Fort Gaines is one of the key sites in the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay.
Photo: Courtesy of Historic Fort Gaines/DauphinIsland.org
Photo: Courtesy of Historic Fort Gaines/DauphinIsland.org

Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead! The Mobile Bay you don't know

Mobile? Most know it for its beaches, as the port of the USS Alabama, as the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the U.S., and for its newest major attraction, the GulfQuest/National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico.

What isn't so well known about Mobile is that it's a great city for history buffs. The area has stops on the Mobile Bay Civil War Trail, is home to a fort that saw one of the most famous Civil War maritime battles in history and home of the site of the last major battle of the Civil War. But it isn't all Civil War. There are grand historic homes with period finery for those with more...delicate historic tastes. And a wide range of historical artifacts in the History Museum of Mobile.

"Mobile is such a great place to visit for its history because it has so many fascinating stories to tell," said Melanie Thornton, director and public historian at Historic Oakleigh House. It is a city of many colorful layers. Its historic fabric is one that portrays its relationship to the water from colonial times to present day; Mobile is a quintessential port city, a gumbo of merging cultures, which can be experienced by visiting its various attractions and restaurants today."

I've visited most of the Mobile Bay area's historic sites and enjoyed them immensely. I still get chills thinking about the time I stood on its grounds, resolute, with a proper scowl on my face, fist clenched and let loose a full-throated shout: "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"

The other visitors thought I was goofy. I couldn't have cared less.

History Museum of Mobile

Located in the historic downtown of the city, the History Museum of Mobile offers changing and permanent exhibits about the colorful city's past. The Old Ways, New Days two-part exhibit takes a good look at Mobile's first inhabitants, the Native Americans, then moves through a 300-year history with prominent features on the Colonial era right up to the Civil Rights movement in Mobile. Another section has artifacts and interactive exhibits highlighting Mobile's culture and industry. Another special gallery tells the tale of Confederate naval exploits and has on display an original cannon from the Civil War ship CSS Alabama. Through the end of July, a special collection of seldom-seen artifacts is on display including a flag flown by the USS Oneida, a ship in the fleet under the command of Admiral David Farragut during the Battle of Mobile Bay and a complete set of Japanese samurai armor.

History Museum of Mobile, 111 South Royal Street, Mobile. 251-208-7508, www.museumofmobile.com

Conde-Charlotte Museum

The "Gateway to Mobile's History" is an 1850 Federal-style home that was built on the foundation of a building that served as the city's first jail in the 1820s. Today, it displays French, British, Confederate and American antique furnishings – more specifically a British Commandant's room, a French sitting room and bedroom, two Confederate parlors, an American Federal dining room and two American bedrooms. A circa-1800s kitchen is entered through jail cell doors. The house is owned, preserved and operated by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Alabama and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Condé-Charlotte Museum, 104 Theatre Street, Mobile. 251-432-4722, condecharlotte.com

Fort Gaines Historic Site

It may be 40 miles south on the eastern tip of Dauphine Island, but no trip to the Mobile Bay area is complete without a visit to Fort Gaines, one of the key sites in the famous Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay. Does this ring a bell? "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" Yep, this is the place. And Admiral David Farragut was the man who uttered those thrilling words in the heat of battle. The fort has original cannons, a blacksmith shop, kitchens, a museum, gift shop and tunnels, not to mention one heck of a view of Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Self-guided and guided tours are available – the latter done in period uniform. There are also regularly scheduled cannon firing demonstrations and blacksmithing demonstrations.

Fort Gaines Historic Site, 51 Bienvile Blvd., Dauphin Island. 251-861-6992, dauphinisland.org/fort-gaines

Historic Oakleigh Complex

Sitting pretty in Oakleigh Garden Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, Historic Oakleigh House is one of the few surviving Reconstruction-era buildings in the South. The beautiful home, built in 1833, is filled with over 1,000 artifacts that represent life in Mobile from 1830-1900, including an extraordinary silver collection and an impressive art collection. There is also a building used by Union troops as a barracks during Reconstruction years on the property, built about 1867. Historic Oakleigh House is home to the Historic Mobile Preservation Society. The other homes in the historic garden district were built from the 1820s to the 1940s.

Historic Oakleigh House, 300 Oakleigh Place, Mobile. 251-432-1281, www.historicoakleigh.com

Historic Blakeley State Park

About 40 miles across the bay from Mobile, Historic Blakely State Park is situated on 3,800 acres beside the Tensaw River. It's the largest National Historic Register Site east of the Mississippi River and the site where the last major battle of the Civil War was fought. It has 10 miles of nature trails, bicycle and horse paths, tent camping and an RV campground with full utility hookups. Every year there you can enjoy a Civil War reenactment. This spring's smaller Living History Day reenactment is complete, but next year there will be a large reenactment on the Civil War battlefield that includes those #*!#! Yankees charging in and capturing Fort Blakely.

Historic Blakeley State Park, 34745 State Highway 225, Spanish Fort. 251-626-0798, www.blakeleypark.com

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