“People don’t have a sense of connection, a sense of history here because so many folks are from elsewhere,” muses D.J. Wilkins (left), the man former mayor Art Hammel once labeled the Sculptor of Fort Myers. “But American history started right here, with footprints of the Conquistadors in the sands of Florida. And Fort Myers has the distinction of being the site of the southernmost battle of the Civil War, an engagement won due to the bravery of the men who fought in the 2nd Regiment of the USCT.”
The acronym stands for the United States Colored Troops, and in 2000, the City of Fort Myers commissioned Wilkins to create a tribute to their gallantry. You’ll find it on the eastern edge of Centennial Park, a 10-acre mall on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River that is itself a memorial to the City’s 100th anniversary.
Clayton was commissioned by the Fort Myers Beautification Advisory Board, which added 21 public artworks to the City’s collection during a 20-year span that began in 1983 with the restoration of The Spirit of Fort Myers at the entrance of Edison Park.
What it is
The memorial features a larger-than-life bronze of a sergeant in the United States Colored Troops 2nd Regiment. He is standing before a gate within a wall. The gate symbolizes freedom from slavery. The soldier memorializes all African Americans who served during the Civil War.
The soldier is framed by two granite plaques. The one on the left is the dedication. It contains a four sentence summary of the battle fought on February 20, 1865 in which Union forces anchored by members of the USCT repelled an attack by Confederates sent to destroy the fort and capture some 4,000 head of cattle needed by the Confederacy to feed its last contingents of fighting forces. The inscription also notes that during their tour in southwest Florida, USCT troops freed and enlisted more than 1,000 slaves who had been toiling in the fields and ranches in this part of the South. “They also deprived the Confederacy of salt and molasses,” Wilkins notes for the record.
Wilkins named the soldier in his memorial Clayton because “it took a ton of clay to sculpt the statue,” which is cast in bronze. Dedicated in 2000, some 135 years after the Battle of Fort Myers, Clayton is a reminder of the rich historical heritage that we enjoy here in Lee County and the City of Fort Myers.
D.J. Wilkins’ Other Public Artworks
Besides Clayton, Wilkins’ resume includes Uncommon Friends, a sculpture depicting Fort Myers’ iconic winter residents Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone gathered around a campfire on a tiny island in the middle of a reflection pool and fountain. That public art installation is at the Monroe and Edwards Street entrance into Centennial Park and within eye shot of Clayton, The Great Turtle Chase and The Florida Panther on Monroe Street. Wilkins also cast the busts of Captain Francis Asbury Hendry, Paul L. Dunbar, Connie Mack Sr., Tootie McGregor Terry, Thomas Edison, James D. Newton and Chief Billy Bowlegs that collectively form “The Harborside Collection,” a bust of Henry Ford and heroic size statues of Thomas Edison, Mina Edison and Henry Ford at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates (known as the Edison Ford Estates Collection), sculptures of Thomas Edison for both the Lee and Collier campuses of Edison State College, and the Wes Nott Statue on the campus of Lee Memorial Hospital.
Wilkins has also played an instrumental role in restoring several of Southwest Florida’s public sculptures including The Spirit of Fort Myers at the entrance to Edison Park, theTootie McGregor Fountain in front of the Edison Restaurant at the Fort Myers Country Club and the Iwo Jima Memorial in Eco Park on Veteran’s Parkway in Cape Coral.
The Battle of Fort Myers, February 20, 1865
D.J. Wilkins is correct when he says that few people are conversant with Fort Myers’ rich historical past. The city was home to a settlement of Calusa Indians and a fort by the name of Harvie was built on that site in November of 1841 as an outpost shortly before the end of the Second Seminole War. It was situated along the banks of the Caloosahatchee River where today sit the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center and the Arcade Building that’s home to Arts for ACT Gallery and the Florida Repertory Theatre. The redoubt was abandoned on March 23, 1842, but the old breastworks were rebuilt, expanded and renamed in 1850, and Fort Myers functioned as the center of operations during the Third Seminole War. After Chief Billy Bowlegs and his tribe agreed to be resettled in Oklahoma, the fort was again abandoned, but was re-garrisoned in January of 1964 by elements of the 110th New York Infantry and the 2nd Florida Union Calvary in order to interrupt the shipment of cattle by boat north to Confederate troops from Tennessee who were in Georgia fighting Sherman and other Union contingents.
