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Battle of Fort Myers topic of Edison Ford Shoppe lecture on January 21

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Sanibel librarian, historian and author Duane Shaffer will discuss the Battle of Fort Myers in a special lecture at the Edison Ford Shoppe in the Bell Tower Shops at 10 a.m. on January 21. Shaffer is author of the book Men of Granite, New Hampshire Soldiers in the Civil War.

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The Battle of Fort Myers was fought on February 20, 1865. Many are surprised to learn that Fort Myers was a Union stronghold during the Civil War, and that the attack was initiated by a home-grown battalion of Confederate soldiers which was formed to oppose forays by soldiers from the fort into cattle country from Punta Gorda north to Tampa.

Prior to 1864, the ranchers had been supplying beef to Confederate troops, as well as providing steers to blockade runners who were trading them in Cuba for much needed provisions. But toward the end of January in 1864, the Union soldiers garrisoned at the fort began confiscating the ranchers' cattle. In fact, they were so successful that by January of 1865, they'd appropriated more than 4,500 head, the majority of which they drove to Punta Rassa, where they were loaded on ships and taken to Key West to feed the sailors manning the flotilla that was blockading the coast of Florida.

As if the confiscation of their cattle was not bad enough, two companies of the Union soldiers garrisoned at Fort Myers were former slaves, and they discharged their duties with a fervor the Confederate sympathizers especially loathed. The Confederate Army couldn’t spare any soldiers to attack the fort, so the ranchers formed a home-grown battalion to protect their slaves and what was left of their cattle. They were officially named the Florida Special Calvary, 1st Battalion, but everybody referred to them simply as the Cow Calvary, and they headquartered in Fort Meade near Tampa under the command of Colonel Charles J. Munnerlyn.

In January of 1865, Munnerlyn sent Major William Footman and three companies of the Cow Calvary to destroy Fort Myers. Included in that contingent was Capt. F. A. Hendry, who had raised and was commanding a company of 131 men. Footman began the two-week 200-mile march with 275 men, but by the time he arrived at old Fort Thomson in LaBelle, his contingent had swelled to 500 as angry local farmers, fishermen and other partisans rushed to join the fray. After resting but a day, they marched down the Caloosahatchee River to mount a surprise attack on the fort the following morning.

They camped near Billy’s Creek, but the undisciplined vanguard of Footman’s force ambushed a handful of the black Union soldiers they discovered on picket duty, thereby alerting the Union forces inside the fort to prepare themselves for battle. Seeing that he’d lost the advantage of surprise, Footman ordered his men to fire a warning shot from their sole piece of artillery, a bronze 12-pounder. Then he sent a messenger under cover of a white flag to demand the fort’s surrender. Captain James Doyle gave a terse response. Via the messenger, he told Footman: “Your demand for an unconditional surrender has been received. I respectfully decline; I have force enough to maintain my position and will fight you to the last.”

To find out what ensued, and why the battle was significant to the future of the town that grew from the remnants of the Fort in the years following the end of the Civil War, you will have to attend Duane Shaffer's lecture on January 21. Shaffer will also address the controversy surrounding claims that the Battle of Fort Myers was the “southernmost land battle of the Civil War.”

The Battle of Fort Myers is the subject of two public artworks located in the downtown Fort Myers River District, the memorial Clayton by North Fort Myers sculptor Don J. Wilkins, which is located in Centennial Park, and the 20 x 100 foot sepia-tone ceramic tile Barbara Jo Revelle mural, Fort Myers: An Alternative History, which is located in the courtyard shared by the federal courthouse, Hotel Indigo and Starbucks off First and Broadway. Fort Myers newest public artwork, Marks & Brands, pays homage to the role played by the cattlemen who migrated to this area and built the fledgling town of Fort Myers in the years following the Civil War's end.

The lecture is open to current Edison Ford volunteers, potential volunteers and the public. For additional information, please contact the Volunteer Department at 239-334-7419.

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