Death of a Governor

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.

Portrait of Governor Abraham Kurkindolle Allison (circa 1850s).

Portrait of Governor Abraham Kurkindolle Allison (circa 1850s).

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.

Portrait of Governor John Milton (circa 1860s).

Portrait of Governor John Milton (circa 1860s).

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.

Natural Bridge As Told by J.H. Frier, Part 2

Today (March 6, 2015) is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge, fought just south of Tallahassee near present-day Woodville in the final months of the American Civil War. Yesterday, we posted an excerpt of a memoir by Joshua Hoyet Frier, a Confederate soldier from Florida who fought at Natural Bridge. In that segment (click here to read it), Frier described his unit’s sudden transfer from Madison County to the front lines near the St. Mark’s River, and preparations for battle.

Today we continue Frier’s account, covering the battle itself. In the following text, Frier describes several skirmishes between his Confederate comrades and their Union opponents. Readers should be advised that this section of Frier’s memoir includes several graphic references to the violence of the battle.

Map showing Natural Bridge on the St. Marks River and the surrounding area (1865).

Map showing Natural Bridge on the St. Marks River and the surrounding area (1865).


Illustrated excerpt of Joshua Hoyet Frier’s “Reminiscnese Of The War Between The States”

When the skirmishers was formed in line in front of the main line, it had became light enough to take a view of the surroundings. The clearing proved to be an old abandoned field of not more than twenty acres. The hummock growth of hicory, oak, live oak, sweet gum and cypress grew quite thick right up to the edge of the clearing and probably two hundred yards in front of us.

We was marched across the old field and deployed in the timber, and admonished to keep a sharp lookout and shoot any thing that looked blue. Some of the boys began shooting, directly after sun up, and in explanation said they was shooting birds. We beat around in the bush pretty much as we wished; I was investigating the effects of the fireing on the bushes and timber when I came upon a dead Negro in U.S. uniform. Some of the boys was more luckey, and picked up some live ones, some was sent to the rear but it was said some of them never was. There were some who had in their fright and darkness hid themselves after finding them selves separated from the body of their command. This then was an index to the couler of the foe we had to contend with and gave us great encouragement as we did not think there was much fight in Negro troops.

Reenactors at the Natural Bridge Battlefield (1992).

Reenactors at the Natural Bridge Battlefield (1992).

About eight o clock a blue jay pitched on a limb close by me, and I obeyed orders by shooting at him; before the smoke cleared away a single ball came by with that angry spiteful pang-g-g-g that only a rifle ball can make. This put me on my guard, for it was now plain that some one had shot either at the report or at the smoke of my gun; through an opening in the bushes some two hundred yards in front I saw a faint blue smoke slowly disapating itself right at the root of a large live oak, just such an one as anyone would naturaly seek for a screen under the circumstances.

I kept a sharp lookout for that live oak, as there was two or three small openings through the brush where I could get a pretty fair view of his neighborhood, and get shot at allso; but my antagnist was a verry poor shot, and went wide the mark every time. I called some of the boys who had less dread of minnies than I did who stood up boldly and let this blue coat practice on them. He must have got reinforcements allso or else he improved wonderfuly in markmanship and rapidity of fire; after one of the self constituted targats had a hole shot through his cap he left off the buisness in disgust.

It turns out getting your hat shot at in battle and living through it wasn't such an unusual occurrence at this time. Click on the image to read about a similar incident from Albert S. Chalker of Clay County (March 15, 1865).

It turns out getting your hat shot at in battle and living through it wasn’t such an unusual occurrence at this time. Click on the image to read about a similar incident from Albert S. Chalker of Clay County (March 15, 1865).


About this time a Mr. Ellis of our company came to take care of us as he said he had been there but a few minutes when when he was shot in the abdomen which proved a fatal wound; the shot was fired from a clump of bushes not fifty yards away; as the other two boys laid down their guns and went to his assistance I saw a Negro soldier begin to make his way back from the point, he droped and I thought I had hit him but I have since concluded that it would have been the most natural thing in the world for him to have droped to keep from being shot at again.

The fireing had became quite general all along the line while within a few hundred yards in front we could hear the rumbling of wagons, caisons, and etc. and could hear the neighing of horses, and various sounds that indicated unusual activity among the Federals upon the oposite side of the timber. About 11 a clock our line of skirmishers was releived by another and we went back to the line carrying Mr. Ellis with us. It seems strange untill yet that none of us should have been hurt, for we had nothing to dodge behind and the balls of the Union skirmish line came thick and fast knocking up the dirt at our feet whizing over our heads and to the right and left.

