The adage “War is hell!” is applicable to Jacksonville, Fla., where divided loyalties led to violence during the mid-19th century. Compatible in peacetime, a regionally and racially diverse population proved volatile when hostilities began between the North and South.
This town of 2,100 people had a mix of Southern, Northern and foreign-born whites, along with free blacks and slaves, that produced a cosmopolitan environment. Large hotels built to host a burgeoning tourist trade, and some 50 vessels that plied the city’s harbors daily, enhanced this image.
Following Abraham Lincoln’s election as president, Florida’s decision in January 1861 to declare itself a “Sovereign and Independent Nation” signaled cataclysmic change. Jacksonville’s revolving-door occupation during the Civil War was the spark that ignited an explosive atmosphere.
After fighting erupted in April 1861, Florida remained calm until early 1862, when a Union seaborne expedition captured Fernandina and St. Augustine to the north and south of Jacksonville. This forced local militia to withdraw west of St. John’s River and panicked many Jacksonville secessionists who fled inland.
A hellish atmosphere began when departing Rebels burned sawmills, a hotel and the railroad depot. That encouraged vigilantes, who went on a rampage, burning several Northern-owned private dwellings.
However, a new federal regional commander, believing his forces overextended, ordered evacuation of Jacksonville. As Union transports left the docks, Confederate troops instantly appeared on the streets.
When Delaware native Adm. Samuel DuPont’s gunboats began patrolling the St. John’s River, Confederate artillery withdrew from the bluffs overlooking the river. That prompted local Rebel commander Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan to order his forces to depart from the town.
As federal troops reentered Jacksonville, they found a few destitute people in the virtual ghost town. There was “desolation and distress,” with grass and weeds growing in the streets, houses uninhabited, stores abandoned and churches empty.
By March 1863, a “permanent” occupation force of Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s regiment of black troops, including former slaves from Florida, arrived at Jacksonville. Their mission was to free the local slaves, recruit them for the army and gain control of the state.
Plantation owners were alarmed, and Rebel soldiers resorted to guerrilla warfare. Yet, once again, the Northern troops answered a call for reinforcements to support operations in Georgia and South Carolina.
To deny a place of refuge to the Rebel troops who would reoccupy Jacksonville, the departing Union troops set fire to the buildings in town that were still standing. They left “nothing but sheets of flame.”
Jacksonville’s ill-fortune had a reprieve when quick action by arriving Rebels, along with a heavy rain, averted wholesale destruction. Yet, to that date, violence had eliminated half the town.
In early 1864, President Lincoln approved still another expedition to secure a loyal government in Florida. The main objective was to cut off commissary supplies, especially beef cattle, from the Southern army’s lifeline.
This expedition led to Florida’s only major battle, at the town of Olustee, some 50 miles inland. After suffering heavy losses, the Union troops fled back to the security of Jacksonville.
The federals fortified the town; and, with naval support, occupied it to war’s end. Although wary citizens drifted back into Jacksonville, property confiscation and Union attempts at racial integration perpetuated hostility among inhabitants.
As the war ground to a halt in 1865, the residents witnessed a disturbing scene. Thousands of ragged and emaciated Union survivors from Georgia’s notorious Andersonville prison hobbled into town for evacuation.
It took 20 years to rebuild Jacksonville and its economy, and another 100 years before deep societal rifts mended. Today, however, a visit to “Old Hickory’s Town” finds a prosperous and durable community.
During sojourns to Jacksonville and vicinity, I walked the grounds of St. John’s bluffs (in the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve) where Confederate artillery fired upon Adm. DuPont’s gunboats patrolling the river, and toured Olustee battlefield. Jacksonville also features the Museum of Southern History, with a section devoted to the Civil War.
For further reading, see “Jacksonville’s Ordeal by Fire: A Civil War History” by Richard A. Martin and Daniel L. Schafer, and “Thunder on the River: The Civil War in Northeast Florida” by Daniel L. Schafer.
Our next visit will be to Wilmington, N.C. This port town was the last lifeline of the Confederacy.
Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point