THE GREAT RIVER WAR
ON THE ST. JOHNS

By Richard A. Martin   

The St. Johns River is peaceful now, gliding quietly between its Banks. Long forgotten are the days between its bays of thundering explosions, crackling small-arms fire and foundering ships. After all, more than a century has passed since the St. Johns River War - a conflict that reflected in cameo the viciousness of the greatest and bloodiest of all American conflicts.

Fighting on the St. Johns began almost at the start of the War Between the States with the U.S. Navy's blockade of the Southern ports late in 1861, but it did not reach its full intensity until 1864, when in the space of less than six months more than a dozen major vessels of both flags were sunk, captured or destroyed.

The first clash between Union and Confederate vessels in the vicinity of the St. Johns River occurred on December 11, 1861, when the USS Bienville, an armed sidewheel steamer of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, attacked a steam tug towing two small schooners over the St. Johns bar into the Atlantic. Seeing the Union warship approach, the tug abandoned her tows and scurried back to safety across the bar. One of the schooners was run aground by her crew and wrecked. The second was captured by a boarding party and proved to be the Sarah and Caroline of Jacksonville. A correspondent on the Bienville reported: She had on board...a number of recent papers, and a large package of letters; from both of the latter we got much information relative to the melancholy condition of the times in the Land of Secession.

The first occupation of Jacksonville three months later in March 1862 opened the St. Johns to the Union Navy and for the duration of the war a kind of naval guerilla warfare was fought on the river. Stationed at Mayport until Jacksonville was occupied permanently in February 1864, Union gunboats guarded the mouth of the river against blockade-runners and patrolled the lower portions of the St. Johns, primarily to protect and assist known Union sympathizers and collaborators, as well as escaped slaves and Confederate deserters. Raids against river towns and plantations which harbored Confederate troops or guerillas were conducted from time to time. Crops and orange groves were destroyed and livestock and slaves were carried off.

The Fortifications.
In an attempt to prevent this activity, General Joseph Finegan, commander of the Confederate forces in East Florida, fortified St. Johns Bluff below Jacksonville in September 1862, thereby triggering the second occupation of Jacksonville. When the guns on the bluff engaged the Union gunboats Uncas and Patroon, which were then stationed on the St. Johns, reinforcements were called in, and, in a combined Army-Navy operation, the Union forces captured the bluff and went on to occupy Jacksonville for five days - from October 5 to October 9.

Gunboat activity on the St. Johns continued throughout the war, but it was most intense during the four occupations of Jacksonville by Union forces. The Navy's heavy guns provided umbrellas of protection for Federal raiding parties along the river, and they constituted the main line of defense for Union garrisons entrenched at Jacksonville. This was clearly evident after the Union defeat at Olustee in February 1864. When the defeated and demoralized Union Army retreated to Jacksonville in disorder, Confederate pursuit was halted short of the town rather than dare the firepower of the Federal warships and gunboats on the river.

Unable to retaliate in kind, the Confederates introduced a new kind of weapon on the St. Johns early in 1864, and as it thundered its presence from Mayport to Palatka, the river war entered its final and most intensive phase.

The new weapon was called a submarine torpedo, but it functioned like a modern naval mine, being held in place by moorings just below the surface of the water where it could not be seen. The lethal devices, some homemade and others manufactured at Confederate arsenals, began to proliferate like deadly hyacinths along the St. Johns in the spring and summer of 1864. Trailing detonating wires and mooring lines instead of fragrantly flowered vines, the torpedoes proved to be more than a match for the Union Navy. During the six months it took to develop an effective defense against them, the havoc and destruction they created reached such heights that the Union high command came close to abandoning Jacksonville and withdrawing its warships from the St. Johns. Two of the most ingenious of the devices - the first to be found and reported on the St. Johns - were described in The New York Times on March 14, 1864:

Capt. Ketchum of the transport Island City captured... near the mouth of the St. Johns River two large torpedoes. The magazines of both consisted of half an oil can, hermetically sealed, and contained 75 pounds of rifle powder. The powder was to be fired by means of a gun barrel, to which was attached a percussion cap, exploded by a hammer, the latter being operated by a powerful steel spring, controlled and weighted by a complete Yankee clock manufactured in Connecticut.

