Civil War Blockade Strategy Board First Report

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The Civil War Blockade Strategy Board: First Report

5 July 1861 — ORN, I, volume 12, pages 195–198. ORN (Official records, navies). Officially known as the Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.

This report deals with Fernandina, Florida and its harbor. Recommends seizing it as the southern anchor to the Atlantic blockading line. (See The Civil War Blockade Strategy Board Reports.)

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 5, 1861.
Secretary of the Navy:

SIR: We have the honor to inform you that the conference, in compliance with your wishes, communicated through Captain Du Pont, has had under consideration that part of your letter of instructions of the 25th ultimo which relates to the necessity of occupying two or more points on the Atlantic coast, Fernandina being particularly mentioned as one of those points.


It seems to be indispensable that there should exist a convenient coal depot on the southern extremity of the line of Atlantic blockades, and it occurs to the conference that if this coal depot were suitably selected it might be used not only as a depot for coal, but as a depot of provisions and common stores, as a harbor of refuge, and as a general rendezvous, or headquarters, for that part of the coast.


We separate in our minds the two enterprises of a purely military expedition and an expedition the principal design of which is the establishment of a naval station for promoting the efficiency of the blockade. We shall have the honor to present plans for both expeditions; but we will begin with the latter, premising, however, that we think both of them should be conducted simultaneously.


Fernandina is, by its position, obviously the most desirable point for a place of deposit, answering at one end of the line, to Hampton Roads at the other. In addition to its position in this respect it enjoys several other advantages almost peculiar to itself and well suited to the object in view.


It has 14 feet of water on the bar at low water and 20 at high water, a convenient depth for all steam vessels of the Navy either propelled by screws or rode wheels, rated as "second-class steam sloops," and under; for all of those rated as "first-class steam sloops," which are propelled by screws, and by most of the same class propelled by side wheels when light, and by all the newly purchased and chartered steamers of every description, with the exception, perhaps, of one or two of the very largest mail-packet steamers, when deeply loaded.


These depths are perfectly convenient for the new sloops and gunboats now on the stocks, and for the ordinary merchant vessels purchased or chartered for freight.


The main ship channel over St. Mary's Bar into Fernandina Harbor, though not direct, is by no means tortuous or difficult. It is easily defined by buoys, and a range by means of beacons renders the passage of the bar itself secure. A steam tug will always be at hand to take in sailing vessels when necessary.


Inside of the bar there is an unlimited extent of deep-water accommodation, and also the protection of smooth water before reaching the landlocked basins.


The anchorage in Amelia River possesses the quiet and safety of an enclosed dock. Repairs of all kinds may be carried on there without the fear of accidents arising from motion of the water.


The town of Fernandina and the wharves and depots of the Florida Railroad Company furnish conveniences the value of which need not be enlarged upon. If the seizure were conducted so suddenly as to prevent the destruction of property and buildings (which it would [be] difficult to replace), the facilities for landing and storing coal and other materials will be found ready for use.


Another feature of this port, and one which has appeared to us to be of sufficient importance to engage your particular attention, is the isolated position of Fernandina territorially and in population. Fernandina is on an island, bounded by the ocean on one side, and having on the other an interior, poor and uninviting in all respects, sparse in population, remote from large cities or centers of military occupation, and not easily accessible by railroad or water communication.


By the census of 1850 the population of Fernandina was about 600; it is now 1,000. St. Mary's was about 700; Darien was about 550; Jacksonville was about 1,145; St. Augustine was about 1,934.


The distance by water from Fernandina to St. Mary's is 9 miles; Fernandina to Brunswick is 35 miles; Fernandina to Darien is 51 miles; Fernandina, by railroad, to Baldwin is 47 miles; from Baldwin to Jacksonville is 20 miles, and from Fernandina, by water, to Savannah, 120 miles; Fernandina, by water, to Charleston, ---- miles; Fernandina, by railroad, to Cedar Keys, 154 miles, and from Fernandina to Tallahassee, by the railroad to the Baldwin Junction (Alligator), nearly 200 miles (192).


