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Sarasota Bay During the Civil War

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann Shank, former Sarasota County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Sarasota Bay During the Civil War photo

Though far from the fighting, the day-to-day lives of Sarasota Bay-area residents were greatly affected by the Civil War.

News of battles farther north filtered southward and fed anxiety for the safety of loved ones, and a Union blockade caused shortages of basic supplies and potential hostilities from occasional navel raiding parties. Plentiful fish and game prevented starvation, but other necessities were hard to obtain if they could not be homemade. Boats were subject to destruction to prevent them from being used as blockade runners in the shallow waters of the “inside route,” which included Sarasota Bay. Homes were burned.

A.K. Whitaker, grandson of William and Mary Whitaker, wrote of the family's experiences during the Civil War, in his unpublished manuscript, “One Man's Family.” William Whitaker had come to Sarasota Bay in the early 1840s, built a home on the water at Yellow Bluffs (at about 12th Street and U.S. 41 in Sarasota today), married Mary Jane Wyatt of Manatee, and had s family of five children and a well-established homestead by the outbreak of the Civil war in 1861.

Occasionally, Union crews came ashore for water and food. Whitaker kept most of his cattle in the eastern part of the county, out of reach. Ripe citrus, chickens and garden crops, however, were more vulnerable. If someone spotted a raiding party soon enough, any cows and chickens would be chased into the woods. During one encounter in 1863, when William was away, a landing party threatened to burn the family home.

Mary is reputed to have handed the Union soldier a block of matches saying, “Sir, I want to look into the eyes of a man who can stoop so low as to burn the home of a helpless woman and her family.” The house was not burned. Others in the Manatee region were not so fortunate.

During the blockade, salt was in short supply and Florida residents resorted to making it from salt water. Union raiders destroyed many salt works along the coast, but the Whitaker's operation survived. According to A.K. Whitaker, natural evaporation of bay water in the low flats of nearby Hog Creek left a concentration of salt in the sand. The salt was dissolved in fresh water, the sand removed, and the water boiled off to leave a residue of salt that was scraped from the kettle.

Another family story focused on William Whitaker planning with Captain Frederick Tresca and Judah P. Benjamin for the latter's escape from Sarasota Bay. Benjamin was Secretary of State for the Confederacy, and with the war coming to an end, he and others of Jefferson Davis' cabinet sought safe passage to neutral territory. After several weeks in the Manatee River area, including time at the Gamble plantation and a trip overland to Whitakers' home, Benjamin reportedly sailed from Whitaker Bayou with Tresca, a seasoned blockade runner and Hiram McLeod, another sailor who knew the coast well. They sailed between the mainland and islands whenever possible, and went out into the Gulf waters only at night. After more than three weeks of dodging Union patrols and others of unknown sympathies, outwitting a Union boarding party, and surviving rough weather, the small crew arrived in Nassau, from which Benjamin sailed to England.