Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Villages Civil War Club tours Marianna Battlefield

Civil War Club members learn about the Battle of Marianna
The Villages Civil War Club made the trip up to Marianna today to learn more about the Battle of Marianna.

In addition to learning about the tactics of the battle and visiting key spots including Ely Corner, the ambush site and historic St. Luke's Episcopal Church, the group also had a rare opportunity to see the inside of Marianna's beautiful Ely-Criglar House.

Ely-Criglar House in Marianna
Built in 1840, the private home is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey. The brick exterior walls of the house are 12-inches thick and extend from the rafters of the roof down into the ground. These extraordinary steps were taken in constructing the house so it could be used as a blockhouse in case of Indian attack during the Second Seminole War. The original shutters were made of thick cypress planks and were pierced with loopholes through which defenders could fire.

Parlor of the Ely-Criglar House
The house was never attacked during the Seminole War and by 1864 the shutters had been replaced with new ones that were more decorative than defensive in style.

Contrary to its appearance, the Ely-Criglar House was not a "plantation house." It was a town home for the prosperous Ely family of Marianna.

On September 27,1864, the Battle of Marianna erupted literally right in front of the house when Federal troops attacked Confederate cavalry positioned in the main street of Marianna.

Bullet Hole in the wall of the Ely-Criglar House
Showers of bullets hit the front wall of the house and there is some speculation that it might be the most battle-scarred house still standing in Florida.

Members of The Villages Civil War Club were able to see not just the exterior of the house, but also get a peak of its interior. They learned about its history and architecture, including the fact that each side of the square columns on the front of the house is made from a single plank of old growth cypress.

The group also learned about the tactics of the Battle of Marianna and toured both the interior of historic St. Luke's Episcopal Church and the grounds, where heavy fighting took place during the battle. They were shown battle-scarred tombstones and a Bible that survived the burning of the church during the fighting.

The tours are available for free and if you are interested in learning more or scheduling one, you can contact me at

You can read more about the Battle of Marianna at or by ordering a copy of my book:  The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition ($17.95).  It is also available as an instant download for Kindle users:  The Battle of Marianna, Florida (Kindle $9.95).

Friday, April 20, 2012

Fort McRee - The Lost Fort of Pensacola Bay

Interpretive Sign at Site of Fort McRee
It is hard to imagine a massive masonry fort being so obliterated by war and the elements that not even a trace of it remains to be seen, yet that is exactly what has happened to Fort McRee at Pensacola Bay.

Built in 1834-1839, Fort McRee was one of a network of forts built to protect Pensacola and the important Pensacola Navy Yard from foreign attack. It stood on what was then called Foster's Bank but is known today as Perdido Key. The site is directly across the entrance of Pensacola Bay from better-known Fort Pickens.

Site where Fort McRee Stood (Fort Pickens in the Background)
The fort was designed to work with Fort Pickens to create an impenetrable wall of cannon fire through which no enemy ship could pass without being reduced to splinters. Had it been called upon strictly to perform that task, McRee might well still be standing today.

Instead, when war actually came to Pensacola Bay in 1861, Fort McRee fell into the hands of Southern troops while its partner, Fort Pickens, remained in the hands of the Union. The result was that instead of combining with Fort Pickens to defend the entrance to the harbor against enemy warships, Fort McRee had to battle both. It was an assignment for which it was not designed.

Site of Fort McRee
On November 23, 1861, when the Battle of Pensacola Bay erupted between General Braxton Bragg's Army of Pensacola and the Federal forces at Fort Pickens and on board the warships USS Niagara and Richmond offshore, Fort McRee found itself caught in a devastating crossfire.

While the guns of Pickens blasted the three-tiered fort from across the harbor entrance, the ships closed to within range of the fort's rear. Although the garrison fought valiantly, one by one the guns of Fort McRee were silenced. With the soldiers in the fort no longer able to fight back, shot and shell rained on the burning fort for two days. By the time the battle was over, Fort McRee was riddled and sections of its walls were collapsing.

