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Capture of Fernandina, Florida
By Chuck Veit

One of the major difficulties for the Union blockade was the fact that, at any one time, upwards of half the vessels of a squadron might be underway to the nearest coaling station rather than patrolling off a Southern port. To remedy this problem, the Navy planned the capture of a number of suitable harbors along the eastern seaboard that would reduce the distance its ships had to travel to refuel. Following the capture of Port Royal, South Carolina, the USN looked for another target—one that would allow them to seal off the Georgia coast (especially Savannah). Just over the state line from Georgia sat Fernandina, Florida, a deep-water port with an excellent harbor and rail connections to Savannah, Georgia and the Gulf of Mexico. It had the potential to become the primary haven for blockade runners on the South Atlantic coast once the blockade had sealed off Savannah. Fernandina, a town of 2,000 inhabitants in 1861, sat on Amelia Island became, in the estimation of Gideon Welles, “probably the most important port to close on the eastern coast of Florida.”

For the deep-draft vessels of the blue water Navy, the defenses of Fernandina were formidable. The town proper sat along the Amelia River, down which any invading fleet would have to travel. The mouth of that river was guarded by Fort Clinch, a Federal installation taken by the Rebels. Its batteries on the north and northeast shores were as complete as art could make them. Well-concealed and protected by ranges of sand hills in front, they were so small and thoroughly covered by the natural growth and by the varied contours of the land that to strike them from the water would have been ”the mere result of chance.” A battery of six guns, though larger and affording a better mark, were equally well sheltered and masked. These guns commanded all the turnings of the main ship channel and could rake an approaching enemy. There was another battery of guns on the south end of Cumberland Island which covered the channel inside of the bar. The difficulties arising from the indirectness of the channel and from the shoalness of the bar added to the defenses by keeping approaching vessels a long time exposed to fire under great disadvantages. And when the ships of an enemy had passed all these defenses they would have encountered a well-constructed and naturally masked battery at the town, which commands the access to the inner anchorage. Reports that reached the North indicated that “General Lee pronounced the place perfectly defensible. We are not surprised at this, if true” said one Union naval officer.

Flag Officer Samuel Francis DuPont was chosen to command the fleet assembled for the capture of Fernandina. Commanding from Wabash, he led Susquehanna, Ottawa, Mohican (accompanied by Ellen), Seminole, Pawnee, Pocahontas, Flag, Florida, James Adger, Bienville, Alabama, Keystone State, Seneca, Huron, Pembina, Isaac Smith, Penguin, Potomska, armed cutter Henrietta, armed transport McClellan (with the 289 man battalion of marines under the command of Major Reynolds), and the transports Empire City, Marion, Star of the South, Belvidere, Boston, and George's Creek containing a brigade of Army infantry under the command of Brigadier-General Wright. Wabash and Susquehanna were the largest and most powerful warships in the squadron, but if the rebel defenses in and around Fernandina had to be bombarded, the eighteen gunboats would do the close in work. In addition to the Marine Battalion and infantry, there were Marine Guards within the squadron totaling 230 men. After a week’s delay due to bad weather, the fleet cleared Port Royal on Thursday, February 28, and headed south, under orders to rendezvous in St. Andrew’s Bay, Georgia, just north of Fernandina.

The plan was for the shallow-draft gunboats to enter the inland passage between the northern end of Cumberland Island and the mainland, followed by the troop transports. After reaching the southern tip of Cumberland Island, the Marine Battalion and the 97th Pennsylvania Infantry were to land, and, with naval gunfire support, assault and take the enemy batteries. The heavy warships, at the same time, having sailed to the east of Cumberland Island, were to bombard the works on the northern end of Amelia Island. Once those batteries were silenced, the remainder of the troop transports would pass to the landing at Fernandina to occupy the town. Every effort would be made to prevent the Confederates from escaping, with particular attention paid to the railroad bridge from Amelia Island to the mainland.

As the operation began on the morning of Saturday, March 2, an escaped slave reported that the defenses around Fernandina were being abandoned. Unbeknownst to DuPont, Robert E. Lee had the previous week ordered Fernandina’s fifteen-hundred-man garrison to pull back with as many of its heavy guns as possible. DuPont signaled the squadron to make speed and intercept the retreating enemy, who was attempting to complete their withdrawal as quickly as possible. Seeing the departure of the Confederate troops, local inhabitants were thrown into “perfect panic” by a March 2 telegram from Brunswick, Georgia reporting the fleet of 24 Union vessels off Saint Andrew’s Inlet just north of the state line Realizing that the nature of his mission had abruptly changed, DuPont adjusted his plans:

The object of carrying the whole fleet through Cumberland Sound was to turn the heavy works on the south end of Cumberland and the north end of Amelia islands; but on receiving this intelligence I detached the gunboats and armed steamers of light draft from the main line and, placing them under the command of Commander P. Drayton, of the steam sloop Pawnee, ordered him to push through the sound with the utmost speed, to save public and private property from threatened destruction, to prevent poisoning the wells, and to put a stop to all those outrages by the perpetration of which the leaders in this nefarious war hope to deceive and exasperate the Southern people.

