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My Spring Break


It’s been a long, hard winter for the folks up north. So, when my partner called from Minnesota saying she desperately needed to get away, I was ready to accommodate her. Naturally, without much thought, I volunteered that we could go to Gettysburg only to realize too late, that the little Pennsylvania town was experiencing its own form of snowy hibernation. After trying to regain some standing, I threw out all sorts of places ranging from San Diego to Saint Thomas. But the damage was done… I had my chance. She was going to decide where we would spend our spring break getaway.

“Ulysses don't scare worth a damn.”
—Unnamed Union soldier

My partner threw out several options, and quite frankly, I became confused as to where we were going put our feet in the ocean. The Outer Banks, Savannah and Dauphin Island on the Gulf of Mexico—these all seemed to be in the mix but I couldn’t keep straight the outpouring of travel options. Finally, I just said, “Tell me how much to pay and where to show up.”

As it turns out, she chose Dauphin Island for a variety of reasons: Her family had vacationed there once before and she thought I would enjoy “the old fort” there. Sounded good to me. A condo was secured, the car prepared and we headed south for a little R&R on the beach.

The day before she arrived in Missouri, I thought I better plan a driving route from my home near Cape Girardeau to Dauphin Island. Only when I looked at a map did I realize that we would be going to Mobile, Alabama. “Hmmm,” I thought, “Heartland of the southern campaigns of the Civil War.”

The first leg of the drive was going to put us in Jackson, Mississippi. Of course, turn west at Jackson and drive 30 miles and you are in Vicksburg, Mississippi. So, that is where our journey took us that first day.

Okay, maybe I was just being a little bit selfish… It is hard for me drive anywhere east of the Mississippi and not consider the Civil War. It had been many years since I had been to Vicksburg, and I looked forward to renewing my acquaintance with the sacred ground.

First day of our journey found us on the Vicksburg, Mississippi, battlefield—much to the surprise (and possibly chagrin) of my partner!

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Had to stop and pay my respects to the Minnesotans who fought at Vicksburg.

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Wisconsin’s monument at Vicksburg is one of the truly great Civil War monuments with its bronze statues of soldiers and column surmounted with a cast tribute to Old Abe the War Eagle of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteers. The 101st Airborne trace the heritage of their “screaming eagle” to Old Abe.

If I haven’t written it before, I will right now: “The National Park Service serves a magnificent role as both caretaker and interpreter of our Civil War heritage.” I have visited many NPS sites in the past few years and have been awed by their movie orientations, display of original artifacts and well designed maps and driving tours. We spent a morning at the visitor center and then driving the battlefield, and it was only after the NPS’ fine orientation did I finally understand the siege and battles for Vicksburg.

We found one of Diane’s ancestors listed on the Wisconsin wall, George Hurlburt, a private in the 25th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. My ancestors were not at Vicksburg.

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A highlight of Vicksburg National Civil War Park was the preserved remains of the Union gunboat, USS Cairo. When I was last in Vicksburg nearly 25 years ago, the preservation efforts of this treasure were just under way. Today, it is one of the finest presentations of preservation, restoration and interpretation I have ever seen. Words and pictures don’t do this massive warship—or the NPS—justice. It was simply remarkable to walk through the skeleton of the ship and imagine the guns firing, the massive paddle wheels turning and the enormous boilers sweating under strain.

The Court House is one of the buildings still extant from the days of the siege in 1863. It houses a fascinating array of artifacts of the battle, local dignitaries and history.

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The preserved remains of the USS Cairo are maintained under a huge, permanent canopy. A mix of restoration and preservation provides viewers with a good sense of the enormity of the vessel and the cramped nature its interior fighting and living spaces.

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Can’t visit Vicksburg without a little homage to General U.S. Grant!

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Damn the Torpedoes!

But, Vicksburg was not our destination—just a slight detour. After half a day’s drive, we rolled into Mobile Bay, another location of a famous Civil War battle.

Honestly, in all my years of being a Civil War enthusiast, I never gave the Battle of Mobile Bay much consideration—or any of the Naval conflicts, for that matter. There were two exceptions to this, however.

As a pre-schooler, I was enthralled with the story of the “Monitor and the Merrimack (CSS Virginia).” My grandmom had read the How and Why Book of the Civil War many times to me, and I had memorized the story of the two ironclads. When I was at our store, my Dad would have me recite the tale for customers who patiently listened to my four-year-old interpretation of the battle between the two ironclads.

