Capt. Francis Asbury Hendry, the Confederate officer, cattle rancher and politician who helped Fort Myers get incorporated in 1885 was also one heck of a storyteller.
Capt. Francis A. Hendry first came to Fort Myers as a dispatch-bearer in 1854. He served as one of Lee County's first commissioners. / The News-Press file photos
One of the first names fans of local history learn is Francis A. Hendry. Cattleman, Confederate captain, county commissioner and Florida statesman, Hendry helped shape Southwest Florida, and his descendants continue to do so today.
But what many students of the past may not know is that the captain was also one heck of a storyteller. That fact was recently brought to my attention by one of those descendants: his great-great grandson, Fort Myers attorney Hank Hendry.
Hank told me he’d come across a 1909 article in The News-Press precursor, the Fort Myers Press. Penned by Hendry himself, it was a two-part chronicle of Civil War blockade-running in local waters, which “were in substance narrated to the writer,” the article said.
“It talks about how they went around in the dark near Mound Key (in Estero Bay) and how they hid their boats with palm fronds and vegetation to make them look like part of the landscape,” he told me.
But judging from the reporting, Hank was guessing his great-great grandpa wasn’t just giving the paper a second-hand, narrated account — it sounded to Hank as if he’d been there himself. And indeed, the piece is full of sharp observations and extraordinary detail, with a narrative style that recalls Robert Louis Stevenson’s (you can read the whole story, thanks to Hank, at news-press.com).
It begins with some Civil War-era scene-setting, as Hendry describes “the darkest and most perilous days of our country’s history (when) every port and harbor of the southern states were blockaded by the federal government ... the southern states were penned up, guarded and watched and cut off from any communication with the outside world... Frail vessels, old and unseaworthy, of every class were hastily fitted up and manned by brave, daring and experienced sailors for the purpose of running this blockade,” he wrote. “Few people in Lee County today know that its territory was a field of some of the most daring adventures.”
A Union gunboat was stationed just off the Sanibel lighthouse. Its sailors, Hendry reports with indignation, “lay in the full enjoyment of the sweet influences of the most delightful climate on the face of the globe... watching and waiting to capture any poor devil of a Confederate who might attempt to pass.”
Little did they know, a group of crafty Confederates were plotting to get a load of valuable cotton to neutral Cuba, where they’d sell it, then bring home much-needed supplies. The group hired a sea captain, “a regular dare-devil of a fellow who feared neither God nor man,” fixed up his old boat and had him sail it to Estero Bay, “passing the federal blockade in the darkness of night ... right under the muzzles of its guns,” Hendry wrote. He piloted it up the Estero River, where it would lay in wait for its cargo.
“To make their hiding more secure, the top mast was at once taken down and the main mast and rigging clothed with palm leaves and other tropical foliage, so that the vessel presented more the appearance of a cluster of forest trees ... Estero was hardly known except by coasters, and there was no more secret place in all Florida.”
Secret or not, one day when scouting the channel Gulfward, “to their astonishment and surprise, a beautiful little sailboat, flying the Union flag, turned a point ahead and in full view of them.” The Confederates, armed only with an ax, managed to capture the boat, thanks to the captain’s quick wits and a bit of trickery.
As the tale continues, the crew has to decide what to do with its prisoners before making a break for Cuba. Every good thriller has a chase scene, and Hendry’s is on the high seas — a “race royal (as) firing continued brisk and lively all night long. The whizzing shots fell harmless into the Gulf of Mexico, there to rest on the fathomless bottom as relics of the fiercest and hottest race ever run upon its boisterous bosom.”
After both boats reached Cuba, they anchored next to each other and soon, the crews found themselves rubbing — and raising — elbows: “In the streets of Havana, the gray and the blue met and mingled together. In the saloons they ate and drank together. Pleasantries passed gracefully between them. Socially, they were friends, each avoiding mention (of) the terrible chase across the Gulf or the troubles at home. Within the Confederate captain’s breast, however, there was a smoldering volcano ...”
What happens next involves Spanish rum, a bar fight and another run across the Gulf. And while we know how the larger Civil War story ends, this one finishes as a Southern triumph, with Hendry arguing that blockade running “must not be looked upon as a low order (as) a sort of smuggling. It was commendable and most worthy and those who engaged in it should rank in the highest order in the list of noble men.”