Fort McRee in Ruins, ca. 1899
The damage so weakened the fort that tidal erosion was able to finish the job that the Union military had begun. Fort McRee collapsed and today not a single surviving ruin can be seen above ground. There is even some debate about where the fort actually stood. Some believe the site has been washed away completely, while others believe the foundations of the fort still exist beneath the sand of Perdido Key.

To learn more about Fort McRee and the later concrete batteries erected at the site during the Spanish American War and World War II, please visit

You can learn more about the other forts of Pensacola Bay by following these links:
To explore other forts and battlefields in the South, be sure to visit my main site at

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"The rivers Apalachicola and Saint John's are of primary importance" (April 19, 1862)

Gen. Joseph Finegan, CSA
150 years ago today, just one day after Floridian Joseph Finegan learned he had been appointed a brigadier general in the Confederate army, authorities in Richmond issued vague orders to him for the defense of Florida.

The instructions went out from Major T.A. Washington, the Assistant Adjutant-General, on April 19, 1862, and made rather clear that Finegan was on his own:

...By direction of the general commanding I have the honor to say that it is not in his power, not knowing the strength of your command or the particular necessities of your department at this time, to give definite instructions for your government. The defense of the interior of the State and the lines of interior communication should be the subject of your particular attention. The rivers Apalachicola and Saint John's are of primary importance, and the most eligible points for their defense should be at once taken, if not already selected, and fortified. - Major T.W. Washington, CSA, April 19, 1862.

Federal troops occupy Fernandina, Florida
It is remarkable that one full year into the war, authorities in Richmond knew virtually nothing of the situation in Florida. While Major Washington told General Finegan there was no reason to think "that the enemy will occupy Florida in force," he did caution him not to expose his men anywhere on the state's long coast:

...Except to give protection to the arms, &c. [i.e. that might be brought in by blockade runners], it will not be prudent to expose a force on the sea-board. Having these objects in view, the general commanding desires you to inform him whether you will be able to spare any troops from your command for service in other parts of the Confederacy. - Major T.W. Washington, CSA, April 19, 1862.

Finegan's Home in Fernandina
The question as to whether Finegan had any troops he could send elsewhere would have been laughable in Tallahassee were the situation in Florida not so critical. The Confederacy had just stripped the state of troops, leaving Governor Milton and General Finegan to try to patch together troops to defend Florida. A recent Federal expedition had seized Fernandina, Jacksonville and St. Augustine, while Apalachicola had been evacuated by the Confederates before it could be attacked. Finegan's own home in Fernandina, in fact, was now in the hands of the Union Army.

The instructions from Richmond, however, were a sign of how Florida would be treated by officials there for the duration of the war.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Finegan becomes a Brigadier General (April 18, 1862)

Gen. Joseph Finegan, CSA
150 years ago today, Joseph Finegan learned that he had been appointed a brigadier general in the Confederate army.

Remembered by those who knew him as the "fighting little Irishman," Finegan was born in County Monaghan, Ireland in 1814. He came to the United States and settled in Florida, where he became a practicing attorney in Fernandina and a partner with David Levy Yulee in the construction of the Florida Railroad during the years before the war. He represented Nassau County at Florida's Secession Convention in 1861 and was commissioned as a colonel in the Confederate service.

After his performance at the Battle of Olustee in February of 1864 he became known to his fellow Floridians as the "Hero of Olustee" and in the last year of the war he served with courage in the Army of Northern Virginia.