On orders from Captain Richard A. Graeffe, the Union troops began rounding up herds of scrub cows being raised by local ranchers. As they did, resistance began to grow. Captain Graeffe realized he needed reinforcements and Companies D and I of the USCT’s 2nd Regiment were brought up from Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West.
For the next 10 months, Captain Graeffe sent Companies D and I up the west coast as far north as Tampa in search of more and more cattle. “At that time, southwest Florida was a key cattle raising area, and the Confederacy needed meat for their troops,” Wilkins points out. “The USCT was determined that they weren’t going to get any.”
So zealous was the USCT that by New Year’s Day, 1865, they’d amassed a herd of some 4,500 head. The local ranchers had been Confederates or Confederate sympathizers. The confiscation of their cattle fueled their hatred of Graeffe and his men even before the arrival of the USCT. But they loathed the black contingent that now roamed southwest Florida stealing their cows and even freeing their slaves to boot.
The Confederate Army couldn’t spare any soldiers to attack the fort, so the ranchers formed a home-grown battalion to protect their slaves and what was left of their cattle. Officially, they were named the Florida Special Calvary, 1st Battalion, but everybody referred to them simply as the Cow Calvary. They headquartered in Fort Meade near Tampa under the command of Colonel Charles J. Munnerlyn.
In January of 1865, Munnerlyn sent Major William Footman and three companies of the Cow Calvary to destroy the Union encampment at Fort Myers. Included in that contingent was Capt. F. A. Hendry, who had raised and was commanding a company of 131 men. Footman began the two-week 200-mile march with 275 men, but by the time he arrived at old Fort Thomson in LaBelle, his contingent had swelled to 500 as angry local farmers, fishermen and other partisans rushed to join the fray.
After resting but a day, they marched down the Caloosahatchee River to mount a surprise attack on the fort the following morning. They camped near Billy’s Creek, but the undisciplined vanguard of Footman’s force ambushed a handful of black Union soldiers they discovered on picket duty. Alerted by the sound of gunshots, the Union forces inside the fort prepared themselves for battle. Seeing that he’d lost the advantage of surprise, Footman ordered his men to fire a warning shot from their sole piece of artillery, a bronze 12-pounder. Then he sent a messenger under cover of a white flag to demand the fort’s surrender.
One can imagine the expletives a Hollywood script writer would use today to frame new Captain James Doyle’s terse response. But that wasn’t the style 146 years ago. A gentleman, Doyle told Footman via his messenger: “Your demand for an unconditional surrender has been received. I respectfully decline; I have force enough to maintain my position and will fight you to the last.”
He had his men wheel out the fort’s two Union cannons, and thus began a day long battle characterized by heavy cannon and light arms fire. And in the middle of the fiercest fighting were soldiers from the USCT’s 2nd Regiment.
“A N.Y. Times reporter happened to be in Fort Myers at the time,” says sculptor D.J. Wilkins, who researched the event after being commissioned to do the art installation for the City. Irvin D. Soloman was his name, and he reported back to the Times that “the colored soldiers were in the thickest of the fight. Their impetuosity could hardly be restrained; they seemed totally unconscious of the danger, or regardless of it, and their constant cry was to ‘get at them.’”
In the heated exchange, former slave John Wallace received a slight head wound that he touted as a badge of honor during Reconstruction when he served as a Republican legislator and gained notoriety with his book Carpetbag Rule in Florida. By nightfall, Major Footman realized that his beleaguered troops were not going to breech the USCT’s steadfast defense of their position, and he quietly led his dispirited men on the long march back to Fort Meade. Along the way, they jettisoned their cannon and littered their retreat with bandages, splints and the remnants of eaten rations. [Above, sculptor D.J. Wilkins leads members of the Florida Association of Public Art Professionals across the mall between Uncommon Friends and Clayton during their tour of the River District's public art collection.]
