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Union soldiers won the Battle of Fort Myers on this day in 1865

The ceramic tile mural in the Hotel Indigo courtyard off First Street is one of two public artworks dedicated to the Battle of Fort Myers fought on February 20, 1865.
The ceramic tile mural in the Hotel Indigo courtyard off First Street is one of two public artworks dedicated to the Battle of Fort Myers fought on February 20, 1865.Tom Hall, 2013

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.

New metal sculpture at Fort Myers Regional Library pays homage to cattlemen who settled Fort Myers in years after end of the Civil War.
New metal sculpture at Fort Myers Regional Library pays homage to cattlemen who settled Fort Myers in years after end of the Civil War.Tom Hall, 2014

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 black. Not former slaves, but free men mostly from Maryland. 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 at the direction of John McKay, Sr., chief commissary for the Fifth District of Florida, 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. So Footman set out with 275 men on the two-week 200-mile march to Fort Thomson near present day LaBelle. Some accounts claim that his contingent had swelled to 500 men, as angry local farmers, fishermen and other partisans rushed to join the fray. However, others contend that Footman would not have had provisions to sustain a larger force, although a handful of partisans may very well have joined in.

After resting but a day, they marched down the Caloosahatchee River to mount a surprise attack on the fort the following morning. Unfortunately, the overeager 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.”

Led by the black soldiers garrisoned in the fort, the Union contingent repelled the attack and thereby saved the fort from being burned to the ground. While people living in Tampa and Cedars Key in need of wood to rebuild their homes cannibalized the fort in the months following the fort's abandonment in June of 1865, enough remained to entice Fort Myers' first settlers, Manuel A. Gonzalez, his five-year-old son, his brother-in-law John Weatherford and close family friend Joseph Vivas to remain when sailed up the river in February of 1866 to make their home in the remnants of the old fort. Had the Cow Cavalry won and destroyed the fort, it is entirely possible that Gonzalez, Weatherford and Vivas might have returned to Key West and that the town would have never developed into the cow town that it did.

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.

You can learn more about the history of the fort and these and other public artworks by taking one of True Tours' Public Art Walking Tours. For days, times and reservations, please telephone 239-945-0405 or visit www.TrueTours.net.