The Museum of Southern History
Preserving the History, Ideals and Chivalry of the South.
4304 Herschel St., Jacksonville, Florida 32210
Battle at Bowlegs Creek, Polk Co. FL
When War Came To Polk County
Battle at Bowlegs Creek
20 February 1864
by William Lloyd Harris
WAR IN POLK COUNTY? "Not since the Indian Wars and the fight at the old Tillis Homestead, “would be the reply of most Polk Countians. Most individuals are startled to hear that a clash between Blue and Gray actually occurred just south of Fort Meade. Though it doesn't figure prominently in the list of battles, or cause historians to take special note, the events and deeds of that day form a colorful part of our heritage. In 1864 the outlook for the Confederate Cause was gloomy on all fronts, but on February 20th a glint of good news was reported from Florida.
The Confederate forces at the Battle of Olustee (near Lake City), defeated a Federal army trying to penetrate the state. The Union effort to disrupt supply lines and capture Tallahassee had failed, and their forces were racing to the cover of their gunboats on the St. Johns River at captured Jacksonville. The date was no less notable here. The area was sparsely populated.
Three years earlier there were just over 300 men registered to vote (not all were of military age) on this wilderness fringe of south Florida. At the onset of war, families, communities and friends were divided according to the dictates of heart and deep-felt convictions. Union sympathizers tagged as deserters abandoned their homes and trekked south to Fort Myers. Those men loyal to the Confederacy seized the opportunity to serve, forming into military companies to prepare for war. Quite a number left the state as members of the South Florida Bulldogs (Co. E, 7th Florida Infantry) to fight in the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Still others did their duty on the battlefields of Virginia, and those left became soldiers at home. South Florida was of vital importance to the Confederate States of America.
The vast herds of Jacob Summerlin and a handful of other cattlemen, roaming in the open range Of the Peace-Kissimmee River Basin, had become, by 1864, the sole meat ration for the Southern armies opposing General W. T. Sherman in north Georgia. During the dry season an average of 2,000 head of cattle per week were driven north. They started at Fort Meade and wound their way through Bartow, Brooksville, Gainesville and on to Baldwin to be loaded on railroad cars. In an effort to impede this activity and hopefully shorten the war the United States government reactivated Fort Myers as an army post. They stationed five companies of regulars and rangers there to raid the herds and create turmoil where possible. These raids, in one year, netted an estimated 4,500 head of cattle.
The war in Florida rapidly became one, not for territory, but of supply - namely livestock. A systematic attempt to steal or slaughter all the cattle possible became the strategy. It was necessary to find local men familiar with the area, to lead the raids. James D. Green was such a man; he had been an early settler (in 1851 Redding Blount purchased the Green home site, which consisted of much of present-day Bartow) and lived in and around Fort Meade. (Editor's note: an 1855 map shows Green living three miles northeast of Fort Meade.) A member of Captain William B. Hooker's company during the Seminole War, he roamed the Peace River valley becoming acquainted with the land and practically all the residents of this vast area.
As a result, he applied for a commission in the Union army. He was said to have "dash and daring for this peculiar kind of warfare which is different from almost any other." First Lieutenant James D. Green recruited thirty-four men and they mustered into the Union army as Company A, 1st Battalion of Florida Rangers. Later, after regimental organization, the unit was known as Company A, 2nd Florida Cavalry, USA. To provide some protection to the settlers and to guard the cattle drives, a unique, unconventional force of hard-riding “crackers” was organized across south Florida. Assigned to the Confederate Quartermaster Department, these men formed the 1st Florida Special Cavalry Battalion under Colonel Charles Munnerlyn. Nicknamed the "Cow Cavalry” they were a diverse group of veterans, old Indian fighters, ranchers, settlers and soldiers of the Confederate army. Most were local men, kept in communities where they could provide for their families. Some had been detailed from the battle front because of their knowledge in handling cattle. Stationed at Fort Meade was Captain Francis Asbury Hendry's company of Independent Cavalry, He and the men of his command were primarily local pioneers. According to Colonel Munnerlyn's first official report, "these troops were the most efficient of all." They were so effective in driving off Union cattle rustlers that stealing in the area almost stopped. Their job was to guard against Yankee incursions and head the bovine regiments on to their ultimate destination - the stomachs of the hungry, gray-clad soldiers fighting in desperation in north Georgia.
