Monday, February 22, 2010

Beauregard at Camp Milton, Florida

As it reorganized following the Battle of Olustee, the Confederate army pushed east up the railroad in the wake of the retreating Federals.

It was not long before the famed General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived on the scene from South Carolina and assumed overall command. It is a little known fact that Beauregard actually played a critical role in the victory at Olustee. Had he not rapidly moved troops south to reinforce Finegan, the battle might have ended with a very different result.

As he arrived in Florida, Beauregard consolidated the Confederate army into positions behind McGirt's Creek, a natural moat that provided a layer of defense should the Union army try again to advance. Intending to protect the railroad and prevent any further penetration of the country by Seymour's forces, the Louisiana born general put his engineering expertise to work.

Taking advantage of the natural bends and twists of McGirt's Creek, Beauregard designed and supervised the construction of one of the most impressive systems of field works every built in the Deep South. By March 7, 1864, according to Beauregard's correspondence, the position had been named Camp Milton. The name honored Florida's Confederate governor, John Milton.

Camp Milton was a three mile long system of fortifications manned by the growing Confederate army of 7,500 men. In addition, General Beauregard assembled an impressive array of field artillery that he positions at key points along the line to sweep the approaches to McGirt's Creek.

Here's how a Union officer of the time described the result of Beauregard's impressive work:

The breastworks were made of huge logs firmly fastened and covered with earth. The log part was 6 wide at the bottom and 3 at the top. They were proof against field artillery. The stockades were composed of timber from 12 to 16 inches thick, with loop-holes 2 feet apart. Their base was protected by earth thrown up from a ditch which ran along the whole line of works. There was a salient or re-entering angle at about every 150 yards. Two batteries in the rear completely commanded the railroad, and in addition to being very strong were most elaborately finished, having a sharpness of outline almost equal to masonry.

The Federals had been beaten so badly at Olustee that they had no immediate hope of advancing back into the countryside. Even if they had, the works built by Beauregard at Camp Milton were so strong there was little chance that his army could have been forced from them.

The site of Camp Milton is now a historic preserve maintained by the city of Jacksonville. Boardwalks lead to preserved sections of the foritifications and interpretive panels and exhibits explain the significance of the historic site. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/campmilton.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Abraham Lincoln and Olustee (Part 2 of 2)

Continuing our look at President Abraham Lincoln's involvement in the Olustee Campaign, after stating that the invasion of Florida was the idea of General Gillmore, Lincoln's secretary John Hay went on to give a version of events that was very different from reality.

According to Hay, not only did Gillmore propose moving into the interior, but also came up with the idea of restoring a part of Florida to the Union:

...He afterwards added another detail to his plan: to assist in bringing Florida back into the Union, in accordance with the President's Proclamation of December 8, 1863. This came in time to be regarded by the opponents of the Administration as the sole purpose of the expedition, and Mr. Lincoln has received a great deal of unjust censure for having made a useless sacrifice of life for a political end.

Hay, however, gives in his biography of Lincoln a version of events that significantly departs from reality. In fact, there is no evidence that Gillmore was planning to invade or occupy any part of Florida when he received Lincoln's letter suggesting such a move via the hand of John Hay. Upon receiving the "suggestion" of the President and the unknown verbal communication relayed by Major Hay, the general immediately made plans for a move on Florida. The decision came so fast, in fact, that his superiors had no knowledge of what was going on.

Although Hay does not say so, he was actually present when Gillmore wrote to General Halleck in Washington, D.C., to explain what was going on. In fact, he may have even assisted in the drafting of the report.

On January 31st, Gillmore reported to Halleck that his plan was:

...[F]irst to procure an outlet for cotton, lumber, timber, &c.; second, to cut off one of hte enemy's sources of commissary supplies; third, to obtain recruits for my colored regiments; fourth, to inaugurate measures for the speedy restoration of Florida to her allegiance, in accordance with instructions which I had received from the President by the hand of Maj. John Hay, assistant adjutant-general.

