Sunday, March 4, 2012

How to catch a train with a gunboat

During the occupation of Fernandina, Florida, in early March 1862, one the weirdest events of the Civil War involving a US Navy ship transpired, perhaps the only occurrence of an incident like this in the history of the US Navy.

As the USS Ottawa, Lt. Thomas H. Stevens commanding, approached Fernandina, they discovered a train departing the town with Confederate troops and refugees, one of whom was rumored to be former Florida US Sen. David Levy Yulee. As the track ran along the Amelia River for a distance, the Ottawa went steaming up the river after the train, firing at it in the pursuit, which went for 2 miles. Stevens fired on the train because he believed that it was only carrying military personnel. One shell struck the last car on the train, killing two young men sitting on the pile of material stacked on the car. The car was detached and the train made its getaway.

The illustration above is an old map of the region showing Ft. Clinch (at the northern tip of Amelia Island), old Fernandina and the route of the cross-Florida railroad out of the town. The illustration below is a current aerial photo with some of the same features labeled and the possible route of the Ottawa as she chased the departing train. Upper illustration is from the Florida Dept. of State and the current aerial photo, below, is from the St. Johns River Water Management District.

A detailed account of the Ottawa escapade is on the USS Ft. Henry website at:

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