Friday, May 23, 2014

Ambush of the USS Columbine on the St. Johns River, Florida

Confederate cavalry Capt. John J. Dickison. Florida State Archives, Florida Memory Project.

One of the Confederate heroes of the war in Florida was Capt. John Jackson Dickison. He was born in Virginia, but moved to Florida prior to the war and established a plantation north of current-day Ocala. At the start of the Civil War, he joined the Confederate military effort and established two army units before finally assembling Company H of the Second Florida Cavalry, C.S. He acquired a detailed knowledge of the back roads and terrain of the Florida peninsula, which made him a constant threat to Union military actions, and time and time again, he waged an audacious guerilla campaign which constantly embarrassed and defeated the Union Army.

In April 1864, Union General George H. Gordon received intelligence that his troops garrisoned in Volusia, Florida, might be besieged by Confederate forces. He marshaled his resources and on 21 May 1864, he departed Jacksonville with troops upriver on Army transports, accompanied by the gunboat USS Ottawa (a “90-day” gunboat) and the armed tugboat USS Columbine. They arrived at Volusia, and found that the garrison there was not at all threatened.

Gen. Gordon departed northward by land with his forces to return to Jacksonville, and had the navy flotilla accompanying him return by river to the city. The Ottawa headed downriver with the Army transports and left the Columbine at Volusia for another day or so to provide additional fire support “just in case.” Capt. Dickison actually attacked the Ottawa and its transports while they were at anchor off Picolata on 22 May 1864. He found out from intelligence picked up by some sly southern ladies that the Columbine would be coming back downriver in the next couple days.

Dickison deployed two field guns and his sharpshooters in the swamps on the banks of the St. Johns River near a location known as Horse Landing. The afternoon of 23 May 1864, a smudge of coal smoke on the upriver horizon indicated that the Columbine was coming down.  Surprisingly, her commander, Acting Ensign Frank Sanborn, expected a possible ambush at Horse Landing and had his guns fire a few shells into the adjacent swamps. Dickison and his men took cover and re-manned their positions after the USN gunboat ceased firing. As the tug passed by at a range of about 60 yards, Dickison’s men opened fire. The first salvos were deadly, disabling the ship’s rudder, killing most of the men in the pilothouse, and causing other damage. Although Sanborn and his crew put up a gallant defense, many of the men on board were African-american soldiers and feared for their lives, so they began to jump overboard and try to make their way to shore. Sanborn surrendered the ship and remaining crew to Dickison, who confiscated all of the weaponry and supplies he could off of the ship, including its two Dahlgren boat howitzers. He then burned and sank the ship due to fears that the Ottawa would be back upriver soon to provide defense/revenge.

This was the first known defeat/sinking of a U.S. Navy vessel by a land based force. “Urban legend” has it that Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest heard about this action and, determined to not let some “Florida cracker” get all this glory, attacked and sunk a number of Union vessels (both warships and transports) on the Mississippi. I’m not so sure about this, myself. I think both Dickison and Forrest were “cut from the same type of cloth” and conducted their actions independently. Any thoughts or clarification from our devoted readers out there would  be welcome.

Dickison and his forces attacking the Columbine on the St. Johns River. Florida State Archives, Florida Memory Project.

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