Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Review - "Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War" by Frank Ofeldt

[Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War by Frank A. Ofeldt III (Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, 2020). Softcover, map, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography. Pages main/total:136/140. ISBN:978-1-4671-4596-1. $21.99]

Even among seasoned Civil War readers, the Amelia Island, Florida port city of Fernandina is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, or Norfolk. At odds with its undeserved obscurity is the fact that Fernandina was a significant Atlantic trade center that had its own Third System fortification, and both sides had big plans for the place during the Civil War. For the upstart Confederacy, Fernandina's protected deep-water port facilities made it an excellent candidate for blockade-running haven. It was also the eastern terminus of the Florida Railroad, an important transportation network that spanned the entire width of the state between Cedar Key on the Gulf and Amelia Island on the Atlantic. For the Union side, Fernandina was perfectly situated as a naval base and coaling station for supporting the U.S. Navy's South Atlantic and Gulf blockading squadrons. Possession of Fernandina also meant that Union forces would deny the Confederates free access to Cumberland Sound and the entire river system (most importantly the St. Marys River) of the Florida-Georgia border region. Jacksonville, Florida could also be directly threatened by any land and naval force based on Amelia Island. Clearly the topic is deserving of modern study, and Amelia Island's role in the war is given substantial book-length treatment for the first time in Frank Ofeldt's Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War.

Recognizing its value, the Confederate military rushed both men and heavy guns to Amelia Island in 1861. Fort Clinch's existing north shore defenses were improved, and new earth and sand batteries at other vulnerable points nearby were established. Eventually over 3,000 Confederate troops were stationed on the island, representing almost two-thirds of the entire manpower strength available to the C.S.A.'s Department of Middle and East Florida. Ofeldt, a park service specialist at Fort Clinch and a leading expert on its history, offers readers a highly detailed account of the Confederacy's desperate effort to make both fort and island defensible before the combined land and naval might of the U.S. could be directed toward it. Alas, even with the heavy troop commitment and mounting of several dozen heavy guns, ammunition was in short supply and the island's military commander deemed it indefensible. With permission from department commander Robert E. Lee, the island garrison and much of the civilian population were evacuated in March 1862, with the last trains leaving just as a massive Union fleet was passing through Cumberland Sound and approaching the Fernandina river front.

Union forces held Amelia Island for the rest of the war. In the book, Ofeldt describes the occupation and further improvements made to Fort Clinch by the Union garrison. Also recounted are the various raids conducted from the island into the Florida interior, the object of these movements being supply and resource gathering as well as recruitment/impressment of any able-bodied slaves that remained after most were evacuated by their owners. It was this area that witnessed some of the earliest deployments of black combat troops in the field. Over the course of the war, a number of USCT regiments (in whole or in part, mostly the latter) contributed garrison troops to Amelia Island. After the war ended, many of these troops permanently settled on the island, joined by returning Confederate veterans and civilians as well as northern opportunists eager to purchase bargain-priced properties seized during the conflict. According to Ofeldt, Fernandina prospered in the immediate postwar period mainly through the timber export industry. While many areas of the South suffered catastrophic losses of their most valuable wood lands, vast stands of NE Florida's virgin timber apparently escaped the voracious fuel requirements of the competing armies.

In addition to providing an excellent narrative summary of Amelia Island's Civil War history, the book also possesses considerable military reference value for those researching this lesser-known coastal front. The worth of this feature is most apparent in Ofeldt's meticulous charting at regular intervals of garrison unit information and placements of men and guns on the island. There is some room for improvement. In addition to an index, some original maps [though the book is heavily illustrated overall, only a single archival map, albeit a good one, is included] were needed to better support the text's detailed descriptions of military operations (as well as the island's defensive improvements). But these are relatively minor complaints. Fort Clinch, Fernandina and the Civil War is by far the best treatment available of the Civil War years on Amelia Island. In broader terms, anyone with an interest in learning more about the Civil War in Florida, the early-war deployment of black troops in the Deep South, and the Union blockade of the South Atlantic coastline will profit greatly from reading this slim but densely informative volume.

2 comments:

  1. Drew: I went to Amelia Island with my young family in the late 1980s. I recall seeing some Civil War markers. But as I had not yet been bitten by the Civil War bug, I did not follow up. Does the author indicate whether there is anything extant from that era currently worth visiting?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi John,
      Beyond Fort Clinch itself there's no mention of what else is available to see.

      Delete

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