Friday, April 6, 2012

Capture of the Steamer Florida at St. Andrew Bay (April 6, 1862)

Blockade Runner Florida
The Confederate steamer Florida, a fast propeller-driven blockade runner, was captured at St. Andrew Bay, Florida, in a lightning raid by the Union Navy on April 6, 1862, 150 years ago today.

Having run the blockade out of New Orleans with a cargo of cotton, the Florida returned in March of 1862 carrying 2,500 small arms and 60,000 pounds of gunpowder. Coming in at night, she slipped past the blockade ships off St. Andrew Bay and came to anchor at the small port near the mouth of Bear Creek.

The war supplies were unloaded and moved inland to Marianna as quickly as possible and the ship began taking on a cargo of cotton, barrels of rosin and other items for the trip back through the tightening Union web offshore.

St. Joseph Bay, Station of the USS Roebuck
As the ship was being reloaded, however, her presence was made known to the commander of the U.S.S. Roebuck, then stationed at St. Joseph Bay, by an unidentified spy. The officer, Acting-Lieutenant David Cate, determined to "cut her out."

A boat party headed by Acting Master Elnathen Lewis left the Roebuck on April 4, 1862, and began the long row for St. Andrew Bay. The seamen camped on the beach that night and then captured the schooner Lafayette in Crooked Island Sound the next day. The Federals rowed quietly past "St. Andrew's Town" at 4 p.m. and made their way into North Bay, where the Florida was anchored, after nightfall. They came within sight of the picket guard standing watch over the steamer early on the morning of April 6th:

St. Andrew Bay
...We proceeded cautiously with launch and first cutter and 25 men; also Captain Harrison as pilot. At 2 a.m. we succeeded in passing the picket guard without any alarm being given; at 3 discerned the lights of the steamer in the distance. We then laid on our oars, and drifted with the tide until we came within hail. - Elnathan Lewis, Acting Master, U.S. Navy, April 10, 1862.

The "Mr. Harrison" mentioned in the report was the captain of the schooner Lafayette, captured on the morning of the 5th in Crooked Island Sound (today's St. Andrews Sound). He proved to be a Unionist and had offered to guide the armed force into St. Andrew Bay and past the pickets posted to guard the Florida.

Unlike the crews of many such vessels captured by the U.S. Navy during the war, the crew of the Florida did try to resist when they were surprised during the predawn hours of April 6, 1862:

...We were then hailed by the watch, who gave the alarm. We then boarded her in both boats, on both sides. We met with but little resistance, they being taken completely by surprise. On gaining the deck of the steamer I received a pistol shot in the forehead. - Elnathen Lewis, Acting Master, U.S. Navy, April 10, 1862.

St. Andrew Bay
The bullet to the forehead, miraculously, did not kill Lewis. The load either was poorly prepared or he was beyond the effecting range of the pistol, because the lead ball simply bounced off his forehead without penetrating. It left him with a nasty knot, but still able to perform his duties.

The Federals, with help from a few of the crew of the Florida, immediately set to work raising steam in the boilers. At 11 a.m. the ship got underway and started steaming slowly down the bay. After going only five miles, however, she ran aground on an oyster bank. She remained stuck there through the afternoon and coming night.

The delay in escaping from the bay caused by the grounding incident gave Confederate forces in the area time to respond to the capture of the vessel. A courier rode as fast as possible to Marianna where authorities were alerted to the raid. Captain Walter J. Robinson was then commanding an independent cavalry company stationed at Blue Springs, just east of the city in Jackson County. He immediately ordered his men to break camp and started a ride for St. Andrew Bay.

I will have more on the collision between the two forces in the next post, so be sure to check back!   

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