The Museum of Southern History
Preserving the History, Ideals and Chivalry of the South.
4304 Herschel St., Jacksonville, Florida 32210
The Confederate Swamp Fox
Captain John Jackson Dickison with a very limited force was largely responsible for keeping Florida from falling under Federal occupation during the war for Southern independence.
         In 1860 the white population of Florida was only 77,747, yet Florida furnished approximately 15,000 men to the Confederate Army. The Florida brigades in the Army of Northern Virginia and Army of Tennessee earned an enviable reputation and suffered staggering casualties. To keep these units in the field, by 1864 most of the Confederate Troops serving in Florida had been sent north. The Federal Govern¬ment thought Florida could easily be recaptured, yet at the end of the war Tallahassee remained the only unoccupied Southern state capital and nearly all of the stale was firmly in Confederate hands. Most of the credit for holding on to Florida belonged to one man - John Jackson Dickison. When Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, Dickison began the formation of a cavalry company in Marion County. Before the organization was completed, however, John M. Martin, a leading citizen of the county, offered to join if it was con¬verted to artillery. Dickison agreed to this with the provision that Martin become captain of the com¬pany while he served as first lieutenant.

         Dickison at this time was about 40. Born in what is now Monroe County, West Virginia, he moved at an early age to South Carolina. Having prospered in business, he moved to Marion County, Florida, in 1856, settling near Orange Lake, a small community north of Ocala. He became one of the prominent planters of the area. Dickison had four children by two marriages. Two of his sons, Charles and R. I. served under their father in the Confederate Army. Sergeant Charles Dickison was killed in action at Palatka on August 2, 1864.

         From his later writings - and even some of his contemporary battle reports - Dickison seems to have been a rather pompous individual. This one minor frailty was more than offset by his personal courage and superb leadership ability.

         While stationed near Jacksonville in May 1862, the Marion Light Artillery reorganized for the war. This necessitated another election of officers and for some unknown reason Dickison was defeated for re-election as first lieutenant. The blow was a severe one to both Dickison and Captain Martin. At Dicki¬son's request, Martin wrote to Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, the district commander, requesting for him an appointment as quartermaster. Martin went on to say that if Dickison was thrown out of the service it would cause him much mortification and pecuniary loss. Dickison was released from duty with the Marion Light Artillery on May 29, 1862. Although it had been a blow to Dickison's ego, his forced separation from the company led to his fame. Luckily, nothing more was heard about the requested appointment as quartermaster, and Dickison went back to his original plan of raising a cavalry company. General Finegan authorized Dickison on July 2 to raise the last com¬pany needed for the formation of the 2nd Florida Cavalry Regiment. The company, originally called the Leo Dragoons, was mustered into the Confederate service as Company H, 2d Florida Cavalry, on August 21. Dickison became captain, William H. McCardell the first lieutenant, and W. J. McEaddy the second lieutenant.

         Three days later the company moved to Gainesville, where they remained a week procuring arms and equipment. Dickison's company was then stationed in the Jacksonville area and skirmished with the enemy when the city fell on October 5. A few days later the company was shifted about seventy miles up the St. Johns River to garrison Palatka.

         From this time until the end of the war Dickison was a constant thorn in the side of the Union Army and Navy. His company, along with various other units temporarily under his command, patrolled the areas along the St. Johns and eastward to the coast, ambushed Union foraging expeditions, and captured pickets and isolated bodies of troops. Even when he was not actually attacking the enemy, fear of Dicki¬son and his men kept the Union forces for the most part bottled up in St. Augustine and a few scattered posts. The Federals could occupy the towns, but they were never able effectively to control the country¬side. The Federals came to call Dickison "Dixie" and referred to the vast territory west of the St. Johns as “Dixieland." It was during the last year of the war, however, that Dickison scored his most spectacular successes. Dickison's command was ordered to the Tampa Bay area early in 1864, and had just arrived there when word was received of a major Federal advance from Jacksonville. After marching day and night for 575 miles to Tampa and back, with little rest, Dickison's men were too late by twelve hours to take part in the Battle of Olustee (1), on February 20, 1864. Dickison thus missed the one full-scale battle fought in Florida, but his command managed to capture forty enemy stragglers as the beaten Federals retreated to Jacksonville. On April 30 the Confederates learned that a Union force was at Fort Butler in Volusia County. Dickison was ordered to keep an eye on it. He also learned that there was a Federal garrison at Welaka. Taking two men with him on May 18, Dickison con¬cealed himself in the river swamp opposite Welaka, remaining there all day watching the enemy. The next day at sundown he moved with thirty-five men under Lieutenant McEaddy and Captain Henry A. Gray and twenty-five men of Company B, 2d Florida Cavalry. It was a nine-mile march to the St. Johns and under cover of night they crossed in three small rowboats. Another seven miles brought them to Welaka. Placing two detachments on the flanks of the enemy, Dickison moved in on the center with another detachment, capturing the pickets and com-pletely surprising the outpost. He then demanded the surrender of the post. The captain and a portion of Company B, 17th Connecticut Infantry, meekly laid down their guns. In all, the Confederates bagged thirty-nine prisoners without loss to themselves.

