By Frank Howard
Copyright 1993, F.D. Howard
Other than the well known, and often written about, landing of Federal troops at St. Marks and the subsequent Battle of Natural Bridge little is said about the "minor" events which sometimes severely affected the lives of local people but played perhaps only the tiniest role in the overall war. Sometimes it is neat to remind ourselves that some of our forebears had to deal not only with the shortages brought on by that war, but also the terrors of nearby war action even though they were not near any sort of battlefield.
In the early part of the war one could only hear rumors of nearby action out on the water such as in June when a US schooner was captured by the CS Gunboat SPRAY (a side wheeled 3 "gun" steamboat, captained by a Lt. McGary, CSN) somewhere to the east of the St. Marks River. The SPRAY was a new ship with a very modern steam engine and was in constant use transporting troops and material out to Lighthouse Point.
However, for most folks in this area, the immediate result of the war was an instant revival in the shipping business. For a port which had, several years ago, seen its better days this was not altogether bad news. After all, the big foundry at Newport could (and did!) begin producing iron shot, shells, and other such war material.
Unfortunately, the easy shipping was short lived as the big US Screw Steamer MOHAWK (Screw refers to the new propeller driven vessels such as this, a USN Battle Steamer, 3rd Class) began blockading the port in July of 1861. Just prior to this the CS Sloop GEORGE B. SLOAT had been captured as it left the St. Marks river. The war was on.
Perhaps the first military action observed by local residents occurred that same month when the MOHAWK used its small armed boats to move the captured Confederate schooner (SLOAT) into the channel and sink it in an attempt to block the channel.
The above is a pastel drawing (also by F.D. Howard) of the SPRAY. (Click for larger view.)
A few months later the CS Gunboat SPRAY, now stationed at Port St. Marks, steamed downriver to below Port Leon and began shelling out into the bay (February 1862). Actually it was returning fire as the MOHAWK had positioned itself off Lighthouse Point and was shelling the saltworks near the lighthouse. Capt. Scott's Cavalry, the Tallahassee Guards, had moved in quickly to ward off any potential invasion. After a near damageless exchange of cannon shot the Federal ship halted the short chase and moved out into the Gulf.
Four months later the US Screw Gunboat TAHOMA (seven guns, 507 tons) and the US Ferryboat SOMERSET crossed the St. Marks bar and commenced shelling the Confederate fort-works (Ft. William) and saltworks near the lighthouse. The shelling destroyed the troop barracks and the Confederate Artillerymen stationed there had to withdraw. The Federals then put men ashore to burn what was left standing. The interior of the lighthouse-keeper's house was burned.
A few months later a gunboat lobbed 5 shot over into the saltworks at Goose Creek but caused no real damage. Just prior to this two armed Federal ship's boats, on their way to "water-up" (fill barrels with fresh water for the big ship), had been sunk with two sailors killed, and the rest taken prisoner, by Confederate forces over on the Aucilla River. It was thought to be another saltwork raiding party. Salt was important and was soon in short supply all over the south.
One must recall that during this period of time (until the advent of refrigeration), food preservation, both for home food storage and as food commodities to be shipped off to war, involved a lot of salt. When the war began, salt quickly rose in price to the point men would go down to the coast and set up crude seawater evaporators knowing that if they were spotted they could be shelled or attacked by marines sent ashore in small armed boats.
Salt was being produced all along the coast both by these crude temporary set-ups and by the large well equipped brick-lined evaporators complete with iron pans such as those of the Ladd Company of Newport. Salt making was so important that, for a period of time, commercial salt workers were exempt from military service (because of this salt workers were treated as soldiers by the Federals!). Also, these large salt works usually had Confederate troops stationed nearby as guards.
Two days after Christmas of '62, the British schooner KATE was captured by the USS ROEBUCK as the KATE tried to enter the channel at the mouth of the river. In January 1863 the CS Sloop FLORIDA was becalmed just at the mouth of the river as it was leaving to run the blockade. A blockading gunboat spotted it at daylight and came in, shelling the lighthouse as it came in, and captured the sloop. The crew escaped.
About a month later the British Schooner PACIFIQUE was captured on the St. Marks River. Not all sailings ended in this manner as two months later the US Steamer STARS AND STRIPES reported it had given chase for more than three hours to a "side-wheeled schooner-rigged steamer" of unknown registry as it left the St. Marks River fully loaded. The Federal ship reported she was averaging a fast 14mph but the strange schooner still managed to get away before the US ship could get close enough to get off a shot from her bow cannon. That some blockade runners got through is certain or the practice would not have continued. One such was the British Steamer HABANA which left Port St. Marks loaded and put in at Havana, Cuba without incident.
