Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Confederate Engineers permanently changed the course of the Apalachicola River

Lower Apalachicola River
I've always been fascinated by the fact that Confederate engineers, assigned to obstruct the Apalachicola River to prevent the Union navy from coming upstream, did the job so effectively that the actual course of the river was permanently changed by their work.

After the Confederate army withdrew from the city of Apalachicola in March of 1862, heavy artillery was first emplaced at Ricco's Bluff in Liberty County to prevent Union warships from using the river to lay waste to the vast plantation country of Jackson and Gadsden Counties in Florida, as well as all of Southwest Georgia and Southeast Alabama. This position it was soon decided was too far upstream and too easy to flank so a decision was made to build defenses at a better location between Ricco's and the Gulf.

The Narrows from Above
After reviewing several locations, military engineers settled on the Narrows, so named because it was a place where the Apalachicola River passed through a series of sharp, narrow curves near present-day Wewahitchka. It was such a swampy area, however, that it was necessary to build massive mounds of earth to serve as platforms for artillery positions in order to keep the guns out of the water when the river overflowed its banks, something that it did on a regular basis.

In addition, a line of obstructions was dropped into the river from one bank to the other to prevent boats of any kind from being able to pass the batteries. These obstructions soon collected such a mass of driftwood that a huge raft of debris covered the surface of the river from one side to the other. Soldiers mentioned that they could walk back and forth across the Apalachicola River on this debris without even getting their feet wet.

The obstructions were eventually swept away in part by a flood of the river, but so effective had they proved in blocking the Apalachicola, that it started to seek a new outlet. Pushing through a narrow creek and slough, the rushing water soon bypassed the site entirely. A U.S. Army engineer, who visited the site in 1871, described the result as follows:

…There is also to be mentioned at this place Bryan’s Cut-off, commonly called the “Slough,” in the Lower Apalachicola River, thirty miles above Apalachicola, which is actually the most dangerous place between Eufaula and Apalachicola, and needs improvement no less than the Euchee Rapids. The cut-off was formed in consequence of obstructions erected by the confederates in Virginia Bend.
It is at present 80 to 120 feet wide, extremely rapid and crooked, full of dangerous snags, and becoming worse and more crooked every year. The land on both sides is swampy, with dense timber, nearly constantly overflowed.

The description was incorporated into an 1872 report of the Secretary of War to Congress. The government ultimately widened the new channel, allowing the river a smoother transition to its new channel. The original obstructions and channel was soon silted in and the Confederate battery sites at the Narrows now sit deep in the swamp, far back from the river.

The site is generally inaccessible, but a great place to learn more about the Confederate defenses built along the Apalachicola River is Torreya State Park north of Bristol. The preserved earthworks of a battery can be visited there and park staff can provide additional information. For more information, please visit

Friday, June 24, 2011

War on Women and Children: Memories of Civilian Life in Apalachicola

Antebellum Architecture in Apalachicola
When Florida seceded from the Union on January 10, 1861, the City of Apalachicola was one of the most prosperous ports on the Gulf of Mexico.

Thousands of bales of cotton came down the Apalachicola River from the plantations of Northwest Florida, Southwest Georgia and Southeast Alabama. Brought down to Apalachicola on paddlewheel steamboats and barges, the "white gold" was loaded aboard ocean-going vessels for trips to New England, Europe and beyond. The "floating palaces," as the beautiful river steamers were often known, carried cargoes of both necessities and luxury items back upriver in return.

This all changed in 1861. The Union Navy blockaded the port and the Confederates sent a military force to defend Apalachicola. Fortifications were erected and cannon mounted along the bayfront and Southern soldiers prepared to resist attacks by the Federal warships offshore. The standoff continued until March of 1862, when the soldiers were called away and Apalachicola became, for all practical purposes, a city without a country.

Union troops were not sent to occupy it, although the navy sent shore patrols ashore from time to time. Neither did the Confederacy try to maintain a presence, although again Southern patrols occasionally came down the river for visits. This left the citizens of Apalachicola without the protection or support of either government and they suffered accordingly.

