Fernandina Beach, Florida

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 any time.
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 the mainland.
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 federal use.
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 in rebellion.”
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.

Fernandina Beach is the only United States location to have been under eight different national flags: French, Spanish, British, American Patriots (1812), Green Cross of Florida (1817), Mexican, Confederate, and American.
French Huguenot explorer Jean Ribault becomes the first (recorded) European visitor to Napoyca in 1562, which he names Isle de Mar. In 1565, Spanish forces led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles drive the French from northeastern Florida, slaughtering Ribault and approximately 350 other French colonists.

In 1573, Spanish Franciscans establish the Santa Maria mission on the island, which is named Isla de Santa Maria. The mission was abandoned in 1680 after the inhabitants refuse a Spanish order to relocate. British raids force the relocation of the Santa Catalina de Guale mission on St. Catherine's Island, Georgia, to the abandoned Santa Maria mission on the Island in 1685. In 1702, this mission was again abandoned when South Carolina's colonial governor, James Moore, leads a joint British-Indian invasion of Florida.

Georgia's founder and colonial governor, James Oglethorpe, renames the island "Amelia Island" in honor of princess Amelia (1710-1786), King George II's daughter, although the island was still a Spanish possession. After establishing a small settlement on the northwestern edge of the island, Oglethorpe negotiates with Spanish colonial officials for a transfer of the island to British sovereignty. Colonial officials agree to the transfer, but the King of Spain nullifies the agreement. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ratifies Britain's victory in the Seven Years' War, ceding Florida to Britain in exchange for Havana and nullifying all Spanish land grants in Florida. The Proclamation of 1763 established the St. Mary's River as East Florida's northeastern boundary.

In 1783, the Second Treaty of Paris ends the Revolutionary War and returns Florida to Spain. British inhabitants of Florida had to leave the province within 18 months unless they swore allegiance to Spain. In 1811, surveyor George J. F. Clarke plats the town of Fernandina, named in honor of King Ferdinand VII of Spain.

With the approval of President James Madison and Georgia Governor George Mathews in 1812-1813, insurgents known as the "Patriots of Amelia Island" seize the island. After raising a Patriot flag, they replace it with the United States Flag. American gunboats under the command of Commodore Hugh Campbell maintain control of the island until Spanish pressure forces their evacuation in 1813.

Spanish forces erect Fort San Carlos on the island in 1816. Led by Gregor MacGregor in 1817, a Scottish-born soldier of fortune, 55 musketeers seize Fort San Carlos, claiming the island on behalf of the "Green Cross."

Spanish soldiers force MacGregor's withdrawal, but their attempt to regain complete control is foiled by American irregulars organized by Ruggles Hubbard and former Pennsylvania congressman Jared Irwin. Hubbard and Irwin later join forces with the French-born pirate Luis Aury, who lays claim to the island on behalf of the Republic of Mexico. U. S. Navy forces drive Aury from the island, and President James Monroe vows to hold Amelia Island "in trust for Spain."

On January 8, 1861, two days before Florida's secession, Confederate sympathizers (the Third Regiment of Florida Volunteers) take control of Fort Clinch, already abandoned by Federal workers who had been constructing the fort. General Robert E. Lee visits Fort Clinch in November 1861 and again in January 1862, during a survey of coastal fortifications.

Union forces, consisting of 28 gunboats commanded by Commodore Samuel Dupont restore Federal control of the island on March 3, 1862 and raise the American Flag.

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