April 5, 2021 |Eric Wuestewald

Safeguarding Black History and Endangered Ecosystems at Fort Blakeley in Alabama

The Battle of Fort Blakeley—which many have called the “last stand of the Confederate States of America”—is one of the most important Civil War stories you’ve probably never heard. Not only was this the last major fight of the war, but it ended in the resounding defeat of Confederate forces by one of the heaviest concentrations of U.S. Colored Troops in any one battle.

Though their story is scarcely mentioned, more than 200,000 U.S. Colored Troops fought for the United States between the Revolution and the end of the war before being given citizenship. In December 2020, The Conservation FundAmerican Battlefield Trust and the University of South Alabama announced the permanent protection of 60 acres of the Fort Blakeley battlefield along the Tensaw River, known as Blakeley Bluff. Preserving the land where these soldiers fought not only memorializes the story of U.S. Colored Troops and their role in ending the war, but expands historical research opportunities and safeguards one of Alabama’s most significantly endangered ecosystems.

We spoke with Bill Finch, a writer, conservationist, and principal advocate for the project, about the ecological significance of this land, what makes the U.S. Colored Troops so important, and what the protection of this site means for him as an Alabama native.

What should we know about the Battle of Fort Blakeley?

Bill Finch: It’s the last battle and, in many ways, the culminating battle that ended the Civil War. And just as importantly, it was probably the greatest victory for the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War.

It may be more important as a battle than people realize, because General Robert E Lee had signaled that he’s going to surrender and was marching his troops toward Appomattox. But Jefferson Davis was in Florida screaming, ‘Don’t you listen to Lee. We aren’t giving up!’ So even with Lee going to Appomattox, it was not at all clear the Civil War really was over.

And there was one last town left that was on the coast—the city of Mobile, Alabama. The battle of Mobile was a way of saying, ‘Look, we really are going to end this thing.’ There were several stages of the battle, but it culminated at Blakeley virtually simultaneously with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. It finalized the surrender in a very important way. It basically cut off any hope that the South could still mount a battle.

Tell us more about the importance of the U.S. Colored Troops.

Bill: They played a huge role in the Civil War that we forget. Some of these soldiers were forced to serve in the Confederate Army, but when those units were captured, a lot of them converted quickly to Union troops.

When the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed, it was clear that the U.S. Colored Troops were going to be an important force. And there was nothing that White southerners feared more than having people that they had formerly enslaved fighting against them on the battlefield. Confederate General (and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) Nathan Bedford Forrest wanted to retaliate, so he ordered his troops to surround a place called Fort Pillow in Kentucky where many U.S. Colored Troops were stationed. The Black soldiers surrendered but were shot and butchered by Forrest’s troops in retaliation for the Emancipation Proclamation to discourage any more Black soldiers from signing up.

There was a lot working against them in the North too. A lot of the people in power were not convinced that the Union should have Black soldiers playing a prominent role in battle. They were constantly having to prove themselves, but they did in several battles, including at Blakeley. There was a long argument and a lot of disagreement about whether they should allow the Colored Troops to lead off the battle, but in the end they did.

The rallying cry “Remember Fort Pillow!” could be heard as U.S. Colored Troops fought at the Battle of Fort Blakeley. Within 20 minutes they had completely overrun the Confederate placements. The Confederates that were there did not want to be captured by Black troops, so many of fled, and the battle was quickly concluded.

U.S. Colored Troops played this huge role in the end of the Civil War that I think people just don’t recognize and Blakeley Bluff is a great place to recognize it. Fort Pillow was a place of tragedy for the U.S. Colored Troops, but here was a great place of victory. These days when we talk about whether Confederate statues should stand up, what I want to see is a representation of the charge of these Colored Troops coming across that Hill.

What makes this location so ecologically important?

Bill: This is one of the largest deltas in North America, and probably the richest deltaic system in North America, 35 miles long, and 10 or 12 miles wide across to Mobile. It’s full of many rare things. There’s a holly there—the Alabama dahoon holly—that’s only found in a few locations. Beautiful forests. Beautiful swamps. Beautiful meadows full of wildflowers. There’s all kinds of incredible Cypress swamps that are just stunning. It’s an incredibly rich place overlooking the Alabama river, which is the center of fish diversity in North America. It’s just richness everywhere you turn.

4 5 21 Arial view of the Blakeley Bluffs property courtesy of Keith West University of South Alabama 343Photo by Keith West, University of South Alabama.

It is not only an important ecological site, it also holds archeological significance. We have lots of evidence that the bluffs were very important to pre-Colombian culture as a source of pottery, as an important control point for North American people. It has Native American artifacts all over it. It was the last village known for the Apalachee Indians, which were the big tribe along the Gulf coast. The two largest cities in North America in 1250 AD were in the Mobile basin. We’ve wiped out so much of pre-Colombian civilization that we forget how important these places were, but there’s a deep, deep history to the site.

How did you get involved in this project?

Bill: I’ve been working on conservation and preservation projects in South Alabama for a long time. I was conservation director for the Nature Conservancy in Alabama, as well as an environmental journalist. I wrote a lot about these sites, the Delta, and the history of the area. Then some properties came up for sale along the edge of the Delta next to Blakeley. I looked at them for a long time and then decided, you know, I’m going to get involved and figure out what to do about this property.

4 5 21 Blakeley Bluff Civil War site 34 photo credit Beth Maynor FinchBill Finch visiting the Blakeley Bluff Civil War site. Photo by Beth Mayor Finch.

It’s kind of a marker for a lot of people in the Delta because of these beautiful high bluffs and because the river underneath is one of the deepest spots in Alabama. I knew about the biological significance, but I had not known about this story about the U.S. Colored Troops. And then it became apparent that not only is the biology worth preserving, but boy, what a landmark of American history!

4 5 21 Arial view of the Blakeley Bluffs property courtesy of Keith West University of South Alabama 34Aerial view of Blakeley Bluff. Photo by Keith West, University of South Alabama.


What is the permanent protection of the site mean to you personally?

Bill: It allows us to tell the depth of our real story—not only about modern civil rights, but about pre-Colombian cultures as well. All of these things converge there, and it becomes one of the most important landmarks I can imagine for a new generation of Alabamians to understand our real heritage, both biological and human.

I wish I could communicate to people how beautiful this site is and how much more beautiful it will be once we fully restore it back to the way it was. Understanding history and a beautiful place is really nice. The biodiversity, the human diversity, the human story, civil rights, pre-Colombian cultures, it’s just an amazing convergence of things at that one place.

Written by

Eric Wuestewald

At the time of publication, Eric Wuestewald was the Digital Content Marketing Manager for The Conservation Fund.