Before the age of SOVIET intercontinental ballistic missiles and mothers of all bombs, long before North Korea was a gleam in Kim Jong One-of-them’s eye, the threat of invasion and occupation came from across the oceans. Early on, the Founding Fathers commissioned a network of military establishments to guard the waterways from shining ocean estuaries and bays to certain shining river junctions (we were not quite to the other shining sea at this point in our nation’s development). After all, we had broken off from a nation that ruled the oceans with a vast fleet so were well fitted to understand the perils and employed a number of naval gazers with plenty of spy glasses to watch for Union Jacks and such. These defensive positions ranged from simple mounds with a cannon or two, to more complex and at the time state-of-the-art facilities with a range of weapons to incapacitate and splinter all manner of naval threats. In time, the young nation split in two and these forts were allocated to the Union and Confederate states as in a contested divorce. By the start of the Civil War, forts were brick and mortar or stone, the old wooden palisades of colonial forts having rotted long before or having been replaced by grander defenses.
Fort Morgan is in Alabama right on the ocean on a thin neck that sticks out into the bay of Mobile. I had been to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortuga a few months before and decided to take a look at a similarly constructed facility when I was in Mobile. Although it was almost two hours away, the map said that at the fort the road ended, but if I was in luck, I could take a ferry across the channel in order to resume my journey to New Orleans without having to backtrack. Tight on time, I considered skipping the trip altogether with a view to extending my stay in the Big Easy a little longer. However, I reconsidered since I figured I needed to take in new sights and landmarks and I knew all I would do with additional time in the French Quarter would be to waste it bar hopping, as tradition and local culture dictate by the strictest measures.
The drive down to the coast is a strange one. A mixture of farm fields, new exhurbia housing tracts, and highways that then gave way to the sort of coastal development common to contemporary America and the varied styles and humors of Late Capitalism. It is not often that I see the gentle germination of a Geography of Nowhere. But, there it was. I passed by what appeared to be the construction of a theme park or casino or a casino theme park. As I got closer to the coast, the traffic thickened up, and I remembered one of my contacts in Mobile exclaiming that they rarely traveled more than a half hour from home since traffic had gotten “so bad as of late.” This was a similar story to the rest of the nation. We have invented little traveling boxes that can take us anywhere, but we don’t use them to go farther than we could walk due to congestion. I again considered giving up on this side quest. Break lights as far as I could see.
At a traffic light, by a CVS and a McBurgerJackintheKingBoxDonalds, I turned onto the coastal byway, and the scenery became more comely, and I assumed more expensive real estate and the traffic thinned out to just a few cars, one of which was always three feet from my back bumper demanding I go faster. After several twists and turns through stands of trees and the germinating kudzu, the Dixie Highway finally came to its termination. The ferry station and parking lot were empty. The schedule seemed not in my favor. I called the number on a large orange sign, and the very pleasant voice on the other end of the line informed me that due to high seas there would be no ferry service today. I was more than mildly disappointed since this meant I had to return through Alabama’s version of Delaware before getting to the open highway. It had taken more time to get down there than my iThingamabob told me, and I knew I needed to quickly get to the fort before it closed.
Today this hard fought position is part of the parks department (or at the time of publication it is since these days entire branches of government may be executive ordered into the proverbial cornfield). At the entrance checkpoint, two elderly women took my money and gave me a map in order to better orientate myself and understand the history of the site. I was shown on the map that in addition to the main structure, a number of batteries to the east that had been constructed at a later date and I should be sure not to miss them before the day came to an end.
Fort Morgan occupied a strategic site used during the War of 1812 by a previous and simple edifice. When the nation split in two, Confederates had quickly captured the fort (as they did without any effort for most of the Union positions other than Fort Sumpter). Fort Morgan was reinforced and outfitted with whatever guns they could manage which was a hodgepodge of British and American guns since the South started a war without considering the North had most of the foundries. A star-shaped fort, the structure could defend against naval and land assault. Constructed out on a peninsula towards the channel, any enemy ship would have to pass by under its massive guns to access Mobile Bay. The fort defended blockade runners and had quite a successful run before coming under the heavy punishing fire of the Union Navy. The fort saw a lot of action during the Civil War. By ‘action’ I mean the joint had sixteen shits knocked out of it. Despite having a number of heavy guns, a naval force under the command of Admiral Farragut managed to slip by and cause havoc in the Bay and take on the poorly outfitted ships of the Confederacy blowing each and every one of them to kindling and scrap metal. As the Union navy took on the few cobbled together warships of the Confederate Navy set to defend the bay at all cost, the naval battle freed up additional forces who surrounded Fort Morgan and assaulted it with a clear advantage in numbers and armaments. The final siege was almost two weeks. For two weeks the men lived and fought under constant assault. The cannonade pounded the lighthouse into a pile, ripped huge holes in the outer walls, and saw the total destruction of the citadel as the shells tore through the roof tiles and hotshot set fire to the beams. As the citadel burned the fire spread and the soldiers had all they could do to dump the gun powder in the moat to wet it down and prevent the entire place from being blown sky high. The ruins of the citadel were used after its capture to patch holes in the embankments, and the last of it was carted off for a breakwater.
When I set my course for Fort Morgan, I expected to see grand buttresses and gates as I had out in the Dry Tortugas. However, the battlements of Fort Jefferson did not see any military action and other than the tests of time and punishing tropical elements. Fort Morgan was very much a working fortification not some cushy country estate fort built on a desert island in the far end of Paradise. Along with the pounding of the Union guns, the antique structure was pressed into service for the Spanish-American war. A hastily constructed structure of cement and wire was poured onto the oceanside of the brick structure to house some enormous gun now since vanished to the smelter for the Spanish American. The fort then was returned to active service in World War I with additional construction plopped here and there on the old brick building, only to be then partially dismantled and I can only assume a number of elves came out of the woods with hammers to make sure everything was properly pounded down to look distressed. Additionally, the fort was used during WWII since unlike the coast from Maine to New York, Alabama was yet out of range for Klaus and Tojo.
Nature also has helped in breaking down the fort into distinct elements, and her hand was easy to see. Despite all this, there were still galleys and battlements to explore. Stone steps and the marks of installed guns. I wandered about enjoying the ocean breeze, and the dampness suggested rain was on its way. The day was late, and soon the park was to close, so I moved quickly about watching my footing since some of the areas were quite treacherous, especially in this litigious age of money-for-nothing slip-and-fall cases. I was not alone at the fort. A few families were milling about. I am not sure who had the idea to take the kids on a gray almost rainy Friday down to see the nub left of a fort or the acres of rotting batteries, but they were there. I assumed due to the size of the parking lot that this was a well-visited site and there was a beach of sorts, so perhaps that too was a draw. There were a few houses that were in the park that looked well-kept, and I imagined that a number of events might take lace where costumed warriors bring history to life with reenactments and nature walks.
I returned to my dinky rental car and made a wrong turn on the park’s network of roads, so missed out on seeing the battery close up, but it was OK since I had seen my fill of rotting cement houses and empty rooms full of watery ghosts. I returned to the road and to make my way back into traffic, to fight with the contemporary transportation system all the way to New Orleans, wishing the ferry was running and that I could simply cross Mobile Bay in one action. I was glad to have made an effort to see yet another piece of our American History and would recommend that if you happen to be in Gulf Shores, go the extra few miles and see something new.