Drayton set out with Ottawa (Lt Commanding T. H. Stevens), Seneca (Lt Commanding D. Ammen), Huron (Lt Commanding J. Downes), Pembina, (Lt Commanding J. P. Bankhead), Isaac Smith (Lt Commanding J. W. A. Nicholson), Penguin ([Acting] Lt Commanding T. A. Budd), Potomska (Lt Commanding P. G. Watmough), and Ellen (Lt Commanding [Acting Master] W. Budd). There were also three armed launches of the Wabash and a company of sailors, all under the command of Commander C. R. P. Rodgers, of that vessel, as well as the transports McClellan (Captain Gray), on board of which was the battalion of marines of Major J. G. Reynolds; the Boston, with the 97th Pennsylvania Regiment (Colonel Henry R. Guss), and the armed cutter Henrietta, (Captain Bennett).

The deep water ships continued south along the eastern shore of Cumberland Island. Just before noon a column was sighted marching southward on Cumberland Island. Marines from Wabash and Susquehanna, ferried into the shallows by Keystone State, were landed at 11:45a.m., in the hope of intercepting them. In Cumberland Sound, those aboard the ships at anchor strained their ears to hear the sounds of battle, but they were disappointed. The Marines did not make contact with the fleeing soldiers and, at 2:00p.m., they were recalled. Drayton, meanwhile, spent a frustrating day slowly navigating the waters of Cumberland Sound, watching his force dwindle as ship after ship grounded in the shallow water on the flats at the dividing line between the tides that met from north and south. The fact that only two of the ships carried local pilots had a lot to do with this. By Sunday morning, March 3, Drayton--with only three gunboats (Pawnee, Ottawa, and Huron) and the armed launches remaining--emerged from the sound. He headed directly for Fort Clinch when, at 3 o’clock, and with only three miles to go, Pawnee and Huron both went aground. The tide was falling and, seeing little hope of refloating the two gunboats until it changed, Drayton decided to push ahead with only Ottawa and three armed launches from Wabash. On approaching Fort Clinch, it was so evidently deserted that he would not stop, but merely sent Lieutenant G. B. White, of the Ottawa, on shore with an armed boat to hoist the American flag there as a signal to Admiral DuPont at anchor outside. This he did and returned to the vessel later. The moment was historic. Fort Clinch was the first of the national properties seized by the Confederates to be retaken by the Federals.  

Fort Clinch after its Capture in 1862

Still not able to believe that so defensible a position had been totally abandoned, Drayton stood upriver for Fernandina, “uncovering a heavy masked battery which we expected to open on us, but found that too deserted, while several white handkerchiefs were waved from some houses nearby.” Approaching Fernandina, several shots rang out from the bushes—the Yankee Navy had discovered the tail end of the rebel retreat. Ottawa and the launches then engaged in one of the most unusual ship-versus-shore confrontations of the war. A train loaded with the last of the retreating Confederates was just leaving the station. Drayton ordered Lt. Commanding Stevens to try and stop it, and “the road passing for some distance near the river, and we going at full speed, there was an opportunity of firing several shots at the two locomotives attached to the train.”  Although Ottawa had a much shorter distance to travel to reach the bridge to the mainland, she grounded at a critical moment and the train made its escape into the woods on the other side—but not before Ottawa got off a number of shots from her heavy guns. 1st Lt. Louis M. Goldsborough, USMC (son of Admiral Goldsborough) recorded that one of the cars was knocked off the track, killing and wounding many. A reconnaissance on the following day found the shattered car “covered with blood and the remains of those killed,” as well as the bodies of two other soldiers struck down by Ottawa’s guns. Ex-United States Senator Yulee of Florida was reported aboard the train, but made his escape.

Frustrated in their attempts to capture the fleeing train, the sailors hurried on to pursue a steamer “that we supposed carried the garrison of the fort,” and which was making a desperate attempt to escape up the Amelia River. The scene is described by an officer of the Wabash’s second launch, Roswell Lamson:

We fired a shot to bring her to but she paid no attention, and having every reason to think her to contain enemy troops, fired directly at her several times, but the Ottawa’s gunner made such remarkably poor shots that she was not touched. Not daring to go any further with the gunboat, Capt. Rodgers jumped into my boat and we started to carry her by boarding, expecting, as Capt. Rodgers said, “to have some brisk work.”

