DIXIE'S LAND Then and Now, from the Civil War to Today

Monday, August 05, 2013


Dixie's Land (A River Runs Through It)

It’s easy to take it for granted when you live beside it. It’s there to view every morning upon arising and at night as the sun is setting. And yet, the view is ever changing. From fog drenched mornings to sunny bright dawnings, to cloudy days when thunder and lightning threaten, to days when it appears as a mirrored sea to other times when it is a wind tossed boil. It’s even possible to observe the flow change directions making a casual observer wonder which way it runs. The St. Johns River traverses Dixie’s Land and is the longest river at 310 miles in the State of Florida. The elevation change from headwaters to mouth is only approximately 30 feet. This makes for a river that flows slowly and during tidal changes, it periodically flows backwards. It runs from South to North. It begins it’s journey in the marshes of South Florida and ambles lazily along, gaining support from numerous little tributaries and springs until it becomes a very wide and mighty river as it slowly flows toward it’s mouth at Jacksonville and enters the Atlantic Ocean. It’s been called the river of lakes because of the numerous large lakes that formed along its’ relatively flat adjoining landscape as it travels northward.

The St. Johns was the first and best means of travel into the interior of Florida before roads and trails existed. Before the railroads, it provided the best way to transport people and goods into and out of this tropical and largely undeveloped area of the country.

An old map of the upper section of the St Johns reveals the area from Ft Lane to Palatka. This map is from Whitneys Florida Pathfinder, dated 1876.

Naturalist William Bartram traveled the river in the 1765-77 period recording his findings later published in his book called Travels. Bartram called the middle section of the river basin a "...blessed land where the gods have amassed into one heap all the flowering plants, birds, fish and other wildlife of two continents in order to turn the rushing streams, the silent lake shores and the awe-abiding woodlands of this mysterious land into a true garden of Eden." His book quickly became an American classic. He wrote about the frontier of Florida as it was just being explored. He described the plants with rich botanical detail. He presented animals in their natural surroundings. He studied and befriended the Seminole, Creek and Cherokee Indians who populated the area in those days. His book is still relevant and interesting today.

Today the river is a source of recreational pleasure for many people living along it’s banks and in the nearby towns and cities. Power boating, sailing, canoeing, and fishing are all major sports for which the river is host. The steamboats are all gone, replaced by pleasure boats of all sizes and descriptions. A few barges still ply the waters, propelled by tug boats. One such barge operation transports fuel oil upstream to a power plant in Sanford; however, the plant has been predominantly converted to natural gas, so this type of river traffic is also diminishing.

Our home is situated on the higher ground of a small east shore peninsula known as Buffalo Bluff. It is approximately half way between Palatka to the north and Welaka to the south. The area reportedly got its name from the renowned Buffalo Bill Cody who spent time here. Our river frontage is on the exact location where a very large, long dock was built to accommodate steamboats that plied the St. Johns. During the early years these boats were instrumental in bringing people and materials to our area. Much logging was done in the area and boat traffic facilitated the transportation of the rough sawn lumber, primarily oak and cyprus.

During occasional periods when the river elevation is extremely low, a long line of stubs of the original old cypress dock pilings can still be seen where they have rotted off just above the riverbed.

South view of old pilings  and  North view of old pilings
(original posted photos were lost and I cannot make & post new ones until we have another low water event..usually occurs in the winter)

Old Photo of Original Satsuma Dock (created between 1880 & 1897) and attributed to William Henry Jackson, Photographer (1843-1942)Library of congress, Prints & Photographs Div., Detroit Publishing Co. Collection
In this photo are large stacks of sawn lumber ready to be transported out.

Same area as it appears today and where our dock is now located

The road Woodbury Trail that leads to our house at the tip of the peninsula was originally called Columbine Road. Columbine Road traces its history all the way back to the Civil War era. It was probably named to commemorate a battle close by in which Florida cavalry and a battery of artillery fired on, captured and sacked a Union vessel named the USS Columbine.

