Wednesday, March 7, 2012

March 7, 1862 - Fighting on the St. Mary's River

USS Ottawa
Having taken possession of Fernandina and Amelia Island (see The Occupation of Fernandina), the Union army and navy began efforts to consolidate control of the surrounding area.
Part of this effort involved the launching of a naval raid up the St. Mary's River, which in Northeast Florida forms the dividing line between Florida and Georgia. Such raids served to show the flag to civilians and drive away lingering Confederate forces, but also could be quite profitable. When the crews of Union warships seized cotton, lumber, rosin and other valuable cargoes, they shared in the profits.

Commanded by Lieutenant T.H. Stevens, the USS Ottawa was ordered up the St. Mary's to "assure the peaceable citizens" that they would be "protected in their persons and property" and that they should "return to their homes, where nobody will come near to harm them." Despite the twisting, narrow nature of the channel of the St. Mary's, Stevens was ordered to steam nearly fifty miles upstream to Woodstock Mills, the Brick Yard and the Campbell and Downes Plantations.

The trip up to Woodstock Mills was peaceful enough, but as the gunboat prepared to return downstream, that quickly changed:

USS Ottawa in 1862
...Before leaving Woodstock Mills I learned through a negro that it was the intention of the rebels to cut us off with their light batteries and infantry of the Mississippi regiment who had been stationed here. When near the Brick Yard the enemy's riflemen attacked us in force from both sides of the river. I opened upon them with our battery, using grape and canister and small arms, killing and wounding a large number. The fire was kept up from both sides of the river (here about 100 yards wide) for about a mile.... - Lt. T.H. Stevens, U.S. Navy.

The artillery fire from the Wabash was not as bloody as Lieutenant Stevens thought, but did succeed in driving off the Confederate infantry. The battle, however, was not yet over:

...[We neither] saw nor heard anything more of them until just above the plantation of Mrs. Campbell, when, discovering a large body of cavalry about 1,200 yards ahead of us, I threw a few 10-second XI-inch shell among them, when they fled in great haste and confusion. - Lt. T.H. Stevens, U.S. Navy.

The Confederates were not yet done. A third ambush for the gunboat was prepared downstream at the point the St. Mary's widened into the coastal marshes:

USS Ottawa in 1862
...[B]efore they had time to fire, gave them a round from the XI-inch loaded with canister, the two 24-pound howitzers, and the 12-pound howitzer of the Wabash (which I had taken on board before leaving), which was worked admirably, as indeed all of the guns were. Very few of the enemy escaped this destructive fire. - Lt. T.H. Stevens, U.S. Navy.

While Stevens again far over-estimated the effects of his cannon on the Confederates, he did admit that their fire had been "very accurate, as the numerous escapes of both officers and men and the numerous bullet holes in the sides of the vessel will testify."

A second account of the battle on the St. Mary's appeared in a report filed the following day by a war correspondent in Fernandina:

...The Ottawa returned - having navigated the St. Mary's River, thirty miles above St. Mary's. They report that the river in many places was so narrow that they could almost touch the trees which grew near the water. They met with no obstacle in going, but upon returning got aground, and the riflemen collected in the thick woods, through which the narrow channel ran, and harassed them with a continual and brisk fire. The gunboat replied with grape and canister, mowing through the trees and bushes with terrible effect. Four men were wounded on the gunboat, but none dangerously. The officers of the vessel went ashore at several points, and were always well received by the inhabitants. They all have the idea that we come to kill them. Their ignorance has been wonderfully worked upon, and they have a great fear of the Yankees - having a prevailing impression that our mission is to kill and destroy. - Unidentified War Correspondent writing from Fernandina, March 8, 1862.

Despite all the effort and expense the Confederacy had put into the fortification and defense of Amelia Island, the only real fighting associated with the Union occupation of the island took place along the St. Mary's River, 150 years ago today.


Savez said...

Still enjoying the blog. Its one of the best Civil War blogs around. Very informative and its not ate up with the "Treasury of Virtue" like many of them are today.

Dale Cox said...

Thanks! I just tend to post along on things that interest me and I appreciate the good words!