When we returned to the line, our company had been removed from the extreme left to the extreme right, so there was thirteen peices of artillery scattered along equidistant from each other, while the spaces between was filled with what I suppose you might call Infantry. Old grey bearded men, and boys allmost too small to attend school. It seemed that if it came to the worst that it would be a poor chance to hold the line with such a force as this.

The main line had not been idle during the morning and had thrown up earth works along the entire line, frail there were, but proved verry useful, not only in saveing life, but preventing those undrilled little boys from stamepeding like a herd of Texas cattle.

The general engagement began verry soon, after we reached our lines and lasted an hour or so during which they made several attempts to come to us but failed each time. When the 2nd Fla. cavalry dismounted came in and charged them in their works the route was complete. They had three lines of breastworks, and as each one was charged the shooting and shouting reminded me more of some kind of a frolic then the serious work of battle. But the timber in front of us was a sight to me. Many trees of considerable size was cut down at various heights, the limbs and trunks of most of them seemed to have the [bark] stript from them as by lightning.

In the near future, we’ll be posting the entire text of Joshua Hoyet Frier’s memoir of his Civil War experiences. Until then, we invite you to check out our other resources on Florida in the Civil War:

Natural Bridge As Told by J.H. Frier, Part I

Friday, March 6, 2015 will be the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge, fought just south of Tallahassee near present-day Woodville in the final months of the American Civil War. Joshua Hoyet Frier was a Confederate soldier from Florida who wrote down his recollections about the war. The memoir was later transcribed by one of Frier’s descendants, and a copy of it now resides at the State Archives of Florida.

Map showing Natural Bridge and the surrounding area (1865).

Map showing Natural Bridge and the surrounding area (1865).

In the following excerpt from this memoir, Joshua Hoyet Frier describes his unit’s sudden transfer to the front lines at Natural Bridge ahead of the main battle. Tomorrow, we’ll be posting Frier’s description of the battle itself.

The entire memoir will soon be available as an exhibit on Florida Memory. In reading the following text, bear in mind that we have transcribed the text exactly as it appears in the original typescript that was donated to the State Archives. That includes spelling, punctuation and a number of other errors.

Illustrated excerpt of Joshua Hoyet Frier’s “Reminiscnese Of The War Between The States”

We are now at the fifth of March 1865 and the events I am about to speak of was so overshadowed, by more important and vital ones, untill they have never had a place in history. Yet when you follow me through the next week following the above date, you will agree with me that they deserve some mention.

Saturday the fourth day of March I dug on the stump all day, went to the theatre in town and as the boys say made a night of it as I was out out untill 2 o clock A M. On Sunday morning I rose early to prepare for a verry rigid inspection that we was to have and the old rifle (springfield pattern) they gave me the evening before was in verry bad shape for such an ordeal. By eight o clock it looked like every man in the regiment had his gun dissected, and was busily engaged in polishing, scouring, and wipeing. While thus employed we verry distincly heard the booming of cannon, this within its self was not so unusual, but in this instance it meant buisness, as was easily told by the regularity of the fireing. Many surmises was indulged in as to where the fireing was, and what might be the outcome of it.

In this he was correct, inside on an hour orders was issued to prepare three days rations at once; now the hard part of it was to prepare three days rations, out of one, as we had only drawn enough to last untill next morning. Still we never woried much about it as we was pretty well used to such marching prepararions as these, and soon had what little we had ready in haversack; then intoo lines and and to the depot. Great was our surprise when we arived at the depot in Madison to find arangements to issue us the other two days rations. One of the boys said he would bet they had some use for us, for he had never seen any rations issued when we started on a common march. This remark was intended to be witty and sarcastic, but was realy a near aproach to the truth.

Men reenacting the Battle of Natural Bridge (1992).

Men reenacting the Battle of Natural Bridge (1992).

We boarded the train and went to Tallahassee arriveing there late in the evening, where we met with quite a lot of troops. I mean for Florida. This was where the fireing was, and must have been at at least, seventy miles from us. Yet we heard the guns distincly. We never left Tallahassee untill after dark and then on a train so long untill three engines could scarcely haul it. Companies of old men, and boys even smaller than our selves came in and joined us during the evening; these we termed the “Melish” and as to our selves, why we became veterans of course, for the time at least.

We left in the direction of St. Marks and the train stoped at a place called the “oil still” where we unboarded and formed a line of march. The position of our company was on the extreme left, and as we marched by the left flank, threw us in front position we kept all night. Colonel Daniels and our guide walked just in front of us. The Colonel had a horse but he led him or let some of the boys ride him; when urged to ride he simply said he prefered to walk with his men.