Oyster Boats on Apalachicola bay
The following account of life in the city in 1864 was written by Cora Mitchel, who lived there with her mother and four siblings during those terrible years:

Agriculturally, Apalachicola was unfortunately situated, being built on a sand bank. Almost every one who could get away had gone, and there were few negroes to cultivate what little soil there was. No steamers could come down the river, and if any one went down the bay for fish and oysters, he was suspected of sympathizing with the Northerners. That left the city dependent on an occasional barge coming down the lower part of the river with corn meal. Of other food there was none except a few sweet potatoes. There were no cattle, consequently no meat; no poultry, as there was no food for them. Our cow had died from lack of food. She had lived quite a while on cotton seed, but gave very little milk, and at last was buried in the back yard.

Riverfront in Apalachicola
Before father left he had found several casks of rice in one of his empty warehouses. It was taken to the house, and he thought it would last a long time. But one day mother discovered that weevils were in it and put it out in the yard on sheets. The neighbors saw it and soon a crowd collected and demanded the rice. Mother knew they would take it by force if she refused, so yielded, giving each a little till nearly all was gone. After the supply of rice was exhausted there was little good food to be had. Corn meal, with an occasional treat of oysters, was the steady bill of fare. Once the supply of meal was so low that mother went to a friend saying, "I hear you have some corn meal; you must divide with me; I have almost nothing for my children." Once there was a report that a barge was in sight, and all flocked to the wharf, only to see the barge upset and the whole cargo dumped into the water. One can imagine the scene!

Life in Apalachicola, according to Mitchel, grew progressively worse for both blacks and whites as both starved together. In one part of her account she mentioned how two deserters were captured by a Confederate patrol, tied to trees in the woods and shot. In another part, she noted that a Union boat party came ashore to "burn some houses."

In the end her mother took the family aboard a Federal transport for passage to Key West and eventually to the North. It was either that or starve.

Apalachicola today is a beautiful historic city that is known for heritage tourism, outstanding seafood and spectacular scenery. To learn more, please visit

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Confederate Torpedo explodes in the St. Johns River, six months after the War!

St. Johns River
As part of their effort to defend the St. Johns River, Confederate forces in Florida mined the river in 1864 with what were then called "torpedoes." 

These "engines of death" were remarkably effective during the war, sinking the Union vessels Harriet A. Weed, Alice PriceMaple Leaf and one other in the St. Johns in a space of just three months. Despite efforts by the Union army to drag the river and remove the torpedoes, they continued to pose a serious threat to shipping in the St. Johns River long after the end of the war in May of 1865.

The torpedoes used by the Confederacy were not the same as the torpedoes today. Without a means of propulsion, they were in essence stationary mines.  The St. Johns was mined using barrel-shaped torpedoes that were designed to explode on contact.

Six months after the end of the Civil War, a St. Johns River torpedo did its deadly duty, claiming the lives of two Northern seamen in the process. The following account appeared in the Florida Union newspaper on November 11, 1865:

 The Captain of a Schooner Blown to Pieces by the Explosion of a Torpedo, and Instantly Killed in Presence of his Wife – The Mate also Killed.

The Schooner A. Richards, of Boston, Capt. Nelson H. Arey of Thomaston, Maine, cleared from Richmond, Va., for this place on the 19th Oct., with one hundred tons of coal and two Locomotive Engines, for the Florida Atlantic and Gulf Central Railroad, and entered the St. Johns on the 4th inst.

While coming up the river the following day, Sunday – the vessel got aground at the mouth of Dunns Creek, about seven miles below Jacksonville, near the place where the Harriet A. Weed was blown up in June 1864. While waiting for the tide to rise and float the schooner off, the Capt. Accompanied by his wife and the mate, Chas. Hopper, of St. Thomas, W.I., went on show in a boat, the Captain taking with him an axe – proceeding along the banks of the river a few steps in advance of his companions, his attention was attracted by what to him must have been a singular looking object, lying near the edge of the water, partially covered with barnacles and weeds, which he stopped to examine. While doing so, he was seen to strike a slight blow with his axe, and the next moment, as his wife says, he was enveloped in a cloud of smoke which was immediately followed by a terrific explosion, throwing the Captain some fifteen paces, mangling him frightfully, and of course killing him instantly. The Mate was also thrown some distance and shockingly burned, and died of his injuries the following day. The torpedo was of the cigar shape barrel variety, and must have been one of the number planted at the time the ill fated Weed was blown-up, nearly eighteen months ago and which the Boston with a large load of passengers so narrowly escaped, she having passed over them immediately ahead of the Weed. On being informed of the particulars of the explosion, a party of our citizens visited the scene of the disaster and gathered up the remains of the Captain. A subscription was started among the Captains of the vessels in port and our merchants and shippers, for the purpose of raising funds to procure a metallic coffin for the Captain’s remains and to defray the expense incurred in burying the Mate. With commendable promptness and liberality the handsome sum of $364 was immediately raised, which after paying all expenses left a gratuity of $269 which was presented to the widow.

