Ambush At St. Mary's River

On February 10, 1864, at Barber's Plantation in Northeastern Florida, cavalry soldiers stopped to water their horses and eat trail rations. They were the advanced guard for the Union expeditionary force that had landed in Jacksonville three days earlier. About one o'clock the order came to advance and they rode down a hillside on a narrow road. The road lead to a bridge which spanned the South Fork of the St. Mary's River. Birds were singing, and war seemed far away.

Suddenly, a volley of rifle shots tore through the point guard. As troopers fell from their saddles, Colonel Guy V. Henry, the commanding officer, realized they had ridden into a Confederate ambush. Would they die on this hillside or could they fight their way out of this trap and continue their mission?

Colonel Henry's command consisted of the 40th Massachusetts Mounted Infantry, the 1st Massachusetts Independent Cavalry, and Captain Elder's Flying Artillery Battery, totaling over 1,000 men. Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding officer of the Union army which landed in Jacksonville on February 7, 1864, had ordered Colonel Henry to cross the St. Mary's River and determine the Confederate troop strength at Lake City. Henry would soon learn that he had been confronted by Major Robert Harrison's 2nd Florida Cavalry.

Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard commanded the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. When he learned of the Union invasion, he ordered Major Harrison to withdraw his force of over 250 men from Camp Cooper, located thirty miles north of Jacksonville. They were to march to Lake City and join the Confederate army being formed there to make a stand against the Yankees. In doing this Harrison crossed Henry's path at the St. Mary's River, and the skirmish occurred.

The events leading up to the ambush began on December 8, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued his amnesty proclamation announcing reconstruction plans for the South.

Shortly afterward, General Gillmore, commanding the Department of the South at Hilton Head, was ordered to give attention to reconstructing a loyal state government in the state of Florida. On December 22, 1863, the U.S. Army Adjutant General's Office authorized General Gillmore to take action.

On January 22, 1864, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck approved Gillmore's plan to begin a speedy restoration of Florida to the Union. With a twenty-eight ship armada, he was to land and capture Jacksonville and advance west to Lake City. Upon occupation of this territory, he would control northern Florida. This accomplished, he would stop the flow of beef to Rebel armies in Georgia and Virginia.

The New York Tribune, in an article dated February 20, 1864, stated, "It is estimated that there are 2,000,000 [cattle] in the state." These cattle were feeding the armies of General Lee in Virginia and General Johnston in Georgia. After the cattle were slaughtered they were preserved with salt mined near the Gulf of Mexico or by smoking the meat prior to shipping it north. In addition to robbing the food basket, Gillmore planned to recruit negroes for colored regiments to be used to help hold the newly captured State of Florida. He also planned that cotton, turpentine and lumber would be confiscated and shipped north.

If this invasion was successful and the State of Florida was brought back into the Union, it would provide electoral votes to Mr. Lincoln in the fall election. At this point in time, the President needed every vote he could get to be re-elected.

General Gillmore encountered little resistance upon landing at Jacksonville. On Monday, February 8, he started his 5,000 man army moving west. They formed three lines of march running parallel with the Florida, Atlantic, and Gulf Central Railroad. Colonel Henry, with his mounted troops and flying artillery, was ordered to proceed to Camp Finegan, eight miles west of Jacksonville and capture the camp. The suspense was beginning to build.

According to soldiers diaries, as documented in Lewis G. Schmidt's The Battle of Olustee:

"They advanced in the darkness of night through a dense forest of pine trees, whose towering tops were dimly traced against the sky above and whose huge trunks looked like weird giants, somber and awful. On several occasions the guide lost the road. Once regained, the column hurried forward through bogs and swamps, over trunks of fallen trees, across shaky and rotten bridges, and over deep ditches, coolly and determined to catch the enemy off guard.

"At four different points, the column was halted and the 1st Massachusetts cavalry was sent forward on a charge to capture the comfortable guards sitting by their camp fires, chatting, or sleeping the watch hours away.

"Four posts were successively captured by cavalry without firing a shot, and ten prisoners were taken. At one picket post a number of men, women and children were captured, together with some negroes, all of whom, being noncombatants, were released."

