C.S.S. Spray

Other than the well known, and often written about, landing of Federal troops at St. Marks and the subsequent Battle of Natural Bridge little is said about the "minor" events which sometimes severely affected the lives of local people but played perhaps only the tiniest role in the overall war. Sometimes it is neat to remind ourselves that some of our forebears had to deal not only with the shortages brought on by that war, but also the terrors of nearby war action even though they were not near any sort of battlefield.

In the early part of the war one could only hear rumors of nearby action out on the water such as in June when a US schooner was captured by the CSS Spray, a side wheeled 3 "gun" steamboat, captained by a Lt. McGary, CSN somewhere to the east of the St. Marks River. The 'Spray' was a new ship,
a steam-powered, side-paddle wheel tugboat built in New Albany, Indiana originally fitted out as a mercantile ship before becoming a gunboat in the Confederate States Navy and used in the St. Marks, Newport, Florida area. In 1850, Daniel Ladd, a Newport, Florida cotton and general mercantile businessman, purchased the ‘Spray’ for $15,000. The ‘Spray’ operated as far south as Cedar Key, Florida up the Apalachicola River to Columbus, Georgia and up the Suwannee River and west to New Orleans, transporting cotton, naval stores, hides, tobacco, beeswax. It first sailed into St. Marks, Florida in 1850. wit
h a very modern steam engine and was in constant use transporting troops and material out to Lighthouse Point.

However, for most people in this area, the immediate result of the outbreak of war was an instant revival in the shipping business. For a port which had, several years ago, seen its better days, this was not altogether bad news. After all, the big foundry at Newport could (and did) begin producing iron shot, shells, and other such war material. Unfortunately, this easy shipping was short lived when the USS Mohawk began blockading the port in July of 1861. Just prior to this the Sloop, CSS George B Sloat had been captured as it left the St. Marks river.

Probably the first military action observed by local residents occurred that same month when the 'Mohawk' used its small armed boats to move the captured Confederate schooner (Sloat) into the channel and sink it in an attempt to block the channel. 

A few months later the CSS Spray, now stationed at Port St. Marks, steamed downriver to below Port Leon and began shelling out into the bay, (February 1862) returning fire as the 'Mohawk' positioned itself off Lighthouse Point and started shelling the saltworks near the lighthouse. Capt. Scott's Cavalry, the Tallahassee Guards, had moved in quickly to ward off any potential invasion but after a near fruitless exchange of cannon shot, the Federal ship retreated back, out into the Gulf.

Four months later however, the Screw Gunboat USS Tahoma (seven guns, 507 tons) and the ferryboat, USS Somerset crossed the St. Marks bar and commenced shelling the Confederate Fort William and saltworks near the lighthouse. The shelling destroyed the troop barracks and the artillerymen stationed there had to withdraw. The Federals then put men ashore to burn what was left standing. The interior of the lighthouse-keeper's house was also destroyed. A few months later another gunboat fired canon into the saltworks at Goose Creek but caused no real damage. Just prior to this two armed Federal ship's boats, on their way to fill barrels with fresh water, had been sunk with two sailors killed and the rest taken prisoner by Confederate forces over on the Aucilla River. It was thought to be another saltwork raiding party determined to stop the supply of salt which was in short supply all over the South. Until the advent of refrigeration, food preservation, both for home food storage and as food commodities to be shipped off to war, involved a lot of salt. When the war began, salt quickly rose in price to the point men would go down to the coast and set up crude seawater evaporators knowing that if they were spotted they could be shelled or attacked by marines sent ashore in small armed boats.

Two days after Christmas of '62, the British schooner 'Kate' was captured by the USS Roebuck as the former tried to enter the channel at the mouth of the river. In January 1863 the sloop, 'Florida' was becalmed at the mouth of the river as it was preparing to run the blockade. A blockading gunboat spotted it at daylight and came in, shelling the lighthouse in turn and captured the sloop. Fortuitously he crew escaped. The following month, another British Schooner 'Pacifique' was captured on the St. Marks River.
In April, the USS Starts and Stripes reported it had given chase for more than three hours to a 'side-wheeled schooner-rigged steamer' of unknown registry as it left the St. Marks River fully loaded. The Federal ship later reported the vessel, the CSS Spray was averaging a fast 14mph and managed to get away before the US ship could get close enough to get off a shot from her bow cannon. Prior to that chase the 'Stars and Stripes' had spotted an encampment at Long Bar and fired on it. The 'Spray' immediately moved down river to about Fourmile point to return fire but, when the larger vessel began firing on it, withdrew back to the fort. Even though the Federals knew the foundry/machine shop at Newport was producing shot and shell, they did not attempt to land troops. They were overestimating the Confederate forces there and did not wish to be lured into any unfavourable situations. 

On 12th September 1963 the blockading Steamer 'Stars and Stripes' made another attempt to destroy the CSS Spray as it lay at anchor in the river. The attempt also failed but two confederate sailors were captured. 

Writing in 1883, US Navy Instructor James R. Soley states the blockade of Florida required a different style from any other coast. No major ports and numerous small ones gave each blockading vessel a whole section of coast rather than a blockade station consisting of a sector of some river or harbour mouth. That such blockading vessels could be watched by coastal people and opportunities seized for small vessels, concealed in small rivers and inlets, to run the blockade was known by military planners from the outset. A new system of having shallow draft vessels on station close-in along a section of coast with larger vessels cruising off-shore between these stations more or less evolved during the war. It was effective. Nevertheless, the numbers of ships which ran the blockades in this area was impressive by any standards, though many running the blockade later in the war were in such bad shape they failed to make it beyond the blockading ships. 

The last day of February 1865 saw a large invasion force assembling off the Ochlockonee Buoy (about 13 miles out). Some five steamers and three schooners waited in the dense fog for the arrival of five other ships to begin the invasion of the coast along the St. Marks area. Two of the ships were outfitted as troop carriers. The river part of the invasion began with Federal vessels moving up river until one after another they ran aground.

Thus began what would be known as the Battle of Natural Bridge. An infrequently mentioned portion of this expedition is that a small group of soldiers were sent to destroy the bridge over the Oklockonee River. One supposes its rarely mentioned because they failed to find the bridge and returned to their boats. Interestingly enough another group (allegedly confederate deserters in Federal uniforms) who went to burn the Aucilla bridge, did little damage before they left. Throughout this engagement, the CSS spray continued operating with her full complement of twenty five crew. On May 12, 1865 the flag of the United States was raised over the fort (then called Fort Ward) at St. Marks and the CS Gunboat 'Spray' was finally surrendered. The crew of the 'Spray' were paroled to their homes. The war was over.
Note: I am indebted to various sources for this article. Frank Howard of Wakulla Co, Florida, and James B.Odell Jr,
Adjutant, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Pvt. George W. Thomas Camp 1595