Category Archives: Fort Clinch

“Efficiently garrisoned as any in the department”: Evaulation of USCT troops in Florida

Bear with me for another “backwater of Florida” post here.  This has some sesquicentennial timing, as I like to incorporate here.  It also works into the USCT experience that I like to highlight as we proceed through the sesquicentennial.

On September 5, 1864, Colonel Charles Brayton, Chief of Artillery for the Department of the South, offered a report of a recent visit to the garrisons in Florida.  Addressing Major-General John Foster, Brayton wrote:

General: I have the honor to make the following report of a tour of instruction through the District of Florida:

The garrison of Fort Clinch consists of two companies of the One hundred and seventh Ohio Volunteers and one company of the Third U.S. Colored Troops, recently sent to that post to perform the artillery duty. This company has had some experience at Jacksonville in artillery, and will, in my opinion, make efficient artillerists, they having competent instructors.

With the departure of two brigades from the department that summer, individual companies served on detached duties.  The three at Fort Clinch were from two different regiments – an Ohio volunteers regiment and a USCT regiment.  And the USCT company was transitioning from infantry drill to heavy artillery assignments.  Brayton seemed confident these men would take well to their new roles.

Brayton continued in a “southernly” direction, describing the Jacksonville garrison next:

The garrisons of the different works at Jacksonville are all in excellent condition, being well drilled in the manual of the piece and well instructed in the nomenclature of pieces, carriages, implements, equipments, ammunition, and ranges of the different objects in the vicinity of their respective batteries. The garrison of Fort Hatch, Company H, Third U.S. Colored Troops, Capt. S. Conant, is particularly conversant with the above points. I am of the opinion that these works are as efficiently garrisoned as any in the department, the ranges of different points having been often verified by actual practice.

Perhaps the reason for Brayton’s confidence with Fort Clinch was founded on his satisfaction with the same 3rd USCT at Jacksonville.  Keep in mind that Brayton was very familiar with the nature of heavy artillery in the department.  He’d commanded the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery.  He had several very well maintained and operated garrisons for which to compare.  These are high compliments coming from someone who had experience in the matter, and were not simply empty comments to appease someone’s ears.

To that point, Brayton was quick to point out deficiencies where those existed:

The garrison of Fort Marion, at Saint Augustine, I found in quite an indifferent condition. The recent raid and absence of a company that had been instructed as artillery left the fort without an efficient garrison. I would respectfully suggest that a company of the Seventeenth Connecticut Volunteers be designated to perform the artillery duty in this work, and not to be removed unless the regiment leaves the post. The frequent change of garrisons and the substitution of companies unacquainted with their duties at times when the best artillerists are needed for defense perils the safety of the town and fort, and renders impossible to maintain a well-instructed and efficient garrison.

Looking to one of his own regiment’s batteries, Brayton identified the need to refresh and refit a light battery:

I would respectfully state that Company A, Third Rhode Island Artillery, has been on all the raids in Florida since the battle of Olustee, and its efficiency is impaired by a loss of horses and material and the addition of 60 new men. The battery has had but little opportunity for drill since it was mounted, and I am of the opinion that it needs an opportunity for drill not to be obtained at Jacksonville. I would therefore request, if it is deemed consistent with the good of the service, that Company A, Third Rhode Island Artillery, now at Jacksonville, be relieved by Battery F, Third New York Artillery, from Beaufort, and that Company A, on being relieved, be ordered to Beaufort.

Foster would approve the relief of Company A.  The point to consider here is how taxing even the small scale raids and other operations could be upon a military formation.  These backwater assignments were not exactly easy, cushy rear area work.

From this report, as I look back 150 years, what catches my attention is the high regard Brayton had for the ability of the USCT serving as artillerists.  Officers of that time felt artillery was far more demanding in terms of intellect.  Not to disparage the infantry, but for artillery to perform properly on the battlefield there is a lot more math involved.  The crew of the gun might not have to think about precise facing movements, but instead had to consider a number of factors like elevation, fuse settings, and range deflection.   There was, at some points during the war, questions about the colored troops having the ability to handle such tasks.  Now here is Brayton saying they were as good as any other in the department – a department with a heavy emphasis in “garrison” and “heavy” artillery, mind you.

By the summer of 1864 the USCT were winning accolades.  Some of them were not the type exemplified with battle streamers.  In this case, it was the appreciation of professional officers.  Preconceptions were changing.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 271-2.)

 

 

September 3, 1864: Foster relates the “main defects” of Fort Clinch, Florida

Fort Clinch, overlooking Cumberland Sound in northern Florida, was among the last Third System fortifications started in the United States.  Work on the fort began in 1847.

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At the outbreak of war, the fort remained incomplete and lacking armament.  Little was done while the Confederates held the fort early in the war.  In early 1862, Federals reoccupied the fort.  During the war, Federal garrisons worked to complete the fort.  But being a remote, minor post in the Department of the South, the work was not finished by the summer of 1864.