I sufferd for sleep worse on this march than I ever did in my life for you you remember I slept but little the night before. While youth and fatigue conspired to punish me for my lark of the night before. But sleeping and marching did not go well together with me, and my experiance was shared by many others, we would strike a smoth bit of road, and five or six would probably be marching along asleep. Presently one would stumble and fall, not alone, mind you for he would bring the sleeping fellows ahead like ten pins. It was not an unfrequent occurence to see four five on the ground at once, which would wake us up a little only to enact the same over again.

All the satisfaction we could get out of the guide was “it is not much farther.” This sterotyped phrase was repeated every time. Col. Daniel when appealed to said he knew nothing; his orders was to follow the guide, and the guide was right in not talking.

At last just as we was about to enter a small clearing, I heard the guide tell Col. Daniel “this is the place.” A horse man halted us, when Col. Daniel advanced and had some talk with him which I could not understand. We then marched on, and as we entered the clearing we filed square off to the left when we filed off I saw by the light of the stars, a peice of artillery unlimbered and ready for action.

One example of the kind of artillery used by Floridian soldiers in the Civil War. This cannon was photographed at the Olustee Battlefield (circa 1900s).

One example of the kind of artillery used by Floridian soldiers in the Civil War. This cannon was photographed at the Olustee Battlefield (circa 1900s).

After geting us in the place they wished us we was halted and faced, then followed an order to stack arms and rest. I looked in the east but there was no sign of day and I made hastey preparations to enjoy a sound nap. Just as I lay down and closed my eyes, a single gun fired in front of us some half mile all was then silent again so long untill we began to think that there was no significance attached to the gun shot, and perhaps after all we would get a little sleep.

Probably a minute or maybe two had elapsed, when fireing began again, this time there was fifty or a hundred guns fired allmost simultaniously, and a dozen minie balls came whizing overhead, singing that sad plaintive tune which well spent balls allways do when not in too close proximity. The effect of this was magical, sleep was banished to the uttermost parts of the earth, and everyone was as wide awake as if we had not slept but little the last two nights.

A courier came dashing down the line in front of us when he saw he was at the end of the line he reined up and asked who commanded that company. Lieutenant Rouse steped foward and told him he did, our captain not yet being reinstated to his command he asked his name and rank and put him in command of the left wing, and gave him some instructions in an undertone we did not hear; the courier then left in a furious gallop.

Pretty soon we heard men coming toward us in double quick time, we could hear the rattle of cartridge boxes and canteens. In an another minute the courier was back again, and told our Lieutenant that all was clear in front but pay particular attention to orders, and not fire untill orders was given specialy to the left wing to do so.

This was his last visit and allmost imediateately we heard the rattle of canteens and cartridge boxes in front again, they was in the brush just outside the clearing, which being a small one brought us quite close together, when the clearing was reached in clear distinct tones the commander of the Federals gave the command “File left march” which was soon followed by equally distinct orders “By the right flank, double quick march.”

The answering command was equaly distinct “Right wing, ready, aim fire” then a sheet of flame, not solid, but rather more like lightning playing on the fringe of a cloud at night, ran fitfully up and down the cresent shaped line to our right for a few seconds, and then the artillery, eight or ten peices, belched forth in rapid succession, long sheets of angry looking flame; while the rattle of the small arms, and the roar of the cannon seemed enough to paralize.

Reenactors fire their guns during a recreation of the Battle of Natural Bridge near the original battle site (1992).

Reenactors fire their guns during a recreation of the Battle of Natural Bridge near the original battle site (1992).

The left wing held their fire, except one boy by the name of Roberts in our company, who could not let the opportunity pass of takeing a shot as he afterwards said, but the boys said he was so badly scared, that he did not know which wing he belonged to; and the boys was no doubt correct. When the confusion and noise of the first round died away, there seemed to be nothing left of the foe, as not a sound emanated from in front. It was in fact a wild retreat, precipitantly taken when they found so much larger force than they expected.

As soon as our wits returned, (I speak for myself) sufficiently to pay any attention to our surroundings, I noticed that day light had broken. Soon news came some of our men had been killed, two in one company, Capt. Barweaks; one of our boys had his canteeen ruined by being preforated with a minnie ball and another was contused on the hip, and had caught the ball which was terible battered in his pants pocket. But none of Co. B was hurt father this.

My impression was that the trouble was over, as we had made such an easy repulse, so when volunteers was called to go on skirmish duty, I went out hopeing my impressions was correct.

We’ll be posting Joshua Hoyet Frier’s recollections of the actual Battle of Natural Bridge tomorrow (March 6, 2015) on the Florida Memory Blog. Until then, leave us a comment to let us know what you think about Frier’s memories so far. Also, check out these Florida Memory resources for more information of Florida in the Civil War: