The Capture of Fernandina, Florida in March 1862
After capturing Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861, Flag Officer Samuel Du Pont began planning operations to capture additional ports along the coast from Charleston, South Carolina to Cape Canaveral, Florida and close the coast to Confederate blockade runners. Port Royal’s location between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia was ideal for a Navy base for launching such operations and as a port for ships participating in the Union blockade of the southern coast.
One of these ports was at Fernandina, Florida, in the northeast corner of the state near the border with Georgia. Fernandina had railroad connections at its port, making it an important location to shut down to blockade running. The port’s defenses included Fort Clinch, one of many masonry forts constructed in the 1800s for coastal defense. However, naval gunfire had been successful against the forts guarding Port Royal, a fact that General Robert E. Lee (who in late 1861 and early 1862 was in charge of coastal defenses from the Carolinas to Florida) was well impressed with. With limited resources for defense on hand, Lee ordered defenses strengthened in some locations, like Savannah and Charleston; for others, he ordered withdrawals and redeployment of Confederate forces beyond the range of naval gunfire in late February of 1862. One of these locations to be abandoned was Fort Clinch and its associated earthworks.
At the same time, Du Pont was beginning his action against Fernandina. An escaped slave informed the Union Navy that the Confederates were withdrawing from Fort Clinch, and on March 2nd, Du Pont ordered Commander Percival Drayton to immediately proceed into Fernandina Harbor and secure the port.
The information was correct. The fleet arrived as the Confederates were completing their withdrawal, and the town, port, and fort were taken with almost no resistance. One of Drayton’s gunboats pursued and fired on a train headed out of town until the latter got away as the tracks headed inland. Fort Clinch had indeed been abandoned; 10 heavy guns in the fort and four more in some earthworks were left behind, falling into Union hands. As part of the operation, part of the fleet steamed up the St. Marys River and captured the nearby town of St. Marys, Georgia.
Du Pont filed this report on the capture of Fernandina:
Harbor of Fernandina, March 4, 1862.
SIR: I had the honor to inform you in my last dispatch that the expedition for Fernandina was equipped and waiting only for suitable weather to sail from Port Royal. I have now the pleasure to inform you that I am in full possession of Cumberland Island and Sound, of Fernandina and Amelia Island, and of the river and town of St. Mary’s.
I sailed from Port Royal on the last day of February, in the Wabash, and on the 2d instant entered Cumberland Sound by St. Andrew’s Inlet, in the Mohican, Commander S. W. Godon, on board of which I have hoisted my flag. The fleet comprised the following vessels, sailing in the order in which they are named:
Ottawa, Mohican (accompanied by Ellen), Seminole, Pawnee, Pocahontas, Flag, Florida, James Adger, Bienville, Alabama, Keystone State, Seneca, Huron, Pembina, Isaac Smith, Penguin, Potomska, armed cutter Henrietta, armed transport McClellan, the latter having on board the battalion of marines under the command of Major Reynolds, and the transports Empire City, Marion, Star of the South, Belvidere, Boston, George’s Creek, containing a brigade under the command of Brigadier-General Wright.
We came to anchor in Cumberland Sound at half past 10 on the morning of the 2d, to make an examination of the channel and wait for the tide.
Here I learned from a contraband who had been picked up at sea by Commander Lanier, and from the neighboring residents on Cumberland Island, that the rebels had abandoned in haste, the whole of the defenses of Fernandina and were even at that moment retreating from Amelia Island, carrying with them such of their munitions as their precipitate flight would allow.
The object of carrying the whole fleet through Cumberland Sound was to turn the heavy works on the south end of Cumberland and the north end of Amelia islands; but on receiving this intelligence I detached the gunboats and armed steamers of light draft from the main line and, placing them under the command of Commander P. Drayton, of the steam sloop Pawnee, I ordered him to push through the sound with the utmost speed, to save public and private property from threatened destruction, to prevent poisoning the wells, and to put a stop to all those outrages by the perpetration of which the leaders in this nefarious war hope to deceive and exasperate the Southern people.