On February 20, 1864, the New York Times, quoted a cavalry soldier as saying:

"A night's ride with the darkness so dense we could not see our horses heads, through a hostile country which affords advantages for guerrillas, over a road the bridges of which the enemy had destroyed, and so forced our troops to ford the streams... Every one, however, was in good spirits... It was a little disappointment not to have met some of the rebels at the small stream two miles this side of Camp Finegan, but the disappointment was of short duration, for we had not proceeded a half mile further, when we discovered a picket station.

"A charge of the [Union] advance was made on the picket station only to discover they had fallen back to their reserve post. A half-mile gallop brought the troop within sight of the post campfires around which could be seen the pickets hurriedly packing up their belongings preparatory to joining their comrades at Camp Finegan.

"The advance charged again, capturing five pickets without a shot; one soldier away from the fire escaped. He was, however, slashed across the head with a saber by one of the sergeants. He ran into the woods on the left, and as the column came up and Captain Elder brought up his artillery, the Rebel ran back toward the road shouting, `I surrender.' He was placed on a gun-box and later taken to Barber's where his wound was dressed by a surgeon."

Moving quickly upon Camp Finegan, Colonel Henry, caught the cavalry dismounted and the infantry just beginning to form a line about one-hundred yards from his line of march. Some of the artillery had left earlier for Ten Mile Station, a camp like Finegan also on the right of the main road and on line with the railroad.

Lieutenant Colonel McCormick was commanding the Confederate troops at Finegan which numbered 350 men. Colonel Henry's advanced guard came so suddenly that they froze the rebels in line of battle and surrounded both flanks. About nine o'clock Henry moved out after the fleeing rebel artillery. He left a portion of his command to keep the rebels at bay until the 115th New York Infantry arrived. With very little gun fire, the 115th proceeded to capture some 150 men and their wares. The remaining rebels escaped into the woods.

In his book The Iron Hearted Regiment, James H. Clark of the 115th wrote:

"The rebel camp was filled with fat turkeys, chickens, ducks, and geese; and as soon as arms were stacked the order to charge hen-coops was given and the soldiers soon swept away all poultry before them until the feathers flew in all directions. Such a cackling and gobbling was never heard before in eastern Florida... We found hogs hanging up just dressed; kettles of beef steaming over the fire; plates of warm hominy and liver on the table; and papers and books strewn about in every direction... coats and swords [left behind].. some letters found. In addition to many arms and ammunition, two six-pound iron guns and a battle flag was captured."

Riding hard, Colonel Henry's advanced guard charged into the rebel artillery camp at Ten Mile Station about midnight. He caught them entirely by surprise, capturing four field guns, two brass twelve pound rifles, two iron six-pounders, several infantry, and a quantity of stores. The guns reportedly belonged to Dunham's and Abell's batteries. They had been waiting for a train from Lake City to carry them to safety.

Colonel Henry rested his troops until 4 A.M. Tuesday, February 9. Company H, 40th Massachusetts Mounted Infantry was ordered to guard the station and the prisoners until the infantry caught up and then catch up with the troop at Baldwin, twelve miles to the west.

By 7 A.M. Colonel Henry's advance guard dashed into Baldwin uncontested. Reportedly, upon seeing the Union flag, an old lady in one of the dwellings waved her handkerchief and cried, "God bless the old flag." Baldwin was a town of fifteen buildings, one of which was a large railroad station. A hotel served meals and was visited by officers and correspondents. Only ten prisoners were taken because the rest of the Confederate Army had fled hours before. Cotton, turpentine, flour, rice, salt, molasses, sugar and large quantities of blankets and military clothing were captured.

At Baldwin, the Union captured over 100 prisoners, eight pieces of excellent field artillery with ammunition, and other valuable property without losing a man. Things were going too easily.

The next morning, Wednesday, February 10, at 9 A.M., Colonel Henry moved his troops out of Baldwin and headed for Barber's, located on a bluff just east of the St. Mary's River.

When the Union advanced party arrived at Barber's, the soldiers saw a deserted plantation. There was one large house and five or six smaller houses. Barber was one of the richest men in the state. Reportedly, he owned 25,000 head of cattle and several dozen slaves. Both he and his slaves were missing, and it was assumed he had skedatled for Georgia. Only his wife or a woman acquaintance and two children were at the house.

