“Vindictive, Unrelenting War”: The Burning of Jacksonville
One of the most enduring scenes from a movie depicting the Civil War remains the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind (1939). Chaos, terror, and destruction surround Rhett and Scarlett as they flee the inferno. The scene’s fire portrays the actual fire set by retreating Confederates on September 1, 1864, as they pulled out of the city. On November 14, 1864, Union forces marching out of Atlanta set fire to hundreds of buildings. Atlanta remains the most famous example of the burning of a city during the Civil War; however, it was only one of many towns set to the torch during the struggle. Jacksonville, Florida, has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first.
The initial war-related fire in Jacksonville occurred on March 11, 1862. That day, Federal gunboats approached the city in preparation for what would be the first of four Union occupations. The imminent arrival of Federal troops created panic. Loyal Confederates rushed to evacuate the city, and Confederate soldiers prepared to set fire to supplies they could not take away. Local mobs, angered by the presence of the city’s sizable pro-Union population, torched Northern-owned businesses and homes. Otis and Abby Keane watched as the mobs ransacked their hotel, the Judson House, before setting the building aflame. That night, those who had fled Jacksonville watched from across the St. Johns River as large sections of their city burned.
A year after the first fire, Jacksonville endured another inferno. This time the Federals were responsible for the destruction. On March 10, 1863, Union troops, spearheaded by two black regiments, the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, arrived for what became the third Union occupation of Jacksonville. Facing little resistance, the regiments quickly gained control of the city. Signs of growing Confederate strength to the west, however, encouraged the Union to reinforce their position in Jacksonville with two additional infantry regiments, the 6th Connecticut and the 8th Maine, both all-white units.
Although the Federals were able to raid along the St. Johns River as far south as Palatka and maintain control of Jacksonville, Union preparations for renewed operations in South Carolina led to the decision to end the Jacksonville operation. On March 28, 1863, as Union troops prepared to leave the city by sea, fires broke out in the wake of the columns of the 6th Connecticut, whose soldiers had taken the opportunity to set fire to the city. As the Yankees left, rain and the quick arrival of Confederate troops combined to contain the fires; however, much of the city lay in ruins. One witness detailed the smoldering structures:
“The Episcopal and Catholic churches, the jail, Parkhurst Store, Miller’s Bar Room, Bisbee’s Store, and dwelling house, Dr. Baldwin’s house and that whole block. Mrs Foster’s house, Washington Hotel, one of Hoeg’s stores—nearest Millers—and every house from the Judson House above the Railroad to Mrs. Collins old house, (Lydia Foster’s House, Sadlers, etc. are among them).”
While the Union’s responsibility for the fire was clear enough, Confederate newspapers as well as Northern newspapers critical of the use of black troops denounced the black regiments as the agents of destruction. The majority of Northern papers placed the entire blame on the white soldiers of the 6th Connecticut and 8th Maine. As with most controversial historical incidents, however, the answer is not black or white. There seems little doubt that the two white regiments started the fires, but when it became clear that they were free to join in the torching, some black soldiers, according to witnesses, set fires as well. One Northern reporter who saw the burning city despaired that the war had taken a new and uglier turn from which there was no turning back, “Is this not war, vindictive, unrelenting war?”
The best history of the Union occupations of Jacksonville is Daniel L. Schafer, Thunder on the River: the Civil War in Northeast Florida (University Press of Florida, 2010). All quotations come from pages 159 and 161-162 of Schafer’s book.