Sunday, September 19, 2010

September 19, 1864 - The Narrows of Santa Rosa Sound

On September 19, 1864, as it continued its long ride to Marianna, the main body of Brigadier General Alexander Asboth's Union command reached a place then called the Narrows of Santa Rosa Sound.

A major 19th century landmark on the Gulf Coast, the Narrows can be recognized today as the city of Fort Walton Beach. The name comes from the fact that the width of Santa Rosa Sound dramatically narrows at the point where it intersects with Choctawhatchee Bay.

The locale has been of noted importance since prehistoric times. A massive ceremonial center was built here during the Mississippian era (A.D. 900 - A.D. 1540), the central platform mound of which still survives in the heart of downtown Fort Walton Beach.

During the decades leading up to the Civil War, the Narrows became an important navigational landmark. Commerce moving down the Choctawhatchee River or from other points around Choctawhatchee Bay was  moved by steamboats, schooners and barges from the bay through the sheltered waters of Santa Rosa Sound to Pensacola. The channel provided a way for small boats to move safely without entering the open Gulf.

Because the Narrows provided a choke point for commerce entering or leaving Choctawhatchee Bay, the Confederates quickly realized it was the key to defending the bay from Union naval raids. As a result they built Camp Walton, the military establishment that is the source of today's Fort Walton name. The "Walton" part of the name comes from the fact that the area was then in the part of Walton County that has since been carved away to create Okaloosa County.

The Walton Guards, who became part of the First Florida Infantry, took up a position overlooking the Narrows. The Union navy never threatened a raid up Santa Rosa Sound, but the Union army did send a force up Santa Rosa Island from Fort Pickens.

On April 1, 1862, Captain Henry Closson of the First U.S. Artillery responded to a minor skirmish between the Confederates at Camp Walton and a U.S. blockading vessel off shore by moving a rifled cannon into position opposite the fort under cover of darkness. He opened fire at first light, forcing a temporary evacuation of the Southern position before returning up the island to Fort Pickens.

In response to the attack, General Braxton Bragg sent an 18-pounder carronade (a short naval cannon) from Pensacola to Camp Walton. The Confederates there dug an emplacement into an Indian mound. The camp was soon abandoned, but the cannon is still at Fort Walton Beach to this day.

Asboth's command of 700 men reached the site of Camp Walton on September 18-19, 1864. Members of the Second Maine Cavalry, three battalions of which provided the main fighting force of the Union force, wrote in their diaries and letters home that it rained all night. The general himself confirmed this when he reported that his troops were in good spirits, although they had been exposed to continual rains. The Narrows would serve as the jump-off point for the inland movement that would culminate at the Battle of Marianna on September 27, 1864.

To learn more about Camp Walton, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortwalton. You can read about the prehistoric Fort Walton Temple Mound at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortwaltonmound. And you can always learn more about the 1864 raid at www.battleofmarianna.com.

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