Advance on Spanish Fort
Delays in the march and efforts to unify his entire force required Canby to remain on the Fish River for longer than expected. The Confederate defenders used the hesitation to make some moves of their own. On March 23rd the 16th Confederate Cavalry, commanded by COL Philip Spence,moved out from the fortifications followed by the 32nd and 58th Alabama Infantry. While the Confederate troopers trotted forward to scout the Union strength at Fish river the two regiments of Alabamans established a position at Hollywood. The next morning, BG Randall Gibson’s brigade of Louisiana Infantry, fortified with artillery support, moved about eight miles south of Spanish Fort. At D’Olieve’s Creek they threw up breastworks in anticipation of contact with the lead Union elements moving north. BG Francis Cockrell’s Division also moved out of the fortifications and occupied a blocking position at Alexis Spring.
The first contact was made by Spence’s troopers, who engaged COL Henry Bertrams brigade, who were in the van of the Union advance. Spence incorrectly identified the size of Bertram’s force as a division creating confusion in the Confederate headquarters. This poor estimate coupled with other intelligence gathering errors about Union strength on the eastern shore of the bay gave the overall Confederate commander there, BG St. John Liddell, a totally inaccurate picture of the Union forces that opposed him. He continued to believe that only MG Gordon Granger’s XIII Corps troops were in his front and these were badly divided. His original plan called for the forward deployed troops (Gibson and Cockrell) to stall the advance while BG James Holtzclaw’s brigade would manuever for an attack on the Union right flank.
On March 25th, Liddel finally learned that MG Andrew Smith’s XVI Corps was not only present but had already flanked his line on the left.His units were now dangerously exposed to the possibility of becoming cut off and destroyed in detail by the much larger Federal force. He immediately abandoned any thought of engaging the Union forces and ordered his troops back into the fortifications. Cockrell retired to Fort Blakely and Gibson to Spanish Fort.
Spanish Fort consisted of a line of field fortifications and batteries near where the Apalachee River emptied into the bay. Behind the mile and a half of works stood Old Spanish Fort, Fort McDermott, and Red Fort. The garrison there now numbered about 3,400 soldiers commanded by BG Gibson. They had spent considerable effort improving the defenses by incorporating detached rifle pits in front of every battery, an abatis only 50 feet from the main breastworks, and a ditch 5 feet deep and eight feet wide. There were about forty artillery pieces in the fort and the threat that the landscape in front of the fort had been laced with “sub terra” shells. Although Canby’s forces numbered about 20,000 in front of Spanish Fort he expected a serious fight.
Wilson’s Cavalry Raid I
While the move up the east shore of Mobile Bay was developing the third phase of the campaign against Mobile was already in progress. MG James Wilson’s cavalry corps from the Military Division of the Mississippi departed southward from the Tennessee River on March 22nd. The column was comprised of about 12,000 troopers, 250 support wagons, a dismounted security team for the train, a pontoon train of 30 canvas boats, and sufficient artillery support. It was an extremely well designed effort capable of supporting itself and overcoming ant natural obstacles in its path. The objective of the movement was the industrial works in and around Selma, Alabama. MG George Thomas also saw the raid as a means to occupy the forces of Nathan Bedford Forrest thereby preventing any reinforcement of Maury at Mobile.
Wilson’s column, with MG Emory Upton’s division in the lead, arrived at Elyton (later Birmingham), Alabama on the 29th of March. Upton was amongst the most complete officers to come out of the Civil War. After receiving a commission in the artillery from the West Point class of 1861 he served in that capacity during the early campaigns of the war. He later received a commision as Colonel of the 121st New York Infantry. His service in the infantry saw action at Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Rappahannock Station, and the Overland Campaign. He saw heroic service at Spotsylvania Court House where he led an attack on the Mule Shoe. Although his assault failed for lack of support his tactics were adopted by MG Hancock to ultimately collapse the salient there. After a brief period of recovery from wounds received at Spotsylvania he returned to be seriously wounded again at the Third Battle of Winchester. Returning again he was given command of the 4th Division of Cavalry in the Military Division of the Mississippi, under Wilson. The march to Elyton was described by Wilson as “difficult and toilsome” over a “barren” country and swollen streams. During the march Wilson learned that Forrest was operating in the vicinity of Tuscaloosa and accordingly left his trains under guard at the Warrior River to move forward unimpeded.
Forrest was keenly aware of Wilson’s movement into northern Alabama but faced the dilemna of reacting to it or the advance from Pensacola. He elected to make Wilson’s advance the priority and issued orders for Buford’s command to make a dash for the city on the 23rd. The remainder of his command was ordered to consolidate with Buford there the following day. There was a note of urgency in Forrest’s order when he stated that “it is important that you move at once.” The race for Selma was on.The Mobile Campaign (Campaign Series)