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The Castles of the US

There are more ways between two places than one route. And this is most certainly true in the South of the US, where vast stretches of highway connect state to state and city to city. The best option is like life down there, the slow option, passing by swampy forests, full of willows, cedar, and oak, where the Spanish moss reaches from tall branches down to the ground below. The air is thick and wet, old men watch your car pass from huge covered front porches.

We already took the fast highway route. I wanted a different route. I wanted the slow route.

Fort Morgan entrance

Fort Morgan being invaded by Federalists

I’ve seen dozens and dozens of European castles, and only add to that number every time I leave Prague. So, I thought it was high time I saw an American castle, and by castle here I mean fortress.

Around Perdido Key, there are four old fortresses open for touring, Fort McRee (which you can’t go inside), Fort Pickens, Fort Morgan, and Fort Gaines.

Fort Morgan

Defending the Fort

These are quite different than the traditional medieval European castles one’s used to thinking about though, as they were built in quite a different age. As you might see in towns like Dubrovnik, the medieval days saw the walls on fortifications get higher and higher, with towers and keeps soaring into the sky. This was because the main siege weapons were catapults and trebuchets, which were more often than not, used to send rocks flying through the air over the walls and decimating the garrison from above. But with the advent of cannon warfare, and gunpowder stockpiles blowing up famous sites (see also: the Parthenon), fortifications began to change.

Fort Morgan

the second tier

Medieval castles became somewhat powerless when it came to cannons, so they transformed into beautiful, sprawling palaces, and fairy tale monuments, while a new sort of military fort emerged. The new kind would be lower to the ground, which made it harder to hit with cannons, using more earthworks to defend from attacks. With its more parallel position, it was then easier to send a barrage of powerful explosives towards any advancing army or navy. And instead of being in populated areas, they were more often than not placed away from them.

Fort Morgan entrance

a profoundly useless cannon

These especially were the overlying ideas behind the development of the string of fortresses built along the US’s southern coast. The first series of fortifications were built in the area by the Spanish, who were later kicked out by American expansion—interestingly, in our War of 1812 against the British, we were only able to soundly defeat the Spanish, until after the war was over, when Andrew Jackson pommeled the British a bit too Johnny-come-lately over in New Orleans.

The Americans then set about building a better fort system, known as the “Third System”, which was defined by its low, protected masonry walls and two tiers of cannon. Most of these were completed just in time for the Civil War. Good for those entitled Southerner loafers who refused to pay their taxes and just milked the Union for their forts. Granted, these forts probably weren’t all that expensive, since the South benefited from slaves, and forts like Morgan were one-hundred percent built by those non-Union laborers.

Fort Morgan

near one of the 360 cannon placements

The Civil War

Here’s the thing though, many saw their only use during the Civil War. And a few in the South were never even held by the Confederates, but maintained Union alliance, like nearby Fort Pickens. The commanding officer of Fort Barrancas, Lt. Adam J Slemmer, refused to join with the Confederates, took his men to Fort Pickens, rebuilt it, and held up there until the Union could bring in reinforcements.

Fort Morgan, on the other hand, was in rebel traitor hands, where it served alongside Fort Gaines (on the other side of the ferry) as Mobile’s key protection agent against the Northern aggressors. After it was captured by the Union, it served the Union army for a short while until Lee’s surrender.

Fort Morgan

exploring the interior

The Decline of the Forts

It was reinforced a bit during the Spanish-American War, but didn’t really see any use, and after 1947 was abandoned altogether.

Now it’s a big pile of earth, mortar, and stone, with some plaques and cannon placements, though its main cannonades are long gone. Where it once was three stories tall with hundreds of cannons, it now just looks to be one story tall with only a couple fire breathers left.

It’s at the very tip of the Key towards Alabama, and made it on our route primarily because there’s a ferry terminal right next to it. And because castles. It can be reached on foot from the terminal.

Fort Morgan

View of some oil wells

The Ferry

From there, the only way to continue on to New Orleans is to go back or take the ferry. During the summer, the ferry runs every 45 minutes, and during the off-season, every hour and a half. It’s come as you go, meaning you can’t reserve tickets ahead of time, and passage is 18 dollars per car and 6 dollars per passenger or pedestrian.

Dauphin Island ferry

he comes bearing presents

The route goes straight across Mobile Bay, which is spotted with dozens of huge oil platforms. The boat is chased by seagulls and sometimes dolphins, and the undersea life is full of sharks, so don’t fall in.

on the Dauphin Island Ferry

someone isn't as afraid as they should be...

Castles of the US, Fort Morgan

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