Fortunately for us she got aground and about dark we came near her. I was in the bow of the boat directing the helmsman, and being lame, I told two of my men to throw me on board of the steamer as soon as they could, which I think they must have done at about a cable’s length for I went flying through the air and came down on the deck with a smash that almost knocked me senseless. I jumped up and what do you suppose I confronted?—the terrible Mississippi regiment of which such awful tales are told, and who would have annihilated us if they had only waited?—No, a crowd of women and children who were weeping and crying and making a most awful row. One lady with a child in her arms said to me—“Oh Sir, don’t hurt my dear husband!” “My dear madam,” said I, “if you will just keep your dear husband from hurting me he was never safer in his life!” As our men clambered up the sides of the steamer with their boarding cutlasses between their teeth and saw the “enemy” before them they stood the most perfect picture of foolish astonishment while some burst out laughing and jumped down into the boat again. Can you imagine anything more perfectly ludicrous? At a word from the Captain all the men went back into the boats and a gentleman in uniform came forward (Assistant Surgeon H. G. Lungren) an officer of the Confederate army and he surrendered the boat.

Capt. Rodgers told me to find the captain of the steamer and have the engine stopped which I did, and then went into the cabin where the crying was going on furiously and where Capt. Rodgers was trying to answer everybody that nobody would be hurt, and in which he succeeded admirably, he has such a kind quiet way about him . . . There were several very pretty girls aboard, and I, of course, devoted myself to reassuring them, while the Capt. attended to the married ladies and babies. In a few minutes they were all quiet and I overheard one lady say to another, “Why they are gentlemen, aren’t they? They will not hurt us . . .”

We finally got the steamer afloat and brought her down abreast the town and came to anchor about ten o’clock.

Drayton’s official report stated that the steamer (Darlington) contained “military stores, army wagons, mules, forage, etc.” For his refusal to hoist a white flag—despite the entreaties of the women--and thereby subjecting his helpless passengers to shelling and boarding, the captain of the Darlington, Jacob Brock, was taken as prisoner. Brock was a native of Vermont who had lived in Florida for 23 years.

Commander Rodgers pushed on up the river with Ottawa to anchor off Fernandina. Lamson was ordered to take his boat and guard the railroad bridge through the night, and then to relieve the Ottawa at Fernandina so that vessel could proceed to St. Mary’s. Lamson opened the draw on the bridge to prevent any more escapes, and stationed his twenty men as videttes on the mainland side of the river. Lamson records:

We were not disturbed during the night, and at daylight I saw everything secured and started for the town. When about a half mile below I saw three Negroes walking on the track towards the bridge and soon after they reached it a fire sprang up under that part of the bridge on the mainland, and at the same time about fifty armed rebels came out from under the embankment and tried to fire the main part of the bridge. We pulled in for them as fast as we could and shelled them with the rifled howitzer with such effect that they all ran back into the woods as fast as they could carrying some of their comrades with them.

On seeing the smoke, Drayton sent Huron up in support. According to his official report, although Lt. Commanding Dowries was “successful,” the rebels nonetheless “succeeded in very much damaging the western portion [of the bridge].” Lamson’s private letter says the rebels were driven off before Huron arrived and “The bridge was but little injured.”

Reinforced by the arrival of Pawnee, Drayton landed a party of sailors and marines at Fernandina at 7a.m. to reinforce Rodgers’ men. Expecting to have to fight their way in, they met only feeble resistance from the retreating picket of rebel cavalry, and were soon firmly established ashore. Drayton “endeavored as much as possible to quiet the few people left and to prevent any injury to public or private property.” In most places, the local inhabitants fled. At 9 o'clock the Isaac Smith arrived, which Drayton immediately turned around and sent back downriver to communicate with DuPont—who met it as he came in aboard Mohican, able at last to cross the bar as the weather that had thus far prevented his entry moderated. Marines and sailors from Mohican under the command of Lt. Henry W. Miller, USN, landed at the deserted Fort Clinch at 11:05a.m., and held it until relieved by the infantry later in the day. Midshipman M. L. Johnson pushed along the railroad with some of his men, and in the course of the day brought in two locomotives and three railroad cars. He also collected and put a guard over a quantity of rosin, turpentine, and cotton, to prevent its being carried off or injured.

DuPont and other officers expressed surprise that the formidable defenses of Fernandina had been abandoned without a fight. Our “forces captured Port Royal,” he reported, “but the enemy has given us Fernandina.”