With regard to all of this political maneuvering, several facts are clear:
  1. The idea for the Florida campaign was proposed in a letter from Lincoln to Gillmore, not by the general himself.
  2. Lincoln's letter to Gillmore refers only to the restoration of the Union and requests that the attempt be made quickly.
  3. The President bypassed the U.S. Army's chain of command in proposing the campaign.
  4. President Lincoln took the highly unusual step of sending one of his secretaries to accompany the campaign, even commissioning him to the elevated rank of Major.
  5. John Hay also communicated verbal instructions to General Gillmore, the nature of which are not known. Clearly, though, this communication contained information that Lincoln did not want to commit to paper.
  6. These events took place at a time when President Lincoln was was not sure that he would be nominated by his own party for a second term.
Based on these facts, there really can be little doubt that the Olustee Campaign was more political than military in nature and that it resulted from a plan by Abraham Lincoln to restore Florida to the Union in time for him to count on the votes of her delegates to his party's convention.

The Battle of Olustee was the direct result of political maneuvering. In this case, more than 3,000 men in the two armies would be killed or wounded in a failed effort to assure President Abraham Lincoln a second term in office.

To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

Abraham Lincoln and Olustee (Part 1 of 2)

As I mentioned yesterday, today is the 146th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, Florida. Since we talked about the battle itself in yesterday's post, today I thought it might be interesting to look at President Abraham Lincoln's direct involvement in the disaster.

It has always been accepted from the Southern point of view that Olustee was the direct result of political maneuvering by President Lincoln. He was facing a difficult reelection test in 1864 and Southerners have long believed that the Olustee Campaign resulted from an effort by Lincoln to secure a political advantage by returning at least the eastern part of Florida to the Union in time for the state to play a part in the coming elections.

In their 1957 La Florida, once used as a text for Florida high school students, for example, writers Leeila S. Copeland and J.E. Dovell wrote:

The Northern press was hostile to this plan and accused Lincoln of trying to secure delegates for the next national convention.

In essence, the allegation in Florida has always been that Lincoln was willing to trade blood for votes in hopes of assuring his own reelection.

Some recent historians have questioned this traditional view (William Nulty in Confederate Florida: The Road to Olustee, for example). So what are the facts? A review of the surviving documentation is quite convincing.

On January 13, 1864, Lincoln wrote to Major General Quincy A. Gillmore at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, proposing that the general take part in an effort to restore a government loyal to the Union in Florida:

...I have given Mr. Hay a commission of major and sent him to you with some blank books and other blanks to aid in the reconstruction. He will explain as to the manner of using the blanks, and also my general views on the subject. It is desirable for all to co-operate; but if irreconcilable differences of opinion shall arise, you are master. I wish the thing done int he most speedy way possible, so that when done it will be within the range of the late proclamation on the subject. The detail labor, of course, will have to be done by others, but I shall be greatly obliged if you will give it such general supervision as you can find convenient with your more strictly military duties....

The "Mr. Hay" mentioned in Lincoln's private letter to Gilmore was John Hay, one of the President's two secretaries. Especially interesting about Lincoln's dispatch of Hay with this letter to Gillmore is the fact that he did not notify the War Department of the plan. When Gilmore notified the department that he was launching an expedition into Florida, the news took his superior officers by surprise.

On January 22nd, Major General H.W. Halleck, Commander in Chief of the Union Army, notified Gillmore that he had been informed by the Secretary of War that the matter was entirely left to his (Gillmore's) discretion. Hallack went on to note that he as he had not been informed of the object of the expedition, it was impossible for him to judge whether it had advantages or was practical.

Adding more curiosity to the entire affair is that Major Hay later claimed in Volume 8 of Abraham Lincoln, A History that he co-wrote with the President's other secretary, John George Nicolay, that the idea for the campaign was Gillmore's:

...He...resolved upon an expedition into Florida to take possession of such portions of the Eastern and Northern sections of the state as could be easily held by small garrisons.

Why Hay would make this claim is a mystery, as he was the courier from President Lincoln who carried the "suggestion" for a campaign into Florida along with verbal instructions directly from the President to the general.

I will continue this discussion in the next post. You can always learn more about the Battle of Olustee by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, Florida

Tomorrow, February 20th, marks the 146th anniversary of Florida's largest Civil War engagement, the Battle of Olustee.

Sometimes called the Battle of Ocean Pond, from a large lake just north of the battlefield, Olustee resulted political maneuvering rather than militiary necessity. President Abraham Lincoln was facing a tough reelection battle in the North and was presented with the idea of restoring Florida to the Union in time to receive the state's Electoral votes.

