Tucked away, approximately 40 miles south of Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida, is the last surviving plantation house in South Florida. Situated near Ellenton, Florida, in May1865, the former Confederate political official found temporary refuge here as he eluded Federal authorities.
Major Robert Gamble, Jr. established his sugar plantation along the Manatee River, a far cry from many a plantation home of like character in the Deep South. Six years later work was completed on his mansion home. Gamble would own the home and the subsequent 3,500 acres until 1859, when he had to sell it to honor debts.
During the American Civil War the mansion and grounds were occupied by Captain Archibald McNeill, a famous blockade runner for the Confederacy. When he moved his family onto the grounds in the spring of 1862, he took over mail carrying duties for the local area, as he had a fast sloop to deliver mail across the Manatee River. This also allowed him to cover his more clandestine operations.
Obviously McNeill’s exploits did not go unnoticed by the patrolling United States Navy and during the war, the Federals would try a few times to capture McNeill’s blockade runner. One raid was even launched at his plantation, where Union soldiers confiscated twelve barrels of salted meat meant for Confederate troops. In 1864, Gamble Plantation’s sugar mill, the largest in that area of Florida, was torched by Union soldiers.
McNeill was at home when Benjamin came calling, seeking the blockade runner’s help in skipping out of the country. At the time there was a large bounty out for Benjamin’s capture. During Benjamin’s stay at the mansion, there were a few close calls, one of them forced Benjamin and McNeill to hide in the woods while Union soldiers searched the premises.
With the help of a few locals, McNeill was able to arrange transportation for Benjamin to Nassau, Bahamas, the first leg of what wold be a permanent exile to Europe for the ex-Confederate politician.
For reasons unknown, the McNeill family did not stay long after the American Civil War, and by 1872, George Patten was the owner of the grounds and house. However, the mansion had fallen into a status unfit for Patten and his family to live in, so a Victorian-era two-story, vernacular house was built on the grounds.
By the turn of the century both Gamble Mansion, built in 1849 and the Patten house had fallen onto tough times. The Judah P. Benjamin Chapter of the United Daughters (UDC) of the Confederacy purchased the property in 1925 after fundraising began two years earlier. Great verbiage on the historic plaque reads, “the mansion was rescued from decay in 1923” by the UDC. The mansion and 16 acres, that was purchased, was donated to the state of Florida, with the condition that it would be used as a memorial to Benjamin. Restoration of the house, to reflect a mid-19th century plantation was completed by 1927.
Now run as a state park of Florida, visitors can access the site, see the memorial plaque, unveiled in 1937 by the (UDC), stroll the grounds, and take a guided tour of the mansion. There is also a visitor center and small sales outlet there at the site.
To plan your visit and get the most updated information, click here.