The tale of the Jefferson Davis, sunk off St. Augustine
By Marcia Lane
Most successful privateer ship of Civil War featured in factual film
Peter Pepe has a visual reminder of time spent in St. Augustine — a skull and crossbones on his kayak.
It’s a reminder not of pirates, but of a Civil War privateer known as the Jefferson Davis that sank off the coast of St. Augustine in 1861. In 2009 Pepe and his production crew came to St. Augustine to film marine archaeologists from the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program exploring a wreck thought to be the Jeff Davis.
“Before this, I didn’t even know what a privateer was,” Pepe said.
Pepe, who heads Pepe Productions in Glens Falls, N.Y., recently released a documentary on the privateer, co-producing the 150-year-old story with Joe Zarzynski, a retired history teacher. Zarzynski first heard about the Jefferson Davis while vacationing in St. Augustine and volunteering at the Lighthouse.
The Jefferson Davis was the most successful privateer of the Civil War, said Chuck Meide, director of Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program
Over a dazzling seven-week period, the Davis and its crew captured nine northern merchant vessels off the New England coast. It was only when the ship headed into Confederate-held St. Augustine for water and food that things unraveled.
According to accounts of the time, St. Augustine residents awoke to see “a black painted brig with dark canvas sails beating towards the harbor entrance.” The Jeff Davis ran aground on the shallow bars of the inlet and the crew had to abandon her.
While Pepe’s group worked on the film for a couple of years, the release of the documentary ended up coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. The producers worried their film would get lost in all the other productions and books that were coming out.
“Since the dust has settled, the film is picking up a lot of interest,” Pepe said. It’s been selected for the Orlando Film Festival later this month. “That’s a huge honor for us.”