Friday, February 7, 2014

Union troops take Jacksonville, 150 years ago today (February 7, 1864)

St. Johns River at Jacksonville, Florida
Photo by Brian Mabelitini
The Union army began to come ashore at Jacksonville, Florida, 150 years ago today on February 7, 1864. The Battle of Olustee was less than two weeks away.

Events were set in motion between 7:30 and 8 a.m. when three army transports loaded with troops arrived off the mouth of the St. Johns River. They were joined at 8:50 by the steamer Mable Leaf with Brigadier General Truman A. Seymour on board. Acting Master Frank B. Meriam went on board to confer with the general, an agreement being reached for the USS Norwich to lead the transports up the river to Jacksonville.

This decision being reached, Meriam was ordered by Lt. Commander S. Livingston Breese of the USS Ottawa to move up the river and obtain information on Confederate defenses ahead of the landing:

Furnish the Maple Leaf with a pilot, then get underway, proceed up the river to Mr. Palmer's place, communicate with Mr. Palmer, and learn from him what force is in Jacksonville. If a force has been thrown into town to oppose the landing, inform the general. After a landing should be effected by our troops, proceed up the river and anchor off the mouth of McGirt's Creek to prevent the St. Mary's from escaping up the river. - Verbal instructions given by Lt. Commander S. Livingston Breese, U.S. Navy, February 7, 1864.

The Mr. Palmer mentioned in the orders was a Unionist who lived on the St. Johns River between Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean.

USS Norwich
Courtesy U.S. Navy
Starting up the St. Johns aboard the USS Norwich, Meriam reached Palmer's place at 2:05 p.m. and "learned from him that only 20 men were in town and that the expedition was not expected." He resumed his forward movement at 2:45 p.m., went to quarters 20 minutes later and arrived off Jacksonville at 3:20 p.m.

Passing by the city to inspect the waterfront, the Norwich turned about and started back down past the city. As it was completing this maneuver, the Maple Leaf reached town and tied up to a wharf. The Union transports were right behind her. As they came up, musket fire erupted from shore:

Jacksonville shortly after the war
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory Collection
I have the honor to report that, with the advance of the forces under my command, Jacksonville was occupied on the 7th instant, opposed by only a picket of the enemy, which fired upon the General Hunter and mortally wounded 1 man on that transport. A company of the Massachusetts Independent Battalion of Cavalry, under Captain Morrill, disembarked with great promptness, and pursued the fragments of this picket for several miles. - Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (USA) to Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore (USA), February 17, 1864.

Despite the brief resistance by the Confederate pickets, Jacksonville was quickly occupied by the Federal troops with a reported loss of only one man.  At 5:25 p.m., the Norwich moved up the St. Johns to the mouth of McGirt's Creek where it could block the escape of the St. Mary's which was anchored up that stream.

Wrecks of the Maple Leaf and General Hunter
Alfred Waud sketch courtesy of the Library of Congress
The steamboat Maple Leaf, from which General Seymour directed the landing at Jacksonville, became famous in Florida history, six weeks after the Battle of Olustee when it struck a Confederate torpedo in the St. Johns River and went to the bottom. The General Hunter, which was fired on by Confederate pickets during the landing at Jacksonville, hit another torpedo and went down at almost the same spot.

The wreck of the Maple Leaf was the focus of a major archaeological research effort and the artifacts recovered have been divided between the U.S. Army and the State of Florida. All are preserved by Florida's Division of Historical Resources.

Tomorrow's post will focus on the first significant fighting of the Olustee Campaign, which took place at Camp Finegan on February 7, 1864.

To learn more about Olustee and to watch the new mini-documentary on the battle, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.


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