It was an idea that Lincoln liked and he authorized the plan, even commissioning a member of his staff as a major and assigning him to accompany the expedition to make sure the President's views were clear. The task of carrying out the invasion went to Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, who had achieved note for his reduction of Fort Pulaski at Savannah, Georgia.

Gillmore moved a large army south, landed at Jacksonville and drove away the outnumbered Confederate troops in the area. Thousands of Federal troops firmly established in and around Jacksonville, he returned briefly to his base of operations at Hilton Head Island. He had not been there long when he was stunned to receive a report from his second-in-command, Brigadier General Truman A. Seymour, that he was preparing to march inland from Jacksonville and seize the bridge over the Suwannee River.

Gillmore had directly ordered Seymour not to attempt such a movement. Before he could halt the operation, however, Seymoure marched inland with 5,500 men. It would prove to be a disastrous decision.

Unaware that a major Confederate army was assembling at Olustee, Seymour marched blindly into its teeth. By the time the smoke cleared on February 20, 1864, the Union army had suffered a major defeat. More than 1,800 of Seymour's 5,500 men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner at the Battle of Olustee. Confederate losses were just under 1,000.

The annual reenactment of the Battle of Olustee was held last weekend, but the actual anniversary of the battle is tomorrow (Saturday).

To learn more Florida's largest Civil War battle, read original reports and see photographs of the battlefield, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Pages Up on Battles of Ebenezer Church and Selma in Alabama

They were not Florida battles, but I thought you might be interested in checking out the new pages I've added on the Battles of Selma and Ebenezer Church in Alabama.

These two battles were the last major fights for the famed Confederate "Wizard of the Saddle," Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The Battle of Ebenezer Church, fought on April 1, 1865, was the last time Forrest led troops into action on ground of his own choosing. Realizing that he could not hope to defend the fortifications of the vital manufacturing center of Selma with the troops at his disposal, he tried to halt the Union army of Major General James H. Wilson from reaching the Alabama city. Establishing a defensive position at Ebenezer Church, about 24 miles north of Selma, Forrest tried to halt or destroy Wilson's army by holding it in place until 3,000 reinforcements could cross the Cahaba River and strike the Federals from the rear. The plan probably offered the best chance for stopping the Union juggernaut through Alabama and Georgia, but Southern reinforcements failed to arrive as hoped. To learn more, please visit the new page at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/ebenezerchurch.

Defeated at Ebenezer Church, Forrest fell back to the miles of earthwork fortifications surrounding Selma. His force was too small to hold this line and when the battle began, he was only able to position a man every 10 to 15 feet. Union troops pierced Forrest's line along Summerfield Road and the Battle of Selma deteriorated into a desperate fight to delay the Federals as much as possible. The battle ended with Wilson in possession of the city and its vital military industries, while Forrest cut his way out. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/selmabattle.

The twin defeats marked the beginning of the collapse of the Confederacy and opened the door for the fall of Montgomery, the original capital of the Confederate States. Forrest would never again fight in a decisive battle.

As always, you can learn about these and a host of other interesting Southern historic sites at http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Mystery Solved! - The True Story of the "Last Casualty"

On February 3rd I told you the story of an unfortunate man who was found in the military hospital at Tallahassee when Union troops occupied the city. To refresh your memory, here's a brief except from an article about him that appeared in The New York Times on July 13, 1866:

When the United States forces took possession of Tallahassee they found this man in the (then) Confederate hospital, and he has not been heard to speak since. His face ever wears an expression of most anxious care. The moment any one enters his room he turns with an imploring glance, intensified by an expression of fear. Oh! That look can never be forgotten – so full of petition, dread and woe! He wrings his hands incessantly, and seems just uttering some earnest request; but never speaks. Repeated efforts have been made to induce him to write. But he takes the pen mechanically, as he does everything else, and gazes up into your face with that same earnest look of undefined supplication and dread.

No one in Tallahassee knew who the man was, although some thought they might have seen him wounded in action at the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865. Now, thanks to a great email from blog reader Cindy Brown, we can answer the mystery.

According to General E.D. Townsend, who served as Adjutant General in Florida in 1866, he took an interest in the case of the unfortunate soldier and had him sent to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. In his book, Anecdotes of the Civil War in the United States, Townsend included a letter from the director of the hospital dated January 29, 1869:

You will recollect the case of late private Houghton as that of the unknown man who was admitted to this hospital November 28, 1866, from the general army hospital at Tallahassee, Florida, in which he had been under treatment for about fifteen months, having been received as a destitute sick person, and under the supposition that he had been a Union prisoner among the rebels, and who was identified in your office on the 23d of August, 1867, as Thomas B. Houghton, late, etc., husband of Elizabeth E. Houghton, of Ontario County, New York.

