I am in South Florida this week, and it is amazing to believe that this entire area was essentially a total wilderness 150 years ago on the eve of the Civil War.
Abner Doubleday is my most singularly studied of Civil War personalities, as I continue to threaten to someday finish a book on his life. Someday!
Doubleday’s war-related story begins of course with the first conflict of the War, as he sighted and fired the first shot from Fort Sumter in response to the Confederate attack upon that installation in April of 1861.
But just prior to being stationed in Charleston in 1859 at Fort Moultrie (as an assignment in his career service in the Regular Army), Doubleday was posted in Florida at Fort Dallas – in the area of modern-day Miami. .
He served there at the end of a third Indian “war” – a series of conflicts to essentially find and force native populations to Indian lands in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The Third Seminole War, also known as the Billy Bowlegs War, commenced in 1855 when a United States surveying party clashed with the Seminoles of Chief Billy Bowlegs, destroying crops and inciting retribution. The response of the United States government was to hunt down the remaining Indians, and have them forcibly removed to western lands. It was to such an assignment that Abner Doubleday was dispatched with his company. Though Bowlegs would eventually surrender with a mere contingent of 40 warriors in May of 1858, agreeing to leave for Oklahoma with about 165 of his tribe, the operation was largely very unsuccessful. Doubleday wrote much of the frustration and difficulty of actually catching any of the natives.
I fear if accurate statistics were available they would show that the cost of catching or killing a Florida Indian runs in the neighborhood of one hundred thousand dollars a head. . . . Those soldiers were in the main, foreign immigrants, wholly ignorant of woodcraft. They had no chance whatever, weighted down with accoutrements, and strange to all about them, of catching the naked light-footed savages who knew every path, and root, and covert of the swamps.
Doubleday, with his wife Mary, arrived at Fort Dallas on the west side of the Key Biscayne Bay. The fort was constructed in 1836 on the plantation of William English as a military post for the government efforts in dealing with the Seminoles. The army artillerist in Doubleday chaffed at the idea of such a simple gathering of buildings with no fortifications being termed a “fort,” and commented that it seemed to be the customary pattern to apply this title to any spot in Florida or Texas occupied by a garrison. Doubleday related a humorous incident of their first night in the “fort.”
Upon our first night at Fort Dallas, Lieutenant F___ slept in a wall tent. Towards midnight, a large he-goat walked in and stood motionless beside the bed. F___ waked up and fancied he heard someone breathing. Reaching out in the dark, his hand fell on a long beard. He drew it quickly back, but again extended it. This time he felt a pair of horns. He drew it back still more quickly, and began to wonder if his visitor was the devil—horns, beard and all. Just then, the goat backed out and bleated aloud. It was not a musical cry, but it relieved F___’s mind not a little.
The primary activity of the battalion was the formation of scouting parties to search for Indians, of whom there were many evidences, but few actual sightings. A paradigm of their operations called for one company to guard the post while the other was away on an expedition. Of the typical expedition, Doubleday wrote: After walking all day through clinging tangle, we slept soundly at night with nothing softer than a blanket and a few palmetto leaves, and heedless alike of snakes or alligators, both of which abounded. They were indeed as plenty as Indians were scarce.
Their post was a mere ten miles from the edge of the Everglades. Doubleday did lead a particular scouting party into the Everglades that discovered the very recent abode of Indians, who had obviously seen the army coming and evacuated without detection. Describing the sights and sounds of camping in the midst of this large swamp, Doubleday said: Bears and alligators abounded in this vast swamp. Every night when we lay down, the alligators came grunting around our boats. . . . There were many things indeed to murder sleep. The swamp was full of night birds whose raucous cries were shriller, and more ear-piercing than the noise of the alligators. Above all, we caught sometimes the long blood-curdling wail of a panther. We were glad to get away, though we had not captured an Indian.
Doubleday’s engineering skills were put to the test, as upon arrival in Florida he was ordered to construct a roadway. Along with Captain John Brannan (who would later be a major general in the Civil War) he supervised the construction of a roadway to the north—which would eventually serve as the route for a future federal highway between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Other Indian scouting expeditions took Doubleday’s command as far to the northwest as Lake Okeechobee, and as far south as the islands in the Florida Keys.