Sunday, September 30, 2012

US Navy Patrols on the St. Johns River, Florida

The take-over of the Confederate battery on St. Johns Bluff opened the St. Johns River to US Navy forces to conduct patrols up the river. This they did, destroying or taking possession of every small boat, scow, or barge they could find in order to impede the ability of Confederate troops and supplies to be ferried across the river. In 4 October 1862 the USS Cimarron, Water Witch, and E. B. Hale made an expedition up the river. Cdr. Woodhull of the Cimarron reported that 200-300 small vessels were destroyed.

Arriving off Palatka on 5 October, Woodhull reported that he met aboard Water Witch with former Florida Gov. Moseley and a unionist named Blood. During this meeting, a party of armed horsemen were spotted approaching the town by lookouts in the tops of the gunboats. Woodhull signaled for his boats to return to the ships and ordered Snell in the Hale to open fire on the mounted party. The fire was accurate and deadly, apparently killing 3 or 4 of the horsemen. The fire of the gunboat forced the mounted party to retreat back into the adjoining forests and swamps. Blood and his family and the families of black pilots who had assisted the Navy ships with navigation on the river were evacuated for their safety.

A cutting out expedition set out on 6 October to capture the Confederate steamer Gov. Milton, and another steamer. It was known that the Milton was responsible for ferrying Confederate troops and guns to the fortifications on St. Johns Bluff, and that it was also important in conveying supplies run through the Blockade to Confederate forces. Under the command of Lt. Cdr. E. P. Williams, the recently captured Confederate steamer Darlington (rechristened a US ship with the same name, and armed with two 24 pdr boat howitzers) steamed upriver, accompanied by the gunboat Hale. At the entrance to Lake George, shallow depths wouldn’t allow Hale to proceed further, so the Darlington continued upriver through Lake George, leaving Hale to patrol the entrance to the Ocklawaha River, nearby.

At Hawkinsville, 168 miles upstream of Jacksonville, Williams and his men found indications that the Milton was in the area. Taking a party of sailors and soldiers of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Rgt., Williams proceeded up a small creek in ships boats and found the Milton, manned by only two engineers. They took possession of the steamer and reconnoitered up the creek further in search of the other steamer, then out into the St. Johns River as far up as Lake Beresford. When the steamboat could go no further due to river depths, running low on rations, and deep in Confederate territory, Williams decided to proceed back downriver to rejoin the Hale and return to his base. Along the way up and back down river, numerous small vessels and other enemy property was destroyed or confiscated by the Union expedition.

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