Battle of Saint John's Bluff
Brig. Gen. John Finegan established a battery on St. John’ s Bluff near Jacksonville to stop the movement of Federal ships up the St. Johns River. Brig. Gen. John M. Brannan embarked with about 1,500 infantry aboard the transports Boston, Ben DeFord, Cosmopolitan, and Neptune at Hilton Head, South Carolina, on September 30. The flotilla arrived at the mouth of the St. John’ s River on October 1, where Cdr. Charles Steedman’ s gunboats — Paul Jones, Cimarron, Uncas, Patroon, Hale, and Water Witch — joined them. By midday, the gunboats approached the bluff, while Brannan began landing troops at Mayport Mills. Another infantry force landed at Mount Pleasant Creek, about five miles in the rear of the Confederate battery, and began marching overland on the 2nd. Outmaneuvered, Lt. Col. Charles F. Hopkins abandoned the position after dark. When the gunboats approached the bluff the next day, its guns were silent. (NPS summary)
St John’s Bluff – October 18, 1862
In September 1862 the informal truce protecting Jacksonville from being shelled by the Union gunboats that patrolled the mouth of the St Johns River fell apart. The Confederate commander in the area, BG Joseph Finegan, decided to reinforce the works at St John’s Bluff. Although his troops managed to fortify the position there with six heavy artillery pieces undetected they could not remain that way for long. On the afternoon of the 10th a contraband was taken aboard the USS Patroon and informed Acting Master Urann that the Confederates had placed cannon and a force of 500 on the bluff. This information was relayed to Acting Master Crane on the USS Uncas. Crane was skeptical and decided to have a look for himself. In the darkness he moved up to within 500 yards and fired nine shots in a reconnaissance by fire effort. The tactic failed to elicit any response and Crane thought the report another false bit of information. The following morning however, Confederate batteries took him under fire in the daylight. Crane was forced to cut away an anchor kedge to get underway but suffered five shots into the boat. Once the boat was moving the Uncas responded until all the five second fuses had been expended. A total of 156 rounds were fired by Crane’s boat. The Patroon joined the four and a half hour fight late and managed to shoot 60 rounds into the bluff. Neither boat reported any casualties. The Confederate gunners were temporarily driven away from their guns after suffering 1 killed and 8 wounded. They returned to their positions at the departure of the two vessels and added four additional pieces to their arsenal. In a second effort to drive the Confederates off the bluff the USS Paul Jones and the USS Cimarron and three other gunboats attacked the position on the 17th. The two primary vessels kept up “a constant cannonade” on the Confederate works from 1600 yards for several hours. The remaining boats “by some misunderstanding” failed to execute their portion of the plan correctly and “their firing was of little, if any, service.” After firing half their ammunition load Commander Steedman, on the Jones, ordered the boats back to their anchorage. Steedman realized that the enemy gunners could be driven away from their guns for a time but that it would take a land force to gain control of the bluff. He dispatched the USS Uncas to Port Royal with this estimate of the situation and to “bring down ammunition to fill up our expenditure.” This report was the impetus for the new plan to clear the bluff.
On September 30 BG John Brannan departed Hilton Head with nearly 1600 troops on board four steamers (Boston, Ben DeFord, Cosmopolitan, and Neptune) headed for the St Johns River. Brannan’s forces included 825 men of the 47th Pennsylvania, 647 from the 7th Connecticut, 41 manning a section of guns from the 1st Connecticut Light Artillery, and a 60 man detachment from the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. The transports gathered with a fleet of six gunboats on the afternoon of the 1st. Three of the gunboats (Cimarron, Water Witch, and Uncas) were sent up the river to “feel the batteries” while the infantry was landed at Mayport Mills. After a ninety minute shelling the boats were recalled. After a brief reconnaissance the initial landing site was found unsatisfactory. The swampy ground and numerous streams would have required a 40 mile march to the objective. During the night the troops were moved to a landing site at Buckhorn Creek. After a short pause to rebuild a burnt bridge the column moved toward Mount Pleasant Creek to cover the landing of the cavalry and artillery. During the march they came across a Confederate camp that had been evacuated in such great haste that “their arms, and even a great portion of their wearing apparel…” were left behind. The haul here included 18 Hall’s breech loading rifles, 12 double barreled shotguns, 8 Maynard breech loading rifles, 11 Enfield’s, 96 knapsacks, 16 tents and a small quantity of commissary stores.
On the night of the 3rd Brannan acting on a report from a local that the Confederate strength was more than 1200 men requested additional reinforcements from the Fernandia garrison. The commander there immediately sent forward 300 members of the 9th Maine to bolster Brannan’s task force. They would prove to be unnecessary. On the 4th the gunboats again went up the river to test the enemy position and found the works at the bluff deserted. The Confederate commander LTC Hopkins working under an exaggerated report of Union strength from his cavalry of 3000 men determined that with his 500 men “it would be impossible to successfully, or with any hope of success, make a stand against them”. He ordered the abandonment of the works. BG Joseph Finegan disagreed with Hopkins assessment and called the decision “a gross military blunder.” Upon occupying the fortifications the Union troops found ten heavy artillery pieces abandoned in the works. The 47th was left to recover the guns while Brannan and 785 troops moved up river to the secondary Confederate works at Yellow Bluff. These works were also found empty and the way was clear to move into Jacksonville. On the 6th reports of Confederate steamers up river prompted an expedition of 100 members of the 47th Pennsylvania accompanied by two artillery pieces and 25 gunners. The troops boarded the Darlington and found the steamer Governor Milton run into a small stream near Hawkinsville. A boarding party found the boat empty but for the engineer and first mate who were asleep. The captured crew reported that boiler problems led to the boat being left behind. Nevertheless, the boat was hauled back to Jacksonville were repairs were made and the boat used in support operations for two weeks before it was sent off to South Carolina for quartermaster duty. On return of the successful river patrol the Union troops once again left Jacksonville.