Friday, March 23, 2012

Skirmish at New Smyrna, Florida - March 22, 1862

Ponce de Leon Inlet from the air
Florida Memory Collection
After suffering humiliating withdrawals from Fernandina, Jacksonville and St. Augustine, the Confederate forces on the Atlantic Coast of Florida struck back 150 years ago this week.

On March 22, 1862, boat crews from the USS Penguin and USS Henry Andrew pulled into what was called Mosquito Inlet in the 19th century. The passage is known today as Ponce de Leon Inlet.

The captains of the vessels, Acting Lieutenant

T.A. Budd and Acting Master S.W. Mather, had been warned there might be Confederate troops in the area. Blockade runners had been reported to be using the inlet and the Union navy was aware that an earthwork fort, pierced for three guns, had been built inside the inlet at New Smyrna.

It was believed that the fort had been evacuated at about the time of the fall of St. Augustine, but no one knew for sure:

...It appears that after going some 15 or 18 miles without any incident, and while on their return and in sight of the Henry Andrew, the order of the line being no longer observed, the two commanding officers quite in advance, landed under certain earthworks which had been abandoned or never armed, near a dense grove of live oaks, with underbrush. A heavy and continuous fire was unexpectedly opened upon them from both these covers. Lieutenant Commanding Budd and Acting Master Mather, with 3 of the 5 men composing the boat's crew, were killed, the remaining 2 were wounded and made prisoners. - Flag Officer S.F. DuPont, U.S. Navy, March 24, 1862.

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Site of Skirmish at New Smyrna (Notice monument behind twin palms at left center).

The total Federal party consisted of four or five boats and 41 men. As each of the boats came up, they also took heavy fire from the Confederates, who turned out to be trained soldiers from the Third Florida Infantry. The sailors had carried along a boat howitzer to give themselves greater firepower, but strangely had mounted the cannon on a boat from which it could not be fired:

...The rear boat of all had a howitzer, which, however, could not be properly secured or worked, the boat not being fitted for the purpose, and could therefore be of little use. The men had to seek cover on shore, but as soon as it was dark, Acting Master's Mate McIntosh returned to the boats, brought away the body of one of the crew who had been killed, all the arms, ammunition, and flags, threw the howitzer into the river, passed close to the rebel pickets, who hailed, but elicited no reply, and arrived safely on board the Henry Andrew. - Flag Officer S.F. DuPont, U.S. Navy, March 24, 1862.

USS Penguin in 1862.
The successful attack on the Federal boats at New Smyrna gave the Confederates in East Florida a badly needed boost in morale. Colonel W.S. Dilworth, commander of the Third Florida Infantry, hailed the success of his men in a report dated April 4, 1862:

...I have to report a most successful skirmish, which took place at [New] Smyrna.... Captain D.B. Bird, Third Regiment, Florida Colunteers, C.S. [Army], commanding post, the skirmishers commanded by Captain Strain, Third Regiment, and Lieutenant Chambers, of Captain Owens' independent troop of cavalry. - Col. W.S. Dilworth, C.S.A., April 4, 1862.

Dilworth went on to report that a blockade runner recently had landed a large shipment of arms at New Smyrna and that he believed the Federals were trying to seize the weapons. In reality, the Union navy had learned that a large stockpile of oak lumber was stored near Mosquito (Ponce de Leon) Inlet and was trying to find it.

The victory by Captain Bird's men was complete. The final casualty report for the Federal boat party listed 7 killed and 7 wounded. Two of the wounded were reported to have been taken prisoner. The Confederates reported no losses in the fight.

There was one curious discrepancy in the reports of the two sides. The Federal reports listed two men as wounded and captured, while the Confederates reported that there were three. "A runaway negro also was captured," Colonel Dilworth reported, "who had piloted the enemy into the inlet to [New] Smyrna and who was to be hanged." The Union reports noted that a pilot had been shot in the foot but otherwise were silent as to his fate.

Southern newspapers published wildly exaggerated accounts of the Skirmish at New Smyrna over coming weeks, some of them claiming that as many as 45 Union sailors had been killed. The actual casualty list was as follows:

USS Penguin
Acting Lieutenant T.A. Budd, Killed
James Marlow, ordinary seaman, Killed
Walter Burch, ordinary seaman, Killed
John Dennis, master's mate, wounded in shoulder.
William Twaites, ordinary seaman, wounded in hand.
USS Henry Andrew

Acting Master S.W. Mather, commanding, Killed
Lewis Deloris, ordinary seaman, Killed
John Bates, seaman, Killed
Samuel Arnold, seaman, Killed
William Brown, ordinary seaman, Killed
A.W. Kelsey, acting assistant paymaster, Wounded in hand.
Walter Bradley, acting third asssistant engineer, Wounded in forehead.
Thomas Welch, ordinary seaman, Wounded and a prisoner.
Henry C. Rich, ordinary seaman, Wounded and a prisoner.
James T. Allen, ordinary seaman, Wounded in thigh.

The site of the Skirmish at New Smyrna is located on South Riverside Drive near its intersection with Clinch Street in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. A stone monument marks the site.

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