Tuesday, September 1, 2009

John Tipton Womack

A tunnel through an tall earth embankment
leads to the entrance to Fort Morgan
John Tipton Womack's service in the Confederate army took him to Mobile Bay, the site of one of the more decisive naval battles of the Civil War. But Womack and most of his Alabama infantry regiment were long gone in 1864 when Admiral David Farragut led a fleet of Union warships into the bay, reportedly shouting "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."  


According to Confederate records, Womack (sometimes written as Wamack) was 30 years old when he enlisted as a private in Company K of the 2nd Alabama Infantry Regiment. He had spent all of his life living in the area south of Chattanooga along the Tennessee-Alabama border. He was born in Swedens Cove, Tenn., near South Pittsburg, Tenn., but was living a few miles south in Jackson County, Ala., at the start of the war.

John T. Womack
Womack's family traced its lineage back to William Womack who had emigrated from Lincolnshire, England, to the Virginia Colony in the early 1600s. His grandfather, also named William, served in the Revolutionary War, then moved with his brothers from North Carolina to Tennessee. In 1859, Womack married Margaret Council, a Jackson County native, and the couple had two daughters. But in 1859, when Margaret was 26, she died in a fire while making soap at their home. The house and all their possessions were lost.

Now a widower, Womack enlisted in the Magnolia Regiment, a unit composed of companies raised in Calhoun, Clarke, Franklin, Jackson, Mobile, Monroe, and Pickens counties. Jackson County contributed most of the men in Company K which was called the Jackson Rifles and served under Capt. Alexander M. Saxon.
A wide ditch separated the fort's inner walls
from a high earth embankment.

The Alabama volunteers were untrained recruits and not yet part of an official CSA regiment when they were sent south to take control of the federal arsenal at Mobile and a pair of forts that guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay. The largest was Fort Morgan, located on the east side of the entrance to Mobile Bay from the Gulf of Mexico at the end of a narrow spit of land that extends west from Gulf Shores and Pensacola.

Morgan and Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island were the key defenses for the busy ports about 30 miles north at Mobile. Although small boats could get to Mobile from the west, heavy warships would have to stay in the channel and pass between the two forts.


Like Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Fort Morgan was part of a series or coastal forts built after the War of 1812. Completed in 1834, the fort is shaped like a five-pointed star with massive brick walls surrounded by earthworks. An open, moat-like trench that ran between the embankments and the walls of the fort provided an open area where canon and rifle fire would greet any attacking infantry.

But Womack's group an the other rebels who approached the fort at dawn on January January 3, 1861, eight days before Alabama officially seceded from the Union, had no need to worry about the killing ground. The few Union troops who were stationed at the fort had evacuated several days earlier, taking as much supplies and arms as they could load aboard a pair of federal sloops. When Col. John B. Todd and four companies of soldiers entered the fort, they found it was nearly empty.

Harry Maury
In her book Fort Morgan and the Battle at Mobile Bay, Doris Rich quoted a Southern nurse from Mobile who described the Confederate victory: "They took it without striking a blow, and their prisoners, a lame man and a mule, were brought up in triumph to the city; the man was made a hero by being carried over the town for exhibition."

The fort was soon crowded with Confederate soldiers who stayed in the citadel, a large building in the center of the fort, or camped on the parade grounds.In April, the Magnolia Regiment was officially organized under Col. Harry Maury of Mobile and Lt. Col. Hal C. Bradford of Jackson. The soldiers and other volunteers went to work turning the fort's heavy guns to face the channel and building trenches east of the fort to resist an attack by ground forces. For the next three years, the fort provided protection for merchant ships that had to evade the Union's naval blockade to trade with countries sympathetic to the South. Southern cotton went out, British arms came in.


The fort was the site of the first casualty of the Civil War. Noble Leslie Devotie was a Baptist preacher from Selma who enlisted as chaplain in the Confederate army in 1861. His and other units from Selma were sent to Fort Morgan. On Feb. 12, 1861, Devotie was about to board a steamer at the fort when he lost his footing and fell into the water. His body washed ashore three days later.

Lithograph by Louis Prang
The Magnolia Regiment was among the Confederate infantry forces that guarded the fort and provided artillery crews during the early years of the war. The regiment's commander, Col. Maury, was an adventurer who seemed to court conflict and trouble. A former lawyer and marshal of Mobile, he had run afoul of the federal government in 1857 when he participated in efforts to raise a private army that would help establish English-speaking colonies in Central America. He also fought a duel with a former French officer and business associate. Maury shot the man in the mouth, but failed to kill him.

When the Civil War broke out, Maury enlisted as a private but was soon elected by the men to be the regiment's colonel. It may have helped hios career that his cousin, Major General Dabney Maury, was in command of the Confederate garrison at Mobile. Maury was with the regiment in March of 1862 when it was sent north to assist troops defending Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Western Tennessee. But the Alabamanans were of little help to the besieged defenders who abandoned the fort in June, opening the way for the Union capture of Memphis.

Most of the men in Womack's 2nd Regiment had enlisted for just 12 months and by the time they reached Fort Pillow, their service time was up. Womack was among the many soldiers who simply headed home. Some of the other officers and men joined other Alabama units. Col. Maury was elected colonel of Alabama's 32nd Infantry. He later commanded a Confederate cavalry unit and survived a court martial after he ignored an order to attack Pascagoula, Miss.

Fort Morgan damaged by Union shelling
Unlike Fort Pillow, Fort Morgan remained in Confederate hands throughout most of the war. In the summer of 1864, Union naval forces directed by Admiral Farragut slipped past the fort's guns and entered the bay where they captured or sank four Confederate ships. hat had been operating in the bay. After two weeks of bombardment from land and sea, the rebels inside the fort surrendered.

By then, Womack had returned to Jackson County, Ala. In 1866 he married Jerusha Griffin, a widow who had lost her husband three years earlier just a few miles from home at the Battle of Chickamauga. For several years the couple ran a boarding house in South Pittsburg while raising five children. The first was Charles Nelson Womack, who married Amira Ellen Woodfin. She was the daughter of Samuel Chase Woodfin, a Confederate veteran who had also been in the battles around Chattanooga. Their first child was Larada Nelson Womack, my grandmother.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I may be totally off, but it's worth a try... I have a gg grandmother named Mary E Walls that married a Shoemake/Shumate. Her marriage certificate indicates Walls, but her death certificate indicates that her father was a Womack. I see a few connecting Walls/Womacks, but I think Mary is possibly the baby listed on an 1870 census in what must be John and Jerusha's boarding house. The confusing part is the "Womack" father. Maybe you have no further information, but perhaps you do?

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