Captain John Dickison and his men staked their claim to a piece of the southern partisan legend at Gainesville.
On a swampy, hot Monday in midday August 1864, a subdivision of the U.S. Army embarked upon an invasion expedition from Baldwin and Magnolia (present- Green Cove Springs) in northeastern Florida. Traveling in a southwesterly direction, the campaigners arbitrarily arrested Southern sympathizers in many small villages. Severing telegraph wires along their line of march, the Federals also demolished six train cars and a half-mile of track, in addition to torching Confederate government commissaries, cotton mills and gin houses.
On the evening of the 16th, Colonel Andrew L. Harris split from Colonel William H. Noble’s infantry brigade, then encamped near the Boulware Plantation at Kingsley’s Pond. Harris and his command of 400 cavalrymen appropriated plantation wagons and carriages loaded with valuable silverware, furniture and clothing. In addition to liberating more than 200 slaves, the Federals also stole about 40 horses and mules from neighboring farmhouses. The Northern shock troops entered Gainesville the next morning at 6:30, dislodging 70 home guardsmen under the leadership of Judge Thomas F. King.
The city, site of a Confederate Army storehouse, encompassed an eight-block perimeter circling the courthouse square. Harris stationed his regiment, the 75th Ohio Mounted Infantry, near the Florida Railroad depot. Companies B and D of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry bivouacked around the property of the Beville House Hotel at the northwest corner of Union Avenue and Main Street. The single fieldpiece from Battery B of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery was set in the rear of an open lot.
The residential thoroughfare appeared evacuated, except for a smattering of elderly pedestrians. Some of the soldiers began robbing the citizens, relieving the men of their wallets and pocket watches and the ladies of gold rings and brooches. These same stragglers, after looting the mercantile businesses, ignited several fires in the buildings.
The sun rose 30 minutes after the initial Federal envelopment. Suddenly two explosions reverberated in the distance. Stunned by what sounded like an artillery salvo, Colonel Harris was soon notified by an officer of his rear guard that Confederate horsemen were approaching from the south. The colonel frantically attempted to assemble his scattered men for a defense.
A rising crescendo of hoofbeats rumbled along the pike as Harris positioned his 12-pounder howitzer within the town courtyard. A correspondent for the Lake City Columbian was in Gainesville at the time and had witnessed the depredations committed by the Federal soldiers. He reported, “Just in the midst of their thieving operations, and conduct such as would have been a disgrace even to the names and character of the Goths and Vandals, Captain Dickison, that great and gallant chieftain who has done so much to illustrate the gallantry and chivalry of the ‘Land of Flowers’ with his noble command, dashed in the town from nearly every direction.”
Confederate Captain John J. Dickison, riding at the helm of Company H (Leo Dragoons), 2nd Florida Cavalry, swiftly descended on the panicked Union legion. Renowned as the “Swamp Fox of Florida,” and provisionally in supreme tactical command of all South Florida forces, Dickison had relentlessly pursued the raiding party since 9 the previous evening. With guns blazing, he and his partisans smashed into the Federal alignment.
Colonel Harris deployed skirmishers on all sides, while his main column retired to the protection of the railroad depot. He wrote: “This disposition was not complete when the enemy made a furious attack, which I repulsed as soon as possible. The enemy was checked in front, but he immediately surrounded me with his whole force, thus compelling me to send Company B, 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, to the rear of town, and throw portions of the 75th Ohio Volunteer Mounted Infantry on both the right and left flank, thus weakening my first line.”
On the outskirts, Confederate 2nd Lt. Thomas J. Bruton bombarded the Union emplacement with spherical shells from his 12-pounder Napoleon. Exposed to heavy return fire, Dickison dismounted all of his 175 troopers except for one platoon under 2nd Lt. W.J. McEaddy. He directed Lieutenant William H. McCardell and Captain Samuel F. Rou (commanding an F Company detachment from the 2nd Florida Cavalry) to advance on the left and seize the depot.
Dickison motioned McEaddy to maneuver his unit toward the right flank of the Federals’ line. Third Lieutenant Henry C. Dozier was then ordered to rush into the center and expel the enemy from the railroad crossing. Dickison hurriedly dispatched his couriers to assist in extinguishing the smoldering warehouses. He later recalled: “Our artillery was in the rear, shelling with good effect….The officers and men behaved with great gallantry.”
