Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Heroes Get Remembered, but Legends Never Die: The Ongoing Fascination with USS Monitor

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the sinking of the USS Monitor.  It is as much a front story headline over a hundred and fifty years ago as it remains today.  The burial of the two unidentified sailors at Arlington National Cemetery in March hit worldwide popularity among the major news outlets.  It is by far one of the most intriguing stories of the American Civil War.  But why?  

This post is but one of many written about the Monitor today.  That is no secret.  It's an anniversary, after all.  In a block of major commemorations already occurring (WWII, 1812, WWI, Korea), it seems only natural.  Our own American love affair with commemorations continue to drive many history-based blogs and social media outlets such as the CWN 150.  History happens within these parameters.  The job of the historian and the general public is to remember it in whatever way they seem fit: ceremonies, stories, publications, lectures, etc.  It is an unspoken "social contract" Civil War enthusiasts signed back in 2011 at the commemoration's beginning.  The story of the Monitor, however, is still alive and thriving.  Others already faded into the distant sleep of the bicentennial.  

Battlefields around the country also received their attention this year.  Thousands of visitors braved the heat and flocked to the Gettysburg and Vicksburg sesquicentennial commemorations.  Their stories certainly deserve equal praise and reverence.  What is particularly interesting about the USS Monitor, now 151 years later, is its adaptability.  Her story constantly evolves.  Like some creature lost in the evolutionary chain, the men of the Monitor adapt to the changing time periods. 

Dozens of books about the Monitor currently line your book store's Civil War section.  The majority of these published over the course of the last decade.  Timeliness is next to godliness.  Many monographs claim "new developments" or "uncovered history."  This is perhaps an intentional play on the ship's 2002 recovery.  Even after the hoopla of the ship's sesquicentennial anniversary during the Battle of Hampton Roads in 2012, books, articles, and news stories continue to surface.  Far beyond the typical "15 minutes" of historical fame, the Monitor has overstayed its welcome.  We are okay with that.

The continued fascination exists on everything from wine bottles to memorial plaques and challenge coins.  In the grand scheme of collective memory, the Monitor is THE BRAND for the Civil War navies.  At a time when branding takes up so much time and energy for museums and institutions around the world, enthusiasts for this subject have known theirs for years.  Whether you like the publicity or not, the Monitor is here to stay.  

Heroes get remembered.  Legends like the Monitor, however, never die.  That is a promise as ironclad as the ship itself.  

Here's to 151 years.  As you toast your champagne tonight, save a little bit for the Monitor boys.    

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Refugee Rangers

A Union militia soldier who may have served in the "Refugee Rangers" in Florida. Source:  Florida Dept. of State Photo Archives

In December 1863, Adm. Theodorus Bailey, commanding the E. Gulf Blockading Squadron, was approached by Mr. Enoch Daniels, a Unionist refugee living in the Charlotte Harbor area, who requested permission to assemble a volunteer company from among the other Unionist refugees in the area and at Key West. They would form a raiding party that could work in conjunction with Union military forces, attacking, capturing and/or destroying southern property and more importantly, attempting to disrupt the round-up and transport north of beef cattle to feed the southern armies. The U.S. Army would arm and equip this unit, and the Navy would transport them to embarkation points and lend them heavy gun support as long as they were within range. This endeavor was approved, and Daniels formed a company of refugees designated by the Army as the “Florida Rangers,” but Adm. Bailey liked to refer to them as the “Refugee Rangers.”

In late 1863, the Rangers were ready to take the offensive. On 24 December 1863, Lt. Baxter of the Gem of the Sea sent an armed boat party of 14 men in the ship’s launch and cutter, under the command of Acting Ensign J.H. Jenks, to link up with Daniels and 15 men of the Refugee Rangers at Useppa Island. The ship’s landing party also towed with them two small boats for the rangers’ use. Daniels directed the landing party to a location on the Myakka River (“Myacca” in the ORN reports) to go ashore, where they landed on 25 December. The Rangers headed inland to make trouble, while Jenks and his party of bluejackets established a defensive position on the beach to await the Rangers’ return and evacuate them. The understanding was that the Rangers’ party would be back in 7 days. On 28 December, the US Sloop Rosalie arrived at the landing site to help provide additional cover and fire support. The next day the sailors conducted additional reconnaissance in the area and relocated the USN shore camp to a location with a better defensive position.

Early the morning of 30 December, the sailors heard noises in the brush next to their camp, indicating “ . . . men were crawling toward them.” Jenks at first thought it was Daniel’s party returning to the landing site and he hailed, “Who comes there?” The reply came, “Captain Daniels and his men.” Jenks ordered them to halt and give the countersign agreed upon to confirm their identity. The response was a hail of musket and shotgun fire from what was estimated to be 40 Confederate troops. The sailors returned fire and fell back to their boats. When they were out of the line of fire, the Rosalie opened fire on the ambushing troops with her 12-pdr boat howitzer with canister and grape and additional musket fire from seamen on the deck. The firepower of the Rosalie was invaluable and no doubt saved the lives of most of the USN landing party. Jenks returned to the Gem of the Sea with one wounded seaman and to reprovision. He was able to carry off all of the weapons, camp equipage and material from their beachhead with minimal loss.

