THE GOVERNOR AND THE GUNBOAT:
AN INCIDENT IN CIVIL WAR PALATKA, FLORIDA
P. C. Doherty
Florida's first Governor elected under statehood, William Dunn Moseley, enjoyed a life punctuated by affairs in which the differences between winning and losing, between success and failure, between living his last days as a free man or in a prison cell, were slight.
The most famous of these episodes took place when he was thirty-nine. Born to privilege in North Carolina in 1795, Moseley had, by 1834, built a lucrative law practice in Wilmington and was a member of the North Carolina State Senate. In this year he offered himself as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor but lost by only three votes. Within a year of this defeat, Moseley permanently removed himself to Florida.(1)
The most obscure incident took place twenty-eight years later in Palatka, where Moseley, by now a former governor of Florida, resided in retirement. This lesser known affair is intriguing, as it took place against the backdrop of war and the closely-decided question it involved was, for Moseley, literally one of life and death.
The time was 1862, late in the month of June. Over a year had passed since the fall of Fort Sumter, and the St. John's River in northeast Florida was effectively a no man's land. Although it flowed through territory belonging to a Confederate state, through land largely controlled by Confederate forces and citizens loyal to them, since the federal evacuation of Jacksonville in April of 1862, the river had been open to any who had the strength to enforce passage. Confederate and Union ships, as well as the vessels of private freebooters, plied the waterway mostly without incident, even though the Union Navy busied itself from time to time by carrying out campaigns to halt the flow of Rebel supplies. The majority of this traffic was river borne, although some commerce in cash crops did flow between Florida and the offshore islands in the Atlantic. Given, however, the state's small population and lack of good ports, this traffic was minimal as was the job of interdiction.(2)
Of all the prizes of the upper St. Johns, none was more important to both sides than was Palatka, situated as it is on a small plain below high ground at a place where the river bends so sharply as to nearly turn back on itself.(3) Like the river, Palatka was under the nominal control of the Confederates, but their presence in the summer of 1862 was limited to a small, poorly trained and equipped force under First Lieutenant J. J. Dickison.(4) Dickison's ragtag band was encamped across the river from Palatka at a place on the east bank described as "the Heights at the head of the White Water Branch."(5) In theory, this position gave Dickison the opportunity to mount a defense of Palatka, but to turn theory into practice in June 1862 would have taken much more in the way of resources than he had at his disposal.
Both the Federal forces and the townsfolk of Palatka knew well the Rebel commander's situation. His lack of strength had led the civilian residents to virtually evacuate the town, when Jacksonville and the upper St. Johns came under Union control in March 1862. According to eyewitness accounts, the Palatka residents believed that their city would surely be attacked and sacked by marauding units of armed negroes the Federals were attempting to muster in Jacksonville. One resident described the evacuation of the town's less than one thousand residents by saying,
as soon as war was declared all the stores and business places were closed and goods removed. . . . Families who could move away, left as soon as possible [until] only a few [residents] remained in their homes, [and] food for [them] had to come in from the country.(6)
For the Union, Lieutenant Dickison's lack of men and firepower meant that so long as the navy undertook more-or-less regular sorties up the river, it could effectively neutralize Palatka without any great expenditure of either men or material.(7)
While the gunboat patrols served the Federal cause by effectively keeping Palatka out of the Confederate war inventory, Southern loyalists remained frightened and convinced that any appearance of a Union boat might be a prelude to the all-out attack that rumors had so long predicted. One resident later remarked, "No one felt safe, and no one knew what would come next; for months we slept in our day clothes, changing only for a bath and fresh clothing."(8) Rumors moving upriver with various boats were the major source of fresh war news, low in reliability and high in urgency. Hence, rather than informing the populace, the rumors simply fed their fears.
For others in the area, however, specifically blacks and unionist whites, the sightings, while no less emotional, were very differently viewed. Many used the opportunity afforded by a boat on patrol to escape: the blacks to freedom and to join the Union forces; the whites to a more congenial political atmosphere where they were less likely to lose their lives as a result of the raid they, too, believed to be imminent.(9)
During one of these comings of a boat to Palatka, former Governor Moseley experienced what would become the closest of his close calls. He would face an election of sorts, one in which the personal stakes were high indeed, and in which the holder of the franchise would be his enemy.