While Minié balls ricocheted off the brick structures and fence palings, a few patriotic ladies carried buckets of water to the fatigued Rebels. At this perilous moment, Judge King and his band, accompanied by militia Captain William A. Owens’ patrol, rejoined the fracas. Armed with shotguns and flintlock muskets, the old men and boys unleashed a murderous volley upon the fleeing Federals.
The devastating fusillade seemed to erupt from every window. An unidentified Confederate soldier testified, “The grandfather vies with his offspring in deeds of valor, and the silver-haired patriarch, bowed with the weight of years, stands firmly by the side of his fair-haired boys in forming that solid phalanx contending for all that is dear to them and against which the combined forces of the enemy cannot successfully combat.”
Private John M. Stewart, Company L, 75th Ohio, was on foot since his horse had been killed. He and another dismounted comrade struggled to reach the Union rallying point at the upper end of town.
Stewart later remembered: “We went into a yard to a big well to get us a drink. I got a drink first and handed him the tin cup to get him a drink. I started out on the street but the sharp report of a revolver behind me caused me to look around and there on his back by the well lay my companion, and a woman was standing on the porch with a smoking revolver in her hand.”
Colonel Harris, with a small contingent of his command, made a stand around his fieldpiece. The Ohioans, equipped with Spencer rifles, obstinately defended their position for two hours. The cannoneers drew their pistols after expending all the artillery projectiles. Harris recalled, “The enemy fought with determination, and as he had me entirely surrounded, was confident that his superior force would decide the victory in his favor.”
Dickison, noting the violent disintegration at the railroad crossing, exhorted his men to press the Yankees from the depot. Captain James D. Starke, with Company H, 5th Florida Cavalry Battalion—originally detailed as auxiliaries—moved into action. The Southern troopers stormed the fortification, discharging a burst of rounds at point-blank range. Completely engulfed, the Union troops steadily began to recoil under that withering blast of lead.
Dickison recalled: “Soon the Federals were driven from the depot, and with our small-arms we got a cross-fire on their gun, killing every horse but one in the caisson. The fight grew very exciting, the right and left closing in around the town.” Deserting the caisson, Harris noted that “nearly half my horses having been disabled by the enemy’s fire, both infantry and artillery, and my men being pushed from their cover, I concluded that my only safety was in retreat.”
Private William B. Southerton of Company B, 75th Ohio, confirmed the state of affairs: “Mounting our horses we backed off into town, then out on the road to the west where the Massachusetts cavalry held the enemy in check for a short time. A woman standing in the doorway of a shack fired at Colonel Harris. In a flash she was shot down. Harris escaped out by the road to the west.”
Dickison galloped through the congested streets, calling on his men to mount their horses. Shouting the battle cry “Victory or death!” they surged forward in a final penetrating thrust that, according to Dickison, left the enemy “scattering along the roads and through the woods, pursued on every side by our brave boys.”
Private Stewart, having caught a horse, hastily escaped the scene. On reaching an intersection, he later reminisced, “I saw Lias Thompson coming up the street with the headquarters team and the rebels after him. He was coming toward me; before he got to me a lot of rebels came out of another alley on him. He surrendered and they shot him dead. Four or five of them commanded me to surrender but my horse was running and I dropped down on the side of the horse opposite the rebels. They shot at me but missed me and my horse both.”
Dickison rapidly closed with a Northern horseman and demanded his surrender. Upon the trooper’s refusal, Dickison inflicted a severe wound with a sweeping cut of his blade. He then galloped toward an unhorsed Union captain and threatened to shoot if he did not yield immediately. Cursing, the Federal captain contemptuously responded, “Shoot and be damned!” Dickison promptly fired his pistol. Before the bloodied officer hit the ground, he was also shot by Private Seth S. Barnes. Leaving their dead adversary in the dust, Dickison and Barnes bolted down the Waldo Road.
In their haste, Captain Joseph W. Morton and his portion of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry mistakenly turned down the lane to Newnansville. Colonel Harris soon overtook them and, by detouring through the brush, got them back onto the Waldo Road. Encountering a savage ambuscade from the Rebels, Harris pleaded with his disoriented men, “For God’s sake, save the artillery!” The Federals then launched a disjointed and unsuccessful counterattack.