The fatal explosion took place between Jacksonville and Mayport along a stretch of the river near present-day Broward Point and not far from Yellow Bluff Fort Historic State Park. To learn about other Civil War events in the area, please visit the following pages:

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Confrontation at Campbellton - Last Confederate Company in the Field?

Campbellton Baptist Church
On May 17, 1865 - four days after the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas - the Campbellton Cavalry stood off a raid by Union troops and deserters in what seems to have been the last armed confrontation of the War Between the States in Florida.

Campbellton is a small community just south of the Alabama line in northwestern Jackson County that is home to the oldest continuously operating Baptist church in Florida. In 1865 it was the second largest town in the county and served as a trading and commercial center for for plantations and farms covering some of the finest lands in the area. It had been settled before the surrender of Florida by Spain to the United States, with some of the still-operating farms there dating back to as early as 1819.

On September 26, 1864, the area had been subjected to devastating raiding and light skirmishing as a column of Union troops led by Brigadier General Alexander Asboth passed through on their way to the Battle of Marianna. The Federals had been opposed in their advance by a small militia cavalry unit called the Campbellton Cavalry.

Commanded by Captain A.R. Godwin, a local plantation owner, the Campbellton men had skirmished with Asboth's vanguard, slowly falling back to Marianna where they joined in the defense of that city on the 27th. One of the units that escaped the Battle of Marianna relatively intact, the horsemen continued to patrol their area and protect their homes against threats on through the end of the war.

On May 17th, they were called out as news spread that a large raiding party was approaching town. The raiders arrived in Campbellton only to find the local men armed and waiting for them. The result was a standoff that likely saved the town from heavy damage:

...The raiders, under a man by the name of Pittman, who was styled a lieutenant, made a demonstration upon Campbellton on Wednesday last; numbers about 100. They were met by some forty armed citizens at the above place, but no collision. The raiders retired to their homes, learning they would be fought, with promises to be quiet. I am inclined to the opinion that nothing further is to be apprehended.

The account was written by George S. Hawkins, who served as Florida's sole Congressman until he resigned as the state moved to seceed from the Union. He lived in nearby Marianna and apparently learned the details first hand from participants.

The leader of the raiders, identified by hawkins as "a man by the name of Pittman," was Sergeant Thomas H. Pitman from Company F, 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry. His title of lieutenant had actually been earned earlier in the war when he served in the Confederate army. His service record indicates that he was elected 2nd Lieutenant of Company I, 6th Florida Infantry, in March of 1863. On May 18, 1864, however, he was dropped from the register of commissioned officers after he was reported absent without leave. By this time he had already crossed through the lines at East Pass (today's Destin) and joined the Union army.

Pitman was 6'4" tall, a towering height for those days, with blue eyes, sandy hair and a fair complexion. He was literate and even wrote a letter to his Union commanders seeking a commission based on his previous service in what he called the "so-called" Confederate army.

During the final stages of the war, Union soldiers from the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry were sent into the Confederate-held areas of Northwest Florida and Southeast Alabama to organize raiding parties like the one confronted by the Campbellton Cavalry on May 17, 1865. Their primary orders were to secure horses and cattle as well as to do any damage they could. The group led by Pitman may or may not have known that the war was technically over, but he was definitely a soldier in good standing in the Union army at the time of the raid.

The men of the Campbelton Cavalry would continue to defend their community and farms against perceived threats for several years to come. The names of members of the organization pop up regularly in accounts of the Reconstruction era in Jackson County. On one occasion in 1866, U.S. occupation troops rode out to Campbellton and found themselves confronted by men dug in around plantation buildings. Outgunned, the Federal soldiers withdrew back to their post at Marianna without making a fight of it.

Could the loosely organized Campbellton Cavalry have been the last Confederate company in the field?  The men of the community remained organized for defensive purposes for several years after the war and there is no indication that their organization was any different than it had been when they formed their company in the spring of 1864. No members of the unit took paroles from Federal officers in Florida when the war ended.

They very well could have made up the last unit of undefeated Southern soldiers.