Knitting an island back together
In 1859, the U.S. Army began construction on a Third System masonry fort on Ship Island in the Mississippi Sound with the idea of covering the approaches to Lakes Borgne and Ponchartrain– the back door to New Orleans. As far as shipping was concerned, he who controlled Ship Island held the strategic key to both Mobile Bay and the Mighty Mississippi, or so it was thought.
By January 1861 when Mississippi seceded, little had been accomplished in the shifting sands of the barrier island and the local greycoats sailed out the 12 miles from Biloxi to take over the unfinished works. Soon, the venerable steam frigate USS Massachusetts would come along and run the interlopers off, making it one of the first of the Union seacoast defenses seized by the Confederacy to be recaptured when the Stars and Stripes was run up in September.
Soon, the island would be packed with nearly 8,000 men of the 4th Wisconsin, 8th New Hampshire, 8th Vermont, 6th Michigan, 21st Indiana; 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th Maine; 12th Connecticut, and 26th & 31st Massachusetts.
Farragut used the island for a base and it proved a stepping stone to capture New Orleans in early 1862. One of the first African-American infantry units, the Second Louisiana Native Guard would call the mosquito-infested, yellow-fever ridden island home for a longer period of time.
The Native Guard, working with the shallow-draft sloop-of-war USS Vincennes, raided nearby Pascagoula in a sharp skirmish in 1863.
After that, the island was used as a POW camp for captured rebels and blockade runners.
Due to the nature of the camps, poor sanitation and an influx of disease would claim at least 153 Confederates and 230 bluecoats. The former were interred near their stockade in the middle of the island while the latter buried closer to what is now Fort Massachusetts.
The horseshoe-shaped fort itself was only completed after the Civil War and in many ways is unique. With the conflict over and brick forts shown to be ineffective against rifled naval guns, it was soon reduced to a caretaker status just after 1866.
The graves of the U.S. troops were moved to what is now Chalmette National Cemetery, which was founded in 1864 to house Union dead.
The graves of the Confederates were left on the island and, in 1969, Hurricane Camille sliced a path through Ship Island, dividing the thin strip of sand and sea oats in half. The split, deemed “Camille Cut” for obvious reasons, crossed over the site of the rebel graveyard.
Now, a $400 million plan — the second largest environmental restoration project in the 100-year history of the National Park Service– has united the two sides of the island back together into one. The sand replenishment will take about three years, and once that work is complete, dune grass and other vegetation will be planted on what was the Camille Cut to help stabilize it.
As for the Confederates, they are considered buried at sea but a marker at Fort Massachusetts remembers them.