About 15,000 Floridians wore the
butternut and gray of the Confederate forces during the war, more than
those registered to vote in the state. Some 1,200 other residents remained
loyal and enlisted in the federal army and an additional 1,000 blacks
served in the newly formed Colored Troops after 1863.
In 1860, Fernandina boasted a new urban core, which served as the railhead
for the longest railroad in the state, the Florida Rail Road. Its
population of 1,390 souls included 602 blacks, both free and slave. Its
importance also included a lighthouse, busy harbor, and Fort Clinch, a
partially constructed masonry defensive structure on the northern end of
the island. Local militia, including the “Minute Men” and “Davis Guards”
became identified as the “Fernandina Volunteers” as tensions escalated,
and were inducted into state service in 1861.
In January 1861, local militia troops seized unoccupied Fort Clinch,
erected fortified artillery batteries on the beaches, and exhibited a
forceful presence at the Old Spanish fort in Old Town. Commanded by
Colonel William Scott Dilworth, the local defenses included large
quantities of armaments transferred from Fort Marion in St Augustine.
These citizen-soldiers wore distinctive uniforms of blue flannel shirts
and gray trousers with red stripes.
Henry C. Dozier was elected Captain in May 1861. Also that year, a special
order was issued in recognition of “M. Wood and Company of Callahan for ¼
of fine beef, also to Miss E. P. Browne, for a delicious fruitcake.” By
August 1861, six companies of soldiers were stationed in all areas of the
island, with major camps at Old Town, Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the
nearby Harrison Plantation on the south end. Ominously, Union gunboats
were observed daily off the coast, bringing the threat of open warfare at
Robert E. Lee visited the coastal defenses late in 1861, traveling from
the Carolinas to St. Augustine. His assessment of Amelia Island was
pessimistic. In a letter to his daughters, he wrote:
“I have been down the coast as far as Amelia Island to examine our
defenses. They are poor indeed and I have laid off work enough to employ
our people a month. I hope our enemy will be polite enough to wait for us.
It is difficult to get our people there to realize their positions.”
He later complained, “the volunteers dislike work and there is much
sickness among them besides.” The rifled cannon had now come into use and
masonry forts such as Fort Clinch were indefensible. That, coupled with
Florida’s remoteness from the primary theaters of war and lack of
strategic significance, led General Lee to recommend in February 1862 that
all troops should be withdrawn from the coastal areas.
On March 1, 1862, the evacuation of Amelia Island was hastily begun by
Confederate forces. The artillery pieces were moved two miles inland of
the railroad bridge, now the site of the Shave Bridge. They left behind
fourteen guns after spiking and burning their carriages, and sent another
eighteen to Savannah, Georgia.
Local residents seemed slow to realize the danger of the situation.
Colonel Hopkins of the 4th Florida Infantry complained: “Finding out that
the citizens paid no attention to this (evacuation) notice, I issued, on
Saturday, March 1, a special notice, to wit, that on Sunday, March 2, at
10:00 a.m., a special train would leave the city expressly for the
transportation of all women and children desirous of leaving. But little
heed seemed to have been given to the second admonition.”
The urgency of the situation was compounded by the proximity of federal
naval and land forces, which captured nearby Cumberland Island on March 1.
By 2:30 a.m. on March 3, all Confederate forces were in line of march to
When the federal forces came into Amelia Island’s harbor on March 3, it
was the largest amphibious invasion in U.S. history. The skeleton crew on
duty at Fort Clinch fired two or three cannon rounds and there was
scattered musket fire from Old Town, but no organized resistance.
David Yulee and other important figures from our area were on the last
train out of Fernandina before Union forces arrived. The train track ran
along a river allowing the U.S. gunboat Ottawa to chase after it,
signaling the engineer to stop. A witness stated that while passengers
“hooted, jeered, and waved handkerchiefs derisively from the car windows,”
the gunboat “fired several shells at it, aiming at the locomotive.” One
shell killed two men on a flatcar, but the train successfully crossed the
bridge and passed on to the mainland. Eventually, Confederates burned
enough of the railroad bridge to disable it for the remainder of the war.
The Ottawa then sighted the Confederate steamer Darlington in the harbor
and began to pursue it, firing as it approached. This action caused the
Darlington to run aground. It was discovered upon investigation that the
captured vessel contained more refugees, as well as Confederate Army
supplies and personnel. The captain was arrested and the ship refitted for
Chaos reigned in Fernandina. Seamen and marines from the ships Mohican and
Wabash landed to take Fort Clinch, while elements of the 4thNew Hampshire,
9thMaine, and 97thPennsylvania took the city. One soldier recalled: “The
town was in the utmost confusion. The regiments already landed were
plundering in all directions and were ably assisted by sailors and marines
from the fleet who seemed to have reduced the system of pillage to an
exact science. Drunken men were seen everywhere, and the few inhabitants
remaining, were waiting in their homes, terrified.”
Only about 200 people had remained in town. Federal officers commandeered
private residences for quarters and offices. Commanding General Horatio W.
Wright took Senator Yulee’s home for his staff, while Paymaster Major
Pangborn found accommodations at Governor Broome’s residence. Colonel Rich
of the 9thMaine occupied General Joseph Finegan’s fine home and a hospital
was established at Colonel Dale’s. For the remainder of the war, Amelia
Island would be securely in Union hands, while Confederate forces occupied
the mainland of Nassau County.
