Sunday, June 27, 2010

Battle of Crystal River, Florida - An Incident on the Gulf

As the blockade tightened on the coast of Florida in the summer of 1862, numerous small raids and encounters resulted. Usually these were instigated by the Union Navy, but occasionally Confederates struck back, as they did on the Crystal River in June of 1862.

As the number of Federal warships on the coastline grew, the captains commanding them demonstrated clear predictability in their actions. When they spotted a small schooner or sloop at the mouth of an inlet or river, for example, they usually dispatched armed sailors in a small boat to capture it. Blockade runners usually carried cotton or other products that increased their value and in those days, the crews of U.S. warships shared in the value of the prizes they seized.

Noticing how the blockaders usually responded to sighting a vessel, a group of Confederates on the lower Crystal River laid a trap that would prove wildly successful. Using a small sloop as a decoy, they led Acting Master David Stearns and 7 armed sailors into the mouth of the river. As a squall blew up and concealed the boat from the view of the U.S.S. Beauregard which lay offshore, the Confederates aboard the sloop drew Stearns and his men into an ambush.

The fight left five of the Union sailors dead on the spot. Another, Stearns himself, was mortally wounded and died later in the day. Curiously, his name was preserved in local legend as "Captain Ireland," an indication that he may have been an Irish captain. The other two members of his party were taken prisoner. One immediately switched sides and joined the Confederates. The other proved to be a runaway slave and was immediately hanged by his captors.

The incident has been remembered on the coast as the Battle of Crystal River. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/crystalriverbattle.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Brooksville Raid - Hernando County, Florida

The Brooksville Raid, an 1864 Union incursion on the Gulf Coast of Florida, was one of those small events that loom large in legend across the South.

On June 1, 1864, 240 men from the Second Florida U.S. Cavalry and Second U.S. Colored Troops boarded transports at Fort Myers, Florida for a planned raid against the town of Brooksville in Hernando County. A small but important trading center for farms and plantations in the area just north of Tampa Bay, the town was also a distribution point for items running the blockade into nearby Bayport. Usually there were a company or two of Confederate troops in the area, but when the raid hit the town was virtually undefended.

The raiders pushed inland, initially opposed by only a few pickets assigned to watch the coastline. These pulled back ahead of the Federals as they advanced, occasionally exchanging a few shots with them. Meanwhile, as couriers were sent to Tampa Bay to summon reinforcements, a few regular soldiers assembled with local volunteers on "the hill" at Brooksville (possibly a reference to today's courthouse square).

This meager force marched out to oppose the Federals, who were pretty much wreaking havoc on the area by confiscating livestock and supplies, burning barns and even houses and liberating slaves.

The Federals and Confederates skirmished for a bit, primarily at long range. The Union force seems not to have been really interested in fighting, however, and after taking time for a meal turned and marched to Bayport on the coast. Only one Union soldier was wounded in the Brooksville Raid and his wounds were slight. A few Confederates were taken prisoner.

To learn more about the Brooksville Raid, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/brooksvilleraid.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The "Last Survivor" of the Battle of Marianna

On February 6, 1929, a Jackson County resident made an appeal to the Florida Legislature to name him to serve as its Door Keeper, noting in his letter that he was "the only survivor of the Battle of Marianna."

I recently had a chance to view George Ball's letter through the courtesy of his descendant Terry Sirmans. Ball served in the Battle of Marianna as a teenage member of Captain Alexander Godwin's Campbellton Cavalry Home Guard unit, but later went on to serve in Company I, 5th Florida Cavalry.

The letter is particularly fascinating because it adds substantiation to the Marianna legend that members of Godwin's unit unhorsed a Union officer during the fighting at Marianna and took his sabre from him:

The sword I now hold in my hand was shot from the body of a Lieutenant Yankee. I have got his sword and Marianna has got his shirt, because he is buried in the Marianna Cemetery.

Based on this part of Godwin's letter, it appears that the officer to whom hewas referring was Lieutenant Isaac Adams of the Second Maine Cavalry. The lieutenant was mortally wounded in the fighting at Marianna and was buried at Riverside Cemetery. A stone monument (shown above) still stands over his grave site, although his remains were removed to Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola during the late 19th century. As his is the only monument to a Union casualty of the battle at Riverside, it is fairly obvious that Adams was the officer described by George Ball.

Whether he was the actual "last survivor" of the Battle of Marianna in 1929 is impossible to say. Boys as young as 12 were involved in the fighting, but Ball held the distinction of being the last known survivor of the fight.

To learn more about the Battle of Marianna, please visit http://www.battleofmarianna.com/.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fort Pickens and other Coastal Historic Sites Remain Open - June 5, 2010

The National Park Service reports that all Florida areas of Gulf Islands National Seashore are open to visitors this weekend, despite the arrival of the leading edge of the massive BP Oil Spill in the Florida Panhandle.

Tar balls and other pollution from the spill appeared along the Northwest Florida coast in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton Counties yesterday, affecting beaches and coastal waters off Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, Navarre, Fort Walton Beach and Destin.

State and local government workers and a large number of volunteers have been putting in major effort to clean the beaches as fast as the oil comes in and so far more than 100 miles of beaches have been cleaned at least once. The spill so far has not forced the closure of any of the key historic sites along the coast.

According to the National Park Service, the Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, Advanced Redoubt and Naval Live Oaks sections of Gulf Islands National Seashore remain open at this time and are expected to remain open through the weekend.  The Florida State Park Service also reports that all state parks in the Panhandle remain open.

I'll keep you updated of any changes affecting parks and historic sites along the coast as soon as I learn of them. You can also read daily updates on the oil spill's impact on Florida by visiting www.twoeggfla.com/oilspill.

Follow these links for more information on key historic sites along the Panhandle coast:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Unique Artifact is reminder of Terrible Cost of Olustee

Sometimes when examining private collections of Civil War artifacts, you come across unexpected artifacts that bring to life the true horror of the war.

This mishapen lump of lead in the Sirmans Collection was recovered years ago from the site of a Confederate hospital west of the Olustee Battlefield. Close examination reveals that it was a bullet that Southern soldiers clamped between their teeth while surgeons probed the wounds they had received in the bloody battle that is remembered today as Florida's largest of the War Between the States. The teeth marks of individual soldiers remain clearly imprinted in the soft metal despite the passage of more than 146 years since the days following the battle.

The Battle of Olustee was fought between Lake City and Jacksonville on February 20, 1864, when a Union army of more than 5,000 men marched west along the Atlantic and Gulf Central Railroad to take a key bridge over the Suwannee River and split the southernmost Confederate state in two. Lacking good intelligence of what lay before them, the Federals marched headlong into an advancing Confederate army of roughly the same size.

The battle was a smashing Confederate victory that resulted in the dismal failure of a plan promoted by President Abraham Lincoln to return at least part of Florida to the Union in time for the state to figure in the 1864 Presidential election. Union losses totaled more than 200 killed, 1,152 wounded and 506 missing in action. Confederate forces, by comparison, sustained a smaller loss of 93 killed, 847 wounded and 6 missing.

Field hospitals in around the modern community of Olustee struggled to handle the large number of wounded soldiers left on the field. The relic shown above came from one of the Confederate hospitals that provided emergency treatment to soldiers immediately following the battle. As soon as they could be moved, the wounded men were transported by rail to hospitals in Lake City and as far away as Tallahassee and even Fort Gaines, Georgia. An unknown number later died from their wounds.

To learn more about the Battle of Olustee, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.