The Museum of Southern History
Preserving the History, Ideals and Chivalry of the South.
4304 Herschel St., Jacksonville, Florida 32210
John Milton, the governor who steered Florida through the war.
Born in Jefferson Co., Georgia on 20 April 1807, John Milton had spent time in Florida as a captain during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). In 1846, he moved permanently to Florida and settled in Jackson County near Marianna, He successfully farmed and practiced politics. He was a strong supporter of states rights and was an early advocate for secession of Florida from the Union. He was a delegate to the 1860 Democrat National Convention from Florida and in the same year ran for Governor on the Democrat secessionist ticket becoming the 5th Governor of Florida following statehood. He assumed office on 7 October 1861, and immediately had to deal with the issue of keeping enough troops in the state to guard its 1,200 coastline or send this valuable resource to the Confederate Army where Florida's manpower was sorely needed. Milton realized that the Confederacy needed the Florida troops more and acquiesced to Richmond's demands.
John Milton cooperated fully with the Confederate government in Richmond, unlike many other Southern governors who were considered "obstructionists" by withholding troops, arms and ammunition. The cooperation wasn't reciprocal, however, because Richmond didn't believe that the Florida coastline was vital enough to send troops to protect it.
Federal forces had occupied St. Augustine, Fernandina and Jacksonville by March 1862. Of more crucial strategic importance was the port of Apalachicola which was sheltered by a chain of offshore islands. The Apalachicola River provided a link with the Alabama and Georgia interior and an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico for Confederate ships that slipped by the Federal blockade. Scarcely less important was the area’s ability to produce large quantities of salt which gave the Confederacy the ability to preserve meat and other food supplies. “Apalachicola should be defended to the last extremity," Milton adamantly maintained. No less a military expert than General Robert E. Lee concurred. But before Southern troops could act on his orders to secure the area, eight Union boats converged on and captured Apalachicola on 3 April 1862. On 20 May 1862 a boat carrying 21 men left the blockading vessel and approached the shore. They were fired upon by Confederates under Captain H. T. Blocker of the Beauregard Rangers. Seventeen of the boat’s occupants were either killed or wounded. There were no Confederate casualties. The port continued to change hands repeatedly throughout the war, usually without serious conflict
Governor Milton directed operations from Tallahassee. It, too, was dangerously within striking distance of Federal troops and the governor sent his 11 children (the youngest whom he had named Jeff Davis) for safety to his Jackson County plantation, Sylvania.
The major offensive Milton expected came on 20 February 1864. At Olustee, in the biggest engagement fought in Florida, a Southern force halted the westward advance of the enemy. Slightly more than a year later Confederates turned back Union forces at Natural Bridge on 5 March 1865, and saved the capital from capture. A month later Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865.
Several days earlier John Milton had, in complete despair, put down his executive duties and traveled to Sylvania. Tired and depressed, the governor shot himself on 1 April 1865. Floridians were left to ponder the words he had uttered in his last address to the Florida Legislature: "Death would be preferable to reunion." He was buried in the St. Luke's Episcopal Church cemetery. Newspapers reported that he had dispatched himself rather than live under Union tyranny. On 10 May, less than six weeks after Milton died, Federal troops entered Tallahassee without opposition.
The Florida that John Milton left to its citizens was not the same state as when he had become its governor. He left a state in which its population of more than 62,000 slaves was now free. Florida's political parties were divided on a course of action and its plantation aristocracy was dismantled. Floridians were undergoing shortages of food and clothing, and Reconstruction was about to take its severe toll.
No Southern governor surpassed, and few equaled, the devotion and service that John Milton rendered the Confederate States of America. During the course of the war, President Jefferson Davis wrote the Florida executive: "It is gratifying to me to be able to say to you that in this time of our great trouble, when so many are disposed to withhold from the Confederate Government the means of success, you should occupy the high standpoint of strengthening its hands by all the means in your power and of nobly disregarding all considerations except the common weal."
The governor knew Federal troops would invade Florida at some point during the war because of its strategic importance and supplier of foodstuffs. The state's main contribution to the war effort was providing cotton, beef cattle and salt, the latter for preserving fresh meat.