In the meantime I went out of the sound and came by sea to the main entrance of this harbor.
In consequence of bad weather I was unable to cross the bar till this morning. Commander Drayton, accompanied by Commander C. R. P. Rodgers, with the armed launches and cutters and the small-armed companies from the Wabash, had arrived several hours before me.
Immediately on his entering the harbor, Commander Drayton sent Lieutenant White, of the Ottawa, to hoist the flag on Fort Clinch, the first of the national forts on which the ensign of the Union has resumed its proper place since the first proclamation of the President of the United States was issued.
A few scattered musket shots were fired from the town by the flying enemy, when it was discovered that a railroad train was about to start. Commander Drayton, on board the Ottawa, Lieutenant Commanding Stevens, chased this train for 2 miles and fired several shells at it, aiming at the locomotive, some of which took effect. It is reported that the Hon. David [L.] Yulee, late a Senator of the United States from the State of Florida, escaped from this train and took to the bush. Commander C. R. P. Rodgers, pushing ahead with the launches, captured the rebel steamer Darlington, containing military stores, army wagons, mules, forage, etc., and fortunately secured the drawbridge, which was held during the night by the second launch of the Wabash.
There were passengers, women and children, in the Darlington, and the brutal captain suffered her to be fired upon and refused to hoist a white flag, notwithstanding the entreaties of the women. No one was injured. I send the captain of the steamer home, a prisoner; his name is Jacob Brock; he is a native of Vermont, but has been a resident of Florida for twenty-three years.
The same night Commander C. R. P. Rodgers ascended the St. Mary’s with the Ottawa and took possession of the town, driving out a picket of the enemy’s cavalry.
Early in the morning the town of Fernandina was also occupied by a party of seamen and marines from Commander Drayton’s command. In both places most of the inhabitants had fled, by order, it is said, of the rebel authorities. A company of seamen and marines under Lieutenant Miller was sent from the Mohican to hold Fort Clinch.
It is reported to me by Lieutenant Commanding Dowries, of the Huron, that the whole structure of the railroad on the Fernandina side, including the swinging drawbridge, is quite uninjured. The rebels have done some damage by fire to the trestlework on the other side of the river, but I am not yet informed of its extent. Several locomotives, baggage cars, tenders, freight cars, and some other property, besides that found in the steamer Darlington, have been recovered.
The whole number of guns discovered up to this time is thirteen, embracing heavy 32-pounders, VIII-inch guns, and one 80 and one 120 pounder rifled guns.
The towns of St. Mary’s and Fernandina are uninjured.
I visited the town, Fort Clinch, and the earthworks on the sea face of the island. It is impossible to look at these preparations for a vigorous defense without being surprised that they should have been voluntarily deserted. The batteries on the north and northeast shores are as complete as art can make them. Six are well concealed, are protected by ranges of sand hills in front, contain perfect shelter for the men, and are so small and thoroughly covered by the natural growth and by the varied contours of the land that to strike them from the water would be the mere result of chance.
A battery of 6 guns, though larger and affording, therefore, a better mark, is equally well sheltered and masked.
These batteries and the heavy guns mounted on Fort Clinch command all the turnings of the main ship channel and rake an approaching enemy. Besides them there was another battery of 4 guns on the south end of Cumberland Island, the five of which would cross the channel inside of the bar. The difficulties arising from the indirectness of the channel and from the shallowness of the bar would have added to the defenses by keeping the approaching vessels a long time exposed to fire under great disadvantages. And when the ships of an enemy bad passed all these defenses they would have to encounter a well-constructed and naturally masked battery at the town, which commands the access to the inner anchorage. We are told that General Lee pronounced the place perfectly defensible. We are not surprised at this, if true.
We captured Port Royal, but Fernandina and Fort Clinch have been given to us.
