ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Battle of Crystal River, Florida
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Battle of Crystal River, Florida
Battle of Crystal River
The salt marshes and an expected squall prevented
the crew of a Union warship offshore from spotting
the ambush of its captain and seven sailors.
Battle of Crystal River
The fight took place inside the
mouth of the Crystal River,
downstream from Crystal
River Preserve State Park.
The Blockade of Florida
This 19th century artwork
shows a Southern blockade
runner in flames following an
attack by the Union navy. It
hangs at Homossassa
Springs Wildlife State Park.
Crystal River, Florida
A clear spring-fed stream, the
Crystal River winds its way
through marshes and low
islands to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Battle of Crystal River - Crystal River, Florida
A Civil War Ambush in Florida
Harbor for Blockade Runners
Like many Florida rivers, the
Crystal River - seen here from
the top of Mound A at Crystal
River Archaeological State
Park - was an ideal port for
blockade runners during the
Civil War.
Although it was not of the scale of Florida's
larger Civil War battles at
Olustee, Natural
Bridge and Marianna, the Battle of Crystal
River was fierce and bloody.

The encounter was a direct result of the
Union Navy's effort to enforce a blockade of
the Florida coastline. At the beginning of the
Civil War, or War Between the States as it is
officially designated in Florida, President
Abraham Lincoln ordered the U.S. Navy to
close the Southern ports to shipping.

The blockade was part of General Winfield
Scott's "Anaconda Plan," which proposed the
crushing of the Confederacy by cutting off its
routes of commerce and military re-supply.
The plan would ultimately achieve its goal,
although Scott's development of the strategy
would be all but forgotten by the end of the

Most of Florida's major ports were quickly
closed by Union warships as the war
expanded, but determined Southern captains
turned to such locations as the Crystal River
to keep commerce flowing in and out of their
state. Using small schooners and sloops
that could navigate the shallow waters, they
slipped in and out of the river under cover of
darkness, fog or storms. Outbound cargoes
of cotton and sugar and inbound cargoes of
medicines, goods and military supplies were
vital to Florida's struggling economy.

These activities, legal in the South but
considered smuggling by the North, led to
inevitable conflicts with the Union Navy. One
of these is remembered today as the Battle
of Crystal River.

The encounter developed on June 29, 1862.
The blockade vessel U.S.S.
Beauregard, a
sail-driven schooner, was cruising up the
Gulf Coast of Florida when her crew spotted
a sloop-rigged vessel at the mouth of the
Crystal River.

The officers and crews of U.S. warships in
those days were allowed to share in the
spoils of any enemy vessels they captured.
Vessels caught slipping through the net of
the Union blockade were sent to port and a
case presented before an admiralty court.
The seizure of the vessel and its cargo would
be declared lawful and the captain, officers
and crew who took her would then share in
the value of the capture, based on a sliding

A sloop fully laden with cotton could be an
extremely valuable prize and the crews of
Union warships were often willing to run
great risks to capture such a vessel. This
was what happened at Crystal River on June
29, 1862, but this time it was a trap.

What Captain David Stearns of the U.S.S.
Beauregard did not know as he and 7 armed
sailors piled into a small boat to pursue the
mystery sloop into the mouth of the Crystal
River was that he was reacting exactly as
local Confederates had expected.

The sloop spotted at the mouth of the river
was a decoy. As W.H. Melson, the Acting
Master's Mate left in temporary command of
Beauregard watched, a second mystery
sloop emerged from behind an adjacent key
(island) and followed Stearns and his men
into the river.
It was around 3 p.m. and before Melson and
his men could do anything to help a squall
suddenly blew up and hid the river from view.

The storm passed and evening came on, but
Captain Stearns and his men did not return.
Melson hoisted a lantern from his main mast
and the next morning sent an armed boat  
into the river with orders to fire a musket now
and then to signal the captain. He did not
appear and after six hours of searching, the
rescue party gave up.

The captain and his crew would never be
seen again. According to local legend in the
Crystal River area, the Union sailors were
decoyed into an ambush. As they pulled into
the lower Crystal River, they were suddenly
fired upon by a group of Southerners who
had concealed themselves along the shore.

A sharp skirmish, remembered locally as the
Battle of Crystal River, followed. Five of the
Union sailors were killed outright. Captain
Stearns, remembered locally as "Captain
Ireland" (possibly he was Irish?), was
mortally wounded and died soon after
reaching shore. Of the two unwounded
survivors, one was white and the other turned
out to be a runaway slave. The slave was
hanged by his captors and with such
encouragement, the other survivor switched
sides and joined the Confederacy for the
duration of the war.

The Union sailors lost in the Battle of Crystal
River were identified as Acting Master David
Stearns (serving as captain), Charles Asten,
Edgar Lee, William Thompson, Francisco
Rasome, Edward Morris and Charles Grover.
The name of the escaped slave was not
recorded and he was simply listed as "one
contraband" in the Union reports.

The site of the battle is along the lower
Crystal River. The river itself can be viewed
from Crystal River Preserve State Park.
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