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Ship Island: An Island Fortress

After Mississippi seceded from the Union on Jan. 9, 1861, the first act of aggression against the state’s former country was to seize Ship Island and the fort that was currently under construction there.

Once Mississippi joined the Confederacy, occupation of Ship Island waned depending on who was in charge. In September 1861, the decision was made by Samuel Cooper, ranking general for the Confederacy, to abandon Ship Island leading the way for a Union take over and possession of the island until the end of the Civil War. Ship Island’s strategic importance was that it provided a deep water staging area for future campaigns against New Orleans and Mobile. Locals were aware of the importance of the island while decision makers in Richmond were not. Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus attempted to convince those in Richmond of the island’s importance, writing “The possession and fortification of Ship Island and all those other small islands lying just off the mainland, would be of immense importance.” While Confederate generals and political leaders struggled to make a decision concerning Ship Island, Captain Edward Higgins, aide-de-camp to General David Twiggs, took possession of island on July 6, 1861. For two months, Confederate occupation of the island entailed continuing the work on the unfinished fort, creating sand bag batteries around the island and stressing the need for light draft gun boats to patrol the Mississippi Sound. During this time, Confederates on Ship Island also had brief encounters with the USS Massachusetts, often trading shots at each other. They also built the brick fort up to the lower casement level and named the unfinished structure Fort Twiggs. By mid July, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Allen assumed command of Ship Island. Meanwhile, Twiggs tried to secure more guns for the defense of the island. By late July, Twiggs maintained five companies of men on Ship Island and believed that those on the island could resist any force sent against it. Even then, Twiggs lobbied for the light draft vessels, “We require a force of efficient gun boats to cooperate with the Ship Island fort.” In September, Colonel Johnson Duncan of the 1st Louisiana Artillery took temporary command of Ship Island. Duncan’s brief command had a great effect on Ship Island’s role in the war. Unimpressed with the unfinished fort and the sand bag batteries, Duncan thought Ship Island was indefensible and favored abandoning the island. Twiggs sent Duncan’s report to Cooper in Richmond and the decision was made to abandon Ship Island. On Sept. 13, 1861, Twiggs received orders to abandon Ship Island. The guns were removed and buildings destroyed. On Sept. 16, Melancton Smith of the USS Massachusetts saw the burning buildings on Ship Island. The Massachusetts, along with the Preble and Marion, sailed and took possession of Ship Island. Among the items captured by Smith were the unfinished fort, thirteen assorted buildings, 36 head of cattle and some iron.

In his report, Smith also included a letter left at the Ship Island headquarters from the Confederates:

Fort Twiggs Ship Island September 17, 1861

To: Commanding Officer of the USS Massachusetts

By order of my government I have this day evacuated Ship Island. This my brave soldiers under my command do with much reluctance and regret. For three long months your good ship has been our constant companion.

We have not exactly “lived and loved together,” but we have been intimately acquainted, having exchanged cards on the 9th day of July last.

In leaving you today we beg you to accept our best wishes for your health and happiness while sojourning on this pleasant, hospitable shore.

That we may have another exchange of courtesies before the war closes, and that we may meet face to face in closer quarters, is the urgent prayer of very truly, Your obedient servant.

H. Allen Lieutenant Colonel Commanding Ship Island

The Federals assumed control of Ship Island, continuing to work on the unfinished fort and building other structures. Eventually, the fort was renamed Fort Massachusetts in honor of the boat that traded shots with Confederates on the island. For the remainder of the war, Ship Island would be under Federal control.

The Civil War history of Ship Island was far from over. Flag Officer David Farragut would use the island as a staging point for his 1862 attack on New Orleans and 1864 campaign against Mobile. The island would also be used as a prisoner of war camp, holding those captured in battle as well as some political prisoners from New Orleans.