Artist's Rendering of the Columbine

The capture and sacking of the Columbine occurred very near here, across the river and a bit south of us. It was called the Battle of Horse Landing and it is reenacted each year by a local group of Civil War reenactors. The following extract is taken from The Horse Landing Project:
“At this site on May 23rd, 1864, Captain John Jackson Dickison, with men from the 2nd Florida Cavalry and a battery from the Milton Light Artillery, disabled and captured the Federal gunboat, Columbine. At the time, Union forces controlled the land east of the St. Johns River. The elusive Dickison had made several raids across the river, capturing two outposts. Hoping to trap the Confederates on the east side, Union ground troops moved toward Welaka, and the Columbine was sent upriver. Dickison, however, had already crossed the river and set the ambush here at Horse Landing, where the channel and current would bring the boat to within 60 yards of shore. The Columbine, under the command of Acting Ensign Frank Sanborn, was described as 117 feet in length and "a thing of beauty".
The Columbine returned fire, but was soon disabled and surrendered. All but three of her crew and the army troops aboard were killed or captured. The Federal dead are reportedly buried on this rivershore. There were no Confederate casualties. After removing all the supplies and armament possible, the Columbine was burned and sunk, to prevent recapture. It is the only known incident in history where a cavalry unit sank an enemy gunboat. Dickison was known in the Southern press as the Swamp Fox (and as the Knight of the White Camellia, by the ladies). The Federals referred to him as "Dixie", and land west of the St. Johns was "Dixie's Land".

Recently, my neighbor unearthed a "chain-shot" cannon ball while planting a shrub.  Could it have come from one of Dixie's cannon firing on the Columbine?  We'll never know but it makes for interesting memorabilia nevertheless.

This is the chain-shot cannon ball my neighbor unearthed while digging in the garden. It measures 2 1/2 inches in diameter.  Reportedly, they were fired from a singular cannon barrel, several strung together with chains to better flail the rigging of a ship.

It weighs approximately 4 pounds, although a century and a half half of rust has probably reclaimed some weight and size.

The following  illustrations come from Florida Photographic Collection, State Library of Florida

Dickison Crossing the St Johns

“Captain Dickison was endowed with the quality of military strategy necessary for leadership in guerrilla warfare. Their territory ran from the Georgia line to the Tampa/ Ft. Myers area. And no part of the territory was safe from their attacks and carefully planned raids-WELAKA, FORT BUTLER, GAINESVILLE, CEDAR KEY, BRADDOCKS FARM, PALATKA, JACKSONVILLE, GREEN COVE SPRINGS, ETC. They patrolled the St. Johns River area, and eastward to the coast. The Federals would remove all boats on the west bank of the St. Johns with gunboats, but the rebel leader crossed the river almost at will. He frequently brought back more prisoners than he had men in his own command. They would ambush Union foraging expeditions, and capture pickets, and stragglers from the battle fields, and often bluffing the enemy into surrendering without firing a shot. Even when he was not engaged in attacking the enemy, the fear was there. Union forces spent most of their time in St. Augustine, or a few of the scattered posts. The Federals could occupy the towns, but they were never able to effectively control the countryside.” From the J.J. Dickinson Collection

Dickison and his men in action near Cedar Key

Leading up to the capture of the Columbine is this interesting account taken from the J.J. Dickison Collection. (I’ve highlighted some of the nearby locations in the text)

