Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cedar Key's Last Day as a Confederate Port

Waterfront at Cedar Key, Florida
January 15, 1862 (150 years ago today) was Cedar Key's last full day as an active port of the fledgling Southern nation.
Actually a collection of small keys or islands nestled in the curve of Florida's Gulf Coast, the Cedar Keys gained their name from the large numbers of cedar trees that grew in the area. An important military depot of the Second Seminole War, the islands became an important export point for shipments of cedar slats, lumber and naval stores during the antebellum era. The Cedar Key Light, on Seahorse Key, began operating in 1854, helping schooners, sloops and steamboats navigate the the banks and shallow waters surrounding the port.

Island Hotel, built in 1859
By 1859 there were even visions of competing towns on the islands. One group of investors secured a charter for a town on Atsena Otie Key, which had been the primary U.S. Army installation during the Seminole War. A second group, headed by U.S. Senator David Levy Yulee acquired most of Way Key and planned a town there that soon would become the western or Gulf terminus of the Florida Railroad. It was the railroad town that would survive to become today's Cedar Key.

The first trains reached Way Key in March of 1861, after the secession of Florida but before Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. By that time a significant population had settled on the islands and a number of prominent buildings, including what is now the Island Hotel had been built there.

Cannon thought to have been used on Seahorse Key
Located at Cedar Key Museum Historic State Park
With the outbreak of war between the North and South, the Confederates had stationed men on Seahorse Key and Atsena Otie Key. The primary fortifications were well out into the Gulf on Seahorse Key and consisted of a battery mounting two outdated 18-pounder cannon, barracks and other facilities. The lighthouse there was used as an observation point.

Despite the establishment of the Union blockade of the Florida coastline during the summer of 1861, Cedar Key had remained an important shipping point for Confederate blockade runners and January 15, 1862, found five schooners in port there. These were the Aucilla, Stag, Anna Smith, Wyfe and Fanny, all either loaded or in the process of being loaded with cotton, turpentine products and lumber for planned efforts to run the blockade. Three fishing smacks were also in port. An eyewitness described the place as "a small town with about thirty houses, and probably one hundred inhabitants."

Marker for Yulee's Florida Railroad on Cedar Key Waterfront
What Cedar Key did not have by mid-January of 1861, however, was an effective defense force. Intelligence had been received in Florida of a planned Union attack on Fernandina, which served as the eastern or Atlantic terminus of the Florida Railroad, and troops had been rushed to that point. These reinforcements included the men from the Fourth Florida Infantry originally positioned for the defense of Cedar Key.

The cannon on Seahorse Key were considered so obsolete that they were simply abandoned where they sat, although a detachment of fewer than two dozen soldiers did remain on Atsena Otie Key with a single 6-pounder field piece. They were not really there to defend against Union attack, but rather to serve as something of a police force for the protection of the civilian residents of the islands.

They were not aware that two Federal warships, the U.S.S. Hatteras and the U.S.S. Florida, were closing in from Apalachicola and Key West, respectively. They would attack the following day.

I will have more on the Union attack on Cedar Key tomorrow, but until then you can learn more about the beautiful island town by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/cedarkey.

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