The month of June, 1862, found W. D. Moseley, sixty-seven years of age, fully retired from business and public life, and in poor health. He made his home about a half mile outside of Palatka on a modest plantation he had purchased in 1851, two years after leaving the governor's chair.(10) After a brief return to the public stage in 1855 when he served as a member of the Florida House of Representatives,(11) he rarely came into town and his neighbors saw little of him. However, the arrival at Palatka of the Federal armed tugboat, Hale, provided the governor with sufficient reason to undertake the journey.(12)
The Hale's nominal reason for calling at Palatka was to evacuate a family of Northern sympathizers who had appealed for passage when the Federals evacuated Jacksonville. Few local citizens believed this story. So, as she was to be moored on the riverfront for at least a day while the crew saw to the loading of supplies and the evacuee family's effects, the former governor, at the request of his neighbors, went into town to pay his respects to her acting master, Lieutenant Foster. He was to attempt to determine whether the Yankees had any nefarious schemes in mind.(13)
Moseley arrived on the docks during the forenoon watch, and Lieutenant Foster received him warmly. He assured the former governor that his boat was not the vanguard of an invasion force and that he had no orders or intent to sack the village. The Hale would be content simply to get what she had come for and leave. Lieutenant Foster, however, also allowed that his crew was nervous. Runaway blacks who had boarded the tug in search of asylum had alleged that a "Confederate Lieutenant"(14) had threatened to set up a sniper's nest behind the nearby Presbyterian Church from where sharpshooters could "pick [men] from the gunboat."(15) The acting master warned, "should a single gun be fired by accident or otherwise," the crew would not hesitate to "burn the town."(16) Moseley told Foster that, to the best of his knowledge, there were no Confederate troops on the Palatka side of the river. The "threat," he said, must be a rumor repeated or invented by the runaways. Rebel soldiers, he further explained, did come to town from time to time, but he was sure that any who had been around had crossed the river before the Hale reached the pier. In all probability, the governor said, they would not return until the tug departed as usually happened when any Federals were spotted making in the direction of the village.(17) Unfortunately, as events of the next hour-and-a-half or so would show, the Master took his prominent visitor's opinion as something much more definite.
Moseley stayed perhaps an hour aboard the Hale and departed on cordial terms. But before he could even manage to leave the town's center, firing began. A jittery Union lookout spotted horsemen on the hilltops above the town, and the tug began firing in their direction. The Hale's gun was, like as not, a tiny, brass boarding cannon meant for close range defense and not for long range bombardment. To be sure, the Hale's gun was inadequate to the task, but her gunners were lusty sorts who kept the barrel hot.(18)
With shot whizzing over their heads and thudding, however ineffectually, into the lower slopes of the hills, panic set in among the Palatkans. Many were sure that the "bombardment" was the start of the long‑anticipated sacking. "Men, women, and children were running and screaming,(19) one witness recalled, and most assumed that the men on the hilltops were only the first targets of the bloodthirsty Federals. They and their homes would be next.
As for the men on the hill, both the townsfolk and the sailors assumed they were under the active command of Lieutenant Dickison. What most did not know was that he and the bulk of his men had gone, and the soldiers they saw were men from his unit who had chosen, on their own, to remain behind. So long as the town and their families appeared safe, they meant the sailors no harm. They had crossed the river during the night just to be nearby should the Yankees take any threatening actions. What, if anything, the almost unarmed and barely trained rebels could have done in the face of a real attack is uncertain at best.(20)
It is not clear how long the "bombardment" continued, but however long it was, the boom of the little shipboard gun sufficiently fed the fear that general ignorance made seem so plausible. At last, in the face of growing hysteria, the only two people near at hand who knew what was really going on vis-à-vis the Confederate forces decided they must step forward. Mrs. Mary Emily Boyd and her friend, Mrs. Lynch, had learned the night before that Dickison and his men would be pulling back and that no sniper nest would be established. For their own reasons, they had initially kept this information to themselves, but with shot flying and their neighbors cowering in terror, they concluded that revealing it might be the only way to stop the disaster which seemed to be looming.(21)
With their decision made, the women tried to enlist the help of some gentleman to deliver their news of the Rebel withdrawal to the Hale, but all refused. After expressions of sympathy and regret, the ladies were told again and again, "that any man who would go there would be arrested."(22) Finally, quite by chance, they encountered Governor Moseley. He listened and consented to accompany them, if they would agree to relay the story themselves. Given the situation, they accepted his offer, and the trio set off in search of the leader of the group of Union sailors who had come ashore to gather the belongings of the evacuee family.
