The Hillsborough River Raid
and the battle of Ballest Point
Around the time of the start of the Civil War, the shipyard was owned and funded in part by Tampa businessman, James McKay, and another local Tampa businessman, David Hope. McKay owned and operated a shipping line that ran from Tampa to Havana. McKay, an experienced sailor and seaman, is well known to Tampa history, as a wealthy and successful businessman who owned the local salt works. He is credited with organizing the “Cowboy Calvary” to supply beef to the fighting Confederate Army. McKay, however, is probably best known for, and perhaps immortalized for, being a daring and brazen Blockade runner. In spite of the Union’s efforts to cut Tampa off from the rest of the world, he and his fleet of Blockade runners helped to keep Ft. Brooke and the citizens of Tampa supplied with goods and able to continue outside trade.
During the Civil War the Union controlled the waters of Tampa Bay from its Naval base at Egmont Key. It also controlled most of the Gulf of Mexico from its Naval and Army bases in Key West, making it no easy task to get past a blockade. Both McKay and Hope owned and operated blockade runners during the Civil War. Jean Street Shipyard serviced these vessels, and as such became indirectly involved in the battle.
In 1861, McKay, and his ship, the steamer Salvor, were captured by the Union Navy while returning to Tampa from Havana. The ship had weapons on board and was therefore seized. McKay and his son were arrested by the United States and imprisoned in New York. Within a few months McKay’s money, connections, and influence procured a personal pardon for himself and his son from President Lincoln, and McKay then returned to Tampa. MacKay felt that his ship, which was sailing under the British flag (as McKay was of Scottish origin) was wrongfully seized by the Union, but even after much protest, (and even after protest from the British Government) the Union refused to return McKay’s ship.
Part of the condition of McKay’s pardon was a promise not to return to the service of the Confederate cause, a promise the now bitter McKay abandoned immediately upon his return to Tampa. Upon his return he armed one of his ships and went to work eliminating a fleet of small Union boats which were illegally fishing in Florida waters, and were actually also spying. This fleet of small boats was supplying not only Florida fish to the Union, but also information about Confederate ships and their positions to the Union army based at Key West. McKay went on to capture over 20 of these vessels, making Florida waters safer, but earning a vendetta against him from the Union. This vendetta that would eventually cost him dearly.
After the capture of these “fishing boats” for the Confederacy, McKay went onto blockade running, with his sailing sloop, the Kate Dale, and his prize vessel, a side-wheeler steamship, the Scottish Chief. According to Union records, it was the destruction of these two vessels, and nothing more that was the actual focus of a massive attack against Tampa in October of 1843, dubbed the Hillsborough River Raid. The Hillsborough River Raid turned into the Battle of Ballast Point.
Even though Tampa Bay waters were mostly controlled by the Union from their base at Egmont Key, most of Tampa and Tampa’s citizens backed the Confederacy and Tampa’s fort, Fort Brooke, which protected the citizens of Tampa, was controlled by the Confederate army. Egmont Key, just 35 miles away, housed a Union Naval base and a refugee camp for the safety of Tampa’s few Union sympathizers. Most of the skirmishes during the Civil War in Tampa were between the citizens that supported the Confederacy, and Union sympathizers that occasionally returned home to their farms for beef and supplies. Tampa, itself, did not have much military significance, and the town had less than 160 families. With the Confederate fort, and with the mainland dominated primarily by families that backed the Confederacy, Jean Street Shipyard was thought to be safe from Union attack. Being very far up river, usually also kept Jean Street Shipyard safe from Union reconnaissance. This, however, proved not true in October of 1863, when the location of the Shipyard, and the location of the two McKay ships were reported by James Thompson, a Tampa citizen turned traitor, to Admiral Bailey of the Union Blockade squadron.
Early in October, 1863, in preparation for another supply run through the blockade, both of McKay’s ships, the Kate Dale and the Scottish Chief, along with at least one other blockade runner, the AB Nays, were at Jean Street Shipyard to have their hulls scraped of barnacles for better speed. They were loaded with cargo and awaited the signal to depart past the blockade. It was at that time that the Union, aware of the location of MacKay’s ships, staged a shelling of Tampa as a diversion to the actual mission, which was to destroy McKay’s ships. The mission was aided in part by two Union sympathizers, Egmont refugees, Henry Crane, and James Thompson. The shelling, although only a diversion, unfortunately devastated the small town of Tampa. Almost a dozen blockade runners operated out of Tampa, but McKay was the target, presumably for breaking the promise that freed him from Union captivity a few years earlier.
