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Local Civil War History Highlighted In Fictional Book "Blackwater Betrayal"

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Fictional characters help tell the story of actual events in the Pensacola area before and during the Civil War in a new book titled Blackwater Betrayal: The Ruthless Treatment of Milton and Pensacola by the Confederacy. It was written by Milton native Richard Kyle Smith.

Smith is a retired certified public accountant, but says he’s always been a lover of words and local history. And those two passions have come together in his first literary effort.

Although Blackwater Betrayal was published in 2015, Smith says it’s been in the making for decades.

“I rode past the Chimney on Scenic Highway when I was growing up and always wondered what it was and nobody seemed to know,” said Smith. “I think it’s something that maybe past generations tried to forget.”

Smith is referring to what happened to the original 1850’s chimney and sawmill during the Civil War.

It was part of the mass destruction by rebel troops, who held the region, as they left/evacuated in March 1862.

“It was where the Confederacy shot itself in the foot by having a scorched earth policy as far as Milton, Pensacola, and the Pensacola Bay Area, which was very prosperous during the period of the 1860’s.”

According to Smith, who references the research of local historian Brian Rucker, Milton was the most industrialized city in Florida before the war; with its booming lumber industry due to an abundance of longleaf yellow pines.

“They were harvesting the pines and creating all sorts of products out of the pines and many other virgin trees,” Smith said. “But they had several ship building operations going and made lumber for building, venetian blinds, buckets and boats, and most anything you could make out of wood.”

The background of the book is what happened here during the Civil War and includes some of the real-life pioneers of the area, such as Francisco Moreno.

“Francisco Moreno was a fairly important part in the book and there is a love affair between his niece (Maria) and John Geoghegan, the protagonist of the story.

In addition to love, there’s also murder in this fictional story based on history. And, Smith has woven in a bit of his own family’s history, which locally dates back to the 1820’s, when Milton was known as Jernigan’s Landing; in real life it named for his great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Jernigan. Note, he says the character in the book by that name is not modeled on his ancestor.

Smith also has roots in Ireland and that’s the birthplace of main character John Geoghegan.

Geoghegan traveled the globe as an officer in the British Royal Navy and later as captain of a merchant ship. In the book, he's introduced, here in Pensacola, making a clandestine nighttime run as a Union blockade runner.

“Yes, I contend that the pass down at Pensacola Bay could be run under the right circumstances, with the right people,” said Smith, in reference to how difficult that might have been. “A lot of it would have been due to the fact that it was considered to be a non-threat as far as any being able to run it because it was so well covered by Ft. Pickens and also Union war ships.”

Throughout the Civil War, Fort Pickens was held by sometimes outnumbered Union forces. But, the City of Pensacola and surrounding areas were generally under the control of the Confederacy, which had an estimated force of 7,000 - 8,000 rebel troops on the ground at the height of the conflict here.

So why call the book Blackwater Betrayal?

“The betrayal, as I see it, was it betrayed the people of this area of their livelihoods by virtue of the fact that they pulled all the troops out, all of the troops, out of Pensacola,” said Smith, whose account has the Confederate troops leaving to help stop the aggression of Union forces in Tennessee.

“I believe they could have gotten some troops from somewhere else and protected Pensacola and not destroy the livelihood of thousands of people by destroying the manufacturing that was going on in the area.”

The scorched earth tactic was used by both sides during the Civil War.

But, for Richard Kyle Smith, what happened here in the Pensacola Bay Area is somewhat personal. And, that brings us back to the old chimney on Scenic Highway.

The historic Hyer-Knowles Planing Mill Chimney (now listed on the National Register of Historic Places) is pictured on the cover of his book Blackwater Betrayal because, to him, it represents the crippling, long-term economic impact of that Civil War destruction.

Smith will be on hand to answer questions and sign copies of his book this Saturday afternoon from 2:00 – 4:00 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 1200 Airport Blvd, Pensacola,FL, 32504. 

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.