We had in the expedition Mr. W. H. Dennis, an assistant in the Coast Survey, who possessed accurate local knowledge of a part of the ground we passed over, of which indeed he made the topographical map under the direction of the superintendent. He was zealous and active, and it gives me pleasure to mention him.
The Empire City, on board of which was General Wright, grounded on the bar. As soon as he arrived (in another steamer) immediate steps were taken to transfer to him the forts and all authority and possession on the land. I desire to speak here of the harmonious counsels and cordial cooperation which have marked throughout my intercourse with this able officer. Our plans of action have been matured by mutual consultation, and have been carried into execution by mutual help.
I take great pleasure in reminding the Department that one principal and ultimate object of the naval expedition which I have the honor to command was, in its first conception, to take and keep under control the whole line of the seacoast of Georgia, knowing (to use the language of the original paper) “that the naval power that controls the seacoast of Georgia controls the State of Georgia.” The report that the fortifications at St. Simon’s, armed with heavy columbiads, had been abandoned, which first reached me at Port Royal, is confirmed. This being the case, the entire seacoast of Georgia is now either actually in my possession or under my control, and thus the views of the Government have been accomplished.
Very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
S. F. DU PONT,
Flag-Officer, Commanding South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington.
Commander Drayton filed this after action report:
U. S. S. PAWNEE,
Fernandina, March 4, 1862.
SIR: In obedience to your order of the 2d March, I left at daylight on the next morning, accompanied by the following gunboats and other light-draft vessels, viz: The Ottawa, Lieutenant Commanding T. H. Stevens; Seneca, Lieutenant Commanding D. Ammen; Huron, Lieutenant Commanding J. Downes; Pembina, Lieutenant Commanding J. P. Bankhead; Isaac Smith, Lieutenant Commanding J. W. A. Nicholson; Penguin, [Acting] Lieutenant Commanding T. A. Budd; Potomska, Lieutenant Commanding P. G. Watmough, and Ellen, Lieutenant Commanding [Acting Master] W. Budd. There were also with us three armed launches of the Wabash and a company of sailors, all under the command of Commander C. R. P. Rodgers, of that vessel, as well as the transports McClellan, Captain Gray, on board of which was the battalion of marines of Major J. G. Reynolds; the Boston, with the Ninety-seventh Pennsylvania Regiment, Colonel Guss, and the armed cutter Henrietta, Captain Bennett.
We proceeded at once down Cumberland Sound. The navigation, however, proved to be quite intricate, and besides, the Pawnee, the Ottawa, and Huron (the latter the only one with a pilot except myself) were alone able to cross the flats at the dividing line between tides that meet in the sound from the north and south.
With these I continued on until at 3 o’clock, and when only 3 miles distant from Fort Clinch, all except the Ottawa grounded, and, as the tide was falling, there was little hope of getting them off until its change, I determined therefore to push on in that vessel with the three armed launches of the Wabash. On approaching Fort Clinch, it was so evidently deserted that I would not stop, but merely sent Lieutenant G. B. White, of the Ottawa, on shore with an armed boat to hoist the American flag there as a signal to yourself at anchor outside in the Mohican. This he did and returned to the vessel later.
On coming in sight of Old Fernandina, a white flag was displayed by some persons on shore. Shortly after, and when passing New Fernandina, a few rifle shots were fired from some bushes and a railroad train was perceived just starting. As it was naturally supposed to contain soldiers escaping, I directed Lieutenant Commanding Stevens to try and stop it, and the road passing for some distance near the river, and we going at full speed, there was an opportunity of firing several shots at the two locomotives attached to the train, which, however, did not prevent its escape across the railroad bridge, which is 4 miles from the town, and it was soon lost in the woods on the other side. We afterwards found on the track the bodies of two men who had been killed by our shots, one of whom was a soldier, and the report was that ex-Senator Yulee, who was on one of the cars, had also been struck, but this, l think, was a mistake.