Houghton did not speak while in the Tallahassee hospital, and has not spoken since he has been under the care of this institution till last Saturday; and it thus appears that he was entirely dumb for a period of three and one half years, and, as he was in a feeble, passive condition, and did not speak when admitted to general hospital, the disuse of his voice probably antedated that period many months. I now intend to address another communication to you in relation to this case when its history and result are more fully developed.

Houghton was a private in the 140th New York Volunteers, his service records show that he was killed in 1862. Clearly, the unknown man from Tallahassee could not have been the Union soldier he was thought to be by the late soldier's wife and Federal authorities.

Fortunately, the story did not end there. As the man improved, according to General Townsend, his memory returned:

Time wore on, and I occasionally heard that our patient was progressing favorably. His wife had gone home, preferring to leave him in the Government Hospital, where he could have far better attendance than she could otherwise procure. He steadily improved, and began to converse a little. He was employed at light labor, and grew robust in health. Suddenly, one day, when some one addressed him by the name of Houghton, he laughed and said that was not his name. He gave another name, and, when asked if he did not belong to the One Hundred and Fortieth New York Regiment, he said " No." A few days after, he said, with a peculiar chuckle, that he had never been a Yankee soldier, but had been overseer of a plantation in Georgia, or, as he called it, " a negro-driver." When Dr. Nichols heard this, he questioned him at different times, until the man stated that he was a native of Georgia. He gave the town where he lived, and the names of persons residing there and elsewhere in the State. He said he had gone into Florida on business, and had been drafted into a company of Florida conscripts ; that he lost his mind soon after...

Unfortunately, Townsend's account does not reveal the man's true identity and his name remains a mystery. Because he had received a head injury, he may well have been an unknown casualty of the Battle of Natural Bridge.

To learn more about the battle, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Executions of Pelt and Fowler - March 7, 1865

On the day after the Battle of Natural Bridge, a tragic episode at the Wakulla County town of Newport placed a bloody exclamation point on the Confederate victory.

As exhausted Confederate troops reached Newport during the night of March 6th, they realized that the retreating Federals had gotten away and collapsed in and around the town. The night was dark and confusing and much of the ground along the St. Marks River was flooded. Weary soldiers climbed into any structures they could find and fell asleep on rough wooden floors.

What they didn't realize in one case, however, is that four exhausted Union soldiers were also sleeping in the same building. When these unfortunate Federals awoke the next morning to realize they had been left behind and had even spent the night surrounded by slumbering Confederates, they headed for the door. They didn't get far. Alert Confederate pickets spotted and fired on them, wounding one and capturing all four.

The prisoners were all members of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry, a Union regiment formed using Southern Unionists and Confederate deserters. A battalion from the unit took part in the Natural Bridge expedition and was assigned to prevent Southern troops from crossing at Newport and striking the rear of the Federal column as it made its way north to Natural Bridge.

Unfortunately for the prisoners, two of them were quickly recognized as deserters from the 2nd Florida Cavalry (C.S.). Asa Fowler and Peter Pelt had left the Confederate unit and crossed through the lines to join the Union army. Among the troops present when they were captured were members of their old unit.

Brigadier General William Miller had arrived on the scene at Newport and immediately ordered that the prisoners be brought before a drumhead court martial. They were convicted of desertion and sentenced to death, a sentence that Miller had carried out immediately.

To read the full story of the Newport executions, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbexecutions1.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The History of Jackson County, Florida: The War Between the States now Available!

I'm pleased to announce that my latest book on the Civil War in Florida is now available at Amazon.com for immediate delivery. The book was released on the 1st of this month.

The History of Jackson County, Florida: The War Between the States concentrates on the Civil War history of what was then one of Florida's most populated counties. Jackson County was the home of Florida's Confederate governor, John Milton, and suffered greater economic losses during the war than any other county in Florida. It was also the focus of the deepest penetration of the state by Union forces during the entire war.

