Sunday, May 5, 2013

Boat Expedition on the Florida Gulf Coast - April 1863

USS Commodore McDonough. The USS Ft. Henry would have looked similar. Source:  Naval History and Heritage Command photo archives.
One of the Union gunboats along the Florida Gulf Coast in the East Gulf Blockading Squadron was the USS Ft. Henry, under the command of Acting Lieutenant Edward Yorke McCauley. The ship was a converted New York ferryboat, a sidewheel steamer. She patrolled the “Big Bend” portion of the coast from Tampa Bay to the St. Marks River. Adm. Bailey referred to the ship and its crew as the “terror of the coast” due to its success in capturing blockade runners, conducting shore raids to destroy salt works and capture contraband, and other exploits.
On 28 March 1863 the USS Sagamore rendezvoused with the Ft. Henry at Cedar Key. The Sagamore had earlier taken on two launches with landing parties of seamen and marines from the squadron flagship USS St. Lawrence, and here took on two ship’s boats from the Ft. Henry with landing parties. The Sagamore then proceeded south and on 2 April debarked a large landing force off Bayport, north of Tampa Bay and west of the Town of Brooksville, under the overall command of Lt. McCauley. The harbor at Bayport was known to be a haven for blockade runners.

The landing party consisted of two launches from the St. Lawrence, a launch and cutter from the Ft. Henry, a launch and cutter from the Sagamore, and a cutter under the command of the Ft. Henry’s surgeon as an ambulance boat. The boats pulled for shore under heavy weather conditions. This slowed their progress such that Confederate lookouts on shore spotted the approaching landing party. The Confederates ran several smaller sloops aground in the shallow water at the east end of the harbor. They set fire to a larger schooner loaded with cotton. A boat from the Sagamore captured and burned the sloop Helen, loaded with corn.
A small battery of two field guns on shore engaged the Union boats, along with riflemen in earthworks. One seaman from the Sagamore was injured, but not severely, by a musket ball. The bluejackets answered the Confederate fire with their Dahlgren boat howitzers mounted on the bows of the larger launches, silencing the battery. Seeing that their mission was largely accomplished, McCauley ordered the landing force to withdraw. They then rowed north back towards Cedar Key, along the way investigating the Chassahowitzka, Homosassa, Crystal, Withlacoochee and Wacassassa Rivers for blockade runners or contraband. The boat expedition rejoined the Sagamore and Ft. Henry at Cedar Key the evening of 7 April. They had been out for 5 days and covered about 75 miles of shoreline, an amazing feat. McCauley had nothing but praise for the sailors and marines who made this expedition successful.

Sketch of the harbor at Bayport, Florida, during the boat expedition in April 1863. Confederate blockade runners run ashore are on the right in the inner harbor. Large blockade runner schooner burned with cotton is in the narrow mouth between the inner and outer harbors. Confederate battery is shown on the north shore and rifle pits are on north and south shores, along with locations of U.S. Navy ship's boats. Source:  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.

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