Sunday, April 24, 2011

Excavations reveal new details about Confederate battery at Torreya State Park

Overlay of 1936 Civilian Conservation Corps map
of earthworks on modern topographic map.
Illustration by Brian Mabelitini.
A season of archaeological field work has added significantly to our knowledge of the heavy artillery batteries that Confederate forces constructed to defend Florida's Apalachicola River and its vital tributaries, the Chattahoochee and Flint.

A significant transportation corridor that provided navigable access into the heartland of Florida, Georgia and Alabama, the river system was one of the most active in the South when the War Between the States erupted in 1861. After Confederate troops evacuated the City of Apalachicola in 1862, a series of defensive positions were built along the banks of the rivers to keep out the Union Navy. Operating in conjunction with the warship C.S.S. Chattahoochee, these batteries mounted large cannon and were the final line of defense for a vast plantation belt, vital Confederate shipyards and military industries at Saffold and Columbus, Georgia, and the important communities of Chattahoochee, Bainbridge, Fort Gaines, Eufaula and Columbus.

View of archaeological footprint of
platform in Gun Emplacement 2.
Photograph by Brian Mabelitini.
 Of the Confederate positions along the rivers, the best preserved is the gun battery at Torreya State Park just north of Bristol, Florida. A hiking trail there leads past the earthworks that once protected an array of heavy cannon. Individual gun emplacements are visible, as are connecting trenches and magazine remains.

I've recently had the pleasure of corresponding with Brian Mabelitini, who is directing archaeological work at the Torreya fortifications. The field work was completed last summer and he is now engaged in analyzing data and assembling references on the battery.  He was kind enough to provide the following summary of his work:

Summer 2010 Archaeological Investigations at the Hammock Landing Battery

By: Brian Mabelitini

Remains of Powder Magazine.
Photograph by Brian Mabelitini.
During the summer of 2010, archaeological excavations were conducted at the Hammock Landing Battery on Neal’s Bluff in present-day Torreya State Park by the University of West Florida and the Florida Public Archaeology Network. These investigations were focused toward understanding the construction methods of the battery and its appearance during active operation, as well as the creation of an accurate topographic map of the earthworks. The site areas examined included Gun Emplacement 2 and its associated powder magazine. These excavations revealed the plank floor of the gun platform and the walls of the magazine to be in a remarkable state of preservation. Preliminary analysis of wood samples collected from the platform and magazine suggest the now rare Torreya tree may have been utilized in the construction of the battery. Although a few arms related artifacts were recovered, including 24-pounder grape shot, Maynard rifle bullets, and friction primers, the presence of British-style pull tab primers shed light on the types of materials available to the Confederacy under the Federal blockade. A final report of the archaeological investigations is currently being prepared.

You can learn more about Torreya State Park and its various points of interest, including the gun battery, by visiting

Friday, April 15, 2011

Captain Gonzales and the Battle of West Point - April 16, 1865

Graves of Gen. Tyler & Captain Gonzales
Tomorrow, April 16th, marks the 146th anniversary of one of the last significant battles of the War Between the States and the death of one of the last Florida officers to fall in action.

Captain C. Gonzales of Company B, 1st Florida Infantry, spent much of the war in staff roles, having served at the Confederate posts in Brewton and Greenville, Alabama; Jonesboro and Atlanta, Georgia, and finally at West Point where the railroad crossed the Chattahoochee River from Georgia into Alabama. West Point was commanded by Brigadier General Robert Tyler and was the location of a fort named in his honor.

By Good Friday in 1865, the massive raiding force of General James H. Wilson had captured both Selma and Montgomery and then turned east for Georgia. Wilson was "finishing off" the South, destroying anything his soldiers could find that might help keep the Confederate armies in the field. Even the brilliant General Nathan Bedford Forrest was so severely outnumbered by Wilson's force that he could do little more than fight and fall back.

Cannon at Fort Tyler
The last stand of the Confederates in the Deep South would take place along the line of the Chattahoochee River as Wilson's two-pronged campaign tried to cross from Alabama into Georgia. The main body, with General Wilson personally in command, headed for the vital industrial city of Columbus, while a smaller column led by Colonel O.H. LaGrange moved across the plains of Alabama to West Point and Fort Tyler.

Alerted to their approach, General Tyler moved his tiny command into Fort Tyler. His total force numbered somewhere between 120 and 265 men, many of them wounded invalids like the general himself (he had lost a leg at Missionary Ridge). The approaching Union force had 3,750 men.

