Analysis of the Incident

In examining and comparing original pre-Civil War maps with a current mapping photo, the current CSX Railroad seems to follow the same path of the old Florida Railroad roadbed. The distance from the depot to the bridge is about 3.7 miles. Records show the gunboat followed the train about "two" miles, which might have been a guess.

The Amelia River (following the path of "3.77 miles" in the photo) diverged from the railroad as it turned west before continuing south again. This would put the railroad about 1.6 miles from the river until the rails turned west toward the bridge. This is certainly within the 11-inch Dahlgrenís range. Looking at the overhead photo, most of the area between the train and gunboat was flat marshland so the train could easily be spotted from the gunboatís tall masts.

Map of Fernandina

Lastly, with the help of an 1857 (updated in 1862) navigation map, the Amelia Riverís depth was at least 3 fathoms (18 feet) at low tide up to the point of where the river branches left and right. This is enough clearance for the less than 12 foot draft of the Ottawa. This period map does not list the soundings past this point.


Postscript

As for the Ottawa and its crew, they would go on fighting in Florida and along the South Carolina and Georgia coastline for the remainder of the war. They were instrumental in recovering the original yatch America, the 1852 winner of what became the "Americaís Cup" on the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville. Lt. Cmdr. Stevens was to command the ironclad USS Monitor for a month then moved on to command several other ships. He eventually retired as a rear admiral in 1871. Stevens died in 1896 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The Ottawa was sold at auction after the end of the war.

There are a number of references of the U.S. Gunboat Ottawa firing on the last train from Fernandina, but no one has recognized that this was most likely the first time in history that a warship fired on a moving train. It was during the Civil War that trains were first used in full support of troop and supply movements. Prior to this, the only usage of a train during a war was in France, and that was a short line to bring supplies inland only a few miles. The Civil War had many historical "firsts" identified, but so far no one has recognized this unusual event in this respect.


© 2008 Lewis L. Zerfas
Reprinted with permission