Alabama Gulf Coast History Tour
Visit Civil War battlefields, military forts, Gothic towns and intriguing back roads on a heritage tour of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
By Mark O’Brien
The last major battle of the Civil War, unwittingly fought after the South conceded defeat, took place on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines guarded the mouth of Mobile Bay over the course of four wars. From these deep roots, Alabama's 32 miles of coastline lead visitors through a fascinating history tour.
Civil War Sesquicentennial
Let's start with Blakeley State Park, which on April 9, 2015 will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Blakeley—the Sesquicentennial of what many historians believe to be the last major battle of the Civil War. When the battle began at 5:30 p.m. that day in 1865, neither side knew that Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered just hours earlier to the Union forces in Virginia.
The Confederates had the fort, but fewer than 4,000 men; the Union had 16,000. This was before "smart bombs" and drones. The Union troops worked their way forward, helped by artillery firing from behind sand dunes, and overran the fort. At least 6,000 Union troops were African-Americans, many of them former slaves.
Mobile was guarded by Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan, which already had fallen to the North in the Battle of Mobile Bay. Gaines is on Dauphin Island; its displays include the original cannons and tunnels and offers tours led by guides in period uniforms. Fort Morgan, just up the road from downtown Gulf Shores, has exhibits documenting its roles in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II. Learn more about these historic sites on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
Blakeley State Park
Fort Blakeley, an Alabama State Park, offers a two-fer: two destinations in one. In addition to its many significant war mementos, it's a spectacular nature setting on the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. Experience it via 10 miles of trails, a boardwalk along the water and a tour boat that often includes sightings of eagles, black bears and alligators.
"As it is now, it is as much a nature trip as a history trip, and it stands as close to historic reality as any battleground I've ever seen," said historian Wilson Jay.
Blakeley is part of
Alabama's Coastal Connection Scenic Byway, which offers itineraries to connect you with nature, the land and sea, and the past. All routes offer a heaping helping of local color. They take visitors off the main roads and through Gothic towns such as Bon Secour, where a national wildlife refuge surrounds an idyllic town captured in time.
Visitors who prefer military muscle have two great stops ahead, and both mix education with entertainment. In Mobile, tour the USS Alabama at Battleship Memorial Park. The war ship won 12 medals of valor for its service in World War II and helped reduce the Japanese air force to kamikaze attacks. The battleship was built to last; it withstood a typhoon's gusts of 95 mph before it was retired. Other displays include a submarine, the USS Drum and more than 20 aircraft from World War II through the Gulf War.
In neighboring Pensacola, the National Naval Aviation Museum has an IMAX Theatre, flight simulators and more than 150 restored aircraft. Some tours are led by people who once piloted these aircraft. How's that for authenticity? The museum is next to Sherman Field, where the Navy's Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Team can often be seen practicing maneuvers, some as high as 15,000 feet, some as low as 50 feet. Technologically speaking, it's a long way from the days of Civil War weaponry, but it's just a short hop from Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Legend Has It…
- In the Civil War’s Battle of Mobile Bay, Admiral David Farragut reportedly exhorted his crew, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” But historians think this is a legend added after the battle. Crewmen did, however, tie the admiral to a mast and rigging to keep him from being swept overboard as he called out commands during the battle.
- Like many Confederate officers, Richard Lucian Page started his military career in the U.S. Navy but switched to the Rebel side when war broke out. Page, a cousin of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was the general in charge of Fort Morgan when Union troops attacked. He surrendered the fort because his troops had little dry gunpowder, but he was so upset that he broke his sword over his knee rather than surrender it to the Federal forces.
- Tempers were high at Fort Blakeley, where many of the Union troops were former slaves. When the fort fell, some Confederates insisted on surrendering to white Unionists. “One soldier found his former master among the prisoners, and they appeared happy to meet and drank from the same canteen, but other black soldiers attacked prisoners until restrained by white officers,” reported Gen. C.C. Andrews of the Black Division, as it was known.
Connect with history and nature; download the Scenic Byway App to learn more.
Scenic Byway App
Alabama's Coastal Connection is a national scenic byway that runs along the Gulf Coast. Learn about history, gardens, seafood, beaches, fishing and many other interesting attractions.