Tuesday, December 16, 2008

San Marcos de Apalache - Part Five

This post is part of a continuing series on San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park in St. Marks, Florida.

While the shallow nature of the lower St. Marks River prevented St. Marks from ever developing as a major port for Confederate blockade running efforts, small ships did make their way in and out of the community throughout the Civil War.

Confederates attempted to protect these activities and defend the water approaches to Florida's capital by emplacing heavy artillery at Fort Ward (San Marcos) and by converting a small river steamer into the gunboat C.S.S. Spray. From its base at the fort, the Spray cruised the coastal waters and was an annoyance if not a direct threat to Union blockade vessels off shore. It mounted heavy guns and was manned by a contingent of sailors and marines from the C.S. Navy.

The existence of Fort Ward and the small gunboat attracted attention from the Union navy throughout the war. A boat party was sent up the river in 1863 in an effort to overrun the batteries under cover of darkness. Confederate pickets at Port Leon, an abandoned town site just downstream from the fort, spotted the boats and opened fire, however, forcing the sailors to abandon their attack plan and withdraw back down the river.

Although the reports of Confederate engineers reveal that Fort Ward was not a particularly strong fortification, its location up a shallow river that could not be navigated by the deep draft Union blockade ships. In addition, the open marshes between the fort and the mouth of the St. Marks allowed the gunners in the fort a wide open view of any movements on the lower river.

The fort was, however, vulnerable to land attack. Engineers noted that the rear of the batteries had not been enclosed and that it would be easy for an enemy force to bypass the works and then attack them from behind. This problem was resolved during the fall and winter of 1864 when an earthen wall was constructed across the rear or land face of the fort. Entrenchments were also prepared at nearby Newport, considered a likely crossing point for Union troops trying to get across the St. Marks River to attack Fort Ward from the rear.

In our next post, we will look at the fort's role in the 1865 Battle of Natural Bridge.

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