, pushed on to the Fish River. Arriving on the afternoon of the 21st with a single battery and the small compliment of cavalry. After a slight skirmish involving, LT Knowles’ Wisconsin troopers the way was cleared to pass over the river. Meeting the advance at the river were the rafted boats of CPT Smith’s Pontonier Company that were towed into the river from the bay. In a matter of three hours a bridge of 320 feet was assembled that allowed Bertram to establish a bridgehead at the last natural obstacle before Spanish Fort.
The miserable conditions, however, prevented the main body from arriving until the 23rd. The movement had not gone completely unopposed. The poor weather had caused the follow on divisions to bunch up and the Confederate cavalry that had been observing the movement from afar took what advantage they could. An attack by LT Sibley and eight members of the 15th Confederate Cavalry made a bold attack on a separated party of Union soldiers. Five men were captured, and emboldened, Sibley continued on to the trains where he captured some additional wagoneers and teams. The confusion created by this bold foray further delayed the approach of the main column.The Mobile Campaign (Campaign Series)