In all, 40 Confederates were wounded in the battle. The Union lost four men, with three more missing in action. All were members of the United States Colored Troops 2nd Regiment.
“The Confederacy never got any of the 4,000 cattle that the Union soldiers had confiscated from the surrounding ranches, and the lack of food played a key role in Lee’s decision to surrender at Appomattox six weeks later,” Wilkins observes.
“Sadly,” wrote David Stephen Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler and David J. Coles in Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, “racism prevented the proper recognition from being bestowed upon these brave soldiers.” Ironically, it was racism that led the Fort Myers City Council to commission Wilkins to create Clayton. In January of 1997, Population Today magazine published an article naming Fort Myers as one of the most segregated cities in the entire south. The article was premised on a University of Michigan study based on the results of the 1990 U.S. Census. In January of 1999, the federal government installed a mural in downtown Fort Myers drawing attention to the service of the USTC in the defense of Fort Myers from Confederate attack, prompting the city council to commission its own tribute in the form of Clayton.
Location and Measurements.
- The memorial is located at 26d 38′ 42.7128″ N longitude and 81d 52′ 21.4962″ W latitude.
- The entrance to Centennial Park is located at 2150 Edwards Drive, Fort Myers, FL 33901. Clayton is located across the grass mall to the right (east) of Uncommon Friends.
- Clayton stands 98 inches tall; measures 18 inches wide at the bottom of the soldier’s field jacket; and is 36 inches deep from gun butt to heel of the back foot.
- The walls behind the sculpture span a distance of 28 feet and the landing upon which the sculpture stands measures 13 feet across by 81 inches at its deepest point.
- By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy.
- Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war—30,000 of infection or disease.
- Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions that sustain an army, as well. Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause.
- There were nearly 80 black commissioned officers.
- Black women, who could not formally join the Army, nonetheless served as nurses, spies, and scouts, the most famous being Harriet Tubman, who scouted for the 2d South Carolina Volunteers.
- Because of prejudice against them, black units were not used in combat as extensively as they might have been. Nevertheless, the soldiers served with distinction in a number of battles. Black infantrymen fought gallantly at Milliken’s Bend, LA; Port Hudson, LA; Petersburg, VA; and Nashville, TN.
- The July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, SC, in which the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers lost two-thirds of their officers and half of their troops, was memorably dramatized in the film Glory.
- By war’s end, 16 black soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor.
- In 1997, University of Florida photography instructor and artist Barbara Jo Revelle located a rare photograph of Companies D and I, digitized it, and printed it on the 20 by 100 foot sepia-toned ceramic tile mural that adorns the rear or east wall of the federal courthouse. Titled Fort Myers: An Alternative History, it depicts Billy Bowlegs and a portion of his tribe as the prepare to board the steamer Grey Cloud bound for New Orleans (and ultimately resettlement in the “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma), the stockade at Fort Myers, a steer and cattle rancher representing Fort Myers’ thriving 19th century cattle industry, the locomotive that finally brought rail service to Fort Myers on (ironically) February 20, 1994 and 15 men from the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops.
- Part of the Cow Calvary with whom Companies D & I skirmished on February 20, 1865 included a company of 131 men led by Captain Francis Asbury Hendry. After the war, Hendry returned to cattle ranching and quickly expanded his cattle interests. By 1869, Hendry had built up a herd of 12,000 head which he pastured outside of Fort Thompson east of the old fort. In 1873, he moved his family to Fort Myers, where he chose as his home on of the abandoned officers’ quarters, which he refurbished. Over the next 15 years, his herd grew to 50,000 head and Hendry became known as the “Cattle King of South Florida.” He was was one of the 10 founding fathers and chaired the meeting that resulted in the city’s incorporation on August 12, 1885. Two years later, Hendry played an instrumental role in having the county named Lee when the local residents decided to break away from Monroe County and form their own local government.
- Hendry moved to Fort Thompson in 1888 to concentrate on his citrus grove and cattle breeding operations, but he returned to Fort Myers during the final year of his life, probably for easier access to medical care. He died on February 17, 1917.
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