The time was 11 A.M., and upon arriving the advanced guard asked the woman if any rebel force had passed through or been seen in the vicinity. She assured them no rebs had been seen for some days. The plantation house was large and had a great wood fireplace. At one time it had been a hotel. It was constructed of rough boards poorly placed and walls covered with hand bills and illustrated papers. Not a pane of glass was to be seen.

Pickets reported the road descended in a gentle grade toward the St. Mary's River. The road was wide enough for two horses and was flanked near the top by pine trees which had been slashed to collect turpentine sap. The smell of turpentine rosin and sawdust was in the air.

A bugle sounded, and a column of twos formed. They rode down the hill and approached the bridge over the river. Like lightning, rifle shots shattered the air and bullets tore through the ranks killing or wounding the men in the advanced guard. Although the rifle fire was deadly accurate, there appeared to be only a small force of the enemy. Captain Webster rushed Company E, the 1st Massachusetts Calvary toward the river to better ascertain the strength and position of the enemy and perhaps force his way across the river.

Immediately, they came under an enfilade of fire which dropped more men from their saddles. Captain Webster's horse was shot out from under him. Through some miracle the captain was not wounded despite the fact his shoulder straps had been shot away.

Horses and riders wheeled off the road plunging into the brush between the pine trees. Dismounting soldiers quickly handed reigns to designated men who pulled four horses each deeper into the protection of the pine woods. Horses neighed, sabers rattled, and Spencer seven shot rifles barked back at the enemy.

Across the river, bushes were hidden by a curtain of smoke punctuated by red streaks. The din swelled to a mighty chorus. On the hillside Colonel Henry's men found cover behind palmetto bushes and pine trees. It was over one hundred fifty yards from the crest of the hill to the river.

On February 22, 1864, the Philadelphia Inquirer described the river as: "...a narrow, deep stream, completely hidden by cypress and palmetto trees... it was approached by a narrow road, through a thicket of pine and cypress trees, and could only be crossed in ordinary seasons, by a bridge which spanned it."

Colonel Henry saw the enemy occupied an extremely strong position. He estimated their numbers at two to three hundred men. His force, strung out for a half mile on the road behind him, totaled nearly a thousand. Although his command wasn't in a precarious position, he had to escape and continue his mission.

Thanks to Captain Webster's charge, Henry knew the enemy's position. He gave orders to bring up the artillery and relieve the troops pinned down on the hillside.

An article in the New York Herald, dated February 20, 1864, stated: "A bullet fired from a rebel on the top of a tree, struck the ground behind Colonel Henry's feet." Fortunately, the Colonel and his troopers had trees and thick bushes to use as concealment.

The Colonel deployed a company from the 40th Massachusetts now dismounted, with orders to charge down the road and cross the bridge to establish a position on the far side of the river. Moving quickly toward the bridge, they engaged the enemy sharply and effectively; however, they soon began taking a hot fire from the rebels well concealed behind bushes and stumps. They now discovered the bridge had been destroyed.

Colonel Henry saw his men in jeopardy and ordered them to withdraw and regroup. Learning the bridge had been destroyed, he ordered the second company to join the first in another charge in an effort to ford the river.

As the second attack got underway, the 40th wheeled off the road to the right focusing their advance toward an area where the left flank of the enemy was more exposed and thus vulnerable. As they attempted to ford the river, they found it too swift and too deep.

The rebels concentrated their fire on the advance. The exchange of fire was sharp and well contested by the Union force, but they found themselves stymied and forced to pull back. A signal from a patrol down the river indicated they had located a ford on the left side of the bridge facing the rebel right flank.

Moments later the soldiers on the hillside heard the awesome sound of a cannon thundering its presence on the scene. Union Captain Elder's battery had unlimbered and was launching missiles that sounded like the rush of a steam locomotive passing over their heads.

The diary of Clotaire S. Gay, First Massachusetts Cavalry records:

"Just as Elder's guns were going into position near Barber's house ["Elder's Battery in line on the Hill"], a woman came out, followed by two little girls, and went to the well for water.

'You'd better go back to the house madam,' said Elder addressing her, 'You're in great danger here!'

