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.

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