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Fort Powell

Kayla Scott, Alabama Department of Archives and History
USS Chickasaw Attacks Fort Powell
Fort Powell was an American Civil War sand fortification constructed by the Confederacy to guard the entrance into Mobile Bay from the Mississippi Sound. Located at Grant's Pass slightly northwest of Fort Morgan and north of Fort Gaines, the fort was constructed on a half-acre artificial island of oyster shells and sand. Of the three forts, Fort Powell was the only fortification in Mobile Bay constructed by Confederate forces, as well as the only fortification in the lower bay defenses built using sand with wooden reinforcements instead of brick.
While working for the U. S. government, French engineer Simon Bernard made a military survey of the coastal areas in 1817. In his report, Bernard recommended the construction of a fortified tower with 12 guns and a garrison of perhaps 36 men to guard the location where Fort Powell would later be constructed. Around 1842, John Grant was commissioned by the federal government to dredge what would become known as Grant's Pass, increasing the depth from four to about seven feet. While plans had been drawn for a tower, disputes regarding money and land rights prevented work from taking place on "Tower Island" (later called Grant's Island) prior to the Civil War.
When the Civil War began in April 1861, the Confederacy first attempted to fortify the pass with a battery of three 32-pounder cannon on Grant's Island. Parapets, or walls, of oyster shell and sand shielded the battery, which was later supplemented by an 8-inch Columbiad cannon. Captain Joseph M. Cary and his company of the First Alabama Artillery were sent from Fort Morgan to guard the guns. Living quarters for the crew consisted of tents on the grounds. Occupation of the incomplete and ongoing project, christened Fort Grant, began in December 1862.
By 1864, the fort was described as taking up the entire island, but descriptions of the fort are incomplete and sometimes differ. The magazine was located in the center of the bombproof shelter constructed of 24-inch pine logs with walls of sand that were 12 feet thick. Guns were mounted on the front facing south and were shielded on each side by dense sod. An entrance into the bombproof was positioned behind each gun. Soldiers' quarters were located at the wharf except during attacks, when they would stay in the bombproof until danger passed. High tide could partially flood the island, so during construction the platform for the cannons, or terreplein, was raised three feet above high tide. Confederate lieutenant Victor Von Scheliha, Chief Engineer of the Department of the Gulf of Mexico, described building what he called "cribs" along the outside of the fort with 12-inch pine logs. Measuring 5 feet wide, 10 feet long, and 6 feet high, the cribs were filled with oyster shells until level with low tide outside the fort. Sand was used to finish filling the cribs, which were then shielded by rocks on the exterior.
Union Attack on Fort Powell
Col. William Llewellyn Powell was in overall command of the lower bay defenses but fell ill and subsequently died on September 25, 1863. In October, Fort Grant was officially re-named Fort Powell in his honor. In January 1864, Lt. Col. James Madison Williams of the 21st Alabama Infantry Volunteers was put in command.
Skirmishes between Union forces and Confederate blockade runners and the forts took place as the months passed. One such attack occurred on August 24, 1863, when two Union gunboats travelled east through the Mississippi Sound and began firing on Fort Powell. A member of the First Alabama Artillery was slightly wounded during the skirmish by a gun bursting, but no one was killed.
Union admiral David G. Farragut and his fleet launched a series of more determined assaults on Fort Powell beginning on February 16, 1864, designed in part to distract the Confederacy and reduce opposition against Union general William Tecumseh Sherman on his Atlanta Campaign. The large warships could not navigate the shallow water, so the Union Navy placed six mortar schooners near the fort. Each schooner was approximately 100 feet long and carried a 15-inch mortar that weighed some 17,000 pounds and fired a 200-pound projectile. The exploding shell could create a seven-foot crater where it landed. Most of the Union projectiles failed to hit the fort, landing harmlessly in the water. The few that found their target created chaos, including one that hit the officers' quarters and wounded Lt. Col. Williams. The shelling continued on February 23 with 304 shells directed at the fort and 18 actually striking it or the surrounding island. Engineers' reports noted significant damage to the quarters and wharf on the east face of the fort. However, most of the damage was quickly repaired by throwing sandbags into the shell craters. On February 29, Farragut renewed his efforts, adding more ships to the attack. Confederate losses from this battle were one killed and five wounded, with the fort receiving no lasting damage.
The most significant engagement Fort Powell took part in was the Battle of Mobile Bay. Around 7:50 a.m. on August 5, 1864, Farragut and his fleet got past Fort Morgan and engaged the Confederate fleet. The naval battle between Union and Confederate ships was finished by 10:30 a.m. At this point, Union forces focused on attacking and capturing Forts Powell, Gaines, and Morgan.
Map of the Battle of Mobile Bay
Fort Powell received several hits from Union artillery on August 5, but none of the men inside were harmed. One shell demonstrated the fort's vulnerability by entering one of the sally ports and passing through a bombproof shelter before burying itself in the opposite wall. Meanwhile, shells hitting the face of the fort drastically shifted the sand so quickly that Williams feared he could not hold out long. Williams telegraphed Col. Charles D. Anderson at Fort Gaines that Fort Powell should be evacuated, or else he would be forced to surrender within two days at the most. Anderson advised Williams to save his men when the fort was no longer defensible. Believing that time was at hand, William waited until low tide and marched his approximately 140-man garrison to Cedar Point. The retreating Confederates blew up the fort at 10:30 p.m. on August 5. Union reports show some ammunition and several guns were intact among the rubble, despite the Confederate effort to destroy the fort.
After reading Williams's report, Maj. Gen. Dabney H. Maury, commander of the District of Mobile, wrote that Fort Powell should not have been surrendered and relieved Williams from command pending a full investigation. By early September, Williams had been acquitted, but Maury disagreed with the ruling and prevented Williams from returning to command until December. In response to the abandonment of Fort Powell and the surrender of Fort Gaines, General Order No. 16 was distributed on August 9. The orders strictly prohibited fort and battery commanders from communicating with the enemy without permission, like such as surrendering as had occurred with Fort Gaines.
What remains of Fort Powell is under water. For many years, the rubble was slightly visible at low tide on a calm day, but Hurricane Frederick is said to have finished burying the remnants of the fort from view in 1979.

Additional Resources

Bergeron, Arthur W. Confederate Mobile. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Sledge, John S. These Rugged Days: Alabama in the Civil War. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017.
Folmar, John Kent, ed. From That Terrible Field: Civil War Letters of James M. Williams, Twenty-First Alabama Infantry Volunteers. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1981.
Published:  August 11, 2020   |   Last updated:  August 11, 2020