Civil War Reenactment - The Battle at Horse Landing
Palatka, Florida - Nov 19+20, 2005
138 photos, 1 mpg by Wes Mayhle of AZITWES
In March 1862, A flotilla of Union Navy ships bearing sizable forces of Federal troops moved south from their base at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Their target was key locations in the northeast Florida region. By the middle of that month Fernandina on Amelia Island, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine were captured and occupied by Union forces. Further their naval vessels traveled along the St. Johns River with no enemy vessels and only thin numbers of defenders to challenge them. The region between the St. Johns and the Atlantic coast would largely be Union controlled territory from this point on throughout the remainder of the war, and East Florida would remain among the most contested regions in the state.
In early 1864, with the Confederacy having become more dependent of Florida to sustain the war effort by providing cattle and other food resources, the United States increased their operations in the state The intensity of events in northeast Florida would see a dramatic increase. Union soldiers and ships stepped up their operations along the Saint Johns River, placing more and more garrisons in towns along its shores. In the months ahead, Federal raiding parties would advance further and more often into the interior. But despite their progress, they would continue to have their hands full. Though outnumbered, their adversaries would maintain a stubborn fight, and one command in particular would prove especially troublesome to future Union designs.
Captain John J. Dickison and Company H, 2nd Florida Cavalry had played an active role in Florida’s defense since their formation in 1862. They had guarded supply shipments brought in through the blockade, defended the area around the Saint Johns River, and occasionally skirmished with enemy forces. Union soldiers had begun to refer to Dickison himself as “Dixie” and to some of the region, especially along the Saint Johns, in which he served as “Dixieland”. However, Dickison was soon to earn additional titles, including the “Swamp Fox of the Confederacy” and the “Gray Fox”. He and his command, along with detachments from other Florida units, were about to embark on their most daring exploits of the war, and their greatest successes were yet to come.
In May 1864, Dickison and his company had received orders to keep a watch on two small Union garrisons that had placed along the St. Johns River at Welaka and the other at Fort Butler. With small detachments of his command, Dickison moved against both locations, surprising and capturing the post at Welaka on the 20th and Fort Butler the following day. All together the Confederates took 65 Union infantrymen and six cavalry prisoners, all without any musketry being exchanged between the forces.
The capture of these posts created a stir among the Federal forces. Coupled with reports that the enemy had crossed the river and was moving north in strength, these events resulted in some of the garrisons along the Saint Johns River being pulled back. On May 21, the gunboats U. S. S. Ottawa and U. S. S. Columbine escorted the transport Charles Houghton and 200 men upriver from Jacksonville. The Ottawa was one of the largest gunboats on the Saint Johns and a formidable opponent, sporting 12 cannons including two 150-pound guns. The Columbine was a side-wheel steam tug outfitted as a gunboat, mounting two 32-pound guns, one on the fore deck and one on the aft deck. The ships paused briefly at Picolata, where they took on additional troops in the form of the 35th United States Colored Troops and the 157th New York Infantry. While here, sand bags were placed upon the decks of the Columbine for added protection. The three vessels were now transporting some 650 to 700 troops.
This small flotilla then resumed their journey along the St. Johns River. On May 22, many of the troops went ashore across the river from Palatka. The Columbine would continue on to the garrison at Volusia, then return. 30 soldiers of the 35th U. S. C. T. remained on board the Columbine as a guard force. The Ottawa and the Charles Houghton would follow soon after to be on hand in support of the Columbine as needed.
Captain Dickison had already been alerted to the movements of these enemy vessels. He set out for Brown’s Landing with 50 men of Company H, 2nd Florida Cavalry and 25 artillery troops and two cannons of the Mil- ton Light Artillery commanded by Lieutenant Mortimer Bates. The Confederate force did not reach the land- ing in time to attack the Columbine. However, Dickison rode ahead and from the shelter of a cypress tree was able to carefully observe the vessel, especially her armament, as the gunboat went by the landing some 50 feet from his position.
The remaining Federal ships were soon to approach as well. Around 7:30 P. M. on May 22, the Ottawa and the Charles Houghton anchored near Brown’s Landing. Lieutenant Commander S. Livingston Breese, commanding the Ottawa, was unsure of the reason for the transport’s presence and embarked in a small boat to her. Breese had barely reached the vessel when he heard the thunder of artillery firing on the Ottawa.
Unknown to the Federals, danger was lying in wait on the shore. Captain Dickison had posted Lieutenant Bates and the artillery on the landing, while the cavalry dismounted and took up positions to guard the cannon. The sun had set just about the time the vessels dropped anchor, and lanterns flared to life on the decks as the Union crews lighted their ships, presenting excellent targets to the Confederates.
The sound of cannon fire now shattered the early evening quiet. Lt. Commander Breese quickly returned to the Ottawa when the attack began. Along the shore, Southern artillery continued to flash in the darkness. Judging by the muzzle flashes, Breese believed the boat was being attacked by a battery of four guns. Bates’ gunners fired 28 rounds before the Ottawa’s cannon responded, including the 150-pound guns. When the gunboat began returning fire, the Confederates withdrew into the night with no losses. The Ottawa had no casualties but was heavily damaged, as thirty-seven rounds had struck the gunboat.
The next day the Confederates would strike again. On May 23 the Columbine was making its return trip downriver. Captain Dickison had selected 16 riflemen from among his cavalry and, along with the artillery, waited at Horse Landing, five miles upriver from Brown’s Landing. The cannon and riflemen were deployed among the trees near the landing. Around 4:00 P. M. the Columbine neared Horse Landing and her guns fired on the landing itself in anticipation of an attack. When the gunboat was within 100 yards of the battery, the Southerners opened fire with both guns.
From the start the action went badly for the Columbine. One of the first rounds of the battle struck the gun- boat’s wheel chain, and the pilot abandoned the ship. Another round struck the steam pipe. Unable to be steered, the ship drifted until it ran aground on a sandbar 200 yards from the artillery and 100 yards from the riflemen. The vessel’s senior officer, Acting Ensign Frank Sanborn, took command of the forward gun and ordered Acting Master’s Mate W. B. Spencer to attempt to move the ship. The ship’s engineer reported the damage to the steam pipe. Spencer brought word that the quarterdeck was being struck with canister rounds and bullets, and that the infantry guard was abandoning ship and swimming to shore.
The Columbine and her crew were in a desperate situation. Sanborn reached the quarterdeck and, realizing there was no moving the ship, saw the only recourse was to drive off the attackers. He once again assumed command of the forward cannon, and some of the infantry guard were successfully rallied. Yet all the while artillery rounds and rifle bullets continued to pound the vessel. The wheel and engine could not be used, and the gunners on the forward cannon were being struck down by the Confederate riflemen. Following a hurried council of war with the remaining officers, Sanborn surrendered the battered ship.
The gunboat was boarded by the Confederates following the 45-minute battle. They reported finding only 66 of the 148 Union soldiers and sailors on board alive, but some of the Federals had escaped the ship and successfully made their way to shore. Union reports listed their casualties at 17 killed or missing and five wounded, while Dickison’s account states 20 killed and five wounded. 65 Federals were captured, including the wounded. The Ottawa was still lurking just downstream, so Dickison’s command removed as much property from the ship as possible and then the Columbine was burned. There were no casualties among the Confederates. -reprinted with permission by the author-
The movies presented on this website are usually 5 min or less and were shot with an older digital camera for your enjoyment. They are most often clips from the battle reenactment. To see all my video's go to the Movies page. I commonly use Background music from purchased 97th Regimental String Band CD's or selections downloaded from Incompetech.
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