Was it the writer, or the maker of the device, who found grim humor in that last touch? A Yankee clock to tick away the lives of Yankee soldiers and sailors. Whatever, there was to be nothing humorous about torpedoes on the St. Johns in the months that followed.

Torpedo!
Early on the morning of April 1, 1864, the trim sidewheeler Maple Leaf, an Army transport of some 500 tons, was returning to Jacksonville from Palatka, where she had gone to convey a detachment of troops, when she struck a torpedo off Mandarin Point. It was about 4 A.M. when the explosion thundered over the St. Johns to open the final phase of the river war. According to The New York Times:

At the time of the explosion the Maple Leaf had on board forty people, including the officers and crew, all of whom escaped harm or capture, except two firemen and three deckhands (there were only four) who were sleeping on the deck....and who were instantly killed....

The persons thus killed were colored. All the passengers, among whom were three ladies, immediately took to two small boats belonging to the steamer and made for Jacksonville, which place they reached about 8 A.M. Nearly all the passengers were asleep when the event occurred, and no time whatever was afforded for looking after personal baggage. All that was saved in the way of clothing was what the persons wore when they left the vessel. On board the Maple Leaf was the camp and garrison equipage of three regiments.... Two sutlers had property on board valued at $20,000. Every-thing was lost.... The steamer sank in deep water, so that nothing but the top of her wheelhouse and a portion of the smokestack appeared to view. During the day the Rebels shelled away this visible portion of the wreck, so that now nothing is to be seen 0f it. The torpedo must have been very large and powerful, for when it exploded it threw the bow of the steamer completely out of the water...Nothing of the vessel or cargo to the value of a sixpence was saved.

The account in The Jacksonville Peninsula of the sinking added this information:

Since this disaster a number of torpedoes of devilish ingenuity and of' great destructive capacity have been discovered and removed from near where the Maple Leaf was lost. It has also been ascertained that these infernal machines came from Charleston very recently, being sent by Monsieur Beauregard. They look like genuine mechanisms of chivalry, and reflect the diabolical instincts of Rebeldom.

The "infernal machines" in this case were indeed sent from Charleston and were placed in the river by order of Major General Patton Anderson after Palatka was occupied by Union troops in March. Captain E. Pliny Bryan, detached for duty in Florida from General Pierre G.T. Beauregard's staff at Charleston, was given the assignment of mining the river and he completed it on the night of March 30, 1864, less than 48 hours before the hapless Maple Leaf came along. According to Captain Bryan, a dozen of the torpedo mines were placed in the St. Johns River off Mandarin Point, each of them containing 70 pounds of small-grain cannon powder. Whether Bryan had the pleasure of witnessing the sinking is not known, but he was on the scene shortly afterward to help destroy the portion of the Maple Leafs superstructure that remained above water.

The instant results obtained from Captain Bryan's mission placed a premium on the new weapons, but the supply was now exhausted. Accordingly, Lieutenant Thomas E. Buckman of Jacksonville, attached to General Anderson's staff was asked to see what he could do. Buckman quickly devised an ingenious chemical type of torpedo which used mercury mixed with gunpowder in such a way that the explosion occurred on contact. According to one source:

These bombs were constructed under Lt. Buckman' s direction and possibly by his own hands. There were no chemicals available, so mercury obtained from thermometers was treated with certain acids and then mixed with powder and confined in large kegs. Probably in beer kegs. Those were bound heavily with sheet iron, and iron bands (were) placed around the outer covering. The charge of fulminated mercury was so arranged that it would explode from shock - or a spark would be created from the shock which would ignite the powder confined in the heavy kegs - and the detonation may be imagined.... One half-pound of mercury would make a dozen torpedoes.

The Withdrawal.
The proliferation of torpedoes on the St. Johns and the sinking of the Maple Leaf had an immediate effect. In a dispatch April 5, 1864, The New York Times declared that prudence would seem to suggest the abandonment of Palatka and the concentration of Federal forces at Jacksonville until the river could be made safe again. The Times also reported the discovery of yet another variety of torpedo:

of peculiar construction, having three percussion prongs (which would) explode at the least touch of a hammer.

