Friday, October 21, 2011

The River War in Florida

Union Navy steamer skirmishing with Confederate sharpshooters "near Fernandina, Fla." Possibly the Amelia or St. Marys Rivers. Source: Fla. Dept. of State online photo archive.

CWN 150 Coordinator Matt Eng had some neat links in his “October Updates” post of 13 Oct 2011. One featured an article in the Washington Post that concluded in part “. . . the Civil War was a river war.” This got me thinking about the role of the US Navy in Florida during the war, and that to a great extent we can say the same thing; it was very much a “river war.” For most of the conflict, Confederate militia and home guard controlled much of the interior of the state (roads and railroads), and so the US Army depended a lot on the Navy to transport their men, animals, and material. The US Navy made a number of expeditions up the St. Johns River on the Florida east coast, which I will detail much more on the appropriate dates in 2012. Numerous cutting out expeditions to go after blockade runners and/or contraband were conducted by the US Navy on the rivers of both coasts in Florida. Even fictional accounts highlight the river war in Florida. In the novel “At the Edge of Honor” by Robert Macomber, a Union armed sloop commanded by Master Peter Wake engages in a nighttime firefight with two Confederate blockade runners on the Peace River, in southwest Florida:

Now they could get a bearing on the enemy sounds, coming down the southern shore of the river, to the right of the Rosalie, and almost dead ahead of Thorton's boat. . . Without warning, a blast exploded on the right, followed by a volley of more blasts, as the men in Thorton's boat fired at the enemy. The light of the musket blasts flared out over the water and illuminated the (enemy) schooner for a brief moment. . . . Men on all the vessels were now shouting and screaming. Blasts and flames were coming from everywhere. . . Wake, seeing that the schooner was now just about at the line of anchored vessels and was firing into Thorton's boat, stood up and yelled as loud as he could, 'Fire, Durlon, fire!' The roar of the twelve-pounder overwhelmed all other noise and action. The flame it spewed out carried for twenty feet and lit up the entire river, clearly showing the damage along the starboard side of the schooner from the dozens of small rounds that had been packed into the canister ammunition. . . . The sound of the screaming and yelling and shooting from the schooner made it sound like a ship from hell as it continued out of control toward Wake's sloop.

Captured schooner crewed by USN sailors from the USS Stars and Stripes skirmishes with dismounted Confederate cavalry on the Ochlockonee River, Florida. Source: Fla. Dept. of State online photo archive.

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