Alice Strickland, blockade, Charles Bockelman, Civil War, Confederacy, Confederate, David Mindlin, Halifax River, Henry Andrew, Hillsborough River, Indian River, Michael Schene, Mosquito Inlet, New Smyrna, Oak Hill, Paul Taylor, Penguin, Ponce Inlet, Union, Volusia History, Zelia Wilson Sweett
Volusia’s bloodiest Civil War battle was fought in New Smyrna, and the headlines of a March 1863 newspaper could have read: “30 Union Sailors Wounded at New Smyrna”. . .”Nearly all of 44 on Union Boats Are Casualties”. . . “All 8 Killed on Union Small Launch Boat”. . .”8 Union Sailors Buried in Mass Grave”. . .”2 Union Officers Exhumed at New Smyrna, Taken Under White Flag to Be Reburied in the North”. . .”
(To read the previous story about Volusia in the Civil War click here.)
Just before the start of the war in 1860 only 1,158 people lived in Volusia County, fewer than one person per square mile, yet Volusia was the “Commissary of the Confederacy,” according to historian Pleasant Daniel Gold (Mindlin), supplying tons of beef.
Union troops, however, had seized all three major Florida ports–Pensacola, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine; and Union ships blockaded all of the east coast of Florida, including New Smyrna, but shallow draft steamers capable of maneuvering through the shifting sandbars were still sneaking through the blockade at New Smyrna’s Mosquito Inlet where cotton was stored and ready for transport to Nassau to buy arms, ammunition, quinine, and needles for the Southern war effort (Sweett 83-84).
Hidden in New Smyrna in a thatched shed not far from the stone wharf (Sweett 84) were arms and ammunition valued at $158,530.98, but a Union attack seemed unlikely, so Major John G. Barnwell removed most of his troops on 11 March 1862, leaving Companies E and H of the Third Regiment, Florida Volunteers, under the command of Captain Pickens B. Bird and Captain M. H. Strain; and quartermaster Captain E. C. Simkins hired Volusia’s sheriff to haul 7,028 pounds of gun powder from New Smyrna to Enterprise on the St. Johns River (Schene 67).
The Cannons at New Smyrna
On 17 January 1862, General Robert E. Lee had sent orders to General J. Trapier, the Confederate commander of Florida, reading: “‘Arrangements have been made for running into Musquito [sic] Inlet, on the east coast of Florida, arms and ammunition, by means of small fast steamers. The department considers it necessary that at least two moderate sized guns be placed at New Smyrna. . . .” (Taylor 163).
The guns were placed “on the overgrown earthworks of the former stockade fort built during the Seminole War” along what today is “the narrow strip of land between the east line of South Riverside Drive and the Indian River” in New Smyrna (Bockelman 97, 104).
Lee had ordered canon to be moved from Ft. Clinch at Fernandina near Jacksonville, which enabled Union Admiral S. F. DuPont on 2 March 1862 to take the city of Fernandina, and he ordered the USS Keystone State to engage the Confederate steamer Kate which was unloading arms in New Smyrna (Schene 68).
Union Attack on New Smyrna
The bar at the inlet prevented the Union ship from sailing through the inlet so two shallow-draft Union steamers, the Penguin and the Henry Andrew, were ordered into the river, and the Henry Andrew made its way south of the inlet in the Indian River (called Hillsborough River then), making it as far as about a quarter mile south of today’s North Bridge (Taylor 162), anchoring “‘stem and stern'” to prevent it from swinging with the tide in the narrow channel” with its purpose “to establish an inside blockade” (Bockelman 98).
Because of the sandbars they had to send “four or five longboats” (others say six) manned by more than 40 sailors into the river south of the inlet, cautiously passing by New Smyrna which seemed deserted (Schene 68). The Confederate commanding officer Captain Strain ordered an ambush to begin after he shot the first shot, but the Union boats passed within 200 yards of the Confederates and continued south. Acting Assistant Paymaster Alfred Warren Kelsey of the Henry Andrew wrote in his diary that with Captains Mather and Budd they went into the hotel and “saw three white Secesh women” (a pejorative name for Secessionists). The Union paymaster wrote that they “got some charts and two hens” before they sailed south about eighteen miles where they discovered the abandoned Katie, on which a small Union squad was assigned (Bockelman 98-101) while the others sailed on south to Haulover where boats back then had to be hauled over a barrier of sand and then launched into the Indian River to sail farther south. At about where Oak Hill is today the crews came upon a salt works and chopped holes into the kettles used to make salt for the Confederacy, and with a “mission accomplished” attitude the crew drank heavily as they sailed back north and put ashore at Fort New Smyrna. (Schene 68).
