Saturday, September 20, 2014

Union movements in South Walton, 150 years ago

Brig. Gen. Asboth (second from left)
on horseback with his dog York.
The 700-man Union strike force of Brig. Gen. Alexander Asboth found itself in the vast pine lands along the northern edge of Choctawhatchee Bay 150 years ago tonight (9/20).

The Federals left Camp Walton (today's Fort Walton Beach) on the morning of September 20, 1864, following the historic "Ridge" or Old Federal Road. Their immediate objective was Four Mile Creek Landing at Freeport in Walton County. The landing was a small but important port facility and Asboth planned to take on additional supplies there from the quartermaster steamer Lizzie Davis before turning inland to begin his march on Marianna.

Rocky Bayou at Valparaiso, Florida
From Fort Walton Beach, the route of the march was up around the western end of Choctawhatchee Bay past the vicinity of today's Valparaiso, Niceville and Eglin Air Force Base. The old road the soldiers were following had been built by the U.S. Army during the 1820s using a pathway first used by American Indians and later followed by Spanish and British soldiers, explorers and traders.

Known in different areas as the Jackson, Ridge or Bellamy Road, the Old Federal Road was the first U.S.-built pathway to connect Pensacola in West Florida with St. Augustine in East Florida. It was not an easy road to follow. Early accounts note that stumps were not pulled from the pathway, but were simply sawed off close enough to the ground to allow wagons and oxcarts to pass over. In places where the road was blocked by trees too large to cut, the soldiers that built it through West Florida simply went around them.

Historical photo of longleaf pines and wiregrass
Library of Congress
It was a dismal ride for the 700 men from the 2nd Maine Cavalry, 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry, 82nd U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) and 86th USCT. Heavy rains from a tropical system that had stalled out over Northwest Florida continued to fall on the soldiers, soaking them to the bone as they rode forward through the vast longleaf pine forests.

It is difficult today to conceive the appearance of these Northwest Florida woods before they were leveled during the sawmill boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The trees had been growing for hundreds of years when explorers and settlers first arrived from overseas in the 1500s. It is believed by forestry experts that the virgin longleaf pine forests once covered 70-80 million acres in the United States. The trees can live 300-400 years and reach towering heights.

Rare stand of wild longleaf today
The most valued of the pines for both lumber and naval stores, the trees had already been harvested for nearly 300 years when the timber and turpentine barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries leveled the towering forests. From their onetime extent of up to 80 million acres, the virgin longleaf forests were reduced to a mere 1,000 acres by the 1930s. The slash and loblolly pines that replaced them bear little resemblance to the primeval forests through which Asboth and his men road on September 20-21, 1864.

The soldiers were dumb-struck by the size and height of the trees. Individual soldiers from the 2nd Maine Cavalry wrote in letters and their diaries about the pines, describing the haunting yet beautiful moan of the wind as it blew through the treetops. They accurately predicted that the trees would generate unbelievable wealth in future years and many of them returned to exploit the opportunity after the war.

Site of port at Four Mile Creek Landing in Freeport, Florida
As the soldiers rode forward through the rain and wind, the steamer Lizzie Davis made her way up the bay from today's Fort Walton Beach to LaGrange Bayou near Freeport. The vessel likely did not come up to the landing until the 22nd as doing so would have invited risk of Confederate capture, but by nightfall on the 20th she was waiting offshore for Asboth and his men to reappear. On board she carried ammunition, provisions and other supplies.

Choctawhatchee Bay with the towers of the
Beaches of South Walton visible in the distance.
The Lizzie Davis was a former blockade runner from New Orleans that had been captured by the U.S. Navy in the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the river steamers with which modern generations are most familiar, she was a long, sleek vessel with both masts and steam engines. Such vessels were designed for speed and stealth and their shallow drafts allowed them to slip into inlets and rivers all along the Southern coast. The shallow draft now benefited the U.S. Army as it allowed the vessel to transport troops and supplies into the shallow bays of Northwest Florida.

The desolate dunes and uninhabited beaches she passed on her way from Camp Walton to Freeport are recognized today as Destin and the fabulous Beaches of South Walton, a vacation paradise.

To learn more about the Raid on Marianna and events for this year's 150th anniversary commemoration, please visit www.battleofmarianna.com.

Also please consider my book, which includes a detailed accounting of each day and activity of the raid as well as a thorough account of the fight for Marianna:

(Book) The Battle of Marianna, Florida 

(Kindle E-book) The Battle of Marianna, Florida
 (Just $4.95!)


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