February 1864, in Florida, the land was experiencing the dry winter season, and it's not hard to envision the terrain of palmettos, prairie and pine between Union Fort Myers and Confederate Fort Meade. Eager for a fight and in conjunction with the larger strategy being played out in north Florida, 1st Lieutenant Green would lead a Union raiding party up the Peace River Valley. He was ordered to capture horses and cattle and take whatever supplies the settlers had that would be useful to the army. He also burned their homes and all other buildings and destroyed crops. These homes were nearly all those of men who were away fighting for the Southern cause and only their wives and children were left to manage as best they could. The blue-coated cavalry rode the approximately 100 miles toward Fort Meade to carry out their mission.
At the time cattle drives were underway, and hopefully they would encounter only slight resistance and maybe disrupt operations at the fort. The Confederates, however, had actually made their base of operations in a hammock some four miles north of Fort Meade near Camp Branch, probably as a precaution against just such a raid. Arriving in the Fort Meade area, they raided the Underhill home, fought with local residents killing 75 year old Jim Lanier, and went to the Willoughby Tillis home. Tillis was away at the time, and, as recounted by his son some years later, "they took all of the horses and wagons loaded with provisions, corn fodder and meat, took the negro men and all firearms.
" Lieutenant Green's official report stated that "on the 13th and 14th this company was engaged in skirmishing with guerrillas near Fort Meade and succeeded in driving them off and destroying all their stores. Killed one and wounded four others captured 22 horses having one man slightly wounded. “As a result of this encroachment, Confederate troops were needed in the area. Capt. J. J. Dickison and his Co. H. 2nd Florida Cavalry, operating around Palatka, was ordered to Fort Meade, only to be recalled to help counter the large Union movement from Jacksonville toward Tallahassee.
Green's detachment returned again arriving on Saturday the 20th this time meeting armed resistance conjectured to be 150 rebels or more. Lieutenant F C M. Bogges, second in command of the Confederate Independent Cavalry, said. "There were but few to meet and repel them. The settlers kept a scout on the road at all times (Benson's trail leading south to Fort Myers). When the Union troops came, the settlers would show their men first in one place and then in another. The Federals had long range guns and would shoot when they saw the scouts.Private Aaron E. Godwin of Hendry's company pin-pointed the fight as taking place at Bowlegs Creek. (Editor's note: Bowlegs Creek flows from the east into Peace River just two miles south of the present US 98 bridge at Fort Meade.
The Yankees inflicted yet another casualty during the melee; Thomas Underhill, a veteran Indian fighter and a participant in the Seminole War battle at the Tillis homestead was captured and killed. Underhill and Green had been neighbors prior to the war The Union cavalry crossed west over the Peace River, burned the Tillis homestead and retreated to Fort Myers never to range this far north again. Confederate authorities reacted sharply to this campaign of theft and slaughter. Major P. W. White, Chief Commissary of Florida, wrote General Patton Anderson pointing out the value of cattle in south Florida to the Confederacy and requested immediate military action 19ainst the deserters. General Anderson agreed to send troops as soon as possible. Some months later the 64th Georgia regiment was sent to Fort Meade, but their campaign was to no avail as the Union forces refused open combat and moved from place to place in order to avoid contact. or to the coastal islands where they were protected by the Federal blockading squadron.
At times the reports of skirmishes or battles become exaggerated and the true overall picture can only be seen by examining both sides. In this light it is revealed that the 50 man force led by Lt. Green to create havoc in central Florida on that winter day was engaged by a total force of ten men followed by 30 Confederate cavalry. Two men were killed. The Union force reported meeting 150 soldiers: the Confederates reported at least 1000. Lieutenant Green counted it a victory, yet at an awful cost, for after the war he died a very lonely man ostracized by his neighbors for the terror he had caused. It might be noted though that these ten heroic soldiers of Polk County by skillful firing moving and repeating the maneuver, through their daring and forethought even though outnumbered out equipped and outgunned created a deception that hoodwinked the superior force causing them to retreat falling short of their major objective. The cattle were safe thereafter and the action at Bowlegs Creek can be written down as another colorful chapter in the history of Polk County.
The foregoing article was provided by the Polk County Historical Association and included with their express approval.