Thompson, familiar with Tampa and the Hillsborough River, led the 100 man Union expedition, 14 miles by foot, to Jean Street Shipyard to destroy McKay’s Ships. The expedition carried a small boat in case they needed to cross the river, but ended up hiding it a few miles from their destination to speed up their walk. Somehow, the expedition ended up on the wrong bank of the river Since they had previously left their boat behind, they had no boat to cross the river. The surprised and equally disorganized sleeping crew of the Scottish Chief , however, actually sent a boat for two Union officers, and a hand full of the Union soldiers that were calling to them from the other bank. The Scottish Chief’s crew was ambushed, and the Union soldiers burned McKay’s boats.
McKay and his Captain of the Scottish Chief, and two crewmen escaped, but five other crewmen were captured. The captain and the two crewmen that escaped ran to Tampa and alerted the town and the Fort of the attack. McKay stayed behind, hiding on shore and watched helplessly in horror as his ships were destroyed. Another boat at the Shipyard (name unknown) was also destroyed by the Union soldiers. Another blockade runner, the “AB Nays” escaped upriver, near to what is now Lowry Park, only to run aground and be burned by its own crew to prevent it from being captured and used by the Union. (Many Union ships were actually captured Confederate Blockade runners, including ironically, the Adela, one of the ships used by the Union for this attack)
Had the Captain and two crewmen of the Scottish Chief not escaped, the Union expedition would have undoubtedly destroyed the Shipyard But aware that the Fort would quickly be alerted, and with their primary mission now accomplished, the expedition quickly moved back south toward their rendezvous point of Ballast Point, some 14 miles away. Thus Jean Street Shipyard was spared from destruction.
Half way down the river, some of the Union soldiers recovered the small boat that they had carried there on their way upriver, and proceeded from that point by river, back toward Tampa. Along the way, some local militiamen, not very well organized and barely armed, but now alerted to the attack by the two escaped crew members, disguised themselves as Negro woman and lured the Union soldiers in the boat to the bank of the river, and then killed or captured them.
The rest of the Union expedition proceeded by land to Ballast point where they were met by not just local militia with homemade weapons, but by 40 armed Confederate soldiers, under the command of General Bragg, who just happened to be in Tampa at that time as part of an expedition to protect a cattle drive leaving Tampa to supply the Confederate front. A fierce and bloody battle ensued known as the Battle of Ballast Point. Both sides incurred heavy casualties.
As often happened during the Civil War, both sides proclaimed themselves to be the victors in the battle, as both sides inflicted about equal losses and casualties to each other. In the Confederate record, the Confederate commander declared that if he had had a few more men, he would have captured the Union boats, as well. In truth, Tampa suffered the most, the town being destroyed by the shelling, the residents scattered, the blockade runners destroyed, and as part of the Union expedition, the McKay’s salt works, near what is now the entry to the Courtney Campbell Causeway, was also destroyed. The destruction of the salt works was devastating to the people of Tampa who used the salt to preserve their food.
Lieutenant Commander Alex Semmes of the Union, and commander of the Adella, one of the invading ships, noted: "I regret sincerely our loss, yet I feel a great degree of satisfaction in having impressed the rebels with the idea that blockade-running vessels are not safe, even up the Hills-boro River.” Indeed, blockade running, along with everything else, had pretty much come to a stop in Tampa.
About six months after the attack on McKay’s ships, the Union sent three more ships to Tampa, and succeeded in capturing Tampa, destroying the Fort, and arresting more than 40 of the remaining 80 residents. Union soldiers burned many of the remaining houses and buildings, and looted what was left of the town, leaving the woman and children to fend for themselves. There was so little left of Tampa by that time that both sides, the Union and the Confederacy, lost all interest in Tampa, and seeing no military significance to Tampa, left, and the town sat mostly abandoned.
Notes: The remains of the Kate Dale are sunk near the west side of the Shipyard. The Spanish Chief remained afloat after it burned, and it was towed back to Tampa by its owner, stripped of its fittings and furnishings, and destroyed. The remains of the AB Nays lies in the river just up from Lowry Park and can sometimes still be seen at low tide. Its sighting is often included in the Nature Boat Tour from Lowry Park Zoo.
John W. Brotherton, Owner and Operator of Jean Street Shipyard, Inc.
We Specialize in Wooden Boat Repair and Restoration.
on the Hillsborough River
just up river from the Hillsborough Ave. Bridge
Jean Street Shipyard, Inc.
337 W. Jean Street
Tampa, FL 33604