Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ambush on the St. Johns River

The dock and hotel at Magnolia Springs, Florida, probably after the Civil War. Source: Florida Dept. of State photo archives:

In his report to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron on 3 December 1862, Cdr. Maxwell Woodhull of the gunboat USS Cimarron describes meeting in early October with a “Mr. Benedict” at his hotel/resort at Magnolia Springs (also called ‘Magnolia’), on the St. Johns River, Florida. Woodhull described the hotel as:

“. . . a splendid three-story hotel, covering a large space of ground, surrounded by quite a number of beautiful cottage residences (part of the establishment). It all belongs to this Mr. Benedict, and has been a favorite winter resort in past years for invalids from the north. The property is very valuable and no expense has been spared, apparently, to make it an agreeable place of sojourn.”

At this meeting, Mr. Benedict expressed his desire that the US Navy assist in evacuating his son to the north to escape the Confederate conscription (Army draft). Several weeks afterward, Woodhull sent the steam gunboat USS Uncas on a patrol up the St. Johns River, and directed her commander, Acting Master W. M. Watson, to stop by the Magnolia Springs Hotel and meet with Benedict. Arriving off the hotel on 28 November, Watson dispatched a shore party that met Benedict at the river end of the hotel’s dock (described by Woodhull as “nearly 300 yards in length” – typical of docks on the river today. There is a very broad shoal of very shallow water along the shoreline of the river in much of this reach).

Benedict told the officer commanding the landing party that he no longer wished to send his son north, but he requested that they go ashore with him to receive some mail he wanted sent north. As the sailors, accompanied by the southern man, approached the shoreline end of the dock, Benedict suddenly jumped underneath the structure. A group of Confederates in hiding (numbered at 50 men) opened fire on the landing party; it was a trap, and the Union bluejackets found themselves in an ambush. Amazingly, none were hit by the gunfire. They retreated back down the dock “in good order”, under fire the entire time. When they were safely back in the ship’s boat (and out of the line-of-fire), Watson had the Uncas open fire on the shore, pounding the attackers with shellfire. The landing party re-boarded the ship with no casualties.

After summarizing Capt. Watson’s report, Woodhull wrote in his 3 December dispatch:

I extremely regret that at the time of the above occurrence, he (Watson) had not there and then destroyed everything within the range of his guns, which would have been the proper punishment for such barefaced treachery. I indeed was much inclined to proceed up myself next morning and retaliate with fire . . .”

However, Woodhull deferred on this and reported the incident to Rear Adm. S. F. DuPont to await his orders.

A post-war (1884) navigation map of the St. Johns River is on the NOAA Historical Maps site that Gordon brought to our attention back in March on this very blog. The area that is the subject of this post is on the west (left) bank of the river in the upper left quarter of the map, north of Green Cove Springs. The area is labeled as “Magnolia”. If you zoom in on this area, you can see a dock projecting from the shoreline, which is probably the hotel’s dock, since it remained in business for at least a few decades after the war.

1 comment:

  1. As a postscript to this post, in subsequent reports to the Squadron, Woodhull indicates he held off retaliating because he was unsure whether or not Benedict was coerced into doing what he did by partisan guerillas or whether he was a willing participant in the ambush. DuPont told him to more-or-less let it go for now.