Tampa's Salt Showdown

Throughout the Civil War, the Union would frequently raid salt mills on Florida's West Coast due to its ability to keep food fresh. One morning in 1864, a detachment of Union soldiers landed near Tampa to raid one of these facilities. Little did they know, they weren't alone.

Florida may not have been as prominent as other Southern states during the Civil War, but they were still an important part of the Confederacy due to one very important resource. Throughout the Civil War, Union and Confederate forces squared off over Florida’s abundance of salt on its coasts. The Union blockades wreaked havoc on salt making facilities across the state. Salt was important during this time period because it was the main way meat and fish were kept fresh before refrigeration. The Union’s blockade greatly hampered the South’s ability to trade overseas. While the Confederates did have ships that would slip through the blockades, they simply could not replace the quantity of salt that the Union cut off from them. If the Confederacy were depleted of this resource, they would struggle to feed their army. Salt could be found in other Confederate states, but Florida emerged as the number one option. Salt was found in boatloads across the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida. Starting in 1862, the Union Navy began carrying out operations against these Florida salt works. Union gunboats frequently bombarded them and sent out raiding parties to further ensure their destruction. A primary area for finding salt was in Tampa Bay. As the war moved into the later stages, salt facilities was raided frequently by Union troops with locals scrambling to repair them afterwards. One of the more prominent salt works in the Tampa Bay area was located at Frazier’s Beach and run by Captain James McKay. Because of the blockade, Union gunboats were frequently nearby and saw this facility as a primary target. One morning in the fall of 1864, a Union gunboat entered the bay. It sent out a landing party who sought to raid and destroy McKay’s salt works. Unbeknownst to the Union soldiers, someone had spotted them coming ashore. On paper, this should not have made any difference. There were around a dozen Union troops who arrived on the beach and the man who saw them arrive was far from imposing. Joseph Robles stood just five-foot four and weighed 135 pounds. Despite these disadvantages, Robles did have one advantage: the element of surprise. This set the stage for one of the most daring stands throughout all of the Civil War. There was an abandoned steam boiler that had been left on the shore from a previous raid. Robles climbed into it and waited for the Union troops to arrive. When they came ashore, Robles emerged from the boiler and opened fire with a double-barreled shotgun. The Union soldiers were in complete disarray following this surprise attack. Some of the soldiers panicked and rode the boat that they came in back to the Union ship. This decision to pull back stranded the surviving men on the beach. Robles promptly ordered them to drop their weapons. This was a huge gamble for Robles, as he was now completely out of ammunition and had to bluff his way through the rest of it. Despite this, the Union men never caught on, and Robles brought them back to Tampa as prisoners.

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