Fort McDermott is not easy to find. It’s in the middle of a subdivision. In the middle of the block so every backyard faces it. One small sign at a wide spot in the road identifies a path to it. We had gone around the block twice before we saw the sign. We’d stopped and walked up to the fort. It’s a Civil War fort on a small hill in the town of Spanish Fort, Alabama. Its importance in 1865 was that it was part of the defense of Mobile, Alabama, the last major city still in Confederate hands. Although no doubt formidable, it is not impressive as the fortifications are earthen walls and trenches as was common during the time. We were about to leave when a car stops, and the driver rolls down window.
“You folks want to hear about what happened here? said the man in white Toyota.
“Sure.” I replied.
“You pull up a little and I’ll pull in behind y’all.”
“Good morning. My name is Joe DuPree.” said the elderly gentleman with a cane getting out of the car. “I cleared all this so you and, well, everyone can get up there and see it. It was here that 185 Confederate soldiers held off 16,000 Union troops. You want to take a walk up there?”
“Yes. That would be really interesting.” I said. Why not a guided tour I thought.
“I got this thing going about 35 years ago. I’ve been working with the Sons of the Confederacy to clear it all out and make it respectful. I made all those signs and got them put up and helped raise the money to get the statue erected. There’s no government money here. It’s all private.”
“Now this is how it was. It’s March 1865. You remember Farragut? He’d taken Mobile Bay in August 1864 but he couldn’t get to the city because the only deep channel from the bay to the city back then went right by this fort. He sent some warships up here but we sunk them. So the Union invaders figured they’d take the fort by land.”
As we walk up the slope he points out the various defenses. “This here is a ha-ha wall.” He says pointing to the large earthen berm below the summit. “From the bottom it looks like a continuous slope to the top but when the attacker gets to the top of this, ha ha, there’s a ditch behind it and they’re facing the enemy and even steeper slope to the top.”
“Now where was I? Oh yeah, this one part of a series of breastworks and redoubts that stretched for 8 miles built to defend Mobile. We had about 5,000 troops against 16,000 invaders but here at this fort there were just 200 of us. They were motivated because they were defending their country’s freedom against an invader. That sign over there tells you all about it. It’s not like they teach in school.”
I walk over to the small story board and skim through it.
“With the election of Lincoln, South Carolina secedes because the old Untied States is imposing unfair import taxes South Carolina’s citizens. The cunning Southerners get word that a naval fleet is sailing to take over Charleston Harbor and impose the taxes. To prevent the fleet from entering the harbor the state’s militia fired on Fort Sumter. Following this brave action other states seceded and a new nation, the Confederate States of America, is formed. The old United States cannot abide this so Lincoln raises an army an invades the free states of the Confederacy.”
“Well I can’t say I’ve ever seen it put like that before.” I say.
“It’s all fact. I’ve done the research. They don’t want you to know the way it really was.”
“Now where was I? Oh yeah, let’s head up here.” He said pointing to the very top of the hill.
When we get to the top he points out the various bunkers that are now depressions in the ground.
“The invaders shelled this for 13 days. This was the last big battle of the War for Confederate Freedom. On the night of April 8th the soldiers up here slipped out through the invader’s lines and escaped to Mobile. It was a brave stand and we want to honor the men who made it.”
“You folks going to be around in March?” he asks.
“We’ll be coming back through here about then.” I reply.
“We have a big shindig then. Reenactors do the battle. Some in Confederate uniforms and some in invader uniforms. And a memorial service for the Confederate soldiers. And maybe some kind of barbecue or something. I don’t know exactly what they’re planning but keep an eye on the newspaper. They might have something on it. Then again they might not. They don’t like to print anything coming from me.”
“Why not?” I ask. “It’s history.”
“All our newspapers down here’s been bought up by big corporations up north. They won’t print anything that goes against … well … against what they think ought to be said. I call it the way I see it. The way the facts actually are. They don’t like it. It’s all about the racial thing really. Y’all have a safe trip now and come back in March, you hear.”
I wave goodbye to Joe DuPree and stop for a minute to think. Driving the state of Alabama from north to south on the rural western side, I have to say, this fort has the first Confederate flag I’ve seen.
We drive away past the neat lawns of middleclass homes to a major intersection with a large mall on one corner. The cars go by as we wait for the light to change. Honda and Toyota, Ford and Chevy, shiny in the late morning sun. Some turning into the mall. Some heading off to work. It could be any intersection in America. The only flags waving are American. Perhaps times are changing.
Perhaps Joe DuPree’s fanciful excuse for the Confederacy is making its last stand.
The Rest of the Story
On April 9, 1865, the day after the Confederate soldiers slipped out of Fort McDermott, the last Confederate forces defending Mobile surrendered and Union troops entered the city unopposed. Unknown by either side was that earlier in the day, 800 miles away, General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. The defense of slavery by the Confederate States of America had made its last stand.