Driving along next to sparkling white sand dunes as sea gulls toss and call in the salty breeze, it’s hard to imagine that the peaceful coastal outpost of Fort Morgan, Alabama was ever the scene of cannonfire or battle. But it sure was.
Gulf Shores, Alabama is one of my favorite vacation spots. It’s a beautiful little town with lots of great seafood (scallops!). It’s also near not one, but two interesting historic travel destinations, Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines. For now, we’ll just talk about Fort Morgan since it’s so easy to get to from so many tourist destinations along the Alabama coast.
To get to Fort Morgan, just drive west out of Gulf Shores on highway 180. Keep going until you get to the fort. You’re driving down the middle of a very narrow barrier island so it’s impossible to get lost.
The Fort is currently a living museum. Although many of the structures have disintegrated under the stress of time, wind, rain, and blowing sand, many of the key structures remain in place. You can wander through the pentagon-shaped stone walls and imagine what it would have been like to have lived in this fort during the early wars of the 1800s, the Civil War, and even World War II.
The fort is strategically located on the eastern edge of the mouth of Mobile Bay, a key area of interest to people from some of the earliest days of American settlement. Spanish explorers probed the bay as early as 1500, and Hernando DeSoto visited the bay and the surrounding region in 1540. DeSoto visited (and destroyed) the Muskogee village of Mauvilla, or Maubila. This is where the name Mobile originated. In the early 1700s, the French established a deep sea port there. Obviously, Americans were very interested in protecting this crucial port and river access route. The first fort at the site was called Fort Bowyer, a simple earthen and stockade fort to protect the bay. The British attacked this fort twice during the War of 1812: once unsuccessfully and once successfully. After the war, the US government decided it would be a good idea to better strengthen their sea defenses in the even of another conflict. As part of this effort, in 1819, construction started to replace Fort Bowyer with a new earthen and brick fort that would be able to better withstand attacks. The new fort was named after Gen. Daniel Morgan, a Revolutionary War hero.
The main fort consists of tall earthen mounds that are accented and strengthened with brick. Inside the pentagram walls stood a wooden ten-sided citadel that housed enlisted troops. Storage areas inside the earthen and brick outer wall stored powder, food, animals, and other necessities. The interior citadel no longer stands, but the earthen walls, rooms inside the outer wall, and many outer defenses still stand for visitors to explore.
The fort wasn’t actually used during a conflict until the Civil War. Before dawn on January 3, 1861, eight days before Alabama seceded, Colonel John Todd snuck into Fort Morgan with four companies of Alabama volunteers and captured the fort. Once in the hands of the Confederacy, troops strengthened the fort’s defenses in preparation of an attack. The main channel opposite Fort Morgan was the only route with deep enough water to permit large ships to pass into Mobile Bay, so the troops concentrated on adding defenses to the area. They placed 18 of the fort’s heaviest guns to hit any vessel in the channel and also built fortifications and trenches east of the fort to delay any land invasion.
A blockade was in place once the war started, and Mobile Bay was one of the key ports that blockade runners navigated to continue the import and export of goods. From January to August 1864, Mobile saw more activity from confederate blockade runners than any port in the Confederacy except Wilmington.
During the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, Admiral David Farragut managed to get past the guns at Fort Morgan, enter Mobile Bay, and capture several ships. The Admiral then captured Fort Gaines on the other side of the bay. The Union forces then proceeded to lay seige to Fort Morgan. During the siege, the Citadel in the center of the fort caught fire and was heavily damaged. After two weeks, the fort commander General Richard Page, evidently decided it was hopeless to continue fighting and surrendered the fort. Of course, his men first sabotaged all of the fort’s big guns before they left.
The fort fell into disrepair after the Civil War even though it was actively used during the Spanish-American War, WWI and WWII. Periodically the fort would receive a bit of attention, like having new defensive batteries, complete with electricity, built. During WWII, the bay was again considered vulnerable and installed two large guns at the fort to protect the bay. After the war, the fort was turned over to the State of Alabama in 1946.
Today, the fort features a museum, book store, and gift shop, and sizable grounds visitors can explore. Several restored cannons can be found throughout the park. You can spend hours exploring the subterranean passages under the fort walls, wandering through the grassy field where the Citadel once stood, or gazing out from the ramparts at Mobile Bay as soldiers used to do long ago. Visiting Fort Morgan is a great way to explore Civil War history. Check it out next time you’re in the area.
How to get there: Drive west on Alabama highway 180 until you reach the fort. You can also take the Dauphin Island to the fort. The physical address is 51 Highway 180 West, Gulf Shores, AL 36542.
Fort (open daily)
April through October, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
November through March, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Museum (open daily)
9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Closed Noon to 1:00 p.m.
Tours: Call (251) 540-5297 to schedule. Seasonal guided tours are available daily June through August at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Cheap. See here.
- Fort Bowyer/War of 1812 Living History Encampment
- Spring Bird Migration Watch
- Civil War Preservation Trust Park Day
- Tuesday Night Candlelight Tours
- Artillery Salute to American Independence
- Battle of Mobile Bay Civil War Encampment
- Fall Bird Migration Watch
- Civil War Christmas at Fort Morgan
A reference library is available to teachers by appointment. The site educator is available for unique curricular needs or other special requirements. Contact the education department at (251) 540-5297.