Friday, February 21, 2014

Battle of Fort Myers, 149 years ago this week (February 20, 1865)

Blockhouse at Fort Myers
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
On February 21, 1865 (149 years ago today), Union Captain James Doyle reported the results of the little known Battle of Fort Myers in Southwest Florida.

A Seminole War fort adapted for use by the Union army during the War Between the States (or Civil War), Fort Myers gave birth to the modern city of the same name. Now one of the fastest growing communities in the nation with a ten year growth rate of almost 30%, Fort Myers was then a lonely outpost in a barely populated region of Florida.

Originally named Fort Harvie, the U.S. Army post was renamed Fort Myers in 1850 for Colonel Abraham Myers. It was occupied until 1858 when Chief Billy Bowlegs and his followers were brought there at the end of the Third Seminole War to begin the journey to what is now Oklahoma.

The post was reoccupied five years later in 1863 by Union troops who used it as a base for raids against cattle herds in South Florida. On February 20, 1864, however, Confederate forces from Florida's famed "Cow Cavalry" tried to bring those raids to an end:

...I have the honor to report that a large force of the enemy's cavalry, estimated at about 400, with one piece of artillery (12-pounder) appeared before our works yesterday. They captured our pickets on the Fort Thompson road, consisting of a corporal and three men. We discovered the enemy approaching a few minutes after 12 m. The men were instantly under arms and posted. - Captain James Doyle, 110 NY Infantry (US) to Captain E.B. Tracy (US), February 21, 1865.

Sketch of Fort Myers (notice blockhouse in lower right)
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
The attack might well have succeeded had not the chivalry of the Confederate commander gotten the better of him. The Southern troops had taken the Federals by surprise and likely would have surged directly into the fort, but Major William Footman halted his men in order to send in a flag of truce and demand a surrender in order to avoid needless bloodshed.

A soldier in the major's command noted that the Confederate plan was working like clockwork and success was imminent, "but judge my disappointment when Footman sent in a flag of truce and demanded a surrender." Other Confederate officers tried to dissuade Major Footman from carrying out this chivalrous act, but he persisted.

Capt. John F. Bartholf, USA
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
The Union soldiers in Fort Myers were equally shocked when the Special Battalion of Florida Cavalry halted just outside their works:

...A flag of truce was seen approaching, and halted at a distance of 500 yards from the fort. I immediately sent Captain Bartholf to meet the flag. He returned with a written communication from the rebel commander, demanding the surrender of the post, giving me twenty minutes to decide. - Captain James Doyle, 110 NY Infantry (US) to Captain E.B. Tracy (US), February 21, 1865.

Captain Doyle, the commanding officer of Fort Myers, did not need 20 minutes to decide. After taking five minutes to get his men into position for defense, he sent back a note refusing Major Footman's demand. Using a truce to prepare military forces for action was considered less than chivalrous and a violation of the "rules of war" in those days, but Doyle never the lest readied his men for battle.

Fort Myers in 1991, by Robert M. Overton
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
At 1:10 p.m., the Confederates opened fire on the fort with their 12-pounder from a range of about 1,400 yards. The Union cannon responded. Captain Doyle sent a skirmish line of dismounted men from the Second Florida U.S. Cavalry (Southern troops fighting for the Union) outside the fort to take up positions in the trees and brush between his defenses and the Confederate line of battle. These soldiers maintained a constant fire on the Southern forces, who formed a dismounted line behind their cannon and around the flanks of the fort.

The Confederates fired about 20 shells into Fort Myers, doing no real damage, as the standoff continued until dark.  The Union soldiers slept on their arms that night, but when the sun rose on the morning of February 21, 1865 (149 years ago today) the Confederates were gone.

Other than scattering the Federal cattle herd and capturing eleven horses, the Confederate attack achieved little. Realizing that he could not take the fort now that its garrison was alarmed and ready, Footman ordered his men to withdraw during the night.

While the Battle of Fort Myers was loud, casualties were very light.  The fort remained in communication with Union headquarters in Key West by steamboat throughout the affair and after Footman's truce, was never really threatened.

While a small affair as such things went, the attack on Fort Myers would lead in part to the last significant Confederate victory of the war, the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida.

I will post more about that tomorrow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is there a place to visit in Fort Myers that commemorates the battle?