Category Archives: Fort Clinch

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.)

Not your average Ordnance Rifle: Interesting gun from Fort Clinch

Fort Clinch, Florida, on the northern tip of Amelia Island, is a great diversion for Civil War enthusiasts (and beach-goers).  Among the attractions is a 3-inch Ordnance Rifle, which was setting on the fort’s parade ground during my visit last summer.

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Parade Ground at Fort Clinch

There’s no doubt Phoenix Iron Company produced this gun, as all the stamps are there.

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Right Trunnion of #650

The muzzle has the registry number 650.  The registry number puts this gun in the “later batches” of Ordnance Rifles.  However, as I’ll show below, conforms to the “middle batches” of the type.

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Muzzle of 3-inch #650 at Fort Clinch

Normally that would be worth explaining all by itself (as it “tests” the groupings I’ve offered for the gun types).  But I also need to mention the bore… or lack thereof.

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Smoothbore where there should be rifling

The bore is clean, relatively speaking, indicating very limited if any actual service.  I’d even speculate the bore out was done to reline the gun. But why one would do that is beyond me.  The gun has worn surfaces all over and not something I’d want to restore for shooting.

And take a closer look at those surfaces.

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Breech of Fort Clinch Ordnance Rifle

Perhaps a little rusting pealed back the machine smoothed surfaces.  What appears around the breech are layers of metal.  And a nicely bouched vent stands in contrast with the otherwise rough surface.

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Rear Sight of Fort Clinch Gun

The barrel’s surface shows even more details of the layering of metal.

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Wavy lines on the barrel

Almost as if someone sliced laterally through the upper layers of a fruit roll-up!   Phoenix made this gun using Reeves’ rolling technique.   A line around the rimbases may be the seam left when those were welded onto the barrel.  Maybe the lines are due to poor quality control in production.  Or perhaps just enough rust ate away at the surface to reveal what lay beneath.

Taking a closer look at those, notice the “N.J.” where usually we see a “U.S.” acceptance mark.

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Trunnions, Rimbases, and Acceptance Mark

And there’s a hole for the auxiliary sight, indicating this is a “middle batch” Ordnance Rifle.   This gun has a lot of explaining to do!

First off there are several surviving Ordnance Rifles with the N.J. stamp.  Clearly New Jersey purchased some of the guns (after all Phoenixville is not far across the Delaware River).  Three of those guns with N.J. stamps have duplicate registry numbers with survivors with U.S. acceptance marks – 649, 650 (here), and 651.  The U.S. guns are in a set received in November 1863.

So here’s my speculation.  Perhaps number 650 was among a set initially stamped at Phoenix Iron Company, but for some reason the ordnance officers rejected it.  The “wavy lines” may provide a clue, indicating some irregularities.  Later the New Jersey militia, not being as picky as the U.S. Army, might have purchased this gun at a cut rate.  Such might explain the auxiliary sight, which by my estimates was discontinued in March 1862, as well as the duplicate registry numbers.

But again, that’s just my speculation.  Regardless, the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle at Fort Clinch offers in interesting study to say the least.

Some Friday ‘splody: Civil War Cannons

Busy day on this end and not much time for creativity.  So I’ll steal a line from Xbrad and post some ‘splody videos.  I’ve assigned myself the mission to post something about Fort Clinch in the next few weeks and I’m currently discussing the 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, so this video dovetails into place:

I’ll feature a “unique” 3-inch Ordnance Rifle currently at Fort Clinch in the next few days (not this one, but one of the fort’s authentic guns).

Oh, and I’ve mentioned Fort Pulaski frequently of late.  Here’s one of the fort’s reproductions in use:

Yea, nothing says “Go Dawgs!” like a 30-pdr Parrott.