Within a few minutes, the two young women and the former chief executive of the State of Florida found the detail's commander who, without waiting to be asked, reiterated that orders were orders and if any Rebels started shooting the crew had instructions to finish the matter by levelling the place. Mrs. Boyd did her best to make clear to him that the offending officer and his men had left the area the night before and that the men on the hill were merely concerned about their families.(23)
At first her words seemed wasted. The Yankee, who was as overexcited and nervous as everyone else, seemed not to hear or understand. Finally, though, her persistence paid off, and the sailor reluctantly consented to request Foster to come ashore and hear her out. The lieutenant soon appeared. Despite the continued booming of the cannon, he listened politely as Mrs. Boyd repeated what she knew. Foster seemed inclined to believe her, but he still expressed doubts by restating his own position: "It is not our wish to needlessly destroy life or property, but anything that becomes an obstacle to us in the use of this river will be put out of our way."(24)
The acting master of the Hale then turned toward Governor Moseley, stared the old man straight in the face and minced no words in saying that he felt his trust had been betrayed: "Why did you tell me," he demanded of his recent guest that,
there were no Confederate soldiers on this side of the river when you visited the gunboat this morning? Did you hope to get us in ambush? What was your object? [If you had hoped to trap us, you failed, because even as] you were telling us there were no soldiers here our watch saw them with a glass, and our guns were turned to them.(25)
Moseley was taken aback. He knew what Foster was suggesting. Given his association with the ladies and his prominence as a former governor, Foster believed that he knew more--much more--than he was letting on and that the Yankee lieutenant suspected treachery. If the acting master's suspicions were not quashed, he would be arrested as a spy, and two possible fates awaited spies--the firing squad or prison. At the same time, and to make matters worse, Moseley knew that to prove his innocence he would need a good explanation, and he simply did not have one. Telling the truth by pleading ignorance would do nothing except make him look either an old fool or a spectacularly inept liar, especially given his earlier comments which the master had taken as "assurances." So, with his back against the wall, Moseley did the only thing he could think of which might stave off--if for only a moment--his being clapped in irons. Turning to Mrs. Boyd, who seemed to have had some success in gaining a measure of the Union officer's trust, he blurted: "For God's sake, Madam,--Explain!"(26)
With this act the future of Florida's first governor under statehood became dependent upon the enemy commander's acceptance of what was said by a young woman both had met but minutes earlier. Mrs. Boyd rose to the task. She told the Yankee that, because the retired governor lived quietly outside of town, he was not likely to have heard of the sniping threat, of the Confederate unit's departure, or of the small contingent of concerned, but basically harmless, Rebel soldiers who had crossed the river the previous night. She reiterated that she and Mrs. Lynch were, as far as she knew, the only people then in Palatka who knew for certain that the Southern commander had decided to withdraw. Virtually no one else the acting master might question, including Moseley, would be able to say with any confidence that the threat to him, his men, and his boat no longer existed, because none but they had heard it from the rebel leader himself. Moseley, she said, could not have lied, because, like virtually everyone else in town, he knew nothing. "I feel sure," she told him, "Governor Moseley did not intend to deceive you."(27)
With the argument thus put, all fell silent as Lieutenant Foster paused to consider his options. He turned to the anxious Governor. "I accept Mrs. Boyd's explanation," he said, "and I want to tell you that it has saved you from being taken prisoner." Then he complimented Mrs. Boyd, telling her that she should take pride in what she had accomplished:
You have done well. Should you live a hundred years you can look back on this as the best day's work you have ever done. You have saved lives and property and also saved an old man from being taken prisoner of war.(28)
Following the lieutenant's verdict, the delegations parted, and shortly thereafter, as a kind of seal on the mission's success, the cannon ceased firing, thereby returning to the hamlet its peace and quiet.(29) The adventure was over.