Despite the astounding odds, Tyler decided to fight.  Joining him in putting the men into position around the ramparts and three cannon of Fort Tyler was Captain Gonzales, a Floridian who had served since the earliest days of the war.  The ladies of West Point presented them a flag, which Tyler accepted pledging that he would either win the coming battle or die in the attempt.

The Battle of West Point was fought on April 16, 1865, seven days after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee in Virginia. The outnumbered Confederate forces in Fort Tyler held out for hours against the thousands of Union soldiers under Colonel LaGrange. In the end, Tyler recklessly exposed himself in a defiant last stand and fell to the bullets of his enemy. Gonzales fell by his side. Fort Tyler was taken by Federal forces.

Later that same day, General Wilson led a rare night assault on the fortifications at Columbus, breaking through and capturing the city. The Battle of Columbus is often said to have been the last major battle of the War Between the States (although fighting would continue in other places for another six weeks).

Captain Gonzales and General Tyler rest side by side at Fort Tyler Cemetery today. The fort they defended has been reconstructed and West Point does a nice job of preserving its wartime history. To learn more, please visit Be sure to follow the links there to learn about the Fort Tyler Cemetery and the Battle of West Point.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pensacola and the First Shot - Looks like I have created a bit of a stir!

Fort Barrancas at Pensacola Bay, Florida
In case you haven't seen it yet, the Associated Press ran a story this morning quoting me about an incident at Pensacola that I believe constituted the first hostile shots of the War Between the States.

If you haven't seen it yet, I'll post a link at the bottom of this post.

Basically, though, it revolves around a posting I made here at Civil War Florida back on January 6th of this year as part of a month-long series on the military aspects of the secession of Florida.  I'll post a direct link to it at the bottom of the page as well.

To make a long story short, the posting detailed how, on the night of January 8, 1861, U.S. soldiers guarding Fort Barrancas at Pensacola Bay opened fire on a party of shadowy figures they had seen walking onto the drawbridge of the fort. Tensions were very high and rumors were rampant that state forces intended to seize the fort.  Florida's Secession Convention was then meeting in Tallahassee and state forces had already captured the U.S. Arsenal at Chattahoochee and Fort Marion (Castillo de San Marcos) at St. Augustine.

Cannon at Fort Barrancas
With such rumors making the rounds in Pensacola and parties of Southern militiamen known to be moving in the area, Lt. Adam J. Slemmer who commanded at Fort Barrancas placed a sergeant's guard at the gate of Fort Barrancas on the evening of January 8th. The lieutenant commanded a total force of only 46 men, who were then quartered in the Barrancas Barracks, a separate facility near the fort. As a precaution, though, he had moved all of his gunpowder into the magazines of the main fort.

Well after darkness, the men standing guard at Fort Barrancas observed unknown men approaching the drawbridge. This is from Slemmer's official report of the incident:

…That night a body of men (about twenty in number) came to the fort with the evident intention of taking possession. The corporal of the guard caused the alarm to be given, upon which the assailants retreated precipitately. The guard was immediately strengthened by half the company, but nothing further occurred that night. - Lt. Adam J. Slemmer, U.S. Army

Scene of the First Shots
By his statement that the corporal of the guard "caused the alarm to be given," Slemmer meant that the U.S. soldiers opened fire. R.L. Sweetman was one of the men on the bridge and he wrote to Slemmer's wife after the war explaining his side of the incident. According to his account, he and a friend had heard that the fort had been evacuated by the Federal troops and they went to investigate. As they walked onto the bridge, soldiers in the fort opened fire on them with muskets. They retreated rapidly into the dark.

Since the AP article was brief and didn't really go into my thoughts about the incident, I thought I would share them with you here.  I hope you'll pass around the link to this posting if you read or hear anyone commenting on the story, as there is a lot of misinformation and - to be honest - rudeness spreading around out there today, as the AP article is appearing in newspapers and other media sites around the world.

First, so far as I know, the gunfire at Fort Barrancas did involve the first hostile shot of the war. The firing there took place hours before cadets from The Citadel opened fire on the supply ship Star of the West at the mouth of Charleston Harbor and, of course, three months before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, also in Charleston Harbor.

There were other incidents along the Mississippi River prior to the firing on Fort Sumter and I've heard of one in Texas that I haven't had time to investigate, but so far as I know at this point, the gunfire at Fort Barrancas on January 8, 1861, was the first.