The other exception to my “No Navy” approach to the Civil War resulted from the frustration of no Civil War models to be built. As a kid, I built all sorts of plastic models, mostly WWII armor and softskin vehicles, a lot of WWI and WWII airplanes and the occasional WWII fighting ship. But when I was on a Civil War bender, I was disappointed by the lack of models. The only ones I had found were a poor 1/6th scale kit of a Napoleon 12-lb gun and a double kit of the Monitor and Virginia.

When I was about 10 years old, I finally discovered my Civil War modeling outlet: An Aurora 1/200 scale kit of Admiral David Farragut’s flagship, the USS Hartford. It was magnificent. Completed, it promised to be over 24” in length.

I purchased the kit, took it home and started study the myriad of parts. Though I had completed squadrons of tanks, flights of planes and even a few odd “modern” ships, a three-master from the age of sail was new to me. It took several months to complete all the rigging and finally set the ship on its stand to admire. The Parrott guns on the deck made me feel a connection to Admiral Farragut when he uttered his now famous, “Damn the torpedoes!” Though I had some idea of the intricacies of a steam-powered warship, I still knew nothing of how she was used in combat, or even more importantly, in the Battle of Mobile Bay.

Toes in the Gulf

Back to the story of my spring break: Our first day at Gulf Shores, we drove to the end of the land to take the ferry across to Dauphin Island. Seeing the lay of the land with Fort Morgan on one side and Fort Gaines on the other, it started to become clear to me… Farragut had to take his fleet into the bay but only after he successfully sailed the gauntlet across which we now took the ferry. Looking out across the Gulf at the many methane derricks, I could image in the Hartford, Tecumseh and other U.S. vessels positioning to charge into the bay. The few extant 32-lb coastal guns at either fort made it easy to imagine the Confederates’ shots to intercept and repel Farragut’s incursion.

Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island is managed by a private group of preservationists. The interpretation is minimal, but certainly sincere in their effort. The task of maintaining the Fort has to be a daunting task for a group of volunteers. They are to be commended for the magnificent job they have done to preserve the masonry star-pattern fort that dates to the 1830s.

Bedecked with pre-Civil War 32-lb coastal guns, the walls of Fort Gaines still maintain vigilance on the mouth of Mobile Bay.

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Fort Morgan, the other pre-Civil War masonry fort on the other side of the mouth of the Bay, is maintained as an Alabama State Park. The small visitor center displays a really large number of artifacts with very detailed explanatory labels covering the military history of the area dating back to the War of 1812. It was here that I first became aware of the significance the Fort played after the Battle of New Orleans. The British troops withdrew to the mouth of Mobile Bay to regroup after their defeat at the hands of Andrew Jackson’s soldiers.

At Fort Morgan, I was introduced to the War of 1812 history of the area and to Fort Bowyer built in 1813 on the spot Fort Morgan later occupied. This swivel gun was found at Mobile Point. It had been spiked and rendered useless.

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I had never seen this portrait of Colonel William Lawrence who had died in 1840. The details on his uniform include dark striping on his chest in addition to the gilt epaulettes and high-standing collar.

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True to my “collector” and “history student” roots, I immediately embarked on a book-buying binge to devour what I could find on the Battle of Mobile Bay. Not forgetting the War of 1812 angle, I also purchased a copy of Mike Bunn and Clay Williams’ groundbreaking study of the War in the Gulf, Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812.

Okay, so pre-Civil War masonry forts start looking alike after two or three. This shows a bit of Fort Morgan, but won’t bore you with more views of this one!

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the two forts went through a period of revitalization about the time of the Spanish-American War. Several “disappearing” batteries were installed and portable guns installed in an effort to redefine the Nation’s coastal defense. Stabilization and repainting of this 1919 heavy piece had just been completed earlier this year.

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Whereas I will admit that multiple views of masonry forts can become tedious, I will never have enough photos of Civil War artillery! This monster is a 100-lb Parrott rifle at Fort Morgan.

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This beauty is a fully restored water battery with 32-lb seacoast gun outside the walls of Fort Morgan.

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Of course, the rest of the vacation was spent doing “vacationy” things like eating lots of seafood, lying on the beach and going out at night. And all of that was good. I am just darn fortunate to have a partner who tolerates my Civil War and military fixations.

When we return to the Gulf next spring (yes, it is just that good!) I am sure our minds and souls will again require rejuvenation. I know I will be looking forward to burying my feet in the sand and look out to the Gulf to think about those days in August 1864 when things looked very bad for Admiral Farragut. He didn’t give in to his fears, but rather, followed his conviction: “Damn the Torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

What’s a pasty-white history editor do on a beach while his partner soaks in her tan? Well, he sits with an umbrella, a cold drink and stares at the sea trying to imagine Admiral Farragut’s fleet chugging into position to assault the mouth of the Bay!

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