During the balance of the afternoon, the Hale concluded her business and steamed north toward Jacksonville never to return. Life, the war, and the river moved on.
By January 1863, Governor William D. Moseley was dead, but he had died a free man in his own home.(30) Yet the possibility remains stark that the situation could have been much different. The efforts of Mrs. Boyd on his behalf on that day in late June, barely six months before he entered the grave, had, like as not, saved him from breathing his last as a Yankee prisoner. Due to her help, he had prevailed by a single vote in what became his final, most closely decided, and possibly most important, contest.
Mr. Dogherty is a graduate student in History at Florida State University.
1. Allen C. Morris, comp., The Florida Handbook: 1993-1994 (Tallahassee, FL: Peninsula Publishing Co., 1993), 319.
2. David D. Porter, The Naval History of the Civil War (New York: The Sherman Publishing Co., 1886), 84-85, 672-676.
3. During this period, the spelling of "Palatka," as known today, was not a settled thing. As often as not in dispatches and reports from both the Union and Confederate sides, the town is referred to as "Pilatka." Mary Elizabeth Dickison, Dickison and His Men: Reminiscences of the War in Florida (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1962; reprint ed., 1890), 9-46.
4. Dickison had resigned from Captain John M. Martin's Marion Light Artillery at the end of May 1862 in order to raise his own cavalry command. In August 1862, he would be appointed as Captain of Company H, Second Florida Cavalry. The group he brought together near Palatka in June formed the nucleus of this unit. Ibid.
5. Palatka News (FL), Apr. 27, 1917.
7. Porter, Naval History, 84-85, 672-676; Dickison, Dickison and His Men, 9-46; T. Frederick Davis, History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity, 1513 to 1924 (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, Floridiana Facsimile & Reprint Series, 1964; reprint ed., 1925), 116-137.
8. Palatka News (FL), Apr. 27, 1917.
10. Morris, Florida Handbook, 319.
11. Moseley's signal contribution to the 1855 Session of the Legislature was his proposal to move the State Capital from Tallahassee to a more centrally located place. The move went nowhere, but, interestingly, the idea of doing so--an idea which has cropped up again and again--was first advanced by a former chief executive of the state just a decade after Florida had been admitted to the Union. Florida House of Representatives, Journal of the Florida House of Representatives, 1855.
12. In contemporary accounts and correspondence--all from the Southern viewpoint--the Hale is always referred to by the menacing term "gunboat." According to Civil War naval historian, Admiral David D. Porter, however, it was in fact a small steam-powered, shallow draft, tugboat which boasted a small cannon designed for defensive use. Porter, Naval History, 84-85, 672-676.
14. The "Confederate Lieutenant" was most probably Dickison himself, as it appears that there were then no other commissioned Confederate officers in the area. Palatka News (FL), Apr. 27, 1917; Dickison, Dickison and His Men, 9-46; Clement A. Evans, Confederate Military History, ext. ed., vol. 16: Florida (Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1989; reprint ed., Confederate Publishing Co., 1899), 42-55, 252-253.
15. Taken in context, the crew of the Hale had ample cause for worry. Not only were they deep in enemy territory, but vessels of her sort boasted a complement of only 8 to 10 men, about half of whom (the doctor, a cook or two, and the engineers) were usually not considered to be "combatants." Further, tugs of any sort were neither a plum command nor a coveted posting, so the men aboard the Hale were probably not the most skilled or experienced, whatever their specific shipboard assignment, combatant or non-combatant. Finally, as tugs are service vessels, it is highly probable that its able-bodied seamen, if they had any experience at all, it was in the harbor-related or freight transport tasks associated with tugboats. Palatka News (FL), Apr. 27, 1917; Porter, Naval History, 84-85, 672-676.
16. Palatka News (FL), Apr. 27, 1917.
18. Ibid.; Porter, Naval History, 84-85, 672-676.
19. Palatka News (FL), Apr. 27, 1917.
22. There is no record of how many men the ladies actually spoke with, however, the number could not have been large, because this entire episode occurred so quickly. Yet, to them time must have seemed greatly elongated as time will during a crisis. Ibid.
24. Considering the size of his tiny command and his isolation, this oath of Lt. Foster seems a bit on the boastful side. Ibid.
30. Morris, Florida Handbook, 319.