In some minds – particularly Major-General John Foster in command of the department – there was a need to halt work and reassess the fort’s design in light of wartime experiences.  On September 3, 1864, Foster wrote to Brigadier-General Richard Delafield, Chief of Engineers, in Washington, to relate the defects of Fort Clinch that needed attention:

General: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your indorsement of the 19th of August, l864, upon my letter of the 19th ultimo, desiring me to give the particular defects to which I objected in the plan, &c., of Fort Clinch. In compliance therewith I submit the following as the most important, &c.:

First. Fort Clinch is not, in my opinion, located so as to command properly both the anchorage and the entrance channel. This will necessitate the erection of outer batteries to command the channel near the location of the rebel batteries and also of inner batteries to command the harbor.

Second. The proximity of a range of sand hills to the fort will afford cover to an enemy’s advance to erect batteries against the fort or to assault the fort after a breach has been effected.

Third. The masonry bastionettes can easily be demolished by the rifled guns in use in the army and the flanking arrangements for the ditch be thus destroyed.

Fourth. The chemin de ronde can also be easily knocked down with rifled guns, and the ascent of the scarp thus be rendered tolerably easy to an assaulting column.

Fifth. The counter sloping glacis will afford greater facilities to an enemy’s assaulting column than to the garrison.

The above constitute the main defects, to which I thought it my duty to call the attention of the department.

Just the “main defects” mind you.  And we are left to assume Foster had more in mind.  Foster’s resume, by this time of the war, lends a lot of weight to his opinion.  Before the war, he’d worked on Fort Sumter.  He was in Fort Sumter when the Confederates bombarded it.  And as of that summer, he was in the process of “dismantling” the fort by long range artillery.  So Foster knew a thing or two about coastal fortifications and their weaknesses.

The first two defects cited by Foster are easily seen looking at a map of Cumberland Sound.  In this case, let me use an 1869 chart of the sound:

FortClinchDefects1

As Foster pointed out, twists and turns of the channels left many areas up the Cumberland Sound and behind near Old Fernandina out of reach for the fort’s guns.  It was not so much a factor of range, but a problem of the terrain masking view.  In the age of sail, this was probably not a major issue.  But in the age of steam powered ironclads, the position of the fort would leave an adversary the option to simply “run past the batteries.”

Likewise, all that “rough” area between the fort and Fernandina, which was those sand hills mentioned by Foster, would allow an adversary an approach.  Something the Federals knew well how to do from experience at places such as Fort Pulaski, Fort Gaines, and Morris Island.   Sand hills… as seen at many points along the American coastline… like on Amelia Island, where Fort Clinch stood.

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Which ran right up to the back of the fort.  If the garrison didn’t cut down the scrub brush and trees that grew on those sand hills, the fort would have practically no line of site from its most vulnerable point.

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In fact, the trees would grow taller than the fort, if not trimmed back!

With respect to Foster’s third point, consider this view:

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Looking across a land-facing walls of the fort, one of the bastionettes is in the right foreground and another in the distant center.  Foster suggested these were easily flanked by siege batteries.  And as demonstrated at Forts Pulaski and Sumter, that nice brick-work could not stand against rifled artillery.

And what is that “chemin de ronde” mentioned in point four?   That would be the walkway behind the battlements of the fort.  Today this is the walkway behind the walls:

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As it is between an interior berm and the wall, and there is no proper chemin de ronde here, my supposition is that someone listened to Foster at some point, and the interior arrangements were modified.

The fifth and last point questions the placement of the fort’s exterior glacis, designed to resist or deflect shots at the fort, and thus protect those brick walls.  Today that glacis is not really a glacis.  But there is somewhat a counter-slope behind the rise of the glacis, which alludes to Foster’s point:

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The rise on the right side of this view afforded the attacker more protection than the defender.  Perhaps better seen in this perspective:

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Technically, Foster’s objections were not intended to oppose further work on the fort.  Rather to request refinement of the design.  In the light of Civil War experience, there had to be questions about further expenditures on masonry forts of this type.

But this was a pre-war project, with roots well established.  Fort Clinch would be completed as intended, because the bureaucracy was there to ensure completion.

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Benefiting from wartime work, Fort Clinch was completed in the late 1860s.  But it was placed in caretaker status.  Worth noting, the only time the Army actually garrisoned a “completed” Fort Clinch was during the Spanish-American War.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Series 66, pages 266-7.)

150 Years Ago: Bricks for Fort Clinch… gathered by the “Sable Arm”

I’m a bit early with this sesquicentennial themed post.  But there are several events “stacked up” at the end of this month, furthermore the topic goes well with today’s holiday – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Fort Clinch, near Fernandina Beach, Florida, protected the entrance to St. Mary’s River, bordering Georgia and Florida.  The five-million or so bricks of Fort Clinch have captured my attention on each visit to the site.  Even a casual observer notes the distinct line of colors in the brickwork.

