Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Union army sails for Jacksonville 150 years ago today (February 5, 1864)

Mouth of the St. Johns River
At 9 p.m. on February 5, 1864 - 150 years ago today - the Union flotilla began its movement south from Hilton Head Island in South Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida. The Battle of Olustee was then fifteen days away.

The U.S. Army transport steamer Harriet A. Weed was already heading south for the St. Johns River, with orders to buoy the channel leading into the river so the transports and escorting warships could steam in from the Atlantic with minimal difficulty.

Writing from his headquarters on Hilton Head, Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) issued operational orders to his second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US):

Riverfront at Jacksonville as it appeared in ca. 1870
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory Collection
...The whole are to rendezvous at the mouth of the Saint John's River by daybreak day after to-morrow morning, the 7th instant. I expect to be there in person in that time, but should I fail from any cause you are expected to pass the bar on Sunday morning's high tide, ascend the river to Jacksonville, effect a landing with your command, and push forward a mounted force as far as Baldwin, at the junction of the two railroads. - Maj. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore (US) to Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US), February 5, 1864 - 9 p.m.

The orders gave Seymour considerable discretion, setting a pattern that would lead directly two the Battle of Olustee two weeks later.

Area of initial movements from U.S. Army map
Library of Congress (Click to Enlarge)
That the Union generals believed they would catch the Confederate defenders of Florida weak and unprepared is obvious. Gillmore told Seymour that he did not expect they would meet "any strong force" as they came ashore. He did not, however, that the Confederates were "known to have a small force of infantry and a battery between Jacksonville and Baldwin."

The immediate objectives of the movement were Jacksonville and Baldwin, an important rail crossing about 21 miles inland. It was there that the line from Fernandina and Amelia Island to Cedar Key intersected the line from Jacksonville west to Tallahassee and Quincy.

Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren
Hoping to capture a train, Gillmore ordered a raiding party from Fernandina - already held by the Federals - to strike both railroads after the Jacksonville train came in the next day. This force was to tear up and block the tracks to prevent the train from escaping. The Union general hoped to use the railroads to support his inland movements when the time came, but to do that he needed a train.

The army was supported in its movement by the U.S. Navy. Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren ordered the warships USS Ottawa and Norwich to convoy the army transports as they steamed south. He also assigned the Dai Ching, Mahaska and Water Witch to move to the mouth of the St. Johns as well.

The Confederates were unaware of the movement as the ships began to move south through the midnight darkness.

The next article in this series on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee will be posted tomorrow. Be sure to learn more about the battlefield and watch the new mini-documentary at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

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