Located on the eastern tip of Dauphin Island, off the Gulf coast of Alabama, stand the well-preserved ramparts of Fort Gaines, which have guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay for more than 150 years.
For centuries before, the island had been popular with Native Americans who went there to fish, hunt, and gather oysters and other shellfish that grew in profusion in Mobile bay. Traces of their presence can still be seen today at Shell Mound Park on the Island’s north shore.
Italian explorer Americus Vespucius is said to have visited this little Island in 1497. Then the Spanish discovered the island, which they named Isle de Labe (Island of the Ridge) from the large sand dunes that extend along its southern shores. In 1699 the French gained possession and called it the Isle de Massacre because they found so many skeletons scattered on the beach that they thought a massacre had taken place there. The French established a settlement on the island that was raided by pirates in 1711 but survived.
About 1712, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the French Governor, built a fort called Fort Torabigbee and changed the name of the island to Dauphin Island after a member of French royalty, “Dauphine.” From 1763 to 1783, the English held this Island, and in 1783 it went back to Spain.
Then, in 1812, Dauphin Island was taken by the United States during the War of 1812 because it was said the Spanish sympathized with the English. The earliest American fortification built here was in 1812. The present Fort Gaines was initially designed in 1818 as the identical twin to Fort Morgan to defend the new territory of Alabama. It was named for General Edmund Pendleton Gaines, a hero of the War of 1812. Work on the fort was suspended in 1821 when Congress canceled funding. It would be years before more funding would be allocated to complete the construction, which finally occurred in 1846. However, construction did not begin until 1857. At that time, the original 1818 plans were scrapped, with a new pentagonal-shaped design taking its place. The objective of the fortress was to guard the seaward approaches to Mobile Bay and the eastern entrance of the Mississippi Sound.
The fort was still not fully complete when the Alabama state militia seized it on January 5, 1861, anticipating the state seceding from the Union, which it did on January 11. Confederate engineers completed the fort over the next several years. The fort played an essential role in the Battle of Mobile Bay, and it was within sight of its walls that Union Admiral David G. Farragut issued his immortal command, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” After Farragut and his ships forced their way into the bay, Union soldiers laid siege to Fort Gaines, which surrendered on August 8, 1864. After its capture by Union forces, it was used in planning and staging the final attack on Mobile, Alabama.
When the Civil War was over, engineers repaired Fort Gaines, but the post stool idle for years. Two modern gun batteries were built between 1901 and 1904, which housed six guns that complemented the modernizations at nearby Fort Morgan. Except for basic preservation, however, Fort Gaines received no additional improvements. As with Fort Morgan and other fortifications, its role in harbor defense waned as its guns were outmatched by those on foreign battleships. At the end of World War I, the War Department sold Fort Gaines to the state of Alabama. It was activated briefly during World War II and then returned to the state, which opened Fort Gaines as a state park in 1955.
Fort Gaines is currently under the management of the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board, and events are scheduled throughout the year. Fort Gaines’s museum contains Civil War-era historical documents and photographs and the history of French colonial presence beginning in the late 17th century. The historic post consists of five buildings inside the exterior walls, tunnel systems, and corner bastions with spiral stone staircases to the gun placements above, including eight original artillery pieces used in the battle and the anchor from Admiral Farragut’s flagship in the Civil War. The buildings include an operational blacksmith shop and kitchens.
The site is considered one of the nation’s best-preserved Civil War era masonry forts. However, it is also under threat from erosion.
Dauphin Island has emerged as one of the most beautiful and peaceful settings on the Gulf Coast. Today, the island is a resort area, famed for its beaches and fishing.
Fort Gaines is located 30 miles south of Mobile, Alabama, at 51 Bienville Blvd on Dauphin Island.