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  • Mobile's Great Magazine Explosion of 1865
  • Russell W. Blount Jr. (bio)

With the fall of the confederate strongholds at blakeley and Spanish Fort in 1865, Union General Edward Canby's Federal army crossed Mobile Bay to finally occupy the city of Mobile. On the afternoon of April 12, a Wednesday, the first of Canby's troops began tramping through the city's streets. For most of the curious onlookers, this was their first glimpse at Yankee soldiers. Although the city had been under threat of a full siege since David Farragut's naval victory at the Battle of Mobile Bay in August of 1864, the city had remained under Confederate control. Mobile had been fortunate in that it had been spared the devastation experienced by other southern cities such as Richmond, Vicksburg, Atlanta, and Columbia, where bombardments and fires had reduced the buildings to rubble and ashes. Yet Mobile's people had still endured four years of war and the deprivations it brought. Many families had lost one or more of their men, and the economy was ruined. Like the rest of the South, the once-thriving port city had become a land of widowed women, orphans, vacant houses, rotting wharves, deserted businesses, weed-filled gardens and lifeless faces. Whitelaw Reid, a reporter traveling [End Page 240] with the troops and covering the war for the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, put into words a vivid portrayal of the scene:

The city is a sad picture to contemplate. The stores look a thousand years old. They wear something of the appearance of the old castles to be seen in some of the countries of Europe. They are empty and forsaken, except here and there an old man seated like some faithful sentinel at his post. Shelves are forsaken of their silks, and occupied only with the flies and dust. The people look sad and sorry. The best people of the city are poor, and poorly clad. There is no money save the scrip of the confederacy. The people are distressed. No money except coin and greenbacks will pass. They have little of the former – none of the latter. We have witnessed such sorrow over this order of things as we do not desire again to behold.1

Within a few weeks after Mobile's occupation, Generals Joseph Johnston, Richard Taylor, and Kirby Smith surrendered the last of the Confederate forces, and the city began to experience a sort of metamorphosis. Mobile was named an administrative center from which the Federal army managed the conquered region. Under this authority, thousands of soldiers began filing into the city. Great numbers of Union men were waiting to be processed out of the army, while Confederate soldiers were seeking paroles. All of them, Blue and Gray, were looking for transportation to return to their homes. A Union soldier from Ohio, watching the swarms of troops, reported, "the place was overrun by officers and soldiers of both Confederate and Union armies." Joining the soldiers were multitudes of freed slaves who had left their farms and plantations in the country and travelled to Mobile where they hoped to find assistance from the newly [End Page 241] established Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (more commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau) to help them find work, and aid them in the transition to freedom. In addition to the influx of so many people, the city was rapidly becoming a site for stockpiling cotton that had been confiscated throughout the South. Alongside the storage of cotton, many of the warehouses and sheds in the northern section of Mobile were used as facilities for collecting munitions seized from the surrendered Confederate forces. Union authorities believed that the dangerous stockpile of weapons and artillery could be safely stored in this district with little risk until such time that they could be discarded or destroyed.2

With the presence of what some southerners considered to be an invading army, many white Mobilians remained defiant, contemptuous, and distrustful of federal soldiers. This was especially true of the ladies who had lost loved ones during the war. "The ladies do not associate with them," observed James Williams, a Rebel officer, in...