         Dickison took his prisoners back across the river. After resting a few hours, he informed his men that he was immediately going after the Federal post at Fort Butler, about fifteen miles away and at the opposite end of Lake George. The entire command volunteered for the expedition, but Dickison took only twenty-five men. After some misadventures in the inky dark, the outpost, manned by a detachment of the 157th New York Infantry, was surprised and captured without resistance.

         The capture of the two outposts caused consterna¬tion in the Union ranks. On the morning of May 21, Brigadier General George H. Gordon, commanding the District of Florida, ordered the troops opposite Volusia and Saunders on the river withdrawn. Gordon then started up the river by boat with 200 men of the Jacksonville garrison, accompanied by the gunboat Ottawa and the armed steam tug Columbine. At Picolata he picked up six companies of the 35th United States Colored Troops and the remainder of the 157th New York Infantry, bringing his force up to about 650 or 700 men. The troops landed opposite Palatka and advanced overland while the Columbine proceeded up the river.

         Dickison was in Palatka at the time, but he was unable to get a shot at the enemy across the mile¬ wide river. When the Columbine started upstream, Dickison pursued along the shore with fifty of his cavalrymen and two guns of Company A, Milton Light Artillery, under 1st Lieutenant Mortimer W. Bates. The Confederates arrived at Brown's Landing (4) five minutes too late to engage the enemy. Dickison had gone ahead and concealed himself in a large cypress tree. The Columbine passed within fifty feet of him and he had a good look at its armament.

         Word then arrived from the troops left at Palatka (5) that the Ottawa and one of the transports were also coming upriver. Dickison halted his command about 300 yards from Brown's Landing. Bates unlimbered his guns and Dickison dismounted the cavalry and ordered them into the swamp to protect the artillery.

         The Ottawa had come upriver to support the Columbine and Gordon had ordered the transport Charles Houghton to accompany the gunboat for pro-tection. The gunboat anchored at Brown's Landing just as the sun set and the transport dropped anchor just astern.

         Lieutenant Commander S. Livingston Breese, the captain of the Ottawa, not knowing why the transport was there, took the dinghy and went over to her. He had just boarded her when he heard the report of a field piece fired at the Ottawa. Breese jumped into the dinghy and was back on board his own ship before she had time to return the fire.

         Dickison had just put Bates's guns in position when the two Union ships anchored. Just as the Confed¬erates were ready to open fire the enemy lighted up their ships, making them fine targets. The two Con¬federate guns got off twenty-eight rounds before Breese was able to get his guns in action. Firing at the flashes of the Confederate guns, Breese believed he was being attacked by a battery of four. Soon after the big 150-pounders of the gunboat opened fire Dickison ordered Bates to withdraw his battery. The Ottawa had been hit thirty-seven times by grapeshot and had a shell through her smokestack which carried away the mainstay. Breese slipped the anchor chain as soon as possible and continued firing long after the Confederates had disappeared. Neither side suf-fered any casualties.

         The following day, May 23, Dickison selected sixteen sharpshooters and with the artillery proceeded to Horse Landing (3), about six miles upstream from Brown's Landing. The guns were placed in position on the wharf while the horses and limbers were sent to the rear. The sharpshooters took their places behind cypress trees to the left of the guns.

         The Columbine, Acting Ensign Frank Sanborn commanding, was a converted steam tug armed with two 20-pounder Parrott rifles. Before she left the land¬ing opposite Palatka, sand bags had been piled on her deck to make her a little less vulnerable. A detachment of two officers and twenty-five men of the 35th United States Colored Troops under Captain Edward S. Daniels were placed on board. As the Columbine returned downstream on the evening of May 23, Sanborn beat "to quarters" in expectation of an ambush. Upon turning the point just above Horse Landing she opened fire on the landing and the road as soon as the guns could be brought to bear, slowed down, and lowered the torpedo catchers.