In the meantime, a small steamer was discovered attempting to escape up the narrow creek over which the railroad bridge passes, the draw of which she went through very soon after the train had crossed. Several shots were fired at her without effect, and as the Ottawa could not go up the creek, Commander Rodgers followed her with two of his armed boats, captured and brought her alongside. She was found to be filled principally with women and children, but also had on board a surgeon in the Confederate Army and a number of mules and wagons belonging to the Quartermaster’s Department.
As everything had been done now that could be in this direction, and as it was quite dark, being near 8 o’clock, we returned off the town of Fernandina, where I left the Ottawa and went on board of the steamer that we had captured for the purpose of returning with a pilot to bring up the Pawnee and Huron.
Soon after Commander Rodgers, with the Ottawa, proceeded to occupy the town of St. Mary’s, Ga., a small place on the St. Mary’s River, distant 10 miles from here, and where we supposed some of the guns removed from Fort Clinch had been taken.
Owing to various detentions, I was not able to reach the Pawnee until midnight, or to bring her up until daylight, when, with the Huron, I anchored off this town.
During the night an armed launch of the Wabash, under charge of Acting Master R. H. Lamson, had been left for the protection of the railroad bridge, the draw of which had been opened. Toward morning, however, a number of soldiers came down, and under cover of the bushes set the farther end on fire. They were repeatedly fired on and driven off, but succeeded in very much injuring its western portion. On seeing the smoke, I sent the Huron up to prevent the remaining part from being injured, in which Lieutenant Commanding Dowries was successful.
The batteries on and near Fort Clinch on the southern part of Cumberland Island and at New Fernandina, although many guns have been removed, might have offered most serious obstacles to our approach, as will be seen by my detailed report of them. They were, however, being rapidly disarmed, in obedience to orders from the War Department, but it was determined to defend them from any attack by sea until the place could be regularly evacuated, and the bar being a very intricate one, and well under fire, they might have given us a great deal of trouble had our advance been made from that side.
At 8 o’clock of the night previous to my arrival, however (the 2d), a telegram came from Brunswick, mentioning that 24 of our armed vessels were in Cumberland Sound. This news seems to have produced a perfect panic, as by 12 o’clock the next day the garrison, which consisted of 1,500 men, as well as almost all of the inhabitants, had gone off.
Shortly after bringing up the Pawnee, and at about 7 o’clock this morning, I occupied the town with our marines and the Wabash’s company of rifles and endeavored as
much as possible to quiet the few people left and to prevent any injury to public or private property. Midshipman M. L. Johnson pushed along the railroad with some of his men, and in the course of the day brought in two locomotives and three railroad cars. He also collected and put a guard over a quantity of rosin, turpentine, and cotton, to prevent its being carried off or injured. At 9 o’clock the Isaac Smith arrived, when I immediately sent her out to communicate with your vessel, which she met, however, on the way in. The report of Commander Rodgers accompanies this, as well as a description of the defenses of the harbor and their armament.
In conclusion, I have only to express the great obligations that I am under to Commander Rodgers and Lieutenant Commanding Stevens. Except for the former and his boats we should scarcely have been able so readily to capture the steamer, and had it not been for the constant watchfulness and good management of the latter, his vessel would not have been able to follow the Pawnee so far as she did without a pilot, and thus at last enable us to act on the afternoon of the 3d, instead of waiting for the next morning, which would otherwise have been necessary.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Commander, Commanding Pawnee.
Flag-Officer S. F. DU PONT,
Commanding South Atlantic [Blockading] Squadron.
After capturing Fernandina, Du Pont continued his coastal operations along the Florida and Georgia coasts, taking St. Augustine, Jacksonville, Florida, and Brunswick, Georgia before the end of March. Du Pont also occupied Tybee Island, Georgia, opposite Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River. The Navy placed heavy cannon and mortars on Tybee Island, and after heavy bombardment on April 10th and 11th, Fort Pulaski surrendered, cutting off Savannah from blockade runners.
By Sea And By River: The Naval History of the Civil War by Bern Anderson
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume 12
War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson
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