Soldiers dragging the river found ten of these devices in less than a week. On April 12, 1864, the Federals abandoned Palatka, sending a small force of black troops to occupy Picolata across the river and returning the rest of the garrison to St. Augustine and Jacksonville.1 Four days later the Army transports General Hunter and Cosmopolitan, under convoy of the gunboat Norwich, sailed out of Picolata for Jacksonville. Norwich and Cosmopolitan were in the lead and were maneuvering the bend in the St. Johns River where the Maple Leaf had been sunk two weeks earlier when another explosion lifted a mountain of water and the 470 ton General Hunter from the river. The transport sank in five minutes, although only one man was lost because no troops were on board. As it was, the rest of the crew barely managed to escape before the ship settled to the bottom. The Times observed:

Now that our troops have evacuated Palatka there will be no further occasion for transports to ply up and down the river, consequently we may presume that the torpedo disasters in the St. Johns River have come to any end.2

Less than a month later the "Infernal machines" struck again. A convoy of troop transports towing cargo schooners was steaming from Jacksonville to the St. Johns bar when the Harriet Weed struck two torpedoes simultaneously. The Harriet Weed was a small vessel- it had been used as a pilot boat at the mouth of the river a few years earlier - and the force of the explosion lifted her almost completely out of the water. "She was literally blown to atoms," The Times reported. An Army officer who was aboard said the blast threw him at least 20 feet into the air and he added that the concussion exploded shells in the ship's two cannons, which were at the ready, thereby increasing the force of the blast considerably. About 40 passengers and crew were on board, including an officer and 20 men of the 3rd U.S. Colored Troops. Five men were killed, two seriously injured and all but a few of the remainder suffered broken bones, concussions or burns. According to Navy Commander George R. Balch of the USS Pawnee, the Harriet Weed sank "in less than a minute" and the torpedoes involved were armed with a new kind of plunger-type detonating device. Balch also reported that:

...the Rebels are exceedingly active in putting down torpedoes, notwithstanding the Navy's vigilance.

The New York Times was incensed. Only a few days prior to the sinking a correspondent had reported:

One of the gunboats in passing up the St. Johns River discovered the dead body of a Negro floating in the stream, and upon making a close inspection, it was ascertained to be attached to a torpedo.

With such tactics allegedly on the increase, The Times now questioned the propriety of continuing naval operations on the St. Johns:

The Harriet A. Weed now makes the third vessel that has been destroyed on the St. Johns River within a few weeks by means of torpedoes. The invasion of Florida by our troops has been fruitful of anything but solacing events for us. ... It would be a wise movement to abandon Jacksonville and place the troops where they would be of more service.

Although the Navy was willing to consider a withdrawal, the Army was not. Instead Prof. A.D. Bache, superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, was called on for assistance, with the result that Charles 0. Boutelle and a task force of ordnance and engineering experts were sent to Jacksonville aboard the survey steamer Vixen to study the unusually effective St. Johns River torpedoes.

More Torpedoes Found.
Boutelle and his party arrived on the day after the Harriet Weed was sunk. About half a dozen more torpedoes were discovered in the vicinity of the Harriet Weed's hulk and Boutelle and his men took one of these and subjected it to careful study. The torpedo was made of a two-foot cask with pinewood cones at each end to give it buoyancy, the whole wrapped in six iron hoops. A plunger device using a percussion cap and fulminating powder detonated the charge, which consisted of 70 pounds of gunpowder. In most cases, Boutelle said, several of the torpedoes were strung together and moored underwater in such a way that when a ship struck one torpedo the mooring lines would pull others against her hull. Thus the Harriet Weed had caught two.

Two months after the Harriet Weed went down, Confederate torpedoes claimed a fourth victim, the transport Alice Price. A small but handsome sidewheel steamer, the Alice Price displaced 238 tons, was 151 feet long, and had such a shallow draft she was ideal for operations over the St. Johns River bar. Accordingly, when the Federals launched a series of raids against Confederate outposts along Trout Creek and the Nassau River in July, the Alice Price was called upon to carry troops and supplies. In mid-July a Federal raiding party captured Holmes' sawmill on the Nassau River, dismantled the machinery and put it on board the Alice Price for removal to Empire Mills near Jacksonville, where it was to be rebuilt and placed in operation. Returning to the St. Johns with her cargo on July 19, the transport passed safely over the bar, but struck a torpedo about eight miles below Jacksonville and quickly sank. Although there were no injuries and her own machinery and that of the lumber mill was salvaged, the Alice Price was damaged too badly to save. She found her grave in the river.