On April 18, 1862, however, he issued his first orders as a brigadier general from his headquarters in Tallahassee:

Finegan Monument at Olustee Battlefield
   The undersigned having been appointed brigadier-general in Provisional Army of the Confederate States, and assigned by Special Order, No. 81, from the Secretary of War, to the Department of East and Middle Florida, hereby assumes command of the same.
   The undersigned calls upon officers of all grades to aid him in suppressing the vice of intemperance in the army. Duty to the soldier and the service requires that this should be done at once.
   The medical director and officers of the medical department are hereby required to institute inquiries in reference to the cause of the large percentage of sickness among the troops at present, and these officers are earnestly required to adopt the most efficient measures for the comfort and convenience of the sick soldiers under their charge.
   Capt. J.L. Cross, C.S. Army, is hereby temporarily placed on duty as assistant adjutant general.
   Maj. H.R. Teasdale, brigade quartermaster.
   Maj. A.A. Canova, brigade commissary.
   Capt. T.E. Buckman, temporarily as chief of ordnance.
   Lieut. J.O.A. Gerry, temporarily as mustering officer.
   These officers will be respected and obeyed accordingly in their respective departments.
   By order of -
   Brigadier-General, Commanding.

To learn more about Finegan's signal victory at Olustee, please visit

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Affair at St. Andrew Bay (April 8, 1862)

Steamer Florida
The Union navy had slipped into St. Andrew Bay on the night of April 6, 1862, and seized the Confederate steamer Florida early the next morning.

While trying to get the ship out of the bay, however, the sailors had run her aground on an oyster bar in North Bay. This gave the Confederates time to launch an effort to recapture her and on the morning of April 7th, the following telegram went out from Col. W.S. Dilworth in Tallahassee to Capt. R.L. Smith at Marianna:

  CAPTAIN: You will immediately proceed in the direction of Saint Andrew's Bay with your troops, and, if possible, recapture the steamer Florida, precent all unnecessary communication with the enemy, and arrest any person which you may have found grounds to suspect of treason. Col. W.S. Dilworth, CSA, April 7, 1862.

Blue Springs
Robinson was then at what was called "Blue Spring Camp" at Blue Springs just east of Marianna. The facility later would be called Camp Governor Milton (not to be confused with Camp Milton near Jacksonville).

Dilworth's telegram arrived in Marianna and immediately was sent by courier to Blue Springs, where it arrived at 12 noon. Capt. Smith ordered his company, an independent cavalry unit called the Marianna Dragoons, to immediately prepare to move out:

...I started at 3 p.m. on the same day with my command, and arrived at 3:02 p.m. the next day at Saint Andrew's Bay, having been in the saddle twenty-four hours with only a rest of two hours to feed our horses. I found that the enemy had succeeded in getting the steamer Florida from her anchorage up North Bay, and was then opposite the town of Saint Andrew's. - Capt. R.L. Smith, CSA, April 16, 1862.

Vicinity of Smith's Attack
The movement by Smith was impressive. From Blue Springs to Old St. Andrews is over 65 miles using today's roads. On the winding trails of 1862, the speed with which Smith reached the scene of the action was remarkable.

As the Confederates approached the abandoned resort town of St. Andrews (within the limits of today's Panama City) they hear a gun sound from on-board the Florida:

...[R]iding then at half speed, I met one of my advance guard just before reaching the town, who informed me that the enemy were landing from a small sloop about a mile from us. I then dismounted my command and advanced rapidly through the woods, hoping to capture them. But the enemy saw us when 200 yards off, and took to their boats. I caused my command to open fire on them. They were out of shot-gun reach but a portion of my command, who were armed with Maynard rifles, killed or disabled four or five of the seven. Having only five cartridges to the rifle, our ammunition was soon exhausted. Capt. R.L. Smith, CSA, April 16, 1862.

Position of Florida during the attack
The shortage of ammunition caused the Confederates to break off the battle. Robinson later wrote that he was "sure that I could have taken the sloop, and probably have retaken the steamer, or at least burned her" if his men had been supplied with sufficient ammunition.

The Florida opened fire on Smith and his men with a piece of artillery (probably a boat howitzer) form roughly one-half mile away, but the firing went to high and the shot and shells passed over the heads of the Confederates. The captain and his helpless men watched as the captured steamer made its way out of the bay.