The new book includes a wide variety of information on the county's significant role in Florida's war effort. It provides previously unpublished information about the life of Governor Milton, details on the little known guerrilla activity in the area including the Battles of Port Jackson and Forks of the Creek and considerable new information on Asboth's 1864 raid and the Battle of Marianna. The appendices include lists of all of the county's known Confederate and Union soldiers, details on the execution of a local youth for serving the Union and a variety of modern and historical photographs of interest. The book is 300 pages long and retails for $24.95. It is a sequel to the 2008 book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years.

To order or learn more, please click the ad at the top of this post. The book will be available in Marianna at Chipola River Book and Tea next week.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sad Story of Tallahassee's Mystery Soldier

When the War Between the States came to an end, a mysterious soldier was left behind in a Tallahassee hospital.

So little was known about him that no one could identify him and because he had been wounded in battle, he could tell those caring for him nothing about himself. More than a full year after the end of the war, the people of Tallahassee could do nothing to help return him to his lost friends and family.

It was speculated that he had been wounded by a shell during the Battle of Natural Bridge (please click here to learn more about that engagment near Tallahassee), but otherwise nothing was known about him.

The strange case finally attracted the attention of The New York Times. The paper re-published the following item on the mystery man from the Tallahassee Sentinel on July 13, 1866:
Our exchanges, by answering our query, may bring joy to some fond heart, that mourns as dead, an unfortunate man whom we saw at the hospital in this place on yesterday. So sad a picture as his anxious face presents it has not often been our lot to look upon. No account whatever can be gathered of him here. When the United States forces took possession of Tallahassee they found this man in the (then) Confederate hospital, and he has not been heard to speak since. His face ever wears an expression of most anxious care. The moment any one enters his room he turns with an imploring glance, intensified by an expression of fear. Oh! That look can never be forgotten – so full of petition, dread and woe! He wrings his hands incessantly, and seems just uttering some earnest request; but never speaks. Repeated efforts have been made to induce him to write. But he takes the pen mechanically, as he does everything else, and gazes up into your face with that same earnest look of undefined supplication and dread.


When he is left alone with his food he eats heartily, and until recently his general health has been good. He is now a little emaciated. Occasionally he has been known to creep stealthily to his window, and open it cautiously. But in doing so he seems to dread some catastrophe.


We have made considerable inquiry about him in the city, and can gather no clue as to the exact time when he was brought to Tallahassee, or from where. One account supposes that he was brought up here a month or two before the surrender from the hospital in Monticello. Another says that some Confederate soldier, who has seen him here, remembers that he saw him in the Natural Bridge fight – that he was then wearing a Major’s star, and that he fought bravely. He supposes that the explosion of a shell near his head paralyzed his speech and deprived him partially of reason.


It is strange that he should have remained here so long without being identified. He is a man of commanding figure, we should think six feet one or two inches in height, if strong and robust would weigh about 160 pounds, seems to be between 35 and 40 years of age, has a prominent forehead, dark hair, a large gray eye, and rather prominent nose. He is as docile as a child, obeying mechanically every command – and with such an expression as would move a heart of stone.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Captain Jesse J. Norwood's Marianna Home - A New Roster

The Marianna Home Guard is one of the best known "citizen soldier" units of Florida's involvement in the War Between the States.

Commanded by Captain Jesse J. Norwood, the company was formed in Marianna during the late summer of 1864 under the direct supervision of Governor John Milton. The governor had issued an executive order in July calling on every man and boy in the state aged 15 and up to form into militia or "home guard" companies to defend Florida against expected Union invasion.

The Marianna Home Guard would become the most famed of these units, almost fighting to death in defense of the Jackson County city when it was attacked by Union troops on September 27, 1864. In a stand remembered by some as "Florida's Alamo," Norwood and his men fought a much larger Federal force to a stalemate until they began to run low on ammunition.

For many years the anniversary of the Battle of Marianna was observed in Florida as Marianna Day. Despite the well known nature of the Marianna Home Guard's stand at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, the unit has always been shrouded in mystery. There was no official roster and the membership of the unit has been a matter of question almost since the smoke cleared.

For my new book - The History of Jackson County, Florida: The War Between the States - be released later this week, I spent a great deal of time researching Norwood and his men and have assembled the most complete roster I've been able to develop to date. It is included in the appendices of the new book, but I've also posted it on my Battle of Marianna website. If you would like to take a look, please visit http://www.battleofmarianna.com/ and just look for the link on the right hand side of the main page.