Just prior to that chase the USS STARS AND STRIPES had spotted an encampment at Long Bar and fired on it. The sturdy 3-gun Confederate vessel attached to service at the fort moved down river to about Fourmile point to return fire but, when the larger vessel began firing on it, the smaller vessel withdrew back to the fort. Even though the Federals knew the foundry/machine shop at Newport was producing shot and shell, they did not attempt to land troops. They were overestimating the Confederate forces there and did not wish to be lured into any unfavorable situations.
Possibly the largest pitched fight around here during this part of the war occurred in March 1863. Armed boats went up the Ochlockonee River to capture The loaded CS Sloop ONWARD. The sloop was captured and taken in tow. The very capable Capt. G. W. Scott (the old Rangers, Guards, and Independents now reformed as the 5th Fla. Cavalry) heard the news and left Newport quickly enough to find the sloop still in the river.
Some CS soldiers were already on the scene when Scott arrived to finish filling up the tree studded river bank to a force of nearly 200 troops. Federals must have seen a Reb behind every tree! The almost 2 hour battle that followed involved grapeshot and shrapnel shells from a howitzer on one of the armed boats. The Federals left with 1 dead and 6 wounded. There were no casualties in Scott's company.
Not all damage came from military action. In March 1863 an ad appeared in the Tallahassee Sentinel for "12 No. 1 Hands and Coopers..." to work for "highest wages" at the Empire Salt works in St. Marks. The ad also stated "the location is safe" (from enemy attacks!). Three months later a tropical storm struck killing 19 at Dickerson Bay and 6 at the Goose Creek salt works. Not all war losses come to faraway battlefields. The salt works at East River were destroyed. People had escaped with their lives by climbing into trees. Later the Federals reported seeing some 50 mounted Confederate Troops at Lighthouse Point (assuring the Federals would not take advantage and invade?).
One cannot help but be reminded of the hundreds of troops in the various Camps (some 7 or so in the county) living in their rugged little tent cities when thinking of the damage caused by such a great storm. Reading a letter sent by one such soldier causes one to be ever thankful of our technologies and abilities to rebuild. However, reading another letter gives one pause to think of what we have lost. This soldier writes of seeing mullet being caught at Shell Point in such quantities that "40 barrels" were brought in with "one pull of the seine..."
The US Supply Steamer CIRCASSIAN captured the Sloop JOHN WESLEY just off the light house in June. A month later the Sloop EMMA left Port St. Marks loaded with 13 barrels of tar but was captured before passing Sea Horse Key. Also the CS Schooner LADY MARIA was captured after leaving with a load of 104 bales of cotton.
Whether valid or not, at this time a Federal blockade ship reported a Confederate military force camped at Shell Point (installing a salt work or guarding a possible invasion point?). Any coastal location with a road was considered to be a potential invasion spot. The road from old Port Leon was always posted with pickets (guards) for this reason.
Those pickets at old Port Leon challenged three small boat loads of "fishermen" as they came up-river one night. Since the fishermen wouldn't stop to be identified the pickets fired on them. After an exchange of gunfire the boats retreated down-river. One picket was wounded. This same month, July 1863, those pickets got another workout as the US Ferryboat SOMERSET and the USS STARS AND STRIPES sent 8 armed boats (and also one ambulance boat!) up river loaded with 130 troops. The Ferryboat (sort of an armed supply/troop vessel), commanded by Lt. Cmdr. A. F. Crossman, had joint orders to mount a three day expedition to inflict as much damage as they could ashore to cover the real mission which was to scout out a potential invasion location.
The pickets had wounded one Federal. The Federals had found the sunken hull, below old Port Leon, to be too much for their larger invasion vessels to cross. So, the real mission already over, they simply lobbed a few cannon shot over at the train as it was arriving from Tallahassee!
The next day those same troops went ashore at Lighthouse Point, tore down some buildings, and set fire to the Lighthouse. Then they went by Mashes' Island and destroyed the very large salt work there (50 boilers!) and took a few prisoners. The Federals feared there was a force of over 600 Confederate soldiers at St. Marks and Newport and left without attempting any further action.
Two months later the blockading Steamer STARS AND STRIPES made an attempt to destroy the CS Gunboat SPRAY as it lay at anchor in the river. The attempt failed, but two CS sailors were captured. To put this time into perspective with the rest of the war, note that this is about the time of the Battle of Chickamauga (in which the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 6th Florida Regiments were involved).