Visitor Center at Fort Barrancas
I think officers on both sides did their best to downplay the incident at Pensacola Bay. Neither side wanted bloodshed at the moment and Lieutenant Slemmer didn't even file his report until nearly one month later. Southern mention of the incident was very minimal at the time. The Confederacy, in fact, didn't exist and wouldn't be established until February of 1861, so the opening statement of the AP article that the incident involved "Confederate sympathizers" isn't exactly accurate. Florida, in fact, was still part of the United States on January 8th and wouldn't secede for another two days, so basically what happened at Fort Barrancas is that U.S. troops opened fire on U.S. citizens (admittedly, though, ones that favored secession).

It is also true that armed combat, again so far as I know, did not begin until Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 (150 years ago yesterday). There can be no doubt, however, that the Southern states fully expected that their secession would lead to war. This is why Florida moved to begin seizing the state's military installations even before the official vote of the Secession Convention on January 10, and why a standoff was already underway at Charleston Harbor. Armed militia was drilling in the streets of Southern cities and the U.S. Army was moving to consolidate its position and defend what forts and arsenals it could.

I've often pondered over just when one could say that the war actually started. Fort Sumter was the beginning of armed combat, but shots had been fired, military facilities seized and separate countries (the individual states) declared in December of 1860 and January of 1861. A state of war clearly existed from the point that South Carolina took Castle Pinckney and Fort Moultrie in December of 1860 and began mounting guns aimed at Fort Sumter. In Florida, a state of war existed from the moment that Governor Madison S. Perry ordered the seizure of the arsenal at Chattahoochee on January 6th. The same kinds of things were going on in other states and Mississippi even began placing cannon at Vicksburg to block commerce on the Mississippi River.

So it really comes down to a matter of opinion. Military facilities were seized and manned by Southern troops as early as December of 1861. The first hostile shots were fired at Fort Barrancas in Florida on January 8, 1861. The first exchange of fire took place at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. And the first bloodshed of the war took place even after that, as no one was killed in the fight for Fort Sumter.

As an aside, I do believe that more attention should be given to the incident at Fort Barrancas. It was a significant moment in the history of the United Stated and should be better interpreted and remembered and I hope you will agree, whether you choose to call it the "first shot" or not.

Here are the links I promised:

Original Posting:

AP Article:

More about Fort Barrancas:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Reinforcement of Fort Pickens - 150 Years Ago Today

Fort Pickens
On April 12, 1861, as Confederate fire rained down on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, orders reached the U.S.S. Sabine, off Pensacola Bay, to reinforce Fort Pickens.

Located at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, the massive fort controlled the entrance to Pensacola Bay. It was the largest of the harbor fortifications and despite repeated demands for its surrender, Fort Pickens remained in the hands of the U.S. Army. On the mainland and across the harbor entrance at Fort McRee, the growing Confederate army of General Braxton Bragg had been placing cannon after cannon in anticipation of an eventual showdown with the Federal troops on Santa Rosa Island. That showdown had been delayed, however, by an agreement with the previous administration in Washington, D.C., known as the "Fort Pickens Truce."

Tower Bastion at Fort Pickens
The truce agreement held that so long as the U.S. made no move to reinforce Lt. Adam J. Slemmer's tiny command in Fort Pickens, Southern forces would make no move to attack the fort. The truce had held for three months even as the men of both sides prepared for battle. By temporarily averting bloodshed at Pensacola Bay, however, it resulted in the first shot of the real war being fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina on the morning of April 12, 1861.

As the day progressed, previously dispatched orders were hand delivered to the ships off Fort Pickens by Lieutenant John Worden:

Sir: I have the honor to inform you that immediately on the receipt of your order by Lieutenant Worden, on the 12th instant, I prepared to re-enforce Fort Pickens. It was successfully performed, on the same night, by landing the troops under Captain Vogdes, and the marines of the squadron under Lieutenant [John C.] Cash. No opposition was made, nor do I believe the movement was known on shore until it was accomplished. - Captain H.A. Adams, U.S.S. Sabine, April 14, 1861.

Civil War Cannon a Fort Pickens
Headed by Commander Charles H. Poor, the reinforcement of the fort took place under the cover of darkness on the evening of April 12, 1861. Boats from the Federal ships off the harbor entrance accurately landed the troops despite the dark and the absence of the guiding light of the lighthouse. When the sun rose the next morning, Fort Pickens had been strongly reinforced and any possibility of success that could be achieved by a Confederate effort to storm the fort had been all but ended.