         Dickison's men waited quietly as the Union boat drew nearer. When the Columbine was directly opposite the landing and less than 100 yards from shore, both of Bates's guns opened fire.

         Sanborn instantly gave orders to "hook on," but Bates's second shot cut the wheel chains, and at the same time the pilot abandoned the wheel and jumped over the bow. The helpless vessel drifted to a point about 200 yards from the Confederate battery and 100 yards from the sharpshooters and ran aground on a mud bank. Another shell hit the main steam pipe causing a great loss of steam. Sanborn left the hurricane deck and took charge of the forward gun, sending Acting Master's Mate W. B. Spencer aft on the quarterdeck to ship the tiller and hook the relieving tackles, at the same time stopping and backing the engine.

         Acting Third Assistant Engineer Henry J. Johnson now reported the loss of steam and Spencer came back to report that the quarterdeck had been swept by grapeshot and the sharpshooters' bullets. The after gun had been abandoned and Acting Master's Mate John Davis killed. Leaving the forward gun, Sanborn hurried to the quarterdeck. He quickly saw that the Columbine could not be moved and their only hope was in driving off the Confederates. He again took charge of the forward gun and sent Spencer to rally the infantry guard, which was going ever the side. Spencer managed to stop them, but Johnson reported that one of the after frame timbers had been shot away and locked the wheel, making the engine useless. Captain Daniels had been wounded and the sharpshooters were picking off the men at the forward gun. Sanborn held a hurried conference with the surviving officers and they decided to sur¬render. The flag had been shot away at the beginning of the action, but Sanborn hoisted a white flag and then went ashore to formally surrender his vessel to Dickison. The Columbine had lost one officer killed, five men wounded, and sixteen killed or missing. Apparently several soldiers and sailors drowned attempting to escape. Because of the proximity of the Ottawa, Dickison quickly had as much property as possible removed and then burned the Columbine to the waterline.

         Dickison’s biggest battle of the war (2) came three months later. Early on the morning of August 15 two Federal columns marched out of Baldwin. Colonel William H. Noble had under his command three regiments of United States Colored Troops, twenty men of the 75th Ohio Mounted Infantry, and three guns of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery. The other column, commanded by Colonel Andrew L. Harris of the 75th Ohio Mounted Infantry, consisted of the remainder of his regiment and one gun of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery. After following separate routes, the two columns met that evening at Trail Ridge. Harris soon resumed his march, adding to his fifteen men of the 75th Ohio who had been with Noble. The column reached Starke at 2:30 a.m. on August 16. Here it was joined by Capt. Joseph Morton with two com¬panies of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, and a detach¬ment of Unionist Floridians, totaling altogether 104 officers and men. The Federals camped at Starke until daylight and destroyed some Confederate commissary stores and railroad cars.

         Dickison’s company had been along the St. Johns, skirmishing occasionally with the enemy. On August 15 they were at Waldo and soon found their communications cut by the advancing Federals. At sundown Capt. Samuel Rou with a detachment of his Company F, 2nd Florida Cavalry, arrived at Waldo and reported the enemy in Starke.

         Harris resumed the march at 7:30 a.m. on August 16. His troops systematically looted the plantations along the way and rounded up the slaves. Dickison, learning that the enemy cavalry had left the infantry column behind, decided to give chase. To his own Company H, he added Rou's detachment of Com-pany F, about twenty-five men of Company H, 5th Florida Cavalry Battalion, a section of artillery under 2d Lieutenant T. J. Bruton, and ninety new infantry recruits who had just reported. The Confederates moved out on the road to Gainesville, Dickison leav¬ing Colonel Elias Earle of Governor John Milton's staff in command of the infantry while he pushed ahead with the cavalry and the artillery. Early the next morning he was joined by a detachment of fifteen militia. Altogether he had about 290 men.

