On March 27, 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León first sighted the coast of the land he named “La Florida.” His expedition came ashore several days later and became the first documented Europeans or Africans to set foot in North America since Vikings in the 11th century.
“Vindictive, Unrelenting War”: The Burning of Jacksonville
One of the most enduring scenes from a movie depicting the Civil War remains the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind (1939). Chaos, terror, and destruction surround Rhett and Scarlett as they flee the inferno. The scene’s fire portrays the actual fire set by retreating Confederates on September 1, 1864, as they pulled out of the city. On November 14, 1864, Union forces marching out of Atlanta set fire to hundreds of buildings. Atlanta remains the most famous example of the burning of a city during the Civil War; however, it was only one of many towns set to the torch during the struggle. Jacksonville, Florida, has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first.
The initial war-related fire in Jacksonville occurred on March 11, 1862. That day, Federal gunboats approached the city in preparation for what would be the first of four Union occupations. The imminent arrival of Federal troops created panic. Loyal Confederates rushed to evacuate the city, and Confederate soldiers prepared to set fire to supplies they could not take away. Local mobs, angered by the presence of the city’s sizable pro-Union population, torched Northern-owned businesses and homes. Otis and Abby Keane watched as the mobs ransacked their hotel, the Judson House, before setting the building aflame. That night, those who had fled Jacksonville watched from across the St. Johns River as large sections of their city burned.
A year after the first fire, Jacksonville endured another inferno. This time the Federals were responsible for the destruction. On March 10, 1863, Union troops, spearheaded by two black regiments, the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, arrived for what became the third Union occupation of Jacksonville. Facing little resistance, the regiments quickly gained control of the city. Signs of growing Confederate strength to the west, however, encouraged the Union to reinforce their position in Jacksonville with two additional infantry regiments, the 6th Connecticut and the 8th Maine, both all-white units.
Although the Federals were able to raid along the St. Johns River as far south as Palatka and maintain control of Jacksonville, Union preparations for renewed operations in South Carolina led to the decision to end the Jacksonville operation. On March 28, 1863, as Union troops prepared to leave the city by sea, fires broke out in the wake of the columns of the 6th Connecticut, whose soldiers had taken the opportunity to set fire to the city. As the Yankees left, rain and the quick arrival of Confederate troops combined to contain the fires; however, much of the city lay in ruins. One witness detailed the smoldering structures:
“The Episcopal and Catholic churches, the jail, Parkhurst Store, Miller’s Bar Room, Bisbee’s Store, and dwelling house, Dr. Baldwin’s house and that whole block. Mrs Foster’s house, Washington Hotel, one of Hoeg’s stores—nearest Millers—and every house from the Judson House above the Railroad to Mrs. Collins old house, (Lydia Foster’s House, Sadlers, etc. are among them).”
While the Union’s responsibility for the fire was clear enough, Confederate newspapers as well as Northern newspapers critical of the use of black troops denounced the black regiments as the agents of destruction. The majority of Northern papers placed the entire blame on the white soldiers of the 6th Connecticut and 8th Maine. As with most controversial historical incidents, however, the answer is not black or white. There seems little doubt that the two white regiments started the fires, but when it became clear that they were free to join in the torching, some black soldiers, according to witnesses, set fires as well. One Northern reporter who saw the burning city despaired that the war had taken a new and uglier turn from which there was no turning back, “Is this not war, vindictive, unrelenting war?”
The best history of the Union occupations of Jacksonville is Daniel L. Schafer, Thunder on the River: the Civil War in Northeast Florida (University Press of Florida, 2010). All quotations come from pages 159 and 161-162 of Schafer’s book.
March 18, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright. The decision confirmed the right of the individual to counsel, even in cases not involving capital offenses. U.S. Attorney General and Senator Robert Kennedy described the case as having changed the course of American legal history.
The case began when an obscure inmate in a Florida prison, Clarence Earl Gideon, picked up a pencil and began writing his own lawsuit against the Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. Before the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, the Florida Supreme Court heard the appeal of the original conviction. Clarence Earl Gideon was convicted of robbery after the judge in a circuit court refused his request for counsel and he was forced to defend himself. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. The Florida Supreme Court confirmed the circuit court ruling, denying Gideon’s appeal for a writ of habeas corpus, which would have freed him on the grounds that he had been imprisoned illegally.
In 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the ruling of the Florida court, thereby establishing the principle that state courts were required to provide defendants in criminal cases with legal counsel. The case was retried (this time with representation for Gideon) five months after the Supreme Court decision. Gideon was acquitted.
View Gideon’s historic petition for writ of habeas corpus on Florida Memory.
This year is the 40th anniversary of National Nutrition Month. Celebrated in March, National Nutrition Month is a nutrition education and information campaign created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The campaign focuses attention on “the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits.”
On March 4, 1824, Governor William P. Duval issued a proclamation designating Tallahassee capital of the Florida territory.
Tallahassee was chosen as the location best suited for the territorial capital because it lay about halfway between Florida’s two principal towns: Pensacola and St. Augustine. Prior to Duval’s proclamation, territorial leaders alternated between Pensacola and St. Augustine for the first two sessions of the Territorial Council. Travel by land was long and arduous as no complete road linked East and West Florida. The treacherous journey by sea through the Florida Straits convinced Florida’s leading politicians of the need to establish a new seat of government within reasonable overland travel of its major settlements.
The word Tallahassee derives from the Muskogee language and means “old town,” or “old fields,” in reference to the area as the former location of Apalachee villages destroyed by English and Creek raids between 1702 and 1704.
Following the destruction of the Apalachee towns and associated Spanish missions, Muskogee-speaking peoples, later known as Seminoles, migrated into the region and established communities. Andrew Jackson’s campaign of 1818, known as the First Seminole War, pushed the Seminoles out of Tallahassee. American settlers established farms and plantations in the former Apalachee fields in the 1820s.
On this date in 1845, the U.S. Congress approved the act establishing statehood for Iowa and Florida.
Read the entire document on Florida Memory.
The David Clark, launched in Jacksonville on February 27, 1875, was built in the Brock and Stevens shipyard, registered #6865. It traveled the Jacksonville to Enterprise (on Lake Monroe) run for the Brock Line on the St. Johns River. It was sold in auction to Captain Joseph Smith in August of 1877 because of Jacob Brock’s bankruptcy.
In October of 1889, it burned in Fernandina, Florida, and was officially listed as abandoned in 1893. The steamer had a side-wheel paddle and a tonnage of 483 gross and 442 net. It was 147.5′ long, 41.4′ wide, with a depth of 7.8′. It had 51 nominal horsepower, and could make speeds of 14 knots.
On February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston in Miami Beach to win his first heavyweight boxing title. Liston came into the match heavily favored; however, the 22-year-old Clay demonstrated superior speed and quickness against his older opponent, age 32. Liston succumbed to Clay by technical knockout (TKO) after failing to respond to the seventh round bell.
Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali one week after his first fight against Sonny Liston. In 1967, Ali was stripped of his boxing titles when he, a conscientious objector, refused to serve in the Vietnam War. After three years away from the ring, Ali returned to boxing and claimed several more titles before retiring in the early 1980s.
Ali is regarded by many boxing historians as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. In addition to his many accomplishments inside the ring, Ali has created a lasting legacy as a philanthropist, social activist and cultural icon.
2013 marks the 100 year anniversary of the founding of Seminole County. On April 25, 1913, Seminole County was carved out of Orange County. Enjoy a few of our favorite images of Seminole County’s people, places and events.
On this date in 1912 the first passenger train arrived in Key West, marking the completion of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad from Jacksonville to the Southernmost City.