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Civil War naval clashes uncovered at Bayport

Dale Groth — minding his crab traps at Bayport Park and soaking in the gulfside atmosphere of sunshine, marsh grass, cabbage palms and wind-rippled water — was asked if he knew that this peaceful setting had hosted a series of naval clashes during the Civil War.

Groth, 76, a Bayport regular since 1997, gave a surprised look and shook his head no. "I'll be darned,'' he said.

It's true. At least five times between 1863 and 1865, Union ships confronted blockade-runners in or near Bayport.

Three of these cargo ships were burned, either by Union sailors who had captured them or Confederates who wanted to prevent their seizure. In the most dramatic engagement, in April 1863, one Confederate soldier was killed and at least three were wounded.

That surpasses the single Confederate death and gunshot wound — probably inflicted by a band of fellow Southern sympathizers — during the much ballyhooed Brooksville Raid in 1864.

Yet until recently, the details of the Union blockade of Bayport and the profiteers who tried to skirt it remained obscure even to avid historians such as former teacher and Brooksville Mayor John Tucker.

"I didn't know about it either until I joined this group,'' Tucker said, referring to a private historical organization, Hernando Past.

An archaeologist hired by the group to map artifacts, Gary Ellis, uncovered some of the naval records describing the encounters, Tucker said. Another member, retired paleontologist Dave Letasi, is sifting through the documents to write the text for a historical marker at the park.

Letasi helped persuade the Florida Public Archaeology Network to try to place the former port on a statewide list of archeological sites. As one step in this process, the network is holding an event at the park Saturday afternoon called Bayport Underwater, which is meant to inform the public and mine it for tips about the location of the boats' remains.

"Who knows? Some of these people might have diaries from their great-great-grandparents who were involved,'' said Nicole Tumbleson, of the archaeology network.

Bayport and other isolated inlets in central and northern Florida became key Confederate supply depots in the second half of the Civil War, after the Union had clamped down on shipping from major ports such as New Orleans, Tumbleson said.

"There is reason to believe that all this portion of the coast is thickly lined with vessels whose only object is to run the blockade with valuable cargoes,'' acting Rear Adm. Theodorus Bailey wrote from Key West on March 24, 1863, when he ordered a small fleet of gunboats to Bayport.

Within two weeks, at dawn on April 3, the Union ships captured and burned a sailboat, the Helen, as it fled Bayport with a load of corn, Bailey wrote in his report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells:

"Then the boats made a movement toward a large schooner at anchor inside (the port), but were arrested by the fire of a 2-gun battery on shore and of a goodly number of riflemen concealed in the woods.''

In a "brisk engagement,'' Bailey continued, Union fire drove artillery troops and snipers from their positions "with some loss — certainly one killed and three wounded, and probably more.''

The Union sailors then watched as the "rebels'' set the schooner on fire, and the gunboats stayed offshore until its captains were sure the cargo vessel had been consumed by flames. Though several other smaller vessels escaped by hiding along the wooded shoreline, Bailey reported the operation as a great success.

"This little action seems to have been conducted with coolness and judgement and to have been fought with spirit and bravery,'' he wrote to Wells.

In September of the same year, Lt. Cmdr. A.A. Semmes, led a small force into Bayport and watched Confederate forces torch a British blockade runner and an onshore cotton warehouse.

This "was quite a disappointment, I assure you, to the officers and men under my command … as they were eager for a fight,'' he wrote.

Three other boats captured near Bayport surrendered immediately or, in the case of the British-owned schooner seized in October 1863, as soon as it was fired on by Union cannons. This Havana-bound vessel, along with its 26,000 pounds of cotton and $1,200 in gold and bills, according to a Navy report, was handed over to "prize commissioners'' in Key West, which may be one reason for the obscurity of these engagements; the mercenary motives on both sides make them hard to glorify.

Commanders of blockade ships were entitled to a share of the "prize,'' or the booty it captured, said Lew Zerfas, 65, of Clearwater, a re-enactor who portrays a Union captain. And though soldiers guarding Bayport were Southern loyalists, Zerfas said, the blockade runners "weren't typically Confederate forces at all. They were private individuals, and there was big money to be made if you got through because of the shortage of materials in the South.''

Another reason for the lack of publicity, he said, is that re-enacting naval battles is impractical and rare, while replays of land battles — even wildly inaccurate ones such as the annual Brooksville Raid — have gone a long way to spread popular knowledge of these skirmishes.

Letasi and Tumbleson hope Bayport's naval history will become just as well-known. Information gathered from Saturday's event might help the network win government grants to explore and identify the burned vessels' probably fragmentary remains (which are illegal to remove without a permit). These findings, in turn, may justify building a visitors center, which Letasi sees as part of a bigger goal to make Hernando a center of historical tourism.

I like the idea, at the very least, of spreading the word about the county's past; history changes your view on a place, especially when it's as well-preserved as Bayport.

Drive toward it on the narrow road crowded with cedars, oaks and palms and you've already escaped the junkier aspects of modern Florida. Once you know about those old battles, you can look out from the pier at the grassy islands and open water and picture sailboats and steamers, flames and cannon fire.

It gives you something to think about while you're tending your crab traps.

Fast facts

Bayport Underwater event Saturday

The Bayport Underwater event presented by the Florida Public Archaeology Network and Hernando Past will be from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Bayport Park, at the western end of Cortez Boulevard (County Road 550) along the Hernando coast. Activities include:

1 p.m.: An overview of Bay­port's Civil War engagements.

1:30 and 2:30 p.m.: Demonstrations of shipwreck mapping and recording techniques.

2 and 3 p.m.: Demonstrations of magnetometer survey techniques.

Between demonstrations, there will be several activities: hands-on shipwreck mapping techniques, build-a-boat exercises and archaeological recording in low visibility.

For information, call the archaeology network at (352) 795-0208.

Civil War naval clashes uncovered at Bayport 03/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009 7:27pm]
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