         The Federal column had come on to the road to Gainesville about a mile north of Rochelle and reached the town at 6:30 a.m. on August 17 after an all-night march. There were about seventy Con¬federate militia in Gainesville but Company B, 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, easily drove them out of town. Harris' horses badly needed rest and forage, so he ordered his men to keep on their accouterments, but to slip the bridles and feed the animals. At the same time the cooks were ordered to make coffee. The 4th Massachusetts Cavalry was near the center of town, the artillery piece to their rear, and the 75th Ohio to the rear of the artillery north of the railroad grade. The units were all in open lots, while mounted and dismounted pickets were posted on all sides.

         After driving into a small grove and feeding their horses, the Rhode Island Artillerymen took a walk through the town. Some obtained corn cakes, some a little rock candy, and some managed to secure Confederate money for souvenirs. They had just returned to the grove and were preparing to relax when a solid shot went crashing over their heads.

         Dickison had pushed on steadily in pursuit of the raiders until about two miles out of Gainesville he sighted the enemy's rear guard. A mile closer he ran into the Federal picket line. Dickison ordered Bruton to fire two shells into the enemy. Besides breaking up the Rhode Islanders' siesta, this fire sent the Federals hurrying into position. Harris imme¬diately ordered his command to face to their former rear, throwing the right flank of the 75th Ohio to the left, resting on a swamp and a thicket, and the left flank to the right, also covered by a swamp and a thicket. The howitzer was placed near the road, close to the center of the line. The 75th Ohio was dis¬mounted, except for Company I, which was sent to guard the north side of town. It took cover behind the railroad fill and neighboring fences. The 4th Massachusetts was in reserve.

         After driving in the pickets, Dickison dismounted his men, except for a platoon under Lieutenant McEaddy. He ordered Captain Rou and Lieutenant McCardell to take the railroad depot, while McEaddy attacked on the right and 1st Lieutenant A. .J. Dozier of the 5th Florida Cavalry Battalion drove the enemy from what is now University Avenue. Bruton's guns kept up a hot fire on the enemy. Soon the Federals were driven from the depot. The Confederates managed to lay down a crossfire on the enemy gun and cut down five of the six horses on the caisson and killed the soldier holding the horses. The Rhode Islanders fired furiously, soon getting the range of Bruton's guns. Brilton told his gunners, "This is no place to fight. Limber up." He moved his guns and quickly began to make it hot for the Rhode Islanders. Soon the Federals had only one load of canister and one solid shot left. The corporal temporarily commanding the gun was wounded.

         The Confederates, although outnumbered, began to close a ring around the town. Harris ordered Company B, 4th Massachusetts, to the rear of the town and threw out portions of the 75th Ohio farther on the right and left flanks. By now it was about 9 a.m. Harris found his artillery nearly out of ammu¬nition and the enemy all around him. The 4th Massachusetts had managed to hold the Confederates back, but nearly half of the Federal horses had been disabled and the men had been driven from cover. Harris decided that his only hope was to cut his way out and try to find Noble's column somewhere between Starke and Magnolia.

         The Confederates were right behind the Federals as they left the firing line and Harris did not have time to form his men back into column. Captain Morton by mistake led a portion of the command out the Newnansville Road instead of the Waldo Road. Private George H. Luther of the artillery detachment later recalled that they were in doubt which way to turn when. the retreat was ordered. After entering the Newnansville Road, he turned down a cart path, hoping to pass around and regain the road by which they had entered town. The Con¬federates were right behind them and Luther did not even stop for a large log across his path. The bounce over the log threw off some of the men astride the gun. Soon one of the wheel horses was hit and the gun came to a stop.

         As soon as Harris realized that Morton had taken the wrong road he dashed after him and by making a detour around the town brought a portion of the command back to the Waldo Road. About a mile from town he came up with the disabled gun. As Luther put it: "Colonel Harris, who was near us at the time, said: 'Boys, I am sorry for you; I have stayed by you till the last minute; good bye'; and away he went through the dust on his splendid horse." The Confederates closed in and captured the entire Rhode Island detachment.

         Dickison had dashed through the streets as the Federals pulled out, calling to his men to mount their horses and give chase. Part of the enemy was pursued the fifteen miles to Newnansville, Morton eventually being captured with most of his men. Harris, with three officers and thirty-eight men, after abandoning the gun and its crew, turned off the Waldo Road and struck overland for the St. Johns, reaching safety at Magnolia. The remainder of the command appears to have scattered.