"The next time the action picked up was in May of 1864, when the Union gunboats and transports began to appear on the St. Johns. Dickison was given Lieutenant Mortimer W. Bates with a unit of artillery and 25 men to aid in harassing the enemy.
Dickison and his men split up trying to out maneuver the enemy, they watched from entrenchments around the town of Palatka, and decided to try to intercept the "COLUMBINE" at Brown's Landing.
Dickison took the cavalry troop and the artillery battery and tried to reach their strategic point first, however, as they reached the area, the Columbine was speeding just passed the area. They next waited for the "Ottawa," the largest of the Federal Gunboats and transports on the river. The river was difficult to navigate at nightfall, and the boat anchored for the night. The Confederates set up their guns in strategic positions, and then they waited, it was pitch dark, however, after a few minutes, the boats lit their torches and made them perfect targets for the Confederates.
The Ottawa was badly damaged. It remained anchored for 30 hours while repairs were made. It was reported that several men were killed and wounded on the boat, however, Dickison reported that not one of his men had been killed.
The next day Dickison ordered Lt. Bates to set up at Horse Landing and await the gunboat, "COLUMBINE". Around 3 o'clock smoke from the vessel was seen. Dickison permitted the gunboat to approach within 60 yards of the wharf, and then he gave the order to fire. The attack was so sudden that the men aboard panicked. After the second volley of fire, the boat was rendered helpless, it floated on a sandbar and stuck. A fight lasted for 45 minutes but the first two volleys had won the fight. The flag of surrender was hoisted by the Union forces.
Dickison sent Lt. Bates on board to accept the surrender. He found that of the original 148 men, only 66 remained, and 1/3 of these were badly injured. After the dead and wounded were removed, Dickison ordered the craft burned. Dickison scored another military success against great odds. Not a single man was lost in the attack. One man was slightly stunned by the explosion of a Union shell."

Dickison bearing the body of his son who was killed in action

To learn more about the Swamp Fox and his exploits in the Palatka, Brown’s Landing and Horse Landing areas, see the following article: The Swamp Fox
You may have to scroll down a bit when the link opens to find the text of Captain J.J. Dickison.

An interesting footnote: “A lifeboat taken from the Columbine was later given by Dickison to John S. Breckenridge, Confederate Secretary of War, to aid in his escape to Cuba at the end of the war.” Ref: The Florida Confederation for the Preservation of Historic Sites, Inc

To read several interesting accounts of action in our area from the pen of a Confederate Cavalryman, see: Cavalryman's Letter To His Wife     and  Letter of Condolence
The "fog of war" we hear so much about today is no modern phenomenon as you will see as you read these letters from a soldier to his wife and another to the wife of a fallen comrade.

Another Civil War sinking occurred north of us between Palatka and Jacksonville. Our next door neighbor, Dr. Keith Holland, personally dove on and discovered this sunken warship of the period, the Maple Leaf. The sinking was reportedly caused by a Confederate mine about twelve miles from Jacksonville, and off Mandarin Point, about three quarters of a mile from the east bank of the river and perhaps a mile or a mile and a half from the west bank. It was
“ ….one of the largest ships sunk during the war, carrying all the worldly goods of more than a thousand soldiers, with a river bottom environment that perfectly preserved the ship and cargo. It is the most important repository of Civil War artifacts ever found and probably will remain so. Considered among Florida shipwrecks, Maple Leaf is probably the best preserved site in Florida”..... Edwin C. Bearss, Chief Historian United States Department of Interior, National Park Service

Artist's Rendering of the Maple Leaf

Sunken Civil War Ship Found in Florida River
The wreck of a 173-foot Civil War troop ship has been found at the bottom of the St. John's River by a Jacksonville dentist.
The dentist, Dr. Keith Holland, president of St. John's Archeological Expeditions Inc., said today that he located the remains of the troop transport Maple Leaf after scientists with Geo-Science Inc., of Gainesville, made a survey of the site last month.
The Maple Leaf, a Union vessel, was sunk by a Confederate mine in the early morning of April 1, 1864.
''The ship was returning to Jacksonville from Palatka, carrying 65 people including a civilian crew, Union Army officers and three Confederate prisoners,'' Dr. Holland said. ''Her cargo included the camps and baggage of the 112th and 169th New York regiments and the 13th Indiana Regiment.''
Dr. Holland said core borings of the wreck would be made to help the archeologists decide whether further excavations would be feasible.”
New York Times

