Blockaders and Runners

Secession Comes to Florida

On January 10, 1861, Florida’s General Assembly voted 62 to 7 for secession, making it the third southern state to leave the Union, following South Carolina and Mississippi. By some, Florida was referred to as “the smallest tadpole in the dirty pool of secession.” The Civil War was soon to follow. In early January, Confederate troops took control of the Castillo, then known as Fort Marion.


Blockaders Arrive in St. Augustine

On April 19, six days after the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor by Confederate forces, President Abraham Lincoln declared a naval blockade of the Southern states that were in a “state of rebellion” against the Federal Government. The purpose of the blockade was to isolate the Southern states in order to prevent much needed war materials from reaching the Confederacy.

The United States Navy faced a daunting task in maintaining this more than 3,500 miles of southern coastline. With over 1,400 miles of coastline in Florida alone and a small number of Union ships to patrol them, the risky trade of blockade running became big business.

A black & white photo of the USS Wabash, a sailing and steam ship with three masts and a large smokestack amidships.
USS Wabash in Port Royal, SC, 1863

By March of 1862, the grip of the naval blockade on Florida began to tighten. The USS Wabash of the United States Navy’s Southern Blockading Squadron arrived in St. Augustine and accepted the town’s surrender. Other Union Navy vessels took up blockading stations up and down Florida’s coast.


Blockade Running at Matanzas Inlet

The Matanzas Inlet, approximately 14 miles south of St. Augustine and the defenses of Fort Marion, proved to be an attractive location to break the blockade. It was the “back door” water approach to the town and its loyal Confederate citizens.

On April 3, 1862, Lieutenant J.W. A. Nicolson, commander of the USS Isaac Smith, a converted Hudson River passenger/cargo steamer acquired by the Union Navy and stationed at St. Augustine, learned that a schooner had made its way through the Matanzas Inlet. Acting quickly, Lt. Nicholson organized a three-boat force of sailors from the Issac Smith and soldiers from the 4th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. After rowing an exhausting 18 miles south, the crew found the blockade runner British Empire moored by the ruins of Spanish Fort Matanzas. They boarded the schooner and seized the ship, cargo, and crew of six.

The captured cargo consisted of important military and civilian provisions, dry goods, and medicines. The schooner itself was old, leaky, had been damaged coming into the inlet, and was considered worthless. The civilian cargo, on the other hand, were valuable, much-needed supplies for the town. After lengthy discussions, U.S. Naval authorities determined the best course was to sell this cargo to “relieve the distress” of the civilian population of St. Augustine.

The last known attempt to use the Matanzas Inlet to run the blockade occurred on April 18, 1864. Acting Master E.C. Healy of the USS Beauregard received a report from a local fisherman that a schooner had slipped across the sandbar at the inlet. Healy dispatched Acting Ensigns H.B. Colby and E.M. Clark with a detachment of sailors to investigate. Rowing through the night and arriving at Matanzas Inlet at daybreak, they discovered the British schooner Oranineta attempting “to get out and over the bar, but a few musket shots from the boats brought her to.” She was boarded, captured and towed to St. Augustine for adjudication. The vessel had no major war cargo, only 50,000 percussion caps, a few sacks of salt, and one bag of cotton bagging. The total value was $856.20.


The War Comes to an End

By April 1865, the Civil War was over, and the work of rebuilding a unified nation began. For more than four years, the citizens of St. Augustine had suffered through the hardships of military conflict and the blockade’s stranglehold on Southern commerce. Florida, with its agricultural areas and valuable natural resources, would play a critical role in rebuilding the post-war South.

Last updated: August 23, 2018

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1 South Castillo Drive
Saint Augustine, FL 32084


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