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Mississippi’s Ship Island lures visitors with sun, sand and history

Story and photos by Bob Schulman  

You’ll need to bring more than your swimsuit and sunscreen to the white sands of Ship Island off the Mississippi coast’s resort area.

Also bring a good imagination, because a lot of history was made on this little island, one of a chain of specks separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi Sound.

It’s about an hour-long boat ride across the Sound from the dock at Gulfport to the stringbean-shaped island. You dock near a Civil War-vintage fort the height of a three-story building bristling with gun ports and topped by a huge cannon.

Sun-lovers head off to the island’s powdery beaches, while others stick around the landing area for a tour of the fort.

This would be a good time to activate your imagination, because the guide – an employee of the U.S. National Park Service – paints vivid word-pictures of all the history book-fillers that went on here over the centuries.

First, he tells you, the island got its name in 1699 when French explorers found it  had a protected, deep water anchorage where large ships would be safe. Hence the tag, Ship Island.

That deep-water feature of the island was a big deal, because the waters around the dozens of other islands edging the 160-mile Sound from Mobile Bay to New Orleans were too shallow to anchor big ships (much less fleets of them).

So guess where the British navy decided to set up a staging area when they were getting ready to attack New Orleans in the War of 1812.

That’s right, at Ship Island.

Try to imagine 60 warships bobbing around at anchor while 10,000 troopers ran around the island practicing maneuvers for the coming battle.

They lost, and the British fleet came limping back to the island to rest up for the trip back home.

After that, the guide tells you, the U.S. government decided to dot the so-called “barrier” islands from Florida to Texas with a string of forts.

The one on Ship Island  was only partially built when Mississippi seceded from the Union in January 1861.

The break-away prompted the Mississippi militia to boot the construction workers off Ship Island – three months before Confederate gunners blasted the Union stronghold of Fort Sumter to officially launch the Civil War.

The Confederate stars and bars were flying over the fort on Ship Island when the Union gunboat U.S.S. Massachusetts showed up in July to lob some shells at the rebels, who then lobbed some shells back at the steamship.

The lobbing lasted about 20 minutes, during which little damage was done and no one was seriously hurt.

Both sides claimed victory.

Although it wasn’t much of a fight, the skirmish scored two entries in the chronicles of the Gulf Coast.

First, it was the only time the fort saw action.

And it led to the naming of the until-then unnamed project: Fort Massachusetts (after the Union steamship that attacked it).

The rebels opted to abandon the island that fall, after which it was re-occupied by Union forces.

They went back to work on the fort, but by the time it was finished in 1866 the four-year war was over.

Getting there: Double-deck tour boats operated by Ship Island Excursions (www.msshipisland.com)  zip across the waters to the island and back from March through October.

Vacationers can either drive to the area or catch airline flights to Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

Within a 45-minute ride from the terminal are dozens of tourist-class hotels including top-rated casino resorts such as the 1,740-room MGM Beau Rivage (www.beaurivage.com) in Biloxi.

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