8 Dead and 30 Wounded in Fighting at New Smyrna
As the Union sailors approached what looked to be abandoned earthworks, Confederate commanding officer Captain Strain repeated not to fire until he did, and as two boats touched shore, Strain stepped out from the forest growth and ordered the Union sailors to surrender, but Union Captain Mathers took a sailor’s musket and aimed it at the Confederates, and Strain immediately fired, killing Budd, and the Confederates fired on the boats, killing the other Union officer and three of the five sailors of that boat and wounding the African American pilot who temporarily escaped. The Confederates gave constant fire also into the four other Union boats that were retreating in the river, killing several and wounding others. The retreating boats returned “to the astonished 6′ 3″ tall Kelsey, who was now left Senior Officer of the expedition,” and he commanded that they retreat on the east shore of the river and that the rifled howitzer be continually fired, but the howitzer had only been fastened with ropes, and with the first blast it broke loose and tipped over, so they threw it into the river. Gunfire then caused the rowers to break stroke, so Kelsey told them to land the boat on the east bank of the river, but it was actually a marsh island, so they crossed a creek to the shore and made it back to the Henry Andrew (Bockelman 99-101).
A Confederate named Tom O’Neil received permission to swim to the two drifting Union boats, and he tied them together and found a five-gallon keg of whiskey on one boat. The Black pilot, drifting away, tried to use his foot to move an oar, and then a Confederate who had asked permission to shoot, hit him in the ankle. He was captured and taken to Glencoe where he was hanged the next morning (Bockelman 101-102).
One Union sailor had been shot by 15 Enfield bullets from his shoulder to his knee, and “he never groaned,” and he recovered. Seven men were wounded and taken as prisoners. The eight dead were buried together in a mass grave with the officers at the bottom as protection against animals (Bockelman 102).
The Henry Andrew attempted to “bring guns to bear” against the Confederates, but the ship ran aground and was helpless into the night, but the next morning, under a truce flag, it was able to make it to the site of the attack; and the Confederates exhumed the bodies of the two officers, returning them along with keys, gold watches of the officers, and their wives’ letters (Bockelman 101-102).
Two Union officer cutlasses were thrown into the river, and more than one hundred years later in 1968 Donald Russell located them by the “Lytle Avenue Bridge south toward the Old Stone Wharf.” He also found 100 old bottles and a silver spoon which “were south of the former earthworks of Fort New Smyrna and not far from low water, as if tossed” from the shore or from a boat.” The cutlasses are “Naval cutlasses, a French type adopted in 1860 by the United States for the use of staff and field grade officers, by both the Army and the Navy” (Bockelman 103-104).
Contraband Live Oak and Red Cedar Timber
The Civil War had brought an end to the live oak logging by the Swift brothers near Mosquito Inlet, but the results of their labors were valuable logs hauled by ox-cart out of the woods to the river where a lighter (a flat-bottomed boat) could sail through shallow waters to the saw mill on the Halifax River where a schooner would be loaded to sail through the inlet (Strickland 34).
At the time of the skirmish at New Smyrna, Admiral DuPont aboard his flagship Wabash lay off Mosquito Inlet, anticipating the success of the mission, but shortly before this Acting Master T. A. Harris of the Henry Andrew had located stacks of timber “4 miles north of the inlet,” which he was instructed to guard because of its great value (Schene 69), and what Harris had found was “40,000 feet of live oak and 2,000 feet of red cedar,” carefully stacked, “being covered with palmetto leaves and mud to protect it from the sun” (Strickland 35). But when the Henry Andrew snagged on a sandbar, Confederates desperately set fire to the lumber rather than let the Union sailors capture it, and three quarters of it burned (Schene 69).
Capture of Confederate Ships near Mosquito Inlet
The Union shallow-draft steamer Penguin continued to blockade Mosquito Inlet for the next two months until May 1862 when the Wyandotte from Port Royal, South Carolina arrived, later to be relieved by the USS South Carolina, but over the next two months the only action was the discovery of the abandoned Confederate schooner Patriot (Schene 69).
When Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles called for a reconnaissance of Indian River activity, the Union schooner Wanderer found nothing. Union schooners, however, succeeded in interdicting at least three Confederate sloops along the east coast of Florida, including the sloop Good Luck from New Smyrna, which had been intentionally damaged before being abandoned, so the Union Sagamore set it afire on 6 January 1863 (Schene 69-70).
On March 2, the Sagamore sent forty men through Mosquito inlet where they found the Confederate schooner Florence Nightingale burning, so twenty men boarded it while the others remained to guard them, but Confederates fired on them, and the Union troops returned fire and also shot “several salvos from a howitzer.” The Union troops withdrew, and the Confederates stopped the firing and then made repairs to the hull, and sailed the ship “up the Halifax River,” but it was captured two weeks later by the Union USS Octorara (Schene 70).
On March 23, the Confederate sloop Aurelia loaded with cotton from Charleston was captured by the USS Arizona “off Mosquito Inlet,” so the Union assigned a permanent ship to blockade Mosquito Inlet, and in late summer 1863 the USS Para captured the Confederate sloop Emma at the entrance to the inlet near New Smyrna (Schene 70).
On 9 July 1863, a Union gunboat fired three shells into New Smyrna, but no damage was done (Taylor 163).
The Destruction of New Smyrna
Finally, to end Confederates’ use of New Smyrna the Union ordered its destruction, and on July 26, the Para and the schooner Beauregard, just outside Mosquito inlet, launched four longboats to cross the bar of the inlet to proceed to “the lagoon” along with the tug Oleander towing the Beauregard (Schene 71) which quietly anchored “opposite the fort mound” at noon when the John Sheldon family was at dinner (Sweett 84) in their two-year-old 40-room hotel built on the coquina foundation left by the Turnbull colony, using lumber of the Swift Brothers logging company. It was the largest hotel south of St. Augustine. The family saw two Union ships but were unconcerned when the Oleander, a side-wheeler, towing the Beauregard dropped anchor by the hotel in the river about where today’s yacht basin is. Suddenly, without warning, “a shell screamed though the building, slicing the top off the piano and sending splinters flying” (Bockelman 103).
Shelling continued as the family and guests escaped into the woods, stopping below a large live oak, but when they had to light a smudge to repel the mosquitoes, they were spotted; and cannon balls shrieked in around them. Meanwhile, other New Smyrna families prevented the Union sailors from capturing a large store of cotton by burning the entire large shed (Sweett 85). As a result of this Union engagement, the Sheldons lost their huge hotel and lived for the next two years “until 1865 in miserable ‘palmetto shacks’ at the future site of Glencoe” (Schene 71).
On July 27, the day after the shelling, “twenty Union sailors landed and seized an empty enemy schooner and a sloop loaded with cotton. All of the structures in the immediate vicinity were burned, including the Sheldon hotel which finally exploded when some gunpowder in the cellar ignited” (Schene 71). Confederate stragglers in the bushes fired at the Union troops and then withdrew (Taylor 162), which left New Smyrna without buildings or men to unload cargoes, ending Confederate blockade-runners’ use of Mosquito Inlet which was then blockaded by the USS Norfolk Packet and later supported by the USS George Mangham until the summer of 1864, leaving only the Mangham until it was deployed elsewhere before winter (Schene 71).
As I mentioned in an earlier Civil War piece, I was taught in school that Volusia had no action or involvement in the war.
To write this I used these sources:
Charles Bockelman. Six Columns and Fort New Smyrna. DeLeon Springs, Florida: E. O. Painter Printing, 1985.
David R. Mindlin. “The Civil War in Volusia County.” Daytona Beach News-Journal (23 Apr. 1987) 5A.
Michael G. Schene. Hopes, Dreams, and Promises: A History of Volusia County, Florida. Daytona Beach, Florida: News-Journal Corporation, 1976.
Alice Strickland. The Valiant Pioneers. Ormond Beach, Florida: Ormond Beach Historical Trust, 1963.
Zelia Wilson Sweett. “New Smyrna Beach and Neighboring Communities.” In Centennial History of Volusia County, Florida, 1854-1954. Ed. Ianthe Bond Hebel. Daytona Beach, Florida: College Publishing, 1955.
Paul Taylor. Discovering the Civil War in Florida: A Reader and Guide. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, 2001.