I visited the town, Fort Clinch, and the earthworks on the sea face of the island. It is impossible to look at these preparations for a vigorous defense without being surprised that they should have been voluntarily deserted.

Goldsborough was also impressed with the batteries on Cumberland Island as well as those across the channel on Amelia Island, grateful that the fleet did not have to fight its way past them.

I visited the fort and a line of 22 masked batteries in connection with it. If the Wabash and large ships had attempted to pass them, I believe that they would have been blown out of the water. The fortifications at Hilton Head are nothing to them.

DuPont’s statements were partly theatrical: most of the Confederate batteries, including Fort Clinch, protected the sea entrance. Once the Federals established themselves inside the bar of Cumberland Sound, the Fernandina defenses were outflanked. Even if the defenders had not already been retreating, any approach to the city from the sound would have put the Rebels in an untenable position. Knowing this may explain why Lee ordered the evacuation of the city.

Brigadier General H. G. Wright and his brigade entered the harbor on 5 March. Flag Officer DuPont immediately turned responsibility for the forts and public property to him so he could continue his expedition down the Florida coast. Lamson wrote home:

Our men behaved splendidly and excepting the case of one who got drunk and went into an unoccupied house and took some bedding (for which he was immediately put in irons) molested neither people nor property. There were nearly twenty families remaining and they all spoke in the highest terms of the conduct of our men. . .  Tuesday the troops took possession and I am sorry to say have pillaged most of the houses.

Having secured Fernandina, DuPont ordered his gunboats to take possession of the surrounding area. Ottawa occupied St. Mary’s, Georgia, on March 4, after routing its garrison with canister and grape. Marines and seamen from USS Pocahontas occupied St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, on March 9, and, the next day, in company with Marines from Mohican, took possession of Brunswick. Later that afternoon, Mohican’s Marine Guard and a company of armed sailors landed on Jekyl Island. Finding the island and the fortifications abandoned, the landing party raised the Stars and Stripes over the works. By the evening of 8 March, Wabash anchored off Saint Augustine. As soon as he realized no armed resistance was forthcoming, DuPont dispatched several gunboats to the Saint Johns River, forty miles north, to cross the bar when tides permitted. DuPont and the Wabash remained behind at Saint Augustine until a boat could be put ashore. When the sea finally cooperated, Commander Rodgers approached the city under a flag of truce. At his appearance, a white flag rose over Fort Marion, the old Spanish castillo (fort) that contained three 32-pounders and two 8-inch howitzers. The mayor of the city met Rodgers at the wharf and led him to town hall. City officials informed him that the two companies Florida troops who had garrisoned the area had moved out the previous night.

The few men remaining in Saint Augustine after the Confederates abandoned the port indicated their willingness to submit to Federal authority, according to Rodgers, but he added “there is much violent and pestilent feeling among the women. They seem to mistake treason for courage, and have a desire to fight as heroines.” Local ladies chopped down the town’s flagpole so that the Stars and Stripes could not be raised, and a woman “marched up to [Rodgers] and declared that ‘the men behaved like cowards, but there were stout hearts in other bosoms (striking her own)’.”

The occupation of Jacksonville on the Saint Johns River went much more smoothly. On the night of 11 March, retreating Confederates “burned a nearly completed warship, seven sawmills, four million board feet of lumber, two iron foundries, and the railroad depot.” The next day at noon, Union troops landed at Jacksonville without incident, captured two pieces of heavy ordnance on the wharf, and picketed the town. Having accomplished his mission in Florida, DuPont returned to Port Royal, reporting

I take great pleasure in reminding the Department that one principal and ultimate object of the naval expedition which I have the honor to command was, in its first conception, to take and keep under control the whole line of the seacoast of Georgia, knowing (to use the language of the original paper) "that the naval power that controls the seacoast of Georgia controls the State of Georgia." . . . the entire seacoast of Georgia is now either actually in my possession or under my control, and thus the views of the Government have been accomplished.

In Washington, Secretary of State William H. Seward declared, “One half of the coast of South Carolina, the whole coast of Georgia, and the harbors, cities, and coasts of East Florida are occupied, . . . There is scarce a harbor on the whole coast . . . which is not hermetically sealed.”  

The Navy Squadron off Fernandina



Official Records of the Navies, Series I, Volume 12 The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Ships Versus Shore, Dave Page, Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, 1994.

Lamson of the Gettysburg, J. M. & P. R. McPherson, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997.

The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War—The First Year, David M. Sullivan, White mane Publishing, Shippensburg, 1997

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