The violation of the Fort Pickens Truce by the U.S. Government ended the tense but peaceful standoff at Pensacola Bay. Just as the bloodless bombardment of Fort Sumter had done at Charleston, the bloodless landing of reinforcements at Fort Pickens brought about the opening of the War Between the States at Pensacola Bay.

Fort Pickens today is a shadow of its former self. Time and the elements have ravaged the old fortress on Santa Rosa Island, but it remains one of the most significant and fascinating of the Civil War historic sites in Florida. Now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and managed by the National Park Service, along with Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt on the mainland, it is open to the public daily. To learn more, please visit

Sunday, April 3, 2011

An Officer from the 7th Vermont meets his fate after the war in Jackson County

John Q. Dickinson
Today marks the 140th anniversary of the assassination of John Q. Dickinson on the streets of Marianna.

The appointed Clerk of Courts for Jackson County, he had been an officer in the Seventh Vermont Veteran Volunteers, the longest serving Civil War regiment from Vermont. Organized at Rutland in 1862, the Seventh had served in Louisiana and Florida for most of the war, taking part in the Battles of Baton Rouge and Fort Blakeley, as well as numerous other raids and encounters. In and around Pensacola, it engaged in numerous skirmishes and raids during the last two years of the war and one other officer, Captain Mahlon M. Young, was killed at the Battle of Marianna on September 27, 1864.

Many of the men and officers of the regiment served to support their philosophical and political beliefs, among them John Quincy Dickinson. After the war ended, he remained in the South as part of the military then political Reconstruction era implemented by the Republican leadership in Washington.

Dickinson was eventually appointed Clerk of Courts for Jackson County, a position that made him a blood enemy of many of the landowners and former Confederates in the county. The clerk was involved in the tax sales of lands seized from local residents who lost their fortunes in the war. This and Dickinson's efforts in favor of freed slaves led to numerous threats against his life.

Davis-West House in Marianna
Finally, at around 9 o'clock on the night of April 3, 1871, as he walked home after working late at the courthouse, he was shot down in the street by unknown assassins secreted behind a fence at the home of Dr. Theophilus West, a former surgeon in the Army of Northern Virginia. The home, now known as the Davis-West House, still stands at the intersection of Madison and Putnam Streets in Marianna. Dickinson's body was found in the street near the intersection, his hands crossed on his breast.

The following account of the assassination appeared in the April 13, 1871, issue of the St. Albans, Vermont, Daily Messenger:

The Ku-Klux Assassins.

A Vermonter murdered in Florida.

John Q. Dickinson, Esq., Clerk of Jackson county, Florida, was found dead in the street in Marianna, April 3d. An examination showed that he had been waylayed and shot in the evening, thirteen buckshot having entered his breast and a pistol ball passed through the heart. His pockets had been rifled and his body laid out in the street with his hands crossed upon his breast. Mr. D. was a native of Benson, Vermont, was educated at the Troy Conference Academy, at Poultney, and in 1861 was the Montpelier correspondent of the Rutland Herald. He served as Lieutenant and Quartermaster in the 7th Vermont, during the war, his regiment being stationed for some time at Barrancas. At the close of the war, he settled near Pensacola and entered into the lumber business with the firm of Thompson, Peck, & Dickinson. In 1868 he was appointed Assistant Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and sent to Marianna, and after the discontinuance of the Bureau, he was appointed County Clerk for Jackson county.

Site of the Assassination
We are indebted to our friend G.W. Bogue, Esq., of Madison, Florida, for a copy of the Florida Union from which we also extract the following:

“Captain Dickinson was about thirty-five years of age and unmarried. He was an earnest an active republican and a leader of the party in Jackson county; a man of strict integrity and pleasant address, and one who enjoyed the confidence and respect of his friends, and yet, owing to his political principals and his connection with the republican party, he was bitterly hated by the Ku-Klux democracy of Jackson county, and his life was one of constant care and anxiety. He has received, from time to time, many anonymous threats and warnings, and though he still stuck to his post, he felt that his life was in constant peril. But a short time ago, in speaking of his position, he made the request that, in case he was assassinated, his body should be sent North.

It seems now that the threats of his enemies have been fulfilled, and one more victim to democratic hatred has gone to his final account.”

You can read more about the Dickinson murder on our sister site,