Life in the Florida swamps

Union soldiers man a picket post in a Louisiana swamp during the Civil War. This lithograph cast the primeval Southern swamps as places of great mystery; for the men of the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment picketing a similar swamp near Fernandina, Fla. in summer 1863, duty in such a foreign environment meant dealing with alligators, snakes, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. (Library of Congress)

Union soldiers man a picket post in a Louisiana swamp during the Civil War. This lithograph cast the primeval Southern swamps as places of great mystery; for the men of the 11th Maine Infantry Regiment picketing a similar swamp near Fernandina, Fla. in summer 1863, duty in such a foreign environment meant dealing with alligators, snakes, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. (Library of Congress)

For the 11th Maine Infantry boys accustomed to relatively tame reptiles and bugs back home in the Pine Tree State, duty in the northeastern Florida swamps proved eye-opening.

Boarding the steamer “Boston” at Beaufort, S.C. on Thursday, June 4, 1863, soldiers assigned to the 11th Maine headed south to Florida. “Daylight of the 5th found us the Florida coast, and during the forenoon we entered the harbor of Fernandina,” recalled Sgt. Robert Brady Jr. of Enfield and Co. I.

Fernandina “was … a port of entry, and the terminus of the Florida & Gulf Railroad” and lay on Cumberland Sound, Brady explained the town’s military significance. The 11th Maine replaced the departing 7th New Hampshire Infantry on garrison duty — and the Granite State boys were happy to bid “adieu” to Fernandina.

Brady and his comrades soon figured out why.

On Sunday, June 7, the 11th Maine’s Col. Harris Plaisted assumed command at Fernandina and issued General Order No. 1, delineating the additional responsibilities assigned to specific officers. Capt. Francis Sabine of Bangor, for example, was named the provost marshal.

One night a rumor spread about an imminent Confederate attack, and Plaisted “rode to the camp guard-house, of which I was unfortunate enough to be in charge as sergeant of the guard,” according to Brady.

Plaisted rousted out the provost guard and “led us to the road … and into the swamp that lies between the old and the new towns — a swamp that was an impassable jungle of trees and tangled grapevines, the haunt of alligators and snakes, and the breeding place of a most bloodthirsty breed of mosquitoes,” he remembered. There Plaisted left Brady and his men to guard a corduroy road that crossed the swamp. If there came an attack, Plaisted “bade us stand there and hold” the position “at all hazard,” Brady wrote.

Then Plaisted “turned his horse and rode away toward Fernandina, with his orderly at his heels, leaving us in the midst of a dense and ever-thickening cloud of bayonet-billed mosquitoes,” Brady recalled.

The Maine boys held an impromptu New England town meeting — Brady called it “a council of war” — and voted with their feet to move “to the high land overlooking the swamp, where the night breeze swept the pursuing mosquitoes back into their haunts.”

Then the irritated soldiers stationed a guard “between us and Fernandina to prevent our alert commander from surprising us,” Brady wrote.

Afterwards “we went into bivouac confident that no rebel was yet so desperate as to be willing to tread that stretch of mosquito, alligator, snake infested swamp road in the darkness of a moonless night.”

That night and many others to come, enlisted men formed picket posts around Fernandina to warn of a surprise attack. “The picket posts were set on hummocks, or rises of ground in the midst of the alligator and snake infested swamps,” Brady noted, stressing repeatedly the strong impression that the Florida reptiles had made on him.

He described how the corduroy road ran “through swamps where alligators were wallowing and moccasin snakes gliding, with clouds of mosquitoes ready to attack any blooded creatures.”

And then there were the mosquitoes. Mainer soldiers familiar with New England black flies and “no-see-ums” could not adequately describe the Fernandina mosquitoes; Brady certainly tried.

The swamps were home “to a breed of the most sanguinary mosquitoes [that] filled the air at night to an extent that not only made it impossible for a man to sleep, but forced him to keep his already mosquito-net-covered head in a thick smudge of smoke,” Brady recalled.

“We slept all we could in the day time, as we could not sleep at all at night, except on the blessed ones where heavy thunderstorms broke over the island,” he remembered.

And the mosquitoes, of course, caused a serious health problem. “Nearly every man … if not every one” stationed at Fernandina “suffered from the ‘shakes,’” Brady wrote, referring to “this mysterious illness” known then as “ague” and later (and accurately) as malaria, a mosquito-born disease.

“Ague” caused a man to experience “the shakes,” chills, and high fever and occasionally killed a soldier. First Lt. Benjamin Dunbar of Co. H recorded in his diary for June 1863, “20th.—Shaking. 21st.—Shaking. 22nd.— Shaking. 23rd.—Shaking.”

The 11th Maine departed Fernandina on Tuesday, Oct. 6 and headed for Charleston, S.C. The Maine boys were happy to bid “farewell” to fair Fernandina.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.