         Only 175 men of the Confederate force were actually in the battle. The remainder did not come up until after the fight in town was over, but they scoured the country for more than forty miles from Gainesville. Enemy stragglers were picked up for the next several days. Major George B. Fox of the 75th Ohio and two of his men left town on foot, their horses having been killed, and were captured when they had nearly reached the St. Johns River, fifty miles from Gainesville. The major was brought to Dickison who pleasantly asked, "Major Fox, how is it that you allow the 'Gray Fox' to outrun and cap¬ture the 'Red Fox?'" The advance of the main re¬treating Federal column, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Morgan of the 75th Ohio, was forced off the Waldo Road by the Confederates and took the Lake City Road. They then struck east and eventually reached Magnolia, but Morgan's horse was disabled and he was captured in the swamps.

         Harris had about 300 men In the battle. He ad¬mitted a loss of 176, but Confederate accounts state that 28 were killed, 5 wounded, and 188 captured. In addition, Dickison secured the 12-pounder how¬itzer, 260 horses, and three supply wagons, as well as recovering about 200 slaves and the valuables looted from the plantations. The Confederates lost three killed and five wounded two of them mortally.

         Although Gainesville was by far Dickison's greatest victory, he scored several more spectacular successes before the end of the war. In October he ambushed the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, which was on a cattle raid, killing ten or twelve and taking twenty-three prisoners without any loss to his com¬mand. In February 1865 he attacked an expedition of the 17th Connecticut Infantry which had been seizing cotton near Lake George. In a sharp skirmish, the Confederates killed four Federals, including the regimental adjutant, and captured fifty-one soldiers, eighteen Confederate deserters and Unionists; and ten wagons full of cotton. In a hand-to-hand en¬counter on horseback Dickison mortally wounded and captured Lieutenant Colonel Albert H. Wilcoxson of the 17th Connecticut, the commander of the ex¬pedition.

         Immediately after his return from this exploit, Dickison was ordered to the other side of the penin¬sula where a raiding party had penetrated the interior from Cedar Key. In a sharp engagement on February 13 the Confederates hotly pressed the 2nd United States Colored Troops and the 2nd Florida Cavalry (Union) until their ammunition ran out. The Federals lost six killed, eighteen wounded, and three captured while Dickison had five men wounded.

         The end of the war found Dickison and his men again stationed at Waldo. Dickison surrendered and was paroled on May 20, still a captain despite re-peated efforts by his commanders to get him a pro¬motion. A few days later Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, fleeing the country after the collapse of the Confederacy, arrived in Gainesville carrying Dickison's appointment as colonel, which had been made on April 6.

         The achievements of Dickison and his men are amazing when one considers the extent of territory in which he operated, the disparity in the size of the opposing forces, and the difficulty of the terrain. At one time or another, Dickison's command served from Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico to Smyrna on the Atlantic and from Tampa Bay to Olustee near the Georgia border. He seldom commanded over 200 men at one time and never had more than two pieces of artillery, and these only during the last year of the war. But he inspired such terror in the Federal forces that even a rumor of his being in the field caused consternation. Federal commanders were constantly reporting that he had crossed the St. Johns with 100 men, while he seldom actually operated east of the river with more than fifty men. The Federal accounts of the Battle of Gainesville put the Confederate force as high as 1,000 men. Although his military training had been limited to a brief time in the pre-war South Carolina militia and the first year of the war with the Marion Artillery, Dickison seems to have been one of those rare, natural-born soldiers. He skillfully used the swamps, the pine forests, the palmetto scrub, and the thick cypress trees to screen his small force. Re¬peatedly he was able to place his men in positions from which they could ambush larger Federal forces. His ability to drive home a surprise attack is evidenced by the comparatively light casualties suf¬fered by his command. His men idolized him and he became probably the greatest hero of the war to Floridians. In 1864 the Florida Legislature voted Dickison and his command their thanks. Major General Sam .Jones, Brigadier Generals Joseph Fine-gan and John K. Jackson, Dickison's commanders, repeatedly commended him and urged his promotion. Only the Confederate War Department bureaucracy kept him from obtaining a well-earned colonelcy be¬fore hostilities ceased.

         Almost unknown today outside of Florida, Dickison was one of the ablest guerrilla commanders produced not only during the War Between the States, but probably in all American military. history. To him must go most of the credit for keeping Florida as Confederate territory to the end of the war. Dickison must be credited with maintaining a well-disciplined mili¬tary unit. Even though operating often as irregulars behind the enemy lines his men never committed the excesses often perpetrated by guerrillas on both sides of the war.