Friday, January 20, 2012

January 20, 1862 - Capture of the Olive Branch off Egmont Key

Egmont Key, Florida
Notice the Egmont Key Lighthouse in the left center.
Before the U.S.S. Hatteras attacked Cedar Key on January 16, 1862 (please see The Union Attack on Cedar Key, Florida), the Jacksonville owned schooner Olive Branch slipped out of the harbor there and ran through the blockade.

The Olive Branch was bound for Nassau, New Providence, and while she successfully made it out past the blockade vessels at Cedar Key, she did not reach her destination. As the small schooner was running south down the Gulf of Mexico past the mouth of Tampa Bay, she was spotted by lookouts stationed atop the Egmont Key Lighthouse on January 20, 1862, 150 years ago today.

The news was signaled to two Union warships stationed off Tampa Bay, the USS Kingfisher and the USS Ethan Allen, both of which launched small boats to pursue the fast-moving schooner. The boats of the Ethan Allen caught up with the blockade runner first, but not before five of her crewmen escaped to shore:

Sketch of Egmont Key Lighthouse, 1862
...The prize was brought in this morning by Acting Master Stephenson of the Ethan Allen, and proved to be the Confederate schooner Olive Branch of Jacksonville, burden 42 4/9 2/5 tons, from Cedar Keys 9th instant for Nassau, New Providence, with cargo of 160 barrels (5,440 gallons) spirits turpentine, valued at about $8,700, and the vessel at $1,200 to $1,500 more. - Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Joseph P. Couthouy, USS Kingfisher, January 21, 1862.

The fact that the cargo of the Olive Branch was worth more than five times the value of the schooner itself tells something about the profits realized by the captains and ship owners that risked running their sloops, steamers and schooners through the blockade of Florida. And despite captures such as that made 150 years ago today by the men of the Ethan Allen, blockade runners would continue to slip in and out of the inlets and bays of the Florida coast until the end of the war.

The Egmont Key Lighthouse, from which the Union lookouts spotted the blockade runner, is now part of Egmont Key State Park. Accessible only by boat or passenger ferry, the park is located off Tampa Bay. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/egmontkey.

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