Colonel Harris evaluated his command’s critical position and delivered an impromptu speech to his artillerists: “Boys, I am sorry for you. I have stayed by you till the last minute. Goodbye.” Private George H. Luther of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, who witnessed Harris’ address, wrote, “and away he went through the dust on his splendid horse.”
The Floridians pursued the Federals as they retreated and intercepted their cannon one mile from town. Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Morgan of the 75th Ohio, with a fragmented remnant of the advance guard, abruptly veered onto the Lake City Road. Faltering at the grueling pace of the withdrawal, many of the exhausted horses collapsed. Soldiers plunged into the marsh and palmetto bushes in an attempt to escape their pursuers.
Colonel Harris recalled, “Lieutenant-Colonel Morgan’s horse being disabled, he was compelled to abandon him and take to the swamps.” Private Southerton was plodding through the quagmire when he was overtaken by a band of four Confederate soldiers. Southerton later described his captors: “The commanding officer was addressed as Sergeant Poer. He was a man about forty years of age; five of our revolvers and carbines hung from his belt. The rest of the band were mere boys. Not one of the rebels was in uniform.”
Private William Roberts of Company B from the 75th Ohio was accosted by a Southern trooper with the cordial greeting, “Are you all one of them damn sonsof-bitches Yankees?” Private Stewart was also subdued and guided back toward Gainesville with other captives. “We had not gone far,” he remembered, “when we met a body of rebels. Some of them wanted to hang us, and some wanted to shoot us. One man drew his gun on me because I did not want to give him my gum blanket.”
Dickison, dehydrated from the scorching heat, observed that his horse was suffering from two gunshot wounds. Summoning together his men, Dickison wearily declared a halt. He wrote: “The whole command would have been captured, but my horses were completely worn down….There were 52 of the Federals killed in the town. It was never correctly learned how many were killed in the retreat to the river.”
Dickison gradually retraced his path back to town and established a temporary base of operations. Upon his return, he and his men rounded up more than 200 prisoners, including a few commissioned officers, many of whom were badly wounded. Major George B. Fox of the 75th Ohio was apprehended after he had nearly reached the bank of the St. Johns River. When he was brought to headquarters for interrogation, Dickison courteously inquired, “Major Fox, how is it you allow the ‘Gray Fox’ to outrun and capture the ‘Red Fox’?”
Private Henry B. Bryant of Battery B from the Milton Light Artillery, with a segment of the Confederate infantry support group, trailed into Gainesville after the battle was over. After pilfering the Union supply wagons, he noted, “I didn’t get any thing but a new calico shirt that had never been worn and a haversack.”
Dickison collected 260 horses, several hundred stands of arms and the cannon with its accouterments. Numerous wagons full of plunder were recovered and closely guarded. Approximately 200 slaves were retrieved, and the families were safely escorted back to their homes. Dickison’s loss in the engagement was three men killed and five wounded, two mortally—amazing numbers when compared to the Federals’ 300-plus casualties.
Traveling through the murky bog, Colonel Harris failed to rendezvous with Colonel Noble’s infantry command. He staggered into the vicinity of Magnolia with only 38 survivors early the next morning.
The overwhelming Confederate triumph preserved the region’s wide variety of resources. Federal confiscation of large quantities of beef, sugar, citrus fruit and Sea Island cotton was averted, and southern and eastern Florida were secured.
Justifiably wary of Union reprisals, Dickison lingered at Gainesville for several days to police the district. Congratulating his comrades, he proclaimed: “We met an enemy of superior numbers, with all the improved equipments which Yankee ingenuity could devise; but, trusting in the aid of Divine Providence and the justice of our cause, we have put him to shameful flight and confusion….The victory which you have gained, by your coolness and gallantry, has saved your bleeding country from the polluting tread of the invader.”
William J. Stier, who writes from Jacksonville, Fla., is the author of several articles on Confederate cavalry operations. His great-great-grandfather, 3rd Sgt. William L. Howard, served under Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in the 8th Kentucky Mounted Infantry, CSA.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.