Captain J.J. Dickison’s capture of the Union gunboat Columbine is a well-known story of the War Between the States or Civil War in Florida. Less known, however, is the Battle of Dunns Creek. This engagement took place just 24-hours earlier and targeted an entirely different Federal warship.
Dickison, the “Swamp Fox” of Florida, was a captain in the 2nd Florida Cavalry. He often operated independently of his regiment and often wound up the center of memorable adventures. His raid across the St. Johns River in May 1864 was among the more remarkable of these.
With a relative handful of men, the Confederate captain crossed the river and forced the surrender of the Union outpost at Welaka, Florida. He quickly crossed back to the west of the St. Johns, capturing a similar outpost at Fort Gates. It was a minor raid as such things go but produced near panic among Federal commanders at Jacksonville, Palatka and St. Augustine.
Still jittery from the severe loss they had suffered at the Battle of Olustee three months earlier, Union troops in East Florida showed a tendency to magnify even the smallest of Dickison’s incursions into full-scale invasions. His raid on Welaka and Fort Gates produced just such a reaction.
Union troops went on the move from Jacksonville south almost to present-day Orlando. Rumors spread that hundreds of Confederates were east of the St. Johns River and Dickison’s force was magnified to 8, 9 and 10 times its actual size. Federal warships including the Columbine and the Ottawa steamed up the river to protect isolated posts and cut off the raider.
The Ottawa was larger than the converted steam tug Columbine. One of the North’s early “90 Day Gunboats,” she was commissioned on October 7, 1861. The vessel was 158-feet long and carried a crew of 114 men. She also carried 5 heavy guns, the lightest of which fired projectiles nearly twice the weight of any Confederate artillery on the river.
Her problem was that she drew 9-feet of water. There was no way she could navigate upstream to Welaka or on to Volusia where the Federals feared that Dickison’s “ghost army” might strike next. She dropped anchor anchor near Brown’s Landing at the mouth of Dunns Creek while the smaller Columbine tried to reach Volusia. A troop transport/supply steamer called the Houghton remained under cover of the Ottawa’s guns.
What Lieutenant-Commander S. Livingston Breese, who captained the warship, did not know was that Lieutenant Mortimer Bates of Dunham’s Company A, Milton Light Artillery, was watching from the cover of trees and underbrush on the west side of the river. Bates commanded a section of two 12-pounder field guns that were no real match for the naval cannon on the Ottawa, but he was far from intimidated.
The Ottawa dropped anchor at about 7:20 p.m. on May 22, 1864. Exactly thirty minutes later Bates and his men opened fire from the swamps on the west bank:
…At 7:20 p.m. of the 22d instant I came to anchor off Brown’s Landing, about 250 yards distant, and just astern of us the Houghton anchored. Not knowing why she came up, I took the dingey and went on board to ascertain, when I was informed that the general thought it best that she should be under the protection of this vessel during the absence of the troops. I had scarcely been told this when I was startled by the report of a field piece fired at the Ottawa. I immediately jumped into my boat and returned to the ship before she had fired a shot in return, but she was all prepared and in the act of firing. At 7:50 engaged the enemy and fired by the flash of their guns. We could distinguish nothing else. (1)
Lieutenant-Commander Breese believed that the Confederates were firing on him with four cannon, although Lieutenant Bates’s section only had two guns. It is possible that another section reinforced Bates but if so its identity is unknown. The lieutenant’s report of the fight, if he ever wrote one, has not been found.
The battle intensified as the Union captain returned to his ship:
…The enemy had four field pieces of from 6 to 12 pounders, I should judge, and fired shell, grape, and solid shot at us and the Houghton. The firing was quite rapid at first and very accurate, but after the third discharge of the 150-pounder rifle they ceased firing entirely and retreated, I presume. This vessel was struck by grape 37 times and received a shell through the smokestack, carrying away also the mainstay. Fortunately there were no casualties. (2)
The damage inflicted on the Ottawa but Confederate field guns firing from the mud of a swamp was impressive. The Union warship slipped her anchor chains and raised steam to get out of the line of fire as quickly as possible. This accomplished, the vessel swung about and fired broadsides at the trees along the west bank. Bates slipped away, preserving his guns and men to fight another day. The Ottawa pounded the swamps with artillery fire until nearly 9:20 p.m., but there was no one there for her gunners to hit.
The surprise attack on the Ottawa set the stage for what Bates and Dickison together would carry out the next day as the Columbine tried to make her way back down the northward flowing St. Johns River.
The Battle of Dunns Creek was one of a number of actions that took place along the river in the months following Olustee. It demonstrated how well the Florida gunners under Mortimer Bates had learned their craft and served as a clear warning that Union vessels on the St. Johns were in danger. The men of the Columbine would learn that lesson less than 24-hours later.
The site of the battle is accessible only by boat today. It took place in the general area where Dunns Creek flows into the St. Johns River. Boats, canoes and kayaks can be rented at Georgia Boys Fish Camp, 217 Butler Drive, Satsuma, Florida. Their number is (386) 325-7764 and more information is available on their website at www.georgiaboysfishcamp.com. They are just a short boat ride or paddle up Dunns Creek from the battle site.
This map will show you how to reach Georgia Boys Fish Camp. From there just follow Dunns Creek downstream until you reach the St. Johns River and the battlefield will be right in front of you.
To learn more about the Civil War in Florida, please consider these books: