Saturday, July 16, 2005

 

Ships Beneath our Sands

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Gulfshore Life
By Robert N. Macomber
July 2005


Illustration by Tom Gonzalez.

Many shipwrecks can be found in Southwest Florida’s coastal waters, including some that met their fate during the Civil War, when the U.S. Navy pursued blockade runners deep into our bays and rivers, trying to disrupt Confederate operations ashore. From 1861 to 1864, the Navy captured more than a dozen vessels running the Union blockade on the lower Gulf Coast of Florida.

Six of those went to the bottom. We even had a Union naval vessel go down in our waters. These seven shipwrecks sleep beneath the waters of Char-lotte, Lee and Collier counties to this day.

During the first two years of the war, the Union naval forces didn’t have enough ships to effectively seal off our coast, and Rebel blockade-runners had a field day. Running in and out of the Peace and Caloosahatchee rivers, Charlotte Harbor, and San Carlos Bay, local seamen, including captains Holmes, Johnson and McKay, took out cotton and turpentine and brought in manufactured goods. Then, in 1863, the U.S. Navy beefed up its forces and started penetrating our inshore waters. By late that summer, three naval vessels were patrolling the Southwest Florida coast alone.

When the crew saw a possible blockade-runner, the naval vessel would get close to the suspicious craft and send up the Stars and Stripes while clearing for action. The other ship was supposed to reply with her own national flag. Then the warship would hail the mystery vessel to stop.

The Navy would send over an inspection party under command of a junior officer. If they didn’t have naval permission to be in the area, or if the explanation of their presence didn’t sound right, the craft was searched. If the cargo didn’t match to manifest or items of contraband were found, ship and crew were arrested.

If the suspect vessel refused to show her flag or stop, then U.S. Navy sailors (commonly called “bluejackets”) fired a blank shot. If that didn’t make them respond, a live warning shot was fired, usually ahead and to windward of the suspect. This was to show them that wherever they might try to run, the gun could reach them. Incredibly, some skippers still tried to sail away. Bad decision. There is no documented case of any blockade-runner outrunning a Union warship on our coast once it got within gun range.

When all else failed, warships made the difficult attempt to disable the opponent by taking out her rigging, the Union sailors trying not to hit the hull to protect any goods aboard. Prize money was handed out to those seamen who captured blockade-runners and their cargo.

In September of 1863, the Navy pushed up into Charlotte Harbor and chased two of Captain Johnson’s sloops for two days, sailing and rowing in the brutal heat amid clouds of biting insects, until the Rebels were captured in the Peace River. The bluejackets destroyed Johnson’s warehouse and two of his other sloops, whose timbers still lie buried in the mud on the bottom of Horse Creek.

Three weeks later, Johnson had even worse luck when he was caught aboard one of his schooners, the Director, getting ready to load at Punta Rassa, next to the modern-day Sanibel Causeway. Just before they took him away to the prison cells at Fort Taylor in Key West, he got to see the U.S. Navy burn his schooner to the waterline. Her charred hull lies there to this day, along with the wrecks of several other schooners. When I was young, my friends and I used to find antique beer bottles on the bottom there, scoured from the wrecks by the treacherous current.
Johnson’s last vessel, another small schooner, was also captured and sunk at Punta Rassa. Captain McKay’s ship, the Scottish Chief, was destroyed at Tampa a month afterward.

One of every four blockade-runners on this coast was sailing under a British flag, as the British Bahamas were close by. But that didn’t save them when the Union Navy closed in. In May of 1864, the British schooner Ida was chased by the small boats of the U.S.S. Chambers from Captiva Pass down to Sanibel Island. Her crew successfully beached her at Sanibel and ran off into the swamps—never to be captured—but the schooner didn’t fare so well: The Union Navy decided to burn her where she lay.

Shortly afterward, the Spanish sloop Relampago, from Cuba, refused to stop when warning shots were fired by the U.S.S. Chambers. Eventually the ship ended up beached at modern-day Knapps Point, where the beaches of Sanibel curve around to the north. The bluejackets raced ashore and rounded up the blockade-runner’s crew, who were taken to Key West. Deeming the ship too far gone to recover, the Navy destroyed her right there, which must have made more than one sailor disappointed—no prize, no prize money.

The final ship to go down on our coast during the Civil War was a Union warship. The U.S.S. Annie was a gunboat schooner that had enjoyed considerable success in capturing blockade-runners, which was ironic, because from 1861 to 1863 Annie had been a British blockade-runner until captured at Suwannee River. Then, just after Christmas of 1864, Annie was bound from Key West to her new patrol station at Charlotte Harbor when she disappeared—only to be discovered six weeks later, her shattered hull lying on the bottom in 30 feet of water off Marco Island’s Cape Romano. How she went down is still a mystery. Her crew was never found.

Those who dive these shipwrecks stand a good chance of getting hurt because of the treacherous conditions. But is it really strong currents, shifting sands and the chaotic swirl of boat traffic that dooms such attempts? Maybe. Or maybe a few lingering ghosts in blue and gray want to keep those sad times buried forever beneath our sands.

Pine Island’s Robert N. Macomber is the award-winning author of the Honor series of naval fiction. His Web site is www.robertmacomber.com


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