Writing in 1883, U. S. Navy Instructor James R. Soley states the blockade of Florida required a different style from any other coast. No major ports and numerous small ones gave each blockading vessel a whole section of coast rather than a blockade station consisting of a sector of some river or harbor mouth. That such blockading vessels could be watched by coastal people and opportunities seized for small vessels, concealed in small rivers and inlets, to run the blockade was known by military planners from the outset. A new system of having shallow draft vessels on station close-in along a section of coast with larger vessels cruising off-shore between these stations more or less evolved during the war. It was effective.
Pictures of local war activity are certainly a rarity. What a surprise to come upon artwork done for a newspaper about war activity right here on the Ochlockonee Bay. The sketch from which the drawing was made was by one who participated in the action on the bay. It is was published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper dated December 28, 1863.
And it was in that month that the US Steamer STARS AND STRIPES came upon the Schooner CAROLINE GERTRUDE and, finding it aground on a bar in Ochlockonee Bay, attempted its capture. They soon found they would not be able to capture and refloat it because of heavy musketfire from the Confederate Cavalry on the beach. One Cavalryman was killed and one wounded in the several hour exchange of gunfire. Realizing they would not be able to leave with this valuable prize schooner, the Federals set the schooner ablaze as they finally beat a hasty retreat (without recovering the ship's cargo of cotton but with the dozen, or so, crew as prisoners).
We think of our own forebears when we think of the lighters (small boats used to take goods to larger vessels lying offshore, or out in the river) as they were merely the local fishing boats of yesterday now manned by a crew of 2 or 3 engaged in war activities. There are frequent reports around the state of "skiffs", "flats", barges, and yes, even rafts being fired upon or captured with such little cargo as a few bushels of corn! Sometimes these little boats were carrying a single barrel of tar or a few casks of salt. One note in a Federal blockader's log barely mentions one such encounter somewhere on the Gulf coast. It stated only a single cannon shot was needed to sink a small sailing vessel carrying 2 barrels of salt! At least it also mentioned the crew of 2 were allowed to swim ashore.
As these old reports and records are read one becomes acutely aware of the validity of the slogans of World Wars I and II such as "Loose Lips Sink Ships." Many sailing dates of southern ships were known to the Federals before the vessels were even finished with loading. The appropriate size blockading vessel would then be dispatched to that river or inlet in all readiness to make the capture.
Not infrequently in these same reports one reads of "a group waving a white flag" standing on a beach or in a small boat desiring to report to the blockader that as a "good Union group from ..." they want it known that a schooner of a certain tonnage is lying in load at a certain place. Those poor sailors never had a chance! And this sort of thing was occurring at a time when Wakulla Countians and other Florida men were taking heavy losses on those more distant battlefields. But then, this was one of those wars where even brother sometimes fought brother.
In February 1864, the captain (Cmdr. John Howell) of the USS TAHOMA sent his executive officer ashore near the Warrior River to meet with a group of Unionists. They were to assist, and supply rations to, an expedition from the warship whose mission would be to make a broad sweep of the salt works along the coast on both sides of the St. Marks River destroying all of them. A storm caused some of the invaders to have to swim to shore in the 25 degree weather! To accomplish their mission some of the troops had to march about 45 miles to get around to certain salt works. Some seven miles of salt works were destroyed with the only injury reportedly being to a Unionist who "accidently shot himself." The loss of these salt works was a very severe blow to the area.
The TAHOMA's captain also learned from a "St. Marks man" of the salt works at Goose Creek and the presence of some 35 Confederate Cavalrymen at Shell Point. An expedition was again sent ashore destroying those works. They were producing (as indicated by the captured company books) some 4,800 bushels (valued at $12.50 per bushel!) of salt per day. Residents of homes in the area were rounded up and a dozen of the Cavalrymen captured. Some of the prisoners from Shell Point were "paroled" to St. Marks and the expedition left.
Salt was important. 455 salt kettles and 95 sheet-iron boilers along with 268 brick furnaces were destroyed by those two expeditions from the Steamer TAHOMA. These troops had also destroyed seine yards, tools, cattle, mules, and captured quantities of food and supplies (some two million dollar loss to the south!). An idea of the effect of this is noted in reports such as from the 1st Florida complaining about meager rations of beef so poorly cured it was inedible. These "minor" actions along our coast may have caused losses faraway on those battlefields.
