TAMPA — Most of the men of Tampa were either off fighting Union troops in far away fields of battle or away on cattle drives, herding beef to where it could be shipped to famished Confederate troops splayed across the split nation.
Tampa was ripe for the picking and 150 years ago Tuesday, blue-coated infantry and cavalry troops made their move, marking the only time in the Civil War in which Union troops occupied the city. They stayed only a few days, primarily because the city, far south of the main action, wasn’t worth keeping.
Union soldiers occupying Fort Myers were waiting for a chance to raid Tampa to eliminate the port’s role in smuggling guns and food, said Phil Leigh, a historian and author.
“Union commanders got their chance,” he said, “when somebody tipped off the captain of the USS Sunflower that Tampa was temporarily un-garrisoned.”
The defenders of Fort Brooke, located in what is now the southern part of downtown, were sent on an out-of-town mission that day in 1864, and Union forces struck.
“The Yankees advanced in two columns on May 6,’’ Leigh said. “One landed about 1 a.m. at Gadsden Point, which is the southeast corner of MacDill Air Force Base. From there they marched to the west bank of the Hillsborough River opposite today’s downtown. The other came ashore in the Alafia River, marched north, and approached Tampa from the east.”
Tampa had its own young Paul Revere, he said.
“Five-year-old Darwin Givens, who was playing with a friend on a sand road near present-day Kennedy Boulevard, was first to sound the alarm,” Leigh said. “He ran home to tell his parents, ‘The devils are coming.’ ”
Some of the Union troops were from Florida and held grudges against secessionists here, he said.
“They began to ransack selected homes and buildings,” he said, “but the pillaging was brief and never became general.”
The Union troops destroyed the homes of Confederate Capt. John Darling and Capt. James Gettis. They also sacked the Masonic Lodge, apparently because Darling and Gettis were lodge members.
“They tore it up and took a lot of the treasured artifacts and the ritual-type stuff,” Leigh said, “as well as just tearing it up.”
Other than that, private property largely went unmolested.
“The Federals only wanted to occupy Tampa long enough to destroy its defenses,” Leigh wrote. “That way U.S. warships could enter the harbor at will to destroy any blockade runners that might attempt to use the port again.”
The two-day occupation mostly was uncontested.
“The crew of a blockade-runner anchored on the Hillsborough River briefly resisted with gunfire before abandoning their ship to swim across the river,” Leigh said. “Additionally, some volunteers ran to Fort Brooke to put up a fight, but it was short. One defender was killed and several wounded.”
The residents of Tampa at the time mostly were old men, women and children.
The Union troops were led by Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Woodbury, who later wrote: “The appearance of Tampa is desolate in the extreme.”
During the day, a federal gunboat maneuvered close to shore and shelled the deserted fort into ruins, Leigh said.
“Before leaving on May 7,” he said, “the Yankee commander decided to release most of the residents arrested the day before.”
Florida played only a tangential role in the War Between the States, mostly providing beef from half-wild herds and munitions from Cuba smuggled in by blockade runners along the coast. The state sent about 16,000 men to war, fighting in places like Gettysburg, Antietam and Chancellorsville. The war reached into Florida with major battles only twice, with pitched fights at Pensacola and Olustee near Lake City.
Tampa was appreciated by at least one war-time visitor 150 years ago this week.
Leigh said a Union soldier wrote this about Tampa: “ ... pretty place with small white painted houses and beautiful [flower] beds … with seashell borders … neatly arranged. (T)he atmosphere was redolent with rich odors from the flowers and … magnolias.”
The sacking of Tampa on May 6, 1864, wasn’t Tampa’s only run-in with northern troops. On June 30, 1862, a two-day battle was fought in the area. Union gunboats sailed into Tampa Bay and troops landed and demanded Tampa’s surrender. A Confederate contingent, called the Osceola Rangers, refused and the gunboat opened fire. Over two days, shells fell around downtown Tampa.
On July 1, the shelling stopped and the gunboat sailed off.
No one was injured.