On April 7, 1865, Florida governor Abraham K. Allison wrote to Confederate president Jefferson Davis of “my painful duty to announce the death of His Excellency John Milton, late Governor of the State of Florida.” Allison informed Davis that the “melancholy event” occurred on April 1, 1865, at Milton’s plantation in Jackson County, Florida. What Allison did not relay to his president, who was enduring his own “melancholy event” in flight before victorious Union armies, was the probable cause of Milton’s death—suicide.
Milton’s governorship was the most dramatic and difficult in the history of the state. Inaugurated on October 7, 1861, he inherited a weak Confederate state with growing dissension. The lengthening war and the likelihood of Northern invasion demoralized loyal Confederates while heartening Florida Unionists. Criticized by the legislature, which sought to weaken his authority, and largely ignored by the Confederate government, which spared Florida few troops and weapons, Milton worked tirelessly to strengthen Florida’s defenses and secure supplies for the home front. At the same time, he remained steadfast in his loyalty to the Confederate States and its president, Jefferson Davis, whom he championed even as the South faced certain defeat. A staunch defender of secession and slavery, Milton could not envision or support a reunited and emancipated nation.
On the morning of April 1, 1865, as Union armies prepared to enter Richmond, Governor Milton arrived at his plantation, Sylvania, in Jackson County. Although distressed and exhausted, Milton’s trip from Tallahassee was not unusual. He often journeyed between the capital and Sylvania to see to the welfare of his wife and children and take care of plantation business. Soon after his arrival, the governor entered his study and a shot exploded. William Henry Milton, the governor’s oldest son, discovered his father’s body, which had sustained a shotgun blast to the head.
The earliest reports of Milton’s death pointed to suicide. Worn down by work and deeply depressed by the inevitability of Confederate defeat, Milton probably took his own life; however, without any eyewitness or evidence of a suicide note history cannot be certain—later family accounts claimed the shooting was accidental. Whether a suicide or not, Milton’s demise has come to symbolize the death of Confederate Florida.
For Governor Allison’s letter to Jefferson Davis see page 189 of Governor John Milton’s letterbook, 1863-1865, part of Record Group 101, Series 32, State Archives of Florida. The details of Milton’s death are reexamined in Ridgeway Boyd Murphree, “Rebel Sovereigns: The Civil War Leadership of Governors John Milton of Florida and Joseph E. Brown of Georgia, 1861-1865,” Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 2006.