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Fort Clinch – looking to the west end of the gorge wall

Most of the lower, grayer bricks are from the initial construction period and were drawn from local sources.  Although started in 1847, work proceeded slowly.  Even when Federals occupied the fort in March 1862, the work was still far from complete.  Authorities felt, even though the fort was a backwater in a backwater theater, Fort Clinch should be completed in order to shore up defenses along the coast.   Such efforts required bricks… and labor.

Project engineer Captain Alfred F. Sears began contracting “contraband” labor in 1862.  But he was short of bricks, with no available source on the barrier island.  The brickyard which had supplied the fort’s builders before the war lay some thirty miles upstream on the St. Mary’s River, behind Confederate lines.  With Sears’ urgings, an expedition formed in mid-January 1863 with the aim to secure the bricks.  It is easy to overlook this activity with much larger events occurring in the major theaters of war at around the same time.  Call them “raids” or “expeditions,” such forays occurred with regularity along the coastlines during the war.  What draws my attention to this particular expedition are the troops employed – the First (US) South Carolina Infantry.

The 1st South Carolina first formed, by order of General David Hunter, in the spring of 1862 from contrabands at Hilton Head.  Under political pressure, the regiment was disbanded.  But by November the regiment reformed under Colonel Thomas W. Higginson.  Despite the state designation, the regiment consisted of a number of escaped slaves from Georgia and Florida.  That factor worked in favor of the expedition.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Despite the military air of his portrait, Higginson was not a military man by training.  A minister and ardent abolitionist, Higginson hailed from Massachusetts.  Before the war he’d supported John Brown, going as far to say that slavery had to end even if it meant war.  And when war came, Higginson went as a Captain of the 51st Massachusetts.  His beliefs and reputation, despite his lack of experience, led General Rufus Saxton to offer command the 1st South Carolina to Higginson.

Higginson’s expedition left Beaufort, South Carolina on January 23.  The 1st South Carolina, consisting of 462 officers and men, loaded into three steamers.  As reports go, Higginson’s was one of the worst in terms of formatting.  In reciting the details, he failed to provide any specifics as to the routes taken or even dates of activities (although he did offer a chapter length account of the expedition in Army Life in a Black Regiment, published in 1870).  By February 1, the expedition returned to South Carolina.  He could report accomplishment of his primary objective – “I have turned over to Captain Sears about 40,000 large-sized bricks, valued at about $1,000, in view of the present high freights.”  Higginson went into great detail about the stores and supplies acquired, and in some cases left behind due to lack of transport.

But in a broader perspective, one might say the 1st South Carolina took away some bricks, but left behind something more important.  The expedition was among the first, if not THE first, operation involving black troops after the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation.  That fact was not lost on Higginson:

The expedition has carried the regimental flag and the President’s proclamation far into the interior of Georgia and Florida. The men have been repeatedly under fire; have had infantry, cavalry, and even artillery arrayed against them, and have in every instance come off not only with unblemished honor, but with undisputed triumph.

Higginson reported a few slave families returned with the expedition.  But he didn’t figure the count of freed slave to be the measure of success at this stage of the war:

No officer in this regiment now doubts that the key to the successful prosecution of this war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops. Their superiority lies simply in the fact that they know the country, while white troops do not, and, moreover, that they have peculiarities of temperament, position, and motive which belong to them alone. Instead of leaving their homes and families to fight they are fighting for their homes and families, and they show the resolution and the sagacity which a personal purpose gives. It would have been madness to attempt, with the bravest white troops what I have successfully accomplished with black ones. Everything, even to the piloting of the vessels and the selection of the proper points for cannonading, was done by my own soldiers. Indeed, the real conductor of the whole expedition up the Saint Mary’s was Corpl. Robert Sutton, of Company G, formerly a slave upon the Saint Mary’s River, a man of extraordinary qualities, who needs nothing but a knowledge of the alphabet to entitle him to the most signal promotion. In every instance when I followed his advice the predicted result followed, and I never departed from it, however slightly, without finding reason for subsequent regret.

We might write this off as Higginson championing his abolitionist aims. However, he was right in some regards.  The President’s proclamation, now a war aim, depended upon the Army and Navy for successful enforcement.  But likewise, the Army and Navy needed the “Sable Arm” in order to prosecute the war.  The Army needed more Corporal Suttons.

A year or so later the 1st South Carolina became the Thirty-third United States Colored Troops.  Such completed the transition of this pre-Emancipation Proclamation regiment.  But Fort Clinch remained incomplete, needing more bricks.  Eventually bricks shipped down from the north allowed the completion of the major portions of the wall. Their composition stood out as a distinct line compared to the locally produced bricks.

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Several colors of Bricks in the Fort Clinch Wall

But this came at a time when brick fortifications were just not worth maintaining.  After decades of neglect and intermittent military activity, the fort received the attention of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1934.  The CCC and later the State of Florida restored the brickwork, adding newer bricks where needed. The end result is a patchwork of colors in the wall.

Perhaps a standing, physical metaphor for us to consider?

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Interior of Fort Clinch

(Colonel Higginson’s report appears in OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 195-198.)