Where are we now? Judging by the smell of the salty sea and the sound of the waves crashing along the shore, we are still by the ocean, but it is cold here! Yes, well, that’s because it’s January and we’re in Fernandina Beach, the northernmost town in eastern Florida, on Amelia Island, the northernmost barrier island of the east coast of Florida.
This charming old town with its 2,450 acres, waterfront, historic district, and miles of unspoiled beaches is an offshoot of Fernandina, a much older town about a mile north of town. Fernandina Beach was created to serve as the starting point for the first interstate railway line, from Amelia Island to Tampa. US Senator from Florida, David Levy Yulee, Chairman of the Railroad, couldn’t make a route through the swamps between Old Fernandina and the mainland, so he simply created a new Fernandina about a mile south of the old Town”. In 1854 he founded a newspaper, the News-Leader, for his proposed city, and in 1857, he built a boarding house.
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The boarding house became a convenient place to embark Union soldiers who occupied the town of Yulee in 1862. Civil war was ongoing and Fort Clinch, at the northern end of Amelia Island, had been captured by the Yankees.
General RE Lee, an army engineer who, at the end of ’61, had been ordered to assess and strengthen the coastal defenses of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, had deemed inadequate the unfinished defenses of Fort Clinch and ordered Confederate troops to leave the fort. Twenty-eight Federal gunboats arrived, however, as the last Confederates left. Mocking and shooting at the Yanks from the windows of the last train from Fernandina Beach, the Rebs and the fleeing residents came under fire from the USS Ottawa. The train was damaged and several passengers were killed or injured. Senator Yulee, aboard the train with railway officials, himself narrowly escaped death.
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An interesting footnote about RE Lee’s presence on Amelia Island in 1862 is that while he was there he took the opportunity to visit his father’s grave on the island. Cumberland. The poignant nature of this visit is reinforced by the fact that Lee was deeply ashamed of his father and had never, in the half century since the man’s death, attempted to visit his grave.
Henry Lee had been a highly decorated hero of the Revolutionary War, but had dishonored the family late in his life by going into so much debt over land speculation that he ended up in debtor jail. The nation that had revered him as “Light-Horse Harry Lee” now despised him as “Swindling Harry Lee”.
In 1818 he died while visiting his former war comrade, Nathanael Greene, in the Dungeness estate on Cumberland Island. The Greenes buried him in their family plot on the plantation. And that’s where his son, Robert Edward, who was only 2 years old when his father went to jail, found him.
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The disgrace that Henry Lee brought to his last name, for this blue-blooded descendant of Scottish and English kings and French nobility, drove Lee’s relentless dedication to incredibly high standards of duty and honor. As rigid in principle as his spine when seated on his horse, Lee was difficult to live with, as his wife and children would attest.
But in January 1862, being less than a kilometer from Dungeness, he was drawn, perhaps against his will, to the grave of the man who haunted his life.
He mentioned, to his wife, Mary, only, his visit to his father’s grave in a letter dated January 18, 1862 (from “Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee”, Lee Family Digital Archive)
“While in Fernandina, I went to Cumberland Island and walked to ‘Dungeness’, General Greene’s former residence. It was my first visit home, and I had the pleasure of finally visiting my father’s grave. He died there, you may remember, on his way back from the West Indies, and was buried in a corner of the family cemetery. The place is marked by an ordinary marble slab, with his name, age and the date of his death.
And that’s all he said about it.
After the Civil War, Yulee’s Fernandina Beach flourished with its shipping and shrimp industry, and from the 1880s a lucrative tourist trade.
The Fernandina Beach Historic District has 300 buildings that are the product of this post-war growth, and Yulee’s pension is the oldest of them all. In fact, the Florida House Inn claims to be the oldest hotel in Florida. Retired, Ulysses S. Grant had stayed there.
Over the next decade, this ‘queen of summer resorts’ became the haunt of Vanderbilts, DuPonts and Carnegies, and a vacation destination for Cuban revolutionary hero José Martí, American industrialist Henry Ford. , and when Jacksonville was the “Hollywood” of the East Coast, movie idols like the comedy crew Laurel and Hardy, and “America’s sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, who all got off the train to be greeted , no doubt, by reporters at News-Leader (now Florida’s oldest continuously published weekly newspaper).
You too can stay at the Florida House Inn, if you wish. But wherever you choose, stay close, because next week we won’t be going far, just a mile down the road to Fernandina Old Town.
Cynthia A. Williams ([email protected])