"She, however, continued on, and while filling her pail, the younger of the children was tugging at her dress and sayin', 'Come mamma, you mustn't stay here, the Yankees will kill you'.

"The bullets were even then whistling over and about them, and before they had reached the house, Elder had opened with his guns. Within thirty minutes from that time, their home, [sec. Barber's plantation house] had been transformed into a hospital."

Colonel Henry looked down the hillside at the trees beyond the river and saw shells finding their targets. This action had significantly diminished the Confederate fire. Concentrated volleys by the 40th Massachusetts also contributed to the rebel slow down.

Colonel Henry knew it was time to attack. He ordered the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry to mount up and ford the river with their horses. He also ordered the 40th to charge on foot across the newly found ford.

Elder's battery stopped firing as the cavalry rode into the river and the infantry began to cross the ford. The water for the infantry was chest high, and they held their guns and leather belts containing ammunition over their heads to keep them dry.

The cavalry successfully crossed the river and charged down the road firing at the enemy who began to retreat. The Union infantry climbed the far bank of the river and charge into the thicket under the inspiration of a rousing Yankee cheer. They begin firing at a now running enemy who did not take time to mount their horses.

Charles A. Currier in Recollections of Service with the 40th MA wrote: "The Fortieth was dismounted and followed, fording the creek, through water in some places breast high, charging up the bank only to find the enemy broken and on the run."

The diary of Clotaire S. Gay, 1st Massachusetts Cavalry states:

"The battery and mounted men were soon in column and across the river. We halted on the other side and made preparations for instant pursuit of the fleeing rebels. Those whom we found on the ground wounded and those picked up by some of the cavalry near the fight pretended for the most part to have been Union men, conscripts in the service, and serving against their will. One poor fellow, a sergeant, named Lee, (in the rebel cavalry company), was found mortally wounded and in very melancholy spirits. He asserted that he had been forced into the rebel service and that he was a Union man at heart, opposed to the Confederacy, and always anxious to get out of its service, but that he could never find an opportunity to escape and return to his home... His dying words were that he was at heart true to his country and to the old flag."

In The Iron Hearted Regiment (115th New York), James H. Clark wrote:

"The cavalrymen pursued them swiftly and succeeded in shooting several, two of whom they captured, but they were badly wounded and soon died... it is said that they murdered at least one of our men in cold blood. The unfortunate man was a sergeant. He was wounded with the others, and being unable to help himself was left where he lay for a short time. The rebels upon coming back, observed that he was not dead, and put six balls into his body... The murdered man had a thirty day furlough in his pocket, and expected to go home in a few days. He did go to his long, long home."

Colonel Henry ordered his troopers to fall into column and after leaving several men and a surgeon to treat the wounded and bury the dead, he moved his unit forward in a effort to make Sanderson before nightfall.

The Union dead were buried in one grave at the foot of a large pine tree next to the St. Mary's River. To their honor a soldier took his sharp knife and hewed a rough cross on the tree. The wounded, over thirty including the Rebels, were carried to Barber's house and were treated by a Union doctor.

The Union loses were five men killed, and the Confederate losses were two dead and seventy men captured. Also captured were about sixty horses and a quantity of sabres, carbines, and pistols.

That evening, ten miles west of the St. Mary's in Sanderson, Colonel Henry's men camped for the night. The men poured steaming coffee into tin cups and dined on freshly roasted chickens taken from Sanderson inhabitants. Spirits were high because they were only twenty miles from their objective, Lake City.

Ten days later the two armies met at a site known to the rebels as Ocean Pond. It is however, documented in the War Of The Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, as the Battle of Olustee

The Union army was defeated by a Confederate Army of equal strength using superior tactics on February 20, 1864. The Yankees were pushed back until they occupied only the territory east of the St. John's River. Florida was not brought back into the Union until the war ended. The Confederates continued to maintain their supply line and ship beef to their troops until the end of the war.

Copyright 1996 by Gene Ingram
Topographical Engineer 1st Lieutenant, 1st Florida Volunteers / Captain, 15th U.S. Infantry
4 Ocean Trace Road, # 309
St. Augustine Beach, FL 32084
Used here with his permission.

Boston Herald article on 40th Mass. Mounted Infantry and Ambush at the St. Mary's River

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