October 31, 2014

Sea Stories

Marco Island is known far and wide for its beautiful tropical beaches, but few know that it played a role in the most cataclysmic event this nation ever faced-the Civil War. The tale weaves through naval gunfire, chases at sea and a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

Marco was a wild and remote island 140 years ago, known to some seasonal Cuban fishermen, the occasional Seminole and transients from the Keys who would come up and farm vegetables. Its dazzling white sand beaches contrasted with the mangrove islands to the south, making it a perfect landmark on the coast.

During the Civil War, this coast saw much blockade-running, when seamen in small sloops and schooners could make fortunes sailing here from Spanish Cuba and the British Bahamas and threading their way through the Union's naval cordon. They often made landfall on Marco's beaches, then would sail up to San Carlos Bay and the Caloosahatchee River at Fort Myers, or Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River, to unload and load the contraband of war.

What did they take back with them through the blockade? The same thing they ran past the U.S. Navy everywhere else in the South: cotton. Wagons full of cotton would travel down from the plantations in middle and upper Florida to be stowed aboard the blockade runners' vessels. Turpentine from our pine trees also was run out of Florida. Contrary to popular opinion, however, the blockade runners did not deliver loads of guns to our coast-mainly they brought household or manufactured goods.

Captains who managed to get through made a lot of money. The average bale of cotton weighed about 200 pounds and sold in 1863 for between one and five dollars a pound in Havana and Nassau. By 1864, the price had risen to as high as $10 a pound. In the Bahamas, captains of large schooners got a $1,500 bonus in gold when they returned from a successful run; steamer captains got $15,000 in gold. To conservatively put that into 2005 dollars, multiply by 10. Fantastic fortunes could be made in only two runs.

The U.S. Navy lacked the ships and men to effectively control the blockade runners. To add some incentive, the government decided to award officers and crew who captured blockade runners prize money from the sale of the captured ship and her cargo. In some ships, the crew divided up hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money. Not bad for ordinary seamen who were paid $14 a month-no wonder they tried so hard to catch ships running the blockade.

On this coast, a small gunboat was stationed off Boca Grande in 1862, and others periodically patrolled the area; but it was a paltry defense for the entire shoreline. Blockade runners like Robert Johnson at Peace River, who ran several vessels, had a field day sailing past the Yankees. The naval blockade didn't get serious on our coast until 1863, two years into the war, when more vessels and sailors were sent here to stem the tide of illegal commerce.

Early that year, some bright bulb in the naval leadership decided to draft the small vessels they captured while they were running the blockade, into the Navy to better enforce the blockade by penetrating into the rivers and bays of Florida. It was just like the old saying-it takes one to catch one. By September, ol' Johnson was in the dungeon at Key West's Ft. Taylor. By the beginning of 1864, the U.S. Army had captured Fort Myers and the Union Navy had three vessels patrolling Charlotte Harbor and the Caloosa-hatchee River, pretty much shutting down blockade-running there. That's when they turned their attention to Marco Island.

In early May of 1864, the naval schooner U.S.S. Fox captured the sloop Oscar, loaded down with 93 bales of cotton, just off the shore of Marco Island. Later in the month, the U.S.S. Tahoma, a large steam gunboat, checked out a suspicious fishing smack named the Grover King at Marco. They couldn't prove anything and let her go. Right idea, wrong target. Three other small sailing vessels barely escaped notice and made it past the Yanks only to end up captured by-of all things-the U.S. Army at Fort Myers. Talk about humiliating. The skipper of the largest of those vessels, a certain Captain Holmes, was taken to Key West as a prisoner; but after sincerely promising to become politically loyal, he took the oath of allegiance to the United States and they let him go. Yes, they actually did that during our Civil War.

In June, the smallest ship in the U.S. Navy's squadron on this coast, the 45-foot sloop U.S.S. Rosalie, prowled along the coast at Marco and found the steamer Emma at Marco Pass. The steamer started to run northward along the beach, but little Rosalie's 12-pounder howitzer could shoot faster than Emma could steam; and after one round was fired, Emma gave up. She turned out to be quite a find.

Not only did she have 15 tons of undocumented blacksmith's coal aboard (her boiler burned only wood), she didn't have the cargo that was listed on her manifest. Emma also was on a course far from her permitted one and didn't have aboard two men listed on her crew roster. But the vessel did have on board one interesting passenger- the supposedly repentant Captain Holmes! That specialized coal was war contraband and worth $500 a ton in Confederate Florida, but it never saw that destination. The ship, cargo, crew and Captain Holmes all went under guard to Key West. This time around, Holmes didn't promise his way out.

Four months later, the Rosalie was sneaking around the coast and found a small sloop with no name at Little Marco Island. According to her papers, the sloop was supposed to be sponging and fishing in the Florida Keys, but instead she was sailing northward, loaded with shoes, salt and other goods. She, too, became a prize of war.

It wasn't only the rebels who were finding disaster at Marco Island. Just after Christmas of 1864, the schooner U.S.S. Annie, a former blockade runner turned navy gunboat, departed Key West's naval station for her new patrol assignment at Sanibel Island. The Annie was known in the squadron as a lucky ship, having made several ship captures all along the west coast of Florida, one of which netted 26,000 pounds of cotton.

It should have taken her two or three days to make that voyage; and when she didn't appear in a week, a massive search was started. But no sign of Annie or her men was found. A month later, an army supply ship saw smoke coming from the beach approximately 12 miles north of Marco Island, where modern-day Naples is. When they got closer to the beach, the smoke disappeared. An army patrol from Fort Myers subsequently searched the area but found nothing. Back at Key West, the squadron commander sadly declared Annie missing and presumed sunk, another victim of war or weather.

Then, on a calm day in February 1865, six weeks after Annie had disappeared, the U.S.S. Hendrick Hudson was steaming along the coast bound for Key West when the lookout spotted a mast protruding from the water off Marco Island's Cape Romano. It proved to be the wreck of the Annie, sitting in 30 feet of water; and it was unlike anything Capt. Rockwell of the Hendrick Hudson had ever seen.

Annie's starboard hull was obliterated from the main deck down to the keel, except for the forward portion by the bow. The remaining hull planks were charred; and the main mast was completely gone, as was the howitzer and the ship's boats. They thoroughly searched the wreck and nearby beaches, but no bodies from the crew of 11 were ever found. Capt. Rockwell wrote in his report, "A more complete wreck could scarcely be imagined." He ended by saying that it appeared she blew up, but he could offer no further explanation. Several theories, from mutiny to enemy action to accidental explosion, have been advanced, but none are conclusive. A sad end to a lucky lady.

So now you know the story of Marco Island's role in the Civil War-a tale of victory, defeat and a tragic naval mystery, which the island's waters have kept secret all these many years.

Matlacha's Robert N. Macomber is author of the award-winning Honor series of naval fiction. Visit his Web site at www.robertmacomber.com

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