Tuesday, January 4, 2011

January 4, 1861 - Seizure of the Mount Vernon Arsenal, Alabama

Mount Vernon Arsenal in 1935
On January 4, 1861, the Southern states continued to prepare themselves for independence. In Alabama, state troops seized the U.S. Arsenal at Mount Vernon (30 miles north of Mobile).

With a history dating back to 1828, the Mount Vernon Arsenal was a unique horseshoe-shaped complex that featured a primary arsenal building, barracks, workshops, officers' quarters, stables and other structures. The entire complex was enclosed by a strong brick wall and had served as a major source for small arms during the Creek War of 1836 and the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). In addition to being a major depository for weapons, the arsenal also was a manufacturing point for small arms ammunition. As such, it was of critical importance to Alabama as that state moved closer to secession from the Union.

Arsenal Wall in 1935
On December 20, 1860, Congressman David Clopton of Alabama had requested that the War Department provide him with the plans of the arsenal. This request remained in limbo for two weeks until Acting Secretary of War J. Holt refused to comply with the request, citing "interest of the service."

On the same day, having received intelligence from Washington that the U.S. Army was considering moving additional troops to the Mount Vernon Arsenal and forts at Mobile Bay, Governor A.B. Moore of Alabama ordered state militia forces to take possession of the posts. Alabama forces arrived at the gates of the arsenal at dawn on January 4, 1861, 150 years ago today. The following report was filed by Captain Jesse Reno, the U.S. Army officer commanding the arsenal, to Captain William Maynadier of the Ordnance Bureau in Washington, D.C.:

MOUNT VERNON ARSENAL, January 4, 1861.

SIR: I have the honor to inform you that this arsenal was taken possession of by four companies of volunteers from Mobile at daylight this morning. I did not make, nor could I have made, any resistance, as they had scaled the walls and taken possession before I knew anything about the movement.
   The governor has demanded all the public property, and his men now have entire possession of the arsenal.
   …As it was impossible for me to hold this place with my seventeen men, I trust that the Department will not hold me responsible for this unexpected catastrophe.

Aerial View of the Arsenal Today
In an unusual move, Governor Moore wrote to President James Buchanan on the same day to inform him of his reasons for ordering the seizure (Abraham Lincoln had not yet taken office). Telling Buchanan that he had ordered the taking of the arsenal, Moore explained that he had received intelligence that U.S. forces were preparing to reinforce the arsenal and other forts in Alabama and willing to shed the blood of Alabama citizens in order to do it:

…The purpose with which my order was given and has been executed was to avoid and not to provoke hostilities between the State and Federal Government. There is no object, save the honor and independence of my State, which is by me so ardently desired as the preservation of amicable relations between this State and the Government of the United States. That the secession of the State, made necessary by the conduct of others, may be peaceful is my prayer as well as the prayer of every patriotic man in the State.

Alabama's Secession Convention would soon meet and vote to take the state out of the Union, but at the time of the seizure the state was still part of the United States.

The Mount Vernon Arsenal today forms a significant portion of the Searcy State Hospital. Many of the buildings and walls remain intact and the original form of the complex is still quite visible.


  1. I'm enjoying this already and look forward to future posts. Thanks Dale!

  2. Terry, Thank you very much! I thought it might be interesting to explore the war from a strictly military perspective instead of opening the door to the never ending debate over why it started.


  3. Great blog! I have a question for you. Were the Mount Vernon Arsenal and Forts Morgan and Gaines the only federal installations in Alabama that were seized? Because I know of these three but haven't heard of any others.


  4. Billy, those were the only three U.S. military installations in the state at the time. Any other Federal offices (post offices, harbor offices, etc.) for the most part just switched from U.S. management to State and then Confederate management.