Saturday, March 3, 2012

March 3, 1862 - The Shelling of Refugees at Fernandina

USS Ottawa in 1861.
On March 3, 1862, 150 years ago today, the Federal warship USS Ottawa intentionally fired on civilian refugees at Fernandina, Florida.

 A change in the weather that day kept the main Union warships off the main entrance to the channel between Amelia Island and Cumberland Island, but the Ottawa made its way up the channel between Cumberland and the mainland and emerged inside the harbor. Fort Clinch and earthwork batteries were positioned to control the approaches to Fernandina, but these had already been evacuated by their garrison of soldiers from the 4th Florida Infantry:

Union small boats row past Old Fernandina
...The remainder of the gunboats were prevented from following her by the McClellan, which had got aground and could not be moved. The Ottawa found the forts deserted, as it was reported to us, and arrived at Fernandina just as a train of cars was about leaving, loaded with inhabitants and their household goods. Upon the gunboat approaching the railroad bridge which connects the island with the mainland, several rifles were discharged from the windows of the cars which were nearing the bridge at the time, while a small body of the Fourth Florida Regiment of Dragoons, who were mounted, discharged their revolvers, at the same time riding furiously through the bushes. - Unidentified Correspondent, The New York Times, March 4, 1862.

USS Ottawa, sketched in 1861
A Unadilla Class gunboat, the Ottawa was what the navy called a "90 day gunboat" because the contract for her construction required that she be built and delivered in 90 days. The Union Navy contracted for a number of these vessels when war broke out between the North and the South.

Ottawa had a draft of only 9'6" which allowed her to move through much shallower water than most of the ships then in the Union fleet. She was armed with one 11" Dahlgren gun, one 20-pounder Parrott rifle and two 24-pounder howitzers.

The scattered fire at the vessel from the small arms of the rear guard of the 4th Florida Infantry caused the Federals, they would claim, to believe a train they could see pulling away over the trestle leading from Amelia Island to the mainland was carrying troops:

USS Ottawa in Action, 1862
...Capt. STEVENS, of the Ottawa, thinking the train was freighted with soldiers, discharged a shell which struck the rear car - a platform car, loaded with furniture - and burst, scattering the furniture on all sides, and instantly killed two young men named SAVAGE and THOMPSON, who were sitting on a sofa. Another shell went over the locomotive very near the smoke-pipe. The rebels loosened the rear car, and the train immediately proceeded on its and succeeded in getting over the bridge. - Unidentified Correspondent, The New York Times, March 4, 1862.


Confederate reports indicate, however, that the train was carrying civilians. The Southern commander of Amelia Island, Colonel Edward Hopkins, had been ordered in late February to remove the cannon from the batteries there and evacuate the island. These orders had been issued by General Robert E. Lee on February 19, 1862. Then in command of the department that included East Florida, he believed that the island positions could not be properly defended against the power of the Union Navy and that attempting to do so would result only in a loss of men and artillery.

Fort Clinch in 1862
Lee's orders had reached Amelia Island only four days before the Union warships appeared, however, and Colonel Hopkins and his men had just completed the dismounting of their best artillery and had already removed 18 of their best guns from the island. Realizing they had no chance of defending the island, they concentrated on removing as many supplies and cannon as possible.

Fernandina shortly after the War
Colonel Hopkins twice offered to help civilians leave the island, but they seemed unwilling to believe that the war had come to their doorsteps. By March 3rd, however, it was apparent that Fernandina would fall to the North and, as Hopkins put it, he found himself caught in a difficult position, "Duty on one side and commiseration for the sufferers rendered my position very distressing."

Having evacuated most of his men from the island, he ordered out a rear guard to protect the last train to the mainland, a train he noted "should have" already been "removed to a place of safety."

The Darlington in 1862
The shell from the Ottawa, as noted, struck a flat car at the rear of the train, causing it to be abandoned. The rest of the train made it over and then the rear guard, from Company C of the 4th Florida Infantry, set fire to the trestle.

The gunboat then detected a "little rebel steamboat called the Darlington, which was making haste down the river to Jacksonville." Pursuit as immediately given and she was brought to, but was found to be "loaded with families." 

The main occupation of Fernandina by Union forces would take place the next day. I will post on that tomorrow, so be sure to check back then!

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