The Union account of the skirmish relates that the effort to refloat the Florida succeeded at 9 a.m. on the morning of April 8, 1862. The steamer moved around the point and arrived near St. Andrews but was held there because a gale was blowing from the southwest, causing shallow water over the bar at the entrance to the bay. The ship dropped anchor and James H. Barry was sent with five men and a pilot in the small sloop Lafayette to obtain supplies from two Unionist families still living in the town:

St. Andrew Bay from the Attack scene
...As they were going to the boat an alarm was given that a body of armed men to the number of 40 or 50 were running toward them from the woods. They jumped into the boat and made for the sloop, but had scarcely got 20 yards from the shore when they were fired at by the rebels. They succeeded in getting on board the sloop, and in getting on board another volley was fired, instantly killing Samuel Lawrence, badly wounding James Finney, also wounding James H. Barry and the pilot. They returned the fire and succeeded in driving them back, got sloop underway, and reached the steamer. - Acting Master Elnathen Lewis, U.S. Navy, April 10, 1862.

The wounded pilot was identified elsewhere in the report as William H. Harrison. Total Union losses in the raid to capture the Florida and subsequent "Affair" at St. Andrew Bay were 1 killed, 4 wounded (Jacob F.F. Wendt of the boat party accidentally shot himself in the groin the next morning).

 The encounter was the baptism of fire for the Marianna Dragoons, which later became Company B, 15th Confederate Cavalry. The performed well in the circumstances.

The steamer Florida was converted into a warship by the Union navy and returned to patrol the Florida coastline under the name USS Hendrick Hudson. She was one of the ships that took part in the naval component of the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865.

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!   

To read more about Civil War activity in Florida until the next post, be sure to visit our main page at

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Soldier writes from Pensacola: "Worn out with our duties and cares"

Pre-War Christ Church in Pensacola
On March 31, 1862, a soldier from Alabama wrote of falling morale and hunger in the ranks of the Confederate troops at Pensacola.
His letter is all the more startling in that it was written just two months after another soldier described how the men in the lines at Pensacola were living a luxurious life and eating extremely well (see Eating Possum by the Pound at Pensacola).

...We are nearly worn out with our duties and cares here; there is no life, no animation among us. Our regiment has been constantly on duty for two weeks, and we are now under orders to proceed this evening to Live Oak plantation, where we will remain on picket duty for three days and nights. To add to our misery we have been placed on short allowance - being allowed three soda crackers, meat, peas, and coffee once aday. We go to bed hungry, get up hungry, and remain hungry all day long. But we hope to receive additional supplies in a short time, when we will be certain to satisfy our hunger at once. Destitute as we are, though, we feel no disposition to neglect our duty. - Soldier from Alabama, CSA, March 31, 1862.

Naval Live Oaks Reserve
The "Live Oak plantation" mentioned in the account was the Naval Live Oaks Reserve designated by President John Quincy Adams in 1828 to provide a source for high quality oak timber for use at the Pensacola Navy Yard. It was, in fact, one of the first managed national forests in the United States and is preserved today as the Naval Live Oaks Reserve area of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

The soldier went on to describe how exhaustion and the lack of food were taking their toll on the Confederates remaining in the lines in Pensacola:

Pensacola Bay
...Two members of our company have been arrested for sleeping while on guard. They plead weariness and fatigue, having been on duty so often and so long, when placed out they begged pitifully to be released, fearing that they would fall to sleep; but it was a time when we were all needed to protect the place from a surprise of the enemy, and they were not released. The trial has not yet come off, and I hope they will not be dealt severely with. - Soldier from Alabama, CSA, March 31, 1862.

The hungry and tired soldier sounds like so many soldiers from so many wars. He was exhausted and living on barely sufficient rations, but was determined to fight on. He could not have known at the time that the Confederacy's hold on Pensacola was nearing its end.

Learn more about the Naval Live Oaks Reserve:

Learn more about historic Pensacola, Florida: