by Robert A. Waters
The issues that led to America’s Civil War were varied and complex, and those who fought did so for many reasons. Twice as many Hispanics fought for the South as for the North.
In 1855, the Sanchez family moved from Cuba to Pilatka (now Palatka), Florida. They bought a farm near the St. John’s River and enjoyed a bountiful life until the outbreak of the war. By 1862, Union forces had occupied most of Florida’s coastal cities, including St. Augustine and the area around Palatka.
As the war progressed, a Confederate raider named Captain J. J. Dickison continued to thwart Yankee advances inland. In skirmish after skirmish, the so-called “Swamp Fox of the Confederacy” defeated forces several times his size. Part of the reason for his success was information he received from Confederate sympathizers in the region.
The three beautiful Sanchez girls, Panchita, Lola, and Eugenia, provided on-going intelligence to Dickison. According to a 2008 article in the Columbia (SC) Star, written by William D. “Bill” Chisolm, “it was usual for Yankee officers to visit at the Sanchez home. The girls were cordial and gained some protection from thieving [Union] soldiers. Though the conversations were light and airy, and the girls often played the guitar and sang, they were able to glean information and feed it to the Confederates.”
Federal troops eventually accused the patriarch of the family, Mauritia Sanchez, of being the source of the leaks and imprisoned him in St. Augustine. Despite the old Cuban’s arrest, however, Dickison continued to keep the Yankees at bay.
On the evening of May 21, 1864, three Union officers dined at the Sanchez home. As the girls prepared supper, they overheard a soldier discussing a plan to attack Dickison in his camp near the river. The Yankees planned to send several gunboats upriver the following day and surprise the Rebels.
While Panchita and Eugenia diverted the Union officers, Lola crept outside, mounted her horse, and rode into the night. She knew that Dickison’s camp was about a mile and a half from the house, on the other side of the river. Chisolm describes her ride into the forest: “[Lola rode] to the ferry about a mile distant. The ferryman took her horse and gave her a boat. She rowed across the St. John’s River where she met a Confederate picket.” Borrowing his horse, Lola rode into camp.
After informing Dickison of the trap being set for him, she quickly headed home. The whole trip took less than two hours and Lola had not been missed by the enamored Union officers.
That night, Dickison moved his camp to a different, more strategic location along the river. He placed two cannons on a dock called Horse Landing and hid his cavalrymen behind cypress trees at the edge of the water. At about 3:00 the next afternoon, his men saw black smoke chugging above the tree-line less than a mile away. As the USS Columbine appeared, Dickison ordered his men to wait before firing.
The ship soon came within range of their guns, and the Confederate cannons opened up. In the book, J. J. Dickison: Swamp Fox of the Confederacy, author John J. Koblas recounts what happened: “The second volley of Confederate fire cut the wheel chains of the Columbine, taking out the steering and soon stranding it on a sandbar in the river. The Columbine carried a pair of thirty-two-pounder cannons and 148 men, all with small rifle arms, and these weapons returned fire on the concealed Confederates. The battle lasted about forty-five minutes."
With his ship decimated, and many of his soldiers leaping into the water to avoid the withering fire, the commander of the Columbine was forced to raise the white flag.
Only sixty-six men on the Columbine made it out alive, one-third wounded. Dickison’s men captured the survivors, looted the ship of its weapons and other valuables, and then sank it.
There were no Rebel casualties.
Later, the Confederate States of America named a ship The Three Sisters, after the Sanchez girls.
Panchita eventually obtained the release of her father.
After the war, Lola married a former Confederate officer named Emanuel Lopez. He'd served in Co. B, 3rd Florida Infantry, known as "The St. Augustine Blues." They had a daughter.
Panchita married Captain John R. Miot and moved to South Carolina. Miot had fought in the Mexican War. In the War Between the States, he served in the regiment led by General Wade Hampton. The Miots had six children. Panchita died in Columbia, South Carolina in 1931.
Eugenia married Albert Rogero of St. Augustine. During the Civil War, Rogero had served in the same unit as Emanuel Lopez.
After war, the sisters became proud members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization designed to preserve the history of those who fought for the South. They are honored with a plaque in the UDC Memorial Building in Richmond.