Thursday, October 4, 2012

Salt Works Raid at Cedar Key

Drawing of USS Ellen, a converted New York ferryboat; USS Somerset would likely have looked similar. Note that ship is firing on a target on shore, which the Somerset could have done with one of its IX inch Dahlgren smoothbores mounted in pivot fore and aft (as opposed to the 32 pdrs mounted in broadside):

In an initial post, I noted that a major task of the men and ships of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron was the location and destruction of Confederate salt works along the Florida Gulf coast. During the latter part of 1862, USS Tahoma (a 90-day gunboat) and USS Somerset (a converted New York ferryboat) patrolled the waters around Cedar Key, Florida. After receiving intelligence from escaped slaves that Confederate troops in the area had been withdrawn, and knowing of the existence and location of a sizable salt works on Depot Key, Lt. Cdr. Earl English brought his ship the Somerset close inshore on 4 October 1862 and began shelling the facility with the ship’s big guns. On seeing a white flag hoisted, he dispatched two ship’s boats under the command of Acting Master Dennison, his XO. When they landed, they approached a house over which the white flag flew with “several women”, which made the bluejackets hold their fire. Suddenly, Confederate troops in concealment opened fire on the landing party, wounding several sailors (two were subsequently described by the ship’s surgeon as “dangerously wounded”, four as “severely wounded” and two more as “slightly wounded”). The landing party returned fire “. . . killing and wounding several” of the defenders. Prior to withdrawing, the landing party “. . . destroyed several barrels of salt, a number of boats; captured one launch and a large flat.” and also apparently destroyed some of the salt works boilers (quotes from Lt. Cdr. English and Ship’s Surgeon reports in the “Official Records of the Navies”).

The Tahoma arrived on the scene later that day (Cdr. J.C. Howell, captain), and on 6 October, a large landing party (8 boats and about 111 men), armed with two Dahlgren boat howitzers, went ashore to the works. After deploying the howitzers and firing shell, shrapnel and canister into the works, driving off the Confederate defenders, the landing party spread out and began their destructive work. Cdr. Howell reported that a total of 50 to 60 salt boilers were destroyed (estimated by Lt. Cdr. English to produce 150 bushels of salt a day working around the clock), and all structures at the site were burned to the ground in retaliation for the ambush attack on the landing party on 4 October. As the USN forces withdrew to their ships, a train carrying Confederate reinforcements arrived at Cedar Key and the gray troops deployed and fired on the landing party with muskets, but by then the USN boats were out of range. No seamen or marines were killed or injured in this larger expedition.

Cdr. Howell sharply punctuated his after-action report to the East Gulf Squadron command by noting that “The rebels here needed a lesson and they have had it.” Officers of both ships were highly complementary of the conduct of their men during these raids. After reading the officers’ reports of this mission in the “Official Records”, it struck me that we don’t think of sailors dying in the war or being wounded tragically, like we so often do the CW soldiers. Yet reports like these, along with accounts of the engagements of Union Navy ships with Confederate forts and ships, such as on the Mississippi River and Mobile Bay, bring home vividly the fact that sailors were exposed to perils and death, and that many did die in combat during the war.

USS Tahoma:

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