With all the above-mentioned places there is water communication, except Cedar Keys, Tallahassee, and the railroad stations between them. But it is apparent that any military opposition of weight must come from Savannah and Charleston, and principally through Cumberland Sound, and the depth (less than 10 feet in some places) of this line of interior navigation would require the transportation of the troops in the light steamers that are employed there. These steamers are so light and devoid of shelter that an expedition would hardly be undertaken if Amelia Island were properly garrisoned.


The environs of Fernandina form a natural protection against an attack by land. They consist of marsh and sand, which alone compose the shores of the rivers and bayous.


We are careful to avoid making this communication unnecessarily long by entering upon a comparison of Fernandina with other places in the same region of coast, such as Brunswick, for example, which is now connected by railroad with Savannah, and being more in the interior is less healthy; or St. John's entrance, which could be easily fortified against us, and has an insuperable objection in its bar; but we take pains to say that such comparisons have formed a large part of our study of the whole subject.


We have not spoken of the peculiar advantages of Fernandina as a depot and naval station without attaching a meaning to the word.


Although an open and rapid communication with the Gulf of Mexico by the Florida Railroad to Cedar Keys, accomplished in eleven hours, would undoubtedly be desirable, still it has not entered into our project to recommend the maintenance of this communication. To do so would employ a force disproportioned to the possible benefit to be derived from it. The Central Railroad to Tallahassee, which connects with this road at Baldwin, is completed as far as Alligator, and for a certain distance from Tallahassee east, about 20 miles. The country on the line of the road is thickly wooded and has few inhabitants. A road of such length (154 miles) in an obscure and inhospitable district may be easily rendered impassable.


Fort Clinch is not thought to be defensible in its present condition, and the sand batteries on the shore can probably be easily turned.


The water is so smooth in ordinary times, on the outer shore of Amelia Island, that a landing can be effected there with facility, and will, in our opinion, be advisable at more than one point. This landing can not be covered by large ships, especially such as the screw frigates. Vessels of small draft must be selected for this duty, and when the points of landing are fixed upon the lines of approach for the covering vessels must be distinctly traced out.


The Florida Railroad from the west shore of Amelia Island, across the river, is built on piles for the distance of about 1 mile, similar to the long bridges across the Bush and Gunpowder.


When the attack is made, one or more small gunboats might take the back entrance through Nassau Inlet and Sound and prevent the destruction of this bridge by the rebels. Nassau entrance is, no doubt, unguarded, Nassau Bar has only 5 feet on it, and even this depth is not to be relied upon. A rapid survey immediately preceding the attack will correct any misapprehension on this point; launches may therefore be employed.


The preservation of this trestle bridge is worth an effort; the remainder of the road can be replaced with less cost, because it runs through a naturally level country.


It is estimated that 3,000 men would take and hold the place, with the assistance of such force as could be furnished by the fleet. After the place was taken a portion of the defensive force would be found on board the vessels in port. Thus the number of troops to be added to the marines and seamen employed in the attack and subsequent defense would not probably at any time exceed this number of 3,000.


The details of the expedition to Fernandina, if decided upon, will fall under the several bureaus of the War and Navy Departments and the chiefs of the expedition, to whom the conference will be always ready to offer such information and make such suggestions as may result from their careful study of the ground.


The sailing directions for the port of Fernandina, the instructions for the disposition of the buoys and beacons, the outer and inner anchorages, the pilotage, and the meteorology of this section of the coast, will be hereafter furnished by the conference from the archives of the Coast Survey.


It is known that Fernandina is healthy and that it can supply wood-and water in abundance. Its market supplies remain to be developed.


Finally, we will repeat the remark made in the beginning of this report, that we think this expedition to Fernandina should be undertaken simultaneously with a similar expedition having a purely military character.


We are preparing a brief report on the latter, which we shall have the honor to submit in a few days.

Captain, U. S. Navy, President.
Major, U. S. Engineers, Member.
Superintendent U. S. Coast Survey, Member.
Commander, U. S. Navy, Member and Secretary.

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