On April 12, 1865 the Civil War ended when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his command to U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The port city of Mobile, Alabama had come through the war unscathed. However, half the city was destroyed in a major tragedy over a month later when twenty tons of captured Confederate gunpowder exploded in a warehouse that was being used as an arsenal. The entire northern part of the city was laid in ruins by the explosion.
Mobile surrendered peacefully
When Union troops entered the city of Mobile unopposed on April 12, 1865, Mobile surrendered peacefully thereby avoiding the destruction that other southern cities had experienced during the war.
Confederate General Richard Taylor met U.S. General E.R.S. Canby April 29th at the Magee Farm in Kusla, Alabama to discuss the terms of surrender for the armies of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana, the last contingent of the Confederate Army east of the Mississippi.
Beneath a large oak tree near Citronelle, Alabama, later named the Surrender Tree, the last of the Confederate troops east of the Mississippi laid down their weapons on May 4th. Martial law was immediately declared by the Union Army in Mobile.
Union Army occupies Mobile, Alabama
The occupying army established an ordinance depot at the corner of Commerce and Lipscomb Streets. The depot is said to have contained about 200 tons of explosive ammunition and gunpowder. A little more than a month later, smoke was seen rising from the depot on May 25th and moments later, the ammunition exploded.
It was reported, “so terrific was the explosion that it destroyed or damaged all buildings in the area bounded on the north by Bloodgood Street, on the west by Conception Street, on the south by St. Anthony Street and on the east by the river. Windows in the Battle House, which suffered an estimated $15,000 damage, and in buildings as far south as Conti Street, were shattered. Force of the blast was so great that it caused carriages to capsize on Royal Street, and horses to collapse as if shot to death. A man was blown off the wharf into the river at the foot of Church Street, and a steamer and schooner were wrecked at their moorings in the river.”1
The explosion was tremendous
“A reporter for the Mobile Morning News who rushed to the scene of destruction described the explosion as “a writhing giant gaunt and grim” poised in midair. . . bursting shells, flying timbers, bales of cotton, horses, men, women and children co-mingled and mangled into one immense mass. The heart stood still, and the stoutest cheek paled as this rain of death fell from the sky and crash after crash foretold a more fearful fate yet impending; the lurid flames began to leap farther from the wreckage. Old and young, soldier and citizen vied with each other in deeds of daring to rescue the crumbled and imprisoned.”2
It was estimated that 300 people were killed by the explosion and the falling debris. The Nashville, Tennessee Morning News reported, “As soon as the explosion was hear, Major General Granger and Colonel Shipley repaired to the scene of destruction, where they remained, giving directions and seeing them carried out.
The General dispatched a messenger to Brigadier General Dennis, ordering him to detail all the soldiers in the city and vicinity, and to impress all the men found in the streets to aid in rescuing the wounded and staying the progress of the fire, and in twenty minutes an efficient body of men was on the ground….”
The flaming debris that had been thrown, fell onto buildings and started fires in the northern half of the city and before the fire died, the entire northern half of Mobile was consumed.
The Nashville Morning News and Janesville Weekly Gazette gives some names of Union dead and wounded. “We saw the bodies of Mr. McMahon, who was in charge of the carpenter work, of Capt Foord acting quartermaster, and the purser of the steamboat Laura“ which vessel was lying on the marine ways opposite the city – who was killed while sitting at his desk, by either a piece of one of the numerous shells, which filled the air in that neighborhood, or by a fragment of brick. Mr. McMahon was on one of the steamers near the Planter’s Press, on duty when killed. A sailor was killed by the explosion of a shell while working on the engine of one of the fire companies…
A number of the bodies received are so burned and mutilated that recognition is impossible. Some of them are so blackened that it was with difficulty their friends and relatives could identify them, even when not disfigured by mutilation.
The shrieks of the poor wives, daughters, and mothers, as a body would be borne out of the ruins, were heart-rending – each expecting to find some loved one’s mangled and blackened corpse. Several fainted, and were borne away on the stout arms of the tender-hearted soldiers present…..
Steamer almost torn to pieces
The steamer Col. Cowles, Captain Tucker, was lying opposite Planter’s Press, and was almost torn to pieces by the shock, and soon after took fire and was completely consumed. The mate tried to move her before she took fire, but failed. Captain Tucker was badly injured, and two negroes – a cabin boy and firemen- missing, supposed to be lost.
The Kate Dale was entirely destroyed. Only two of the crew were found missing. Officers all safe.
A schooner loaded for New York, having some passengers on board, among them a gentleman named Baker, formerly connected with this office, was destroyed. No word has been received as to the fate of the passengers and crew.
Among the wounded are the following: Michael Sefton, C, 46th Iowa; Ben Hauker, E, 52d Indiana; W. L. Hall, K, 7th Illinois; Jacob Gorett, R, 29th do [ditto – K, 7th Illinois]; J. M. Thorp, F, 29th Illinois; Nathan Reynolds, A, 23d Michigan; H. Isham, A, 23d Missouri; C. B. Morgan, B, 33d Illinois; J. J. Tiddan, D, 93d Indiana; Henry Doser, G, 29th Wisconsin Infantry; Corporal J. W. Lynch, A, 23d Wisconsin; Private S. D. Rogers, D, 20th Iowa Infantry; Privates Philander Grisas, battery C, 3d Illinois; Gabriel Keimeche, A, 23d Wisconsin; Privates August Hurley, A, 23d Wisconsin; C. Williams, a, 23d Wisconsin; Alex. Heacock, d, 24th Indiana; W. Balshka, A, 19th Winconsin; Geo. Abbott, A, Missouris light artillery; Daniel C. Heely, B, 29th Illinois; Henry S. Bacon, James A. Wells, John Casebeer, 1, 23d Wisconsin; Benjamin Brewer, Co. C, 69th Indiana; Hosea H. Young, Co. G, 37th Illinois; Joseph Chapman, Co. H, 29th Wisconsin; Corporals Wm. J. Wilson, Co. C, 29th Illinois; Edmund Blunt, Co. F, 29th Illinois.
Among the wounded men of the Quartermaster’s department are Joseph McQueen, Lawrence county, Ind.; W. F. Van Wry, Indiana.
The cause of the explosion was never determined but many northern newspapers blamed it on vengeful Confederate soldiers. However, after being investigated, the generally consensus was that it was an accident. Property loss was put at $5,000,000 and the number of casualties was never determined, although it has been estimated at possibly 300
1Highlights of 75 years in Mobile, Mobile, Alabama, First National Bank of Mobile, 1940, pages 6 and 7
2Highlights of 75 years in Mobile, Mobile, Alabama, First National Bank of Mobile, 1940, pages 6 and 7