John Jackson Dickison was born in Monroe County,Va., on March 27, 1816. At an early age, he and his family moved to South Carolina. He later married M.E. Lester and worked as a clerk at a shoe store in Georgetown, S.C. Dickison always had an interest in the military, and he served as a cavalry officer in the South Carolina Militia.
In 1845 his first child, Charles B., was born, and shortly thereafter his wife died. Dickison later married Mary Elizabeth Ling of Charleston and fathered two more sons, R.L. and John J., and a daughter named Mary Elizabeth. In 1856 Dickison and his family relocated to Orange Lake, Fla. Taking advantage of the warm climate, he prospered as a planter at his large estate,“Sunnyside.”
On February 28, 1861, Florida officially seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Dickison began to organize a Confederate cavalry company but was convinced by Ocala’s John M. Martin to join his unit, the Marion Light Artillery. Martin was elected captain and Dickison first lieutenant when the unit was formed in October 1861.
Eager for more active service, Dickison left the Marion Light Artillery when it was reorganized in May 1862. Confederate Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan authorized Dickison to recruit volunteers to be merged into the 2nd Florida Cavalry Regiment. Captain Dickison and the Leo Dragoons (Company H of the 2nd Florida Cavalry) were mustered into Confederate service on August 21, 1862, at Flotard Pond in Marion County.
Dickison, confined to a small area of operations near Jacksonville, became restless with the limited amount of action he encountered. He developed a unique offensive strategy adaptable to Florida’s terrain and utilized guerrilla tactics to harass and frustrate his Union opponents—quickly forging a reputation as a bold and enterprising raider. Federal soldiers grudgingly began referring to Dickison as “Dixie” and the section of Florida that he controlled as “Dixieland.” To Confederate sympathizers, Dickison was affectionately known as the “War Eagle” and the “Gray Fox.” Favoring hand-tohand combat, he always armed himself with a sword and three revolvers: one in his belt holster and a brace in his saddle holsters.
Exhibiting an amazing aptitude for unconventional warfare, Dickison, with a small command of cavalrymen and artillerists, attacked and severely damaged the Federal gunboat USS Ottawa on May 22, 1864. The following evening, they captured and destroyed USS Columbine at Horse Landing, near Palatka. Dickison confiscated a 17-foot-long lifeboat and other valuable supplies from the disabled ship. After submerging the lifeboat in a shallow lake for future use, Dickison ordered Columbine burned.
Dickison’s triumphant engagement with the Federals at Nine Mile Swamp (near Palatka) on August 2, 1864, ended in personal tragedy. His 19-year-old son, 3rd Sgt. Charlie Dickison, was shot in the chest after the Yankees feigned a cease-fire. Sergeant Dickison survived for a brief time but never uttered another word. Captain Dickison carried his son’s corpse on horseback to his encampment six miles away.
William H. McConn was a small boy living in Palatka at the time. He recalled encountering Captain Dickison and his prisoners following the Nine Mile Swamp victory: “After the fight, all gathered at Uncle Jacob Thomas’ home near our house, and my brother and I went over there. Our men were bringing in their dead and wounded, and one of the dead was Captain Dickison’s own son. I remember seeing a soldier riding his horse, with the body across the saddle in front of him. Dickison kept pacing back and forth and saying that if he knew which one killed his son he would have him executed immediately.” Captain Dickison lamented the death of his oldest son, saying, “His pure spirit took its heavenward flight to the bright world where his angel mother awaited him with rapturous welcome.”
A professed Christian, Dickison firmly believed that his miraculous escapes from certain death were “effected alone by the direct agency of His almighty power.” Dickison contended that “Love of country comes next to our love and allegiance to God. It must follow that a people panoplied with righteousness must be a highly patriotic people.”
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.