On April 9, 1865, as Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was receiving the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse, Illinoisans over seven hundred miles away were taking part in a last big battle of the war at Mobile, Alabama. A rugged campaign was soon lost sight of in the glow of Appomattox and the gloom of assassination.
A campaign leading to the capture of Mobile, an important port city on the Gulf of Mexico, had long been discussed by the U.S. army and navy. Ulysses S. Grant had suggested a campaign against the city following his July 1863 capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, but forces were instead sent on an (ultimately unsuccessful) expedition to Texas. In December 1863, after the victories at Chattanooga, Tennessee, Grant again raised the proposal. He argued for an effort to capture Mobile as opposed to risking the difficulties of a proposed campaign from Chattanooga to Atlanta, Georgia. Again his suggestion went unheeded. In August 1864, U.S. naval forces commanded by David G. Farragut captured the entrance to Mobile Bay, effectively closing the port. He did not, however, capture the city itself. As 1865 began Mobile still bid defiance to Federal forces.
In the spring of 1865 Gen. Edward R. S. Canby began to assemble troops to finally capture Mobile. He soon mustered an army of about 45,000, including number of Illinois infantry regiments and an African American infantry division. Canby’s plan called for two columns to approach the bay, each to capture one of the surviving major rebel fortifications—Fort Blakely and Spanish Fort. The U.S. troops began their movements in mid-March, hampered by heavy weather.
Federal troops spent weeks working ever closer to the Confederate installations and softening them by a heavy bombardment. Though the Confederates were badly outnumbered and discouraged the struggle was not without danger for Federal troops. Among the defenses used by the Confederates were “torpedoes,” what we today call land mines, created by modifying regular artillery shells for burial and detonation by pressure fuse. The Federals also faced deep and wide ditches dug by the defenders over many months.
The anticipated assaults finally took place. Spanish Fort fell on April 8 and Fort Blakely the following day, practically as Lee’s army surrendered in Virginia. Official reports put the cost of the campaign at 1,678 killed, wounded, and missing. Ulysses Grant, who twice in 1863 advocated a campaign against Mobile, wrote in his memoirs of the 1865 campaign that “It finally cost lives to take it [Mobile] when its possession was of no importance, and when, if left alone, it would within a few days have fallen into our hands without any bloodshed whatever.”
Illinois in the fight
Illinois was represented in the three-week Mobile campaign by twenty-three regiments of infantry and one of cavalry. Casualties in those units came to 489 dead, wounded, and missing.
For most of the veteran Illinoisans involved the final fight was sharp, but nothing to meet the standards set for them earlier in the war at such places as Fort Donelson or Shiloh. It appears that a great danger was curiosity. One Illinois soldier reported a week before the assaults that hundreds of men had been killed or wounded, “a great portion of that number . . . men needlessly exposing themselves to the enemy’s fire. They seem to be very anxious to see what is going on and the first thing they know they run in contact with a shell or a musket ball. . . .”
What made Mobile really notable for many Illinois men was the appearance of “torpedoes”—something most had not encountered before. A member of the 119th Illinois wrote home that “the rebs have the earth filled with torpedoes all around the fort. There were quite a number exploded yesterday,” and later that they had “killed quite a number of horses but not a single man. We generally capture prisoners enough to dig them up.” “Eugene” of the 58th Infantry felt the mines to be more sinister, “generally planted around springs or watering places in the woods and roads, and very abundantly around the forts. They are do arranged . . . that the weight of ten pounds will explode them. . . .”
Medals of Honor come to Illinois
Several Illinois men received the Medal of Honor for actions during the fighting near Mobile. Bestowal of the medal for most acts such as these ended in 1917 with the adoption of stricter award criteria.
Loyd Wheaton of Cairo, lieutenant colonel, 8th Illinois Infantry, led the right wing of his regiment, and, was the first to enter the enemy’s works against strong cannon and musket fire.
Thomas H. L. Payne of Mendota, first lieutenant, Co. E, 37th Illinois Infantry, although a quartermaster, learned of the expected assault and requested assignment to a company that had no commissioned officers present. He was so assigned, and was one of the first to lead his men into the enemy’s works.
Patrick H. Pentzer of Gillespie, captain, Co. C, 97th Illinois Infantry, was among the first to enter the enemy’s entrenchments. He received the surrender of a Confederate general officer and his headquarters flag.
Samuel McConnell of Bushnell, captain, Co. H, 119th Illinois Infantry, braved an intense fire that mowed down his unit. Knocked into a ditch by concussion from artillery fire, he entered the gun emplacement, the gun crew fleeing before him. About thirty paces away he saw a Confederate flag bearer and guard, which he captured using the last shot in his pistol.
The men listed below were awarded the Medal of Honor for the capture of rebel flags during the fighting near Mobile:
John H. Callahan of Macoupin County, private, Co. B, 122d Illinois Infantry
Henry A. Miller of Decatur, captain, Co. B, 8th Illinois Infantry
George F. Rebmann of Browning, sergeant, Co. B, 119th Illinois Infantry
Victor Vifquain of Saline County, lieutenant colonel, 97th Illinois Infantry
John Whitmore of Camden, private, Co. F, 119th Illinois Infantry
Interested in learning more?
The full history of wartime Mobile is covered in Arthur Bergeron, Confederate Mobile (2000). For more on Medals of Honor awarded to Illinoisans visit http://www.illinoiscivilwar150.org/pdfs/ILCWMedalofHonor.pdf on this website.