Manatee History Matters: The Village of Manatee during the Civil War

The years of the Civil War were relatively quiet ones for the Village of Manatee, but there were still a few close encounters.

There were no major battles fought in Manatee, and the threat of Union invasion was fairly low. Some of the young men of the Village left to join the fight, while the more "seasoned" men made provisions to protect their hometown.

Since the whole of the peninsula was under Union blockade, many local seamen either volunteered their ships or themselves to be "blockade runners." This dangerous task involved avoiding Union discovery to make supply runs to Cuba and to Confederate ports. Many vessels, including Capt. John Curry's "Ariel," were captured by Federal forces during their missions and turned into blockage ships for the remainder of the war.

To avoid losing more vessels to the enemy, Capt. Curry and others sank their larger boats in bayous and hid their smaller boats in the woods. This would prove useful in the aftermath when Manatee played host to Confederate Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin.

Aside from blockade running, Manatee residents took part in cow hunting to provide the Confederate Army with food. For some of the men who went out, cow hunting was a new experience. Their time in the Florida wilderness, some trips taking weeks, left them unrecognizable to their families. The food supply was important, though, and so the cattle hunts continued.

While families with men on the homefront found that most foods were readily available, many of the soldiers' families were suffering. In early 1863, the Board of County Commissioners met and imposed a tax of 25¢ per $100 of property valuation to purchase food for the needy families. A committee was appointed to oversee the purchase and disburse

ment of provisions throughout the county. It took nearly two years before the committee was reimbursed for the cost of the food.

Union encounters

Although the threat of Union raids was low, there were a few occasions when the residents were confronted with Union soldiers.

After a blockade runner was caught at the mouth of the Manatee River with sugar and molasses, the Union schooner "Stonewall" came up the river to investigate. The men in the village were forced to hide in the woods to avoid capture while the women put on a brave front.

Even though the Union troops found nothing suspicious, they decided that the community grist mill would have to be destroyed. Women in the community begged for reprieve because they needed to feed their children, but their requests fell on deaf ears and the mill was burned.

Next, the troops turned their attention to the Gamble Plantation. They were looking for Archibald McNeill, an infamous blockade runner who was known to be living at the plantation. When they did not find him there, they marched to the plantation sugar mill and promptly blew it up. Legend says that the blast was felt all the way in the Village of Manatee.

Those troops were not finished. They returned to the mansion later that night and stayed for three days, waiting for McNeill to return -- but he did not during their tenure.

After the war

At the close of the war, many of the men returned home and resumed their daily lives. Although the Village of Manatee was not a place that fell under Federal Occupation, suspicious eyes were watching the area since the secretary of the Confederacy was suspected of traveling through Florida to avoid capture.

Evidence suggests that Benjamin hid at Gamble Plantation and used one of the sunken boats, along with the expertise of Manatee's captains, to secure his escape to the Bahamas.

To learn more about what Federal Occupation may have been like following the Civil War, visit Manatee Village Historical Park -- the 150th Occupation of Manatee. Federal troops will set up camp south of the village from noon to 7 p.m. Friday. Come back on Saturday, when troops and civilian re-enactors take over Manatee Village Historical Park to demonstrate life in 1865.

And keep an eye out for fugitive Judah P. Benjamin!

For information on presentation times, visit manateevillage.com or call 941-741-4076.

Melissa Porter, education and volunteer coordinator at Manatee Village Historical Park, enjoys sharing the past with students through hands-on activities and personal anecdotes from Manatee County's history. Reach her at Melissa.porter@manateeclerk.com or 941-741-4076.