“A foreign war is a scratch on the arm; a civil war is an ulcer which devours the vitals of a nation.”
Victor Hugo: Ninety-Three, 1879
The United States' Gulf Coast is steeped in Civil War history and memory. Scattered among the beaches and bays, bayous and rivers, forests and farms, are some of the most important sites related to a conflict that defined a nation.
The Gulf Coast frames the country's journey to the Civil War. States in the Deep South—Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas—helped to establish the US as a leader of a global economy.
The Gulf states formed a significant part of the Cotton Belt, an agricultural region where cotton became a primary cash crop. By 1860, cotton had become the nation's most valuable export. Ports like Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, and Apalachicola exported vast amounts of cotton. Through these ports, the US established commercial relationships with the rest of the world.
Cotton and slavery grew together, becoming more important and valuable. Enslaved people of African descent made white wealth possible. By 1860, enslaved people were more valuable than all the farmland in the slaveholding states. For all the wealth that grew from cotton and slavery, the nation struggled over the right to enslave human beings.
The struggle came to a head during the November 1860 presidential election. Four political parties competed for the White House and Congress. The Republican Party opposed slavery's expansion into western federal territories. The Democratic Party, split between the Northern Democratic Party and the Southern Democratic Party, held different views about where slavery should exist. A fourth party, the Constitutional Union Party, avoided the topic entirely.
Southern Democratic Party presidential candidate John C. Breckenridge won the popular vote in most slave states but did not defeat Abraham Lincoln. The Gulf Coast states, along with their slaveholding neighbors, felt secession was their only option to protect slavery and their power. The decision to secede led the nation down a path toward civil war
News of Abraham Lincoln's presidential victory triggered calls for secession. Mississippi was the second state to secede on January 9, 1861, followed by Florida on January 10, Alabama, on January 11, Louisiana, on January 26, and Texas on February 1. On February 4, the Confederate States government formed in Montgomery.
War seemed close. Southern forces from the Gulf states seized Federal property like customs houses, arsenals, and fortifications. On Santa Rosa Island in Florida, Union forces held onto Fort Pickens. At the same time, Southern troops took control of the Pensacola Navy Yard. Meanwhile, Mississippi militia took over Ship Island, the site of an incomplete Fort Massachusetts.
The Gulf states were initially safe from large Union armies, but not from the Navy. Union victories along the Gulf rested on Army and Navy cooperation. The Navy transported supplies provided reinforcements and traveled farther than land forces.
The presence of Confederate and Union forces on the Gulf led to a series of clashes early in the war, like the Battle of Santa Rosa Island. 1861 had been a year of hardship for Americans. The Civil War would be longer and bloodier than most had imagined.
The tide of Union success rose in January 1862. General in Chief Winfield Scott's naval blockade of the Southern coast, known as the "Anaconda Plan," was in place. Federal troops concentrated at Ship Island.
Briefly occupied by Confederates in 1861, Ship Island was the best anchorage on the Mississippi Sound. The island became a significant Federal base and prison camp. From Ship Island, Flag Officer David G. Farragut attacked New Orleans, Louisiana.
New Orleans surrendered on April 25, giving the Union control of the lower Mississippi River. Union success on the water, however, did not seal the Confederacy's fate. Elsewhere, Confederate armies checked Union advances across Southern territory.
In New Orleans, Union Major Benjamin F. Butler recruited free and enslaved men of African descent into the Union army. Several thousand black men joined the First, Second, and Third Louisiana Native Guards. Though the Federal government did not officially sanction them, the Louisiana Native Guards overcame prejudice. They helped steer the war toward slavery's downfall. The Second Louisiana, later called the 74th US Colored Troops, was posted on Ship Island.
One of the most significant turning points of the Civil War occurred on January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect. The Proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." Though the Proclamation did not end slavery in the US, it made a clear distinction between the anti-slavery North and the pro-South. For those enslaved people living on the Gulf Coast, their time as slaves was over if they could make it to Union lines.
The Emancipation Proclamation also announced that black men could join the US Army and Navy. By war's end, around 200,000 black men fought to preserve the Union and destroy slavery. Most black soldiers and sailors served in noncombat roles. While some people saw 1863 as a new dawn for the United States, others saw it as a renewed struggle for their survival.
One of the most important 1863 battles in the Gulf region took place from May 21 to July 9. Union Major General Nathaniel P. Banks moved against the Confederate stronghold at Port Hudson, Louisiana, on the Mississippi River. Banks tried timing his attack with the Union march on Vicksburg, around 140 miles to the north. After hearing of the fall of Vicksburg, Confederate forces surrendered Port Hudson, opening the Mississippi River to Union navigation from the Gulf of Mexico.
The spring campaign season began in earnest in 1864. From March 10 to May 22, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter led an expedition of soldiers and sailors against Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor in the Red River Campaign. Taylor's army chased Banks and Porter back to Alexandria, Louisiana, delivering a blow to Union goals in the region.
On the Alabama coast, Confederate strength centered on Mobile. An industrial center and important railroad junction, Mobile was one of only two ports in the Confederacy still accessible to blockade runners bringing critical supplies from abroad. Guarding Mobile Bay were two masonry forts, Morgan and Gaines. Union efforts to capture Mobile involved both land and naval forces in one of the last major campaigns of the Civil War.
Federal troops under Major General Gordon Granger attacked Mobile's defenses on August 5. Fort Gaines fell three days later.
While the landing on Dauphin Island began, Admiral David G. Farragut prepared his Union fleet to enter Mobile Bay. Farragut’s ships ran under the guns of Fort Morgan on August 5 and engaged the Confederate navy. Once past Fort Morgan, the Union fleet overwhelmed Confederates and forced the surrender of Mobile Bay.
Later in 1864, Brigadier General Alexander S. Asboth led a column of Union soldiers from Fort Barrancas to Marianna, Florida. Marianna possessed a large supply depot and served as a recruiting center for the Confederacy. Colonel Alexander B. Montgomery's Confederates confronted Asboth's men on September 27. Asboth's victory at Marianna expanded Union control in the Florida Panhandle and along the Gulf of Mexico.
With the dawn of a new year, civilians and soldiers in the Confederacy experienced a mixture of despair and hope. The Union war effort, meanwhile, was optimistic that victory and the end of the war were in sight.
On the Gulf, Confederate soldiers secured victory in the Battle of Natural Bridge. The victory left the Union unable to capture the Florida capital of Tallahassee. One month later, the Union offset the Confederate victory by taking Mobile. Union Major General Edward R. S. Canby occupied the city on April 12. Three days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.
The Gulf states were readmitted to the US between 1868–1870, during a period known as Reconstruction.
Meanwhile, Americans had a new opportunity to live up to their nation’s founding principles. Progress came in the form of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which abolished slavery, guaranteed citizenship to people born or naturalized in the US, and expanded who could vote. These radical changes triggered a violent reaction.
Former Confederate states passed Black Codes and later Jim Crow laws to restrict black freedom and ensure white supremacy. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s were attempts by a new generation of Americans to fight discrimination. The struggle over human equality and liberty continues to this day.
The Civil War was like a wildfire that wiped out everything in its path. A new nation emerged from the ashes, but the wounds from the war never fully healed. The Civil War's legacy exists today in the form of battlefield parks, monuments, national and regional cemeteries, and in the present-day challenges related to race, politics, wealth, culture, religion, and gender.