When Florida seceded from the Union on Jan. 10, 1861, Apalachicola was a young town of immigrants and mariners whose opinions were sharply divided.
Dr. Alvan Chapman, a physician and noted botanist, hailed from Massachusetts and was a strong Unionist. His wife, Mary, came from North Carolina and supported the Confederacy. To keep peace in the family, she moved to Marianna and only rejoined her husband after the war.
Although the prominent merchant Thomas Orman came from New York, he was the largest slave owner in Franklin County and embraced secession. (Figure 1) His son, William, joined the Confederate infantry in April 1861 and served for most of the war along with many young white men from town. Many families had close relatives in the North that fought for the Union, and the war left no one untouched.
The port blockaded
The first federal warships arrived at West Pass on June 7, 1861. The USS Montgomery arrived one week later, and Commander T. Darrah Shaw was met by the harbor pilot and three other men under a flag of truce. Shaw told them that no ships would be allowed to enter or leave the port for the duration of the war. (Figures 2 and 3)
Most families in Apalachicola got along despite political differences when food and supplies were abundant at the beginning of the war, but within a year, dry goods and imported foods and beverages became scarce. Citizens never quite starved, but the amount of fish and oysters they ate increased markedly as beef became scarce.
Governor John Milton, whose plantation was near Marianna, sent troops to defend Apalachicola, but protecting the city was never a priority for other Confederate states. By the end of the year, the Confederate garrison had abandoned the batteries on St. Vincent and at Battery Park, and had moved up the river.
If there was any “line” between the opposing forces, it was St. George Island. Most ships that manned the Union blockade stayed outside the barrier islands because they were too large to negotiate West Pass safely, and the bay was too shallow for them to maneuver. Most citizens who remained in Apalachicola professed allegiance to whichever army was in town on a particular day.
When the Civil War began, an 1837 hurricane had already separated Little St. George Island (home of the lighthouse) from the eastern part of St. George by gouging out New Inlet. There was also a channel to the west that formed Sand Island at West Pass. Union ships deposited piles of coal on Sand Island and used it as a refueling station. (Figure 4)
Given his Southern sympathies, it is interesting that Orman purchased Little St. George Island for $405 from the receiver for the Apalachicola Land Company in 1861, the year the war began. The only part he did not own was the lighthouse reservation.
Before the war, the lighthouse keepers and their supervisor, the port customs collector, held the only federal jobs aside from postmaster. When a Fresnel lens had been installed in 1857, the keeper, Braddock Williams, was asked to hire an assistant. His son James filled the bill, and the keepers lived together in the single dwelling at the Cape St. George lighthouse. Their families were the only permanent residents on the island.
In July 1861, the lighthouse superintendent hired a man named George Robinson to remove the Fresnel lens and supplies from the lighthouse. Braddock Williams temporarily had become a Confederate lighthouse keeper at reduced pay, but with no work, he and his family left the island. The vacated dwelling occasionally served as a haven for Union troops or a refuge for families from town.
By March 1862, Gov. Milton ordered Confederate defenders to abandon Apalachicola and move up the river to Ricco’s Bluff. Most of the remaining citizens, including Orman, evacuated, and the population was reduced from over 1,900 people (including slaves) before the war to fewer than 600.
The blockading squadron sent boats to force the nominal surrender of Apalachicola on April 3, 1862. Commander H.S. Stellwagen wryly reported that no Confederate sympathizers could be found, as the residents said they had always been loyal and hated the rebellion. Not wanting them to starve, Stellwagen permitted small groups of citizens to hunt for hogs and cattle that were running wild on the barrier islands, and allowed them to use small boats to catch fish and gather oysters.
Referring to the people on the wharf, Stellwagen wrote, “Threats have been made to hang or starve them as damn Yankees, traitors to the South. In this category stand also many of the fishermen who have not enlisted in their army. Threats are also made to burn the whole town if they have intercourse with us.” His comment foretold one of the saddest events of the war.
The Smith-Marr incident
Two Union supporters among the townspeople were Stillman Smith and William Marr. The census of 1850 shows Smith was an Irish immigrant and fisherman in Apalachicola. In 1860, he was working on the docks as a stevedore to support his wife, Esther, and 17-year-old daughter Mary. Smith and his wife had come to Apalachicola from Maine.
William Marr was a 43-year-old coastal pilot who was born in Scotland but had also immigrated to Maine before arriving in Apalachicola. The 1860 census of free people includes his Irish wife, Mary, and six children between ages 2 and 17.
These two families were among those who had been threatened by Southern supporters, perhaps with good reason. As a coastal pilot, Marr would certainly have known how to sail to West Pass and could have passed information to Union blockaders. Historian Neil Hurley states that Marr moved his family to the Cape St. George Lighthouse as a refuge, but that did not save him.
In January 1864, Smith and Marr were abducted by four men. Dr. Alvan Chapman later identified the leader as Lt. Hiram Price of Milton’s Dragoons, a cavalry unit that had formed near Marianna. Two others were townsmen named Charles Marks and William Austin. Like Marr, Marks and Austin both normally worked as coastal pilots, but Austin had served as keeper of the Cape St. George Lighthouse from 1850 to 1854 before Braddock Williams arrived. The fourth man, John Gordon, was probably a resident of Marianna.
When the Union blockaders learned Smith and Marr had disappeared, they sent a raiding party to Apalachicola and arrested Orman and another merchant named John Ruan, hoping to exchange them for Marr and Smith. Alas, Marr and Smith had already been killed. There is no doubt that Lt. Pace regarded them as informants or spies. However, the Northern commander stated flatly the men had been murdered in cold blood.
Pace’s superior, Captain Thigpin, reported that Marr and Smith were not arrested but shot while attempting to make an armed escape from Confederate troops. That was probably a cover story, because another account stated the two men had been hanged after being accused of smuggling beef to the blockaders.
The Confederates clearly had been suspicious Marr was relaying information across their lines. For example, Orman had written to Gov. Milton in 1862 that Marr had shown him a certificate signed by Chapman stating that the blockaders were holding three hostages to be exchanged for a Yankee sympathizer the Confederates had abducted.
At the news Smith and Marr had been killed while attempting to escape, the blockaders released Orman and Ruan in Apalachicola. Ironically, the Confederates then arrested the two men and took them to Marianna, ostensibly to protect them against federal retaliation.
The identity of Smith and Marr’s killers was not learned until after the war, and the men were never brought to justice.
The Marr and Smith families both moved away from Apalachicola. In 1870, Esther Smith was living in Maine. Poignantly, she had an infant son born shortly after his father was killed. In contrast, William Austin and Charles Marks returned to Apalachicola and are both listed in the 1870 census.
As it became clear the South would be defeated, Gov. Milton became depressed. In 1865, he traveled to his plantation at Marianna and shot himself. His family maintained his shotgun had discharged as he prepared to go hunting.
In 1866, the light at Cape St. George was repaired and relit by a keeper named James Reilly. Braddock Williams became keeper at Cape San Blas, but reclaimed his position at Cape St. George in 1868 and began a dynasty of four generations of lighthouse keepers in Apalachicola Bay.
After the war ended, many soldiers who served in the Confederacy were paroled in Apalachicola, and many found employment and became prominent citizens. Former slaves, including those once owned by Orman, were freed and subsisted by planting gardens, fishing and harvesting oysters, and working on the docks or as domestic servants. Their freedom, such as it was during Reconstruction, may have been the only thing gained in the costly war.
The Smith-Marr incident is a true historical event that inspired Michael Kinnett to write Apalachicola Pearl, which reflects the tensions among families who endured the war in Apalachicola and the Home Guard who punished many Union supporters.