Fort Powell

Union attack on Ft. Powell

My great-grandfather, Lt. Col. James Williams, was the commander of Ft. Powell during the Battle of Mobile Bay.

The Encyclopedia of Alabama described Ft. Powell’s role as follows:

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.

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.

Biden as President

My last few blog posts have been critical of Biden, but I am glad he won.  Trump was a terrible President, but his strong point was that he represented and stood up for the cultural ideas that are espoused by many ordinary, middle class people.  He is the ultimate illustration of the problem highlighted by the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”  Many people vote against their economic interests because they believe cultural interests are more important.  In Trump’s case it is even more surprising because he is a bad cultural icon.  He is course, crude, immoral, impolite, selfish, stupid, and the list goes on and on.  However, regular old white people see themselves under attack from all sides, and Trump is someone who is willing to take on the hatred from American intellectuals and minorities.  That one trait got him elected and it almost got him re-elected.  The Democrats were smart to change the voting laws right before the election to make it easier to vote.  Democrats could get apathetic, uninterested blacks to make the minimal effort to vote by mail for Biden, and it worked.  This Denver Post article illustrates the two approaches to voting requirements, although it clearly comes down on the side of making voting as easy as possible.   

Trump has incorrectly claimed that there was something illegal about the mail-in vote, but the states involved had made it legal.  It probably did cost him the election, but the state Democratic politicians and judges did it legally.  Easier voting favors Democrats.  The Republicans used the 2010 census to gerrymander their states to favor Republicans.  Each side is looking for advantages.  There are arguments on both sides.  When the US was founded, in most states only white adult male property owners could vote.  They wanted to restrict voting to responsible people who had a stake in their country.  Today, the Democrats have completely different priorities from the nation’s founders. 

Anyway, Biden is a much more normal President and good for the country.  He is being pushed by the progressive wing of his party to do a lot of questionable things, questionable because they have never been done before and they are very expensive.  But the Republicans are in a position to block most of them, or to tone them down.  Infrastructure repair is needed, but it needs to be limited, and paying for it right after huge payments for the covid pandemic if bad timing.  It’s good that interest rates are so low now, making it reasonable for the government to borrow money. 

Biden is a welcome change from Trump on foreign policy issues.  Trump tended to alienate our allies and pander to our enemies.  Trump messed up relations with Europe and North Korea, among others.  His China and Russia policies could have been more nuanced.  Biden is currently facing tough decisions on Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine, but he is approaching them rationally and intelligently. 

Biden’s reassuring, comforting tone is another welcome change from the Trump’s often strident, mocking, confrontational approach.  This offsets my concerns that Biden will take the country too far left.  That may be the trade-off for having a more traditional President.  Let’s give Biden a chance.