Soon after this incident the Federals began equipping their ships with primitive torpedo catchers - sweeps which cut the torpedoes from their moorings, floating them to the surface where they could be detonated harmlessly by rifle fire. The torpedo catchers apparently served their purpose, for the "infernal machines" claimed no further victims on the St. Johns during the war.3

Other vessels flying both flags came to grief in connection with the fourth and final occupation of Jacksonville. One of these vessels was the Confederate steamer St. Mary's, which had been one of the most popular boats on the Jacksonville-Savannah run before the war. Scuttled by the Confederates in 1862 to prevent her capture, the St. Mary's had been raised and restored to service on the upper St. Johns and was in Jacksonville loaded with cotton and waiting for an opportunity to slip back to sea through the Union blockade when Jacksonville was retaken in February 1864. For some reason, the captain of the St. Mary's decided to hide in McGirt's Creek instead of sailing further up the St. Johns, where he might have had a better chance of concealment. Informed of the steamer's whereabouts, the Union gunboat Norwich steamed after her. As the Norwich approached, the cargo of cotton aboard the St. Mary's was burned and the ship was scuttled.4

Wrecked Crossing the Bar.
On February 20, 12 days after the St. Mary's went under and the day of the Battle of Olustee, the transport USS Burnside was wrecked crossing the St. Johns River bar. Dragged by currents down the coast, she was eventually cast ashore a total wreck near what is now Jacksonville Beach. On March22, 1864, the steam sloop USS Buffalo, headed for Jacksonville from Port Royal, was driven ashore during a storm and wrecked off Georgia's Ossabaw Sound.

Two months after these sinkings, in one of the most celebrated actions of the warm East Florida, Capt. J.J. Dickison with 20 marksmen of the 2nd Florida Cavalry and a section of the Milton Artillery - fewer than 50 men in all - attacked, captured and destroyed the armed Navy steam tug Columbine. The action occurred on the St. Johns at Horse Landing, a few miles from Palatka, arid was part of a series of nasty backwoods skirmishes around Federal outposts in Volusia and Picolata. The Columbine, a sidewheel steamer which displaced only 133 tons, was armed with two heavy guns and was operating as a gunboat when she was taken. On board were her crew of 24 officers and men and two officers and 25 soldiers of the 35th U.S. Colored Troops assigned to help protect her. Returning on May 23, 1864, from Volusia, where she had delivered dispatches to a Federal outpost, the Columbine stopped briefly at Welaka to gather intelligence from the garrison there and then started on her return trip to Jacksonville. What followed was described in an official report by the vessel's commanding officer, Acting Ensign Frank Sanborn:

Immediately after my departure from Welaka, I beat to quarters as I expected to be fired on by the infantry at Horse or Cannon's Landing. Upon rounding the point above, I opened fire upon the landing... as soon as my guns could be brought to bear, also giving orders to slow down and lower the torpedo catchers, which were immediately executed. I could discover nothing suspicious until directly abreast the landing, distant about 100 yards, where two pieces of artillery, concealed by the shrubbery and undergrowth, almost simultaneously opened fire on me.... The second shot of the enemy cut my rudder wheel chains, and at the same time the pilot abandoned the wheel and jumped over the bow. The vessel almost immediately went ashore upon a mud bank. Before she struck, one of the enemy's shot struck the main steam pipe, knocking a hole in it, causing a great loss of steam. Her being ashore and the injury to her wheel chains were reported to me at nearly the same moment. I left the hurricane deck and took charge of the forward gun, sending Mr. Spencer aft on the quarter-deck to ship the tiller and hook the relieving tackles, at the same time stopping and backing the engines.

The engineer, Mr. Johnson, now reported loss of steam, and at nearly the same moment Mr. Spencer reported the quarterdecks swept by the enemy's sharpshooters and grape, the after gun abandoned and Mr. Davis killed....