Salt-making was tricky. If you just evaporated seawater, you get what was then called "yellow salt." The yellow salt must be re-fined by a process where some of the undesirable salts are removed. Meat and fish could not be properly cured with yellow salt. (Recall this was such a problem that a method of recovering salt from the floors of the ever-present smokehouses was devised about this time - by a Wakulla countian!) The process of crystalizing out the "table" salts required the services of the more professional saltworks. These works were now in very short supply!
One no longer has to wonder why so many old broken bricks are to be found on most any Wakulla County beach! This destruction of salt works was to continue. In May, a single armed boat from the US Schooner FOX destroyed 25 more salt kettles (and the other tools associated with salt production). But the blockade runners continued to haul whatever was available.
Some ships running the blockade this late in the war were in such bad shape success wasn't always success. The CS Sloop OSCAR eluded the big blockader TAHOMA as the sloop left the St. Marks River only to have to surrender to the US Sloop FOX as she was leaking too badly to continue the trip. Another sloop was spotted by a blockader rolling in heavy seas in the Gulf just offshore with only mast stumps and a British flag flying upside down (a distress signal). The load of turps was lost with the ship as it sank while the crew was being rescued.
The valuable and expensive fisheries located on Mashes' Island were destroyed in October 1864. An expedition from the STARS AND STRIPES demolished the fish houses, dwellings, and several salt kettles along with a large seine and two sizeable fishing vessels. (An interesting note: some of the Marines sent ashore in this invasion force were issued sledge hammers and picks, not firearms!) Two CS sargeants and 16 CS soldiers were taken prisoner, none killed. Since food was in such desperately short supply, this action was an ugly loss not only for the salt but even more for the fish.
The sentence "and 16 CS soldiers were taken prisoner" runs by as a simple statistic of the type familiar to war records. But if one begins to analyze it there are names which can be attached to it. Although many Wakulla Countians were away on remote battlefields, some were stationed right here. As an example, the prisoner lists from this raid of Oct. 19, 1865 shows a Noah Posey, Pvt., CSA. Further checking (in the Florida Archives) shows that Noah was then sent to prison in New Orleans. La. He was transferred to Ship Island Prison in January, 1865. Not all prisoners lived to be "paroled" back home in mid-1865. Noah is also listed as "died in prison." Now re-read the "none killed" in that casualty list.
Though winding down, the war was still on. Sometime about the first of February 1865, the US Schooner MATTHEW VASSAR chased a British schooner, the JOHN HALE, away from the St. Marks River and down the coast for 4 hours. Four hours and 33 shells! The schooner was captured near the Econfina River but not before some of the crew escaped.
The last day of February 1865 saw a rather large invasion force assembling off the Ochlockonee Buoy (about 13 miles out). Some five steamers and three schooners hovered around in the dense fog awaiting the arrival of some five other ships to begin the invasion of the coast along the St. Marks area. Two of the ships were outfitted as troop carriers. The river part of the invasion began with Federal vessels moving up river until one after another they ran aground.
Thus began what would be known as the Battle of Natural Bridge. An infrequently mentioned portion of this expedition is that a small group of soldiers were sent to destroy the bridge over the Oklockonee River. One supposes its rarely mentioned because they failed to find the bridge and returned to their boats. Interestingly enough another group (containing CS deserters in Federal uniforms) who went to burn the Aucilla bridge only "singed" it a little before they left.
Port St. Marks was on a list of ports ordered closed to "all" vessels of any registry. This order was signed by President Lincoln on April 11th, 1865. The tightness of this blockade plus the rumor in the blockading fleet that President Jeff Davis was to be smuggled out of the country via St. Marks signaled the end of war activity in the area.
On May 12, 1865 the flag of the United States was raised over the fort (then called Fort Ward) at St. Marks and the CS Gunboat SPRAY was surrendered. The crew of the SPRAY were paroled to their homes. The SPRAY and a small Torpedo boat (moved into the river to be surrendered) were left in the charge of a single Marine guard. The war was over.
Written 10/8/93 and published in the Wakulla Area Digest (P.O. Box 507, Woodville, Florida 32362) in April 1994 (Part I) and November 1994 (Part II).
- Other Wakulla County History Articles
- A complete listing of other online history articles by this author. Includes Florida Settlement, The Ochlockonee River, Oyster Bay, Re-enactments, St. Marks and St. Marks River, Shell Point, The Sopchoppy River, and more.
- Florida Lighthouse Page
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