Thursday, February 6, 2014

Saboteurs on the St. Johns, 150 years ago tonight

St. Johns River at Jacksonville, Florida
Photo by Brian Mabelitini
On the evening of February 6, 1864 - 150 years ago tonight - Federal forces sent four saboteurs ashore near Jacksonville to wreak havoc ahead of their coming invasion. It was the first land effort of the Olustee Campaign.

While details of the incident are sketchy, reports of the U.S. Navy indicate the men were "refugees" or Southern citizens hired to do damage that would hinder Confederate forces in their effort to defend Florida:

...Major Brooks hired four men, refugees, to go inland on Saturday night to cut the telegraph wire and burn a railroad bridge. He asked for arms, rations, and a quantity of spirits of turpentine, which were furnished by the Ottawa and Norwich. - Acting Master Frank B. Meriam, U.S. Navy, to Rear-Admiral John A. Dahlgren, U.S. Navy, February 11, 1864.

Island City, a U.S. Army steamer that had followed the warship USS Norwich down the coast to the mouth of the St. Johns River. The Major Brooks mentioned in the report was Major Thomas Benton Brooks, the aide-de-camp to Major General Quincy A. Gillmore.
USS Norwich
Courtesy U.S. Navy
The four saboteurs were on board the

The objective of the secret project seems to have been to prevent Confederate forces from bringing up men or supplies to defend Jacksonville against the coming Union landing. After obtaining arms, rations and the spirits of turpentine for burning a bridge from the Navy, Brooks took the steamer Island City into the mouth of the St. Johns River:

...At 6:30 the Island City, with the four men on board and a canoe in tow, proceeded up the river to Trout Creek. At 6:45 sent a picket boat up the river, as usual. At 9:15 the Island City came down the river and anchored. - Acting Master Frank B. Meriam, U.S. Navy, to Rear-Admiral John A. Dahlgren, U.S. Navy, February 11, 1864.

The Trout Creek referred to in the report was probably the Trout River, which flows into the St. Johns from the west just north of today's downtown area. There is a Trout Creek further upstream, but its location would not have helped saboteurs intent on disrupting communications and travel to and from Jacksonville.

St. Johns River
What, if anything, the four spies were able to accomplish on the night of the 6th is not clear, but the next day would bring more activity.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy had pressed Major Brooks for his agreement to a plan for the USS Norwich to move up the St. Johns and blockade the St. Mary's, a Confederate steamer known to be in McGirt's Creek above Jacksonville. Acting Master Frank Meriam of the Norwich and Lt. Commander S. Livingston Breese of the Ottawa wanted to prevent the St. Mary's from escaping up the St. Johns and out of reach. Brooks, however, opposed the move from fear that such an operation would expose Union plans for a major invasion.

Meanwhile, the troop transports with the Union land force were closing in on the mouth of the St. Johns. Major activities of the Olustee Campaign would begin the next day.  I will post on those tomorrow.

Be sure to see my mini-documentary on Olustee and learn more about the battle at

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