I saw immediately the utter impossibility of saving the vessel unless the enemy could be dislodged...and ordered Mr. Spencer to try and rally the infantry, which was now jumping over-board on all sides and swimming ashore....We finally stopped them. The engineer in charge, Mr. Johnson, at this time informed me that the engine was useless The officer in charge of the infantry having been wounded, the second in command and myself, seeing all hopes of escape cut off and the riflemen on the port bank of the river shooting the men down at the forward gun, I called a council of my remaining officers, in which it was decided to surrender. I was spared the mortification of hauling down the flag, it having been shot away in the early part of the action.

One of Ensign Sanborn's crew, Drover Edwards, reported that when Dickinson's men opened fire on the Columbine the Rebel battery was no more than 30 yards away, at point-blank range. Despite this, Edwards said, Sanborn kept up a return fire for two hours before surrendering. Edwards reported:

Many were killed by the Rebel fire, as also many were wounded...Saw many lying in the gangway killed and wounded. I saw five drowned....At about 6p.m. Captain Sanborn showed a white flag and surrendered. The Rebels hailed and told him to send a boat ashore; boat was riddle with shot; did not send another boat. The Rebels sent off three boats. When nearly alongside, I jumped overboard and swam to the east side of the river and escaped to the woods.

He added that most of those who attempted to escape with him in the same manner were drowned.

Riddled with Solid Shot.
According to Captain Dickison, after the men opened fire on the Columbine:

We continued to pour canister (Sic) and solid shot, while our sharpshooters kept up a constant and well-directed fire until she became unable to manage her guns...riddling her very badly and carrying away her rudder...Her colors were shot away and her white flag was hoisted.

Dickison observed that when he boarded the captured vessel:

....the deck presented a horrible scene, the dead and the wounded lay weltering in blood.

Briefly, Dickison summarized the entire action in an official report to the Confederate headquarters in Lake City:

After a hot engagement of forty-five minutes, I have succeeded in capturing the steamer Columbine, carrying two 25-pounder Dahlgren guns, taking about 65 prisoners, 6 wounded, and about 20 killed and drowned, together with 65 stand of arms and 3 stand of colors. Among the prisoners are 8 commissioned officers. No one was hurt on our side. I was compelled to burn the boat to prevent her falling into the enemy's hands, as the gunboat Ottawa was anchored only a few miles distant.

Not all of the action on the St. Johns was so spectacular. On February 23, 1864, Lieutenant Commander S.L. Breese of the gunboat Ottawa reported a raid up the river during which he:

...caused to be burned in Palatka four scows, one canal boat, and one partly destroyed steamer.

On the return voyage he destroyed two more scows and one sloop. On the next day the Federals received intelligence from refugees entering their lines that the Confederates had three small steamboats operating upriver beyond Palatka. One of these was believed to be the small Ocklawaha River paddlewheeler Silver Springs, which managed to evade capture until late in the war. The others were the General Sumter and the Hattie Brock, which were pursued and captured during a raid upriver in March.

The capture arid destruction of the Columbine in May and the torpedoing of the Alice Price in July brought to an end the major losses on the St. Johns during the war. In a period of less than six months - February 8 through July 19, 1864 -more than a dozen major vessels of both flags had been sunk, captured or destroyed: and countless Confederate small craft had been lost in the bargain. The cost was high in property, but relatively low in terms of human lives - fewer than 100 killed and wounded. But the final intensive phase of the river war on the St. Johns was one of the most unusual and dramatic during the entire conflict in Florida.

Endnotes.
'Picolata was garrisoned in preference to Palatka because it could be supplied on the land side from St. Augustine, if necessary.
2The General Hunter was salvaged, rebuilt and eventually returned to commercial service after the war.
3The torpedoes caused two deaths in a freak accident soon after the war. See Richard A. Martin, The City Makers (Jacksonville: Convention Press, 1972), p 78.
4The St. Mary's was raised and returned to service in time to be used as a stage for the court martial of 14 black troops charged with murder at Jacksonville in November 1865. The affair began as a protest against a black soldier being hung up by his thumbs for an infraction of regulations. Two mutineers were killed, a regimental colonel was shot through the hand and a lieutenant was stabbed several times. Six mutineers were executed, six sent to prison and two were acquitted.

 

The Maple Leaf. Copyright 1993 by St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. Contact Keith Holland