Guest Author - Valerie Aguilar
The story of the fascinating and beautiful Sánchez sisters is a story of heroism and intrigue during the United States Civil War. Like most women who served their country during the Civil War period, there is little recorded history about their bravery and sacrifices. It is known that the Sánchez sisters moved from Cuba with their family and settled on the banks of the St. John's River opposite Pilatka (now Palatka). The Sánchez family was comprised of Mauricio the ailing father, an invalid mother, sons Emiliano, and John Henry, and the three lovely sisters Francesca (Panchita), Dolores (Lola) and Eugenia. Their lives there were bountiful and happy.
Palatka was a tourist destination and a major shipping port between 1840 and 1850. Goods were shipped down the Ocklawaha River then loaded on steamers in Palatka to go north on the St. Johns River. Palatka’s popularity as a tourist spot was interrupted by the Civil War. Gunboats prowled the waters and most of its residents had fled leaving the town insolvent and essentially abandoned. Palatka was soon occupied by Confederate troops including one of the Sánchez brothers. On October 7, 1862, the USS Cimarron fired shells from the St. Johns River over the town after seeing some Confederate mounted troops. The union occupied Palatka and at one point they numbered 5,000 troops.
After the Civil War broke out there was a continual leak of information about the Yankees to the Confederate army. Due to the breach of information disclosing Union plans to the Confederate army they conducted an investigation. They decided that Mauricio Sánchez was the spy largely because it was known that his son served in the Confederate army. At this time don Mauricio was quite old and ill, nonetheless he was arrested and imprisoned in Fort San Marco in St. Augustine. Even after Mauricio was imprisoned the Union information continued to leak to the Confederate army. Guards were appointed to watch over the Sánchez hacienda in an attempt to discover who was spying. Every now and then the Union troops would search the Sánchez house.
The Sánchez sisters took over the management of their home, the care of their invalid mother and their evenings were spent in cordial entertainment of the Union officers. Lola, Panchita, and Eugenia served the Yankees supper and rich Cuban coffee. Purposely keeping the conversation cheerful, neutral and frivolous the girls often sang accompanied by the soft sound of the Spanish guitar. The soldiers under the spell of the Sirens unwittingly gave away intelligence that was quickly passed on to the Confederates.
The Sanchez sisters were entertaining three Union officers on a Saturday evening, The conversation was flowing freely and nothing seemed out of the ordinary until the sisters withdrew to prepare supper for the guests. When passing from the kitchen to the dining room Lola overheard disturbing plans that were to be carried out the following day.
The Union officers were planning an early morning gunboat raid on confederate Camp Davis, followed by a party of soldiers ordered to head south to seize and loot whatever they could find. Lola explained what she heard to her sisters and they decided she should go immediately to get word to Captain J. J. Dickison, stationed one and a half miles away. They would cover her absence until she could return. Panchita agreed to entertain the soldiers while Eugenia prepared supper supposedly with Lola’s assistance.
Meanwhile, Lola, knowing her timing was critical, set out on her horse alone in the night through the dense tropical forest. Upon reaching the St. John’s River the ferryman agreed to take care of her horse and loaned her a skiff to cross the strong currents of the river. When Lola crossed the river and reached the riverbank she met a Confederate guard whom she knew from town. She told him the information but he could not leave his post. He gave her his horse to continue on to Camp Davis so that she could pass the intelligence directly to Captain Dickison herself. Lola made it to Camp Davis, delivered the intelligence to Captain Dickison and went back the way she came. Lola felt as if she had been away from home for hours but knew she must get back before the Yankee officers discovered her disappearance.
Lola was only away from the hacienda for about an hour and a half while her sisters covered for her. When Lola returned home Panchita was entertaining the unwary soldiers while Eugenia prepared the meal. The enticing aroma of Eugenia’s cooking gave the effective illusion that nothing was awry.
Dawn broke over Camp Davis the following morning, as the Confederate battalion set the trap and waited for the Yankee transport and gunboat. The Yankee plan was stymied, the transport and soldiers were captured and the gunboat USS Columbine was sunk. South of St. Augustine, preparation was underway to intercept the scavenging party. The Confederate soldiers ensnared the enemy, Union General Chatfield was killed, Colonel Nobles was wounded and most of the company captured, including wagons and mules. The Confederate soldiers successfully defeated the Union forces at the Battle of Horse Landing.
Panchita was determined to see to the release of her ailing father from prison. She made her way to St. Augustine suffering untold hardships. Panchita successfully convinced the Union captors to release her father. No one ever suspected the three beautiful Sanchez sisters as the real culprits even though information continued to reach the Confederate army. The Sanchez sisters were heroines to the Confederate Army who effectively stymied the plot of the Union officers and kept a constant stream of intelligence flowing for the Confederate Army.