Baxter sent the ship’s boats and the Rosalie back to the landing site to await Daniel’s return. On 1 January 1864 the sailors returned to the bark with Daniels and five of his men. Six of his original 15 men had deserted after they landed on 25 December, and it is likely that at least some of them were involved in the ambush of the USN shore party on 30 December. Four men were still “at large” ashore, having become separated from Daniel’s party. These intrepid four eventually made their way over to the Peace River, found a small schooner, captured the ship and returned in it to the Gem of the Sea.

Historian George Buker believes that the E. Gulf Squadron's close ties with local Unionists, including the formation of the Refugee Rangers (who eventually became the Second Florida Cavalry, US), and their initiative to organize an infantry regiment of escaped slaves as the Second Florida USCT, represent a signature achievement which is not recognized today by many Civil War scholars.

Skirmish between Confederate cavalry and Union raiding party, possibly a group of the Refugee Rangers. Source:  Florida Dept. of State Photo Archive.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

St. Andrews Bay Salt Works Raids 1863

1860's sketch of the Florida coast showing St. Andrews Bay (lower right). Source:  Florida Dept. of State photo archive.

In earlier posts (3 Feb 2012 and 4 Oct 2012) we highlighted the importance of salt to the Confederacy, Florida’s role as a main producer of salt, and the Union Navy’s efforts to destroy salt works along the Florida gulf coast. In his book “Blockaders, Refugees and Contrabands. Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast”, George Buker notes that the initial salt works raids were harassing efforts, conducted incidental to other blockade activities. The strategic importance of salt to the Confederacy was not apparent to the East Gulf Squadron command until they noted that nearly every blockade runner captured contained salt as at least a portion of its cargo. It was then that the squadron command realized that a concentrated effort to find and destroy these works would be a major strategic blow to the Confederate war effort. In December 1863 these focused raids began, concentrating on the epicenter of Florida salt production, St. Andrews Bay.

On 2 December 1863 the bark USS Restless, Acting Master William R. Browne commanding, sent a landing party in to Lake Ocala in St. Andrews Bay. They found three separate works with a total capacity of 130 bushels per day. The landing party destroyed carts and flat boats, disposed of the salt, and took 17 prisoners, whom they released because they didn’t have room to bring them back to the gunboat. They made the southerners swear an oath of allegiance to not take up arms against the Union.

Hearing of Browne’s exploits, Acting Ensign Edwin Crissey, commanding the steam gunboat USS Bloomer, sought out the Restless and offered to assist Browne and his ship. Crissey and his ships were actually with the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, but his proximity to the East Gulf Squadron’s operations area enabled him to help there. On 10 December 1863, the USN flotilla entered St. Andrews Bay and split up into two enterprises. Browne fired two shells into the town of St. Andrew (present-day Panama City) to warn the Confederate soldiers and salt workers garrisoned there. He then commenced shelling the town, which shortly was burning. The entire town was destroyed by the fire.

Crissey and his men landed in West Bay and proceeded to the salt works there. From his report dated 20 December 1863 he described a major raid on these:

 At 5 p.m. I proceeded to the salt works on West Bay, destroying the salt works lined on each side of the bay for 7 miles, belonging to private individuals, numbering at least 198 different works, each averaging two boilers and ten kettles each, which, with a large quantity of salt, were destroyed. . . . . On the afternoon of the 14th we came to a large Confederate Government works, under the command of Mr. Clendening, which turned out daily 400 bushels of salt. This was one of the best located in West Bay, being situated in a marsh, the water of which yielded 75 gallons of salt to 100 gallons of water; it was, in fact, a complete salt village, covering a space of three-fourths of a square mile, employing many hands and 16 ox and mule teams constantly to haul salt to Eufola Sound [Eufaula, Ala?], and from thence conveyed to Montgomery, at which place it is selling at a fabulous price of $40 and $45 per bushel. At this place were 27 buildings, 22 large steam boilers, and 200 kettles, averaging 200 gallons each, which cost the Government $5 per gallon, all of which were totally destroyed, together with storehouses containing salt, etc. This work, together with the other works, could not have cost less than three million dollars.”

Notable from this report is Crissey’s description of one of these works as “a complete salt village” and his estimate of the total value of the works he destroyed, on the order of $3 million. In today’s dollars that would certainly translate into tens of millions.

An 1886 Navigation Chart of St. Andrews Bay is on the NOAA historical maps site at:
http://historicalcharts.noaa.gov/tile /zoomifypreview.html?zoomifyImagePath=LC00184_12_1886 . A living history event, the St. Andrews Bay Salt Works Raid, is held in April in Panama City to educate folks about these Union Navy raids and the importance of salt to the Confederacy.

Replica salt kettle at a park in Panama City, FL commemorating salt production during the Civil War.