One of the many ironies of the war is that Yulee’s railroad was destroyed,
not by the invading Union Army, but by the Confederacy itself. The 1864
Confiscation Act empowered the Confederacy to take any items, which it
deemed necessary for the war effort, and to later establish a fair price
for the former owner. Under this power, the rails and spikes of the
Florida Railroad were seized and used to create lines running more
directly to the theaters of war.
Although never the scene of large-scale battles, duty on Amelia Island
carried the constant threat of illness, injury and the risk of death
associated with military service in the nineteenth century. Federal troops
were stationed at Fort Clinch, the railroad bridge, and in Old Town.
Periodic raids into Duval County, Camden County,
and mainland Nassau County resulted in skirmishes, with a small number
wounded and killed. One commander wrote home to boast that: “Quite a
miniature kingdom I have at Fort Clinch with 20-30 guns, a redoubt of 2
guns at the town, 4 miles of railway with one locomotive—about 30 of my
men organized to act as either light cavalry of light artillery with their
two guns, a ten pound Parrott and a 24 pound Howitzer, a gunboat off the
wharf…and about 200 white and near 100 black people to govern, outside of
the regiment and two companies of engineers.”
While the 1st New York Engineers were assigned the task of continuing the
construction of Fort Clinch and fortifying the old military site in Old
Town, a succession of federal troops saw duty on the island. Carpenters,
brick masons, and laborers toiled at the busy fort construction site,
while guards or pickets were stationed at vulnerable points, such as the
Railroad Bridge and intersections around town. Prisoners from the Union
Army were sentenced to Fort Cinch to carry out punishments of hard labor.
Local Provost Marshals fought a constant battle against the drunkenness
and desertion expected at such a remote outpost. Captain Towle of the
4thNew Hampshire attempted to confiscate all liquor on the island, only to
learn that a ship had arrived in port with whiskey. He ordered the barrel
rolled out on the dock, and “its head was speedily stove in, and the
contents went to astonish the fish.”
Overall conditions were better on Amelia Island than for most Civil War
soldiers. “Our grub in the new camp at Fernandina started off with salt
pork and hard tack for breakfast, salt beef and potatoes for dinner and
soft bread for supper, one loaf for each man,” a veteran recalled.
Lawrence Luther of the 11thMaine boasted of “plenty of vegetables, string
beans, peas, ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, cabbage, etc.” Another
northerner reminisced about eating wild grapes and pomegranates. Soldiers
wrote home about sightseeing excursions to Dungeness on Cumberland Island,
collecting sea shells on the beach, and describing Florida’s exotic flora
and animal life.
Some soldiers complained of the hot weather and insects. Samuel Wolcott of
the 7thConnecticut wrote home that “there are any quantity of gnats and
mosquitoes here…a pair of drawers and pants, with rubber and woolen
blankets are nothing for them to bight (sic) through.” Another wrote, “We
found the sand at this place full, jammed full, and rammed full of fleas,
which annoyed the men very much.”
The primary strategic importance of the island was to serve as a coaling
station for the federal blockade ships. Amelia Island represented a
foothold in Florida, along with Key West, Fort Pickens, and St Augustine.
Jacksonville changed hands four times in the war, as one side would
occupy, loot, and burn, then move on. The benign occupation of Fernandina
meant very little destruction occurred on the island.
By 1863, the United States Army accepted black soldiers into segregated
units. Many enlistees were formerly slaves from Florida and other southern
states. The general orders issued to the 1st and 2nd South Carolina
Colored Troops also revealed the overall Federal strategy for the state.
“The main objects of your expedition are to carry the proclamation of
freedom to the enslaved; to call all loyal men into the service of the
United States; to occupy as much of the state of Florida as possible with
forces under your command; and to weaken, harass, and annoy those who are
By 1864 the island was temporary home to 500 “contrabands,” blacks who
fled to the protection of the federal lines during the war. Many found
employment as laborers at the Fort, or received instruction in agriculture
through the Superintendent of Contrabands, and later, the Freedman’s
Bureau. Refugees also included hundreds of whites, displaced from
Jacksonville or other areas. Relief organizations and philanthropic
support created orphanages in the town, and one well-established “asylum”
drew national attention through Dr. Esther Hill Hawkes.
Despite the wartime climate, many soldiers and civilians enjoyed
festivities and special celebrations in Fernandina. May Day 1863 was a
particularly memorable occasion: “The first day of May was duly honored
and observed by all classes of our citizens. A grand picnic was had on the
beach near Fort Clinch, which was a gay and festive season worthy of the
occasion… a table gorgeously decked with a profusion of flowers, was
bountifully spread with luxuries that would tempt the palate of a prince,
and which are now doubly acceptable after the pervious day’s observance of
the first proclaimed by our good President. Ham and tongue, cake and
biscuit, lobster and chicken, crackers and cookies, preserves, pickles,
and jellies in endless variety, nuts and raisins, fresh-gathered
blackberries and cream to say nothing of claret and small beer, regaled
our appetites to surfeiting, while the black boat’s crew of Captain Seas,
with violins tambourine, and banjo, discoursed enlivening music such as
only blacks can make.”
Wives accompanied officer husbands, and at least one romance and marriage
took place, when Major Rodman, “who was a widower, captured the prize”
with his marriage to the “rosy cheeked maiden,” Belle Buddington.
Soldiers enjoyed such amenities as the newspaper, “The Peninsula,” a soda
fountain, barber, Sutler, musical groups, and branches of the Odd Fellows.
One of the great ironies of the bitter conflict was the growth and
prosperity that came to Fernandina soon after the war was directly as a
result of so many northern soldiers gaining their first taste of Florida
life during the struggle.