Several articles have appeared in the St. Augustine Record pertaining to the Maple Leaf and the vast amount of preserved artifacts it contains. To see the articles click on these links:

April Fool's Day fateful for Maple Leaf crew, passengers

Treasure Cache

Today, much has changed along the river and yet, much has not. Notwithstanding the development and home building, there are still vast areas along the St. Johns that appear just about as they must have in those early days of the nation. There are areas that have not been developed due to their low lying wetland status. Other areas have been acquired by the Florida Water Management District to protect and preserve their status into perpetuity. We are privileged to live on the edge of areas that are both protected by the District and other areas that are undeveloped because of their low lying aspect. A short boat ride around and into these areas is almost like entering a time capsule that transports you back into the past. In fact, our view across the river into “Dixie’s Land” from our home reveals nothing of modern development, save for the navigational markers in the channel. The area within our view is mainly Water Management District or lowlands areas and will not be developed. It’s a very peaceful and serene landscape. Forest and aquatic wildlife abounds. Waterfowl, wading birds, river otters and shore birds inhabit the area. Herons, hawks, bald eagles and osprey are at home here. Alligators of course inhabit the river and wetlands. They generally stay to themselves but it’s advisable to always be aware of their possible presence; oftentimes submerged where they are unobservable.

Several views of "Dixie's Land" from our property

View of the East shore (Union controlled side) where the original docks were located

Working outdoors in the yard, as we like to do, we’ve learned to keep one eye peeled for crawling critters of the reptile variety lest we trample their domain and perhaps suffer the consequences. Robbie thinks I am developing an old man’s droopy head but I tell her it’s just that I’m looking for critters. Rattlers, corals and moccasins are the nasty ones we want to avoid at all costs. We like and protect the non-poisonous snakes, as they are said to help keep the bad ones away. I don’t know if this is fact or fiction but we work on the principle that it can’t hurt to have some good snakes around. We generally see only black snakes and corn snakes in our yard and we don’t bother them. Once while pushing a loaded wheelbarrow I accidentally ran over a very large corn snake and followed up by dumbly stepping on it for good measure. When I realized what I had done the poor snake was looking up at me and seemed to be saying, “What’d you do that for you clumsy Dude, don’t you know I’m docile?” It watched me walk away and then made it’s quick departure into the woods.

So let’s board little “Halfpint,” our 14-ft pontoon boat for a tour of the area. We won’t be breaking any speed records but it’s a nice stable platform for touring the wilderness areas and backwaters behind the Seven Sisters Islands that form a chain beginning directly in front of our property and follow in succession, one after another, up stream to the south of us. Perhaps in the backwaters, away from the main channel, we will be able to capture an alligator or two with our digital camera, although they are not prone to posing for photo opportunities...especially after mating season and the hot weather sets in. Hopefully, at least, we can photograph the look of the wilderness much as it has always been in times past.

Following is a photo tour of the area of the river in close proximity to our property.
AS IT LOOKED YEARS AGO.   The Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West Ry. crossing the St John's at Satsuma.  Jackson, William Henry, 1843-1942, photographer.
CREATED/PUBLISHED (between 1880 and 1897)  Attribution to Jackson based on Catalogue of the W.H. Jackson Views (1898).  Negative taped to second sheet of glass.
Detroit Publishing co. no. 7005.  Gift; State Historical Society of Colorado: 1949

AS IT LOOKS TODAY;  Bascule Bridge today for Amtrak.  Note the heavy weighted cantilevers that facilitate raising the bridge for river traffic. This is the main line Baltimore-Miami.

A Snowy Egret resting in Dixie's Land

Alligator and  turtles sunning on a log

Typical views of Dixie's realm

Another beautiful bird (Ibis, I believe) looking for a meal

If anything, a tour through this landscape makes one wonder at the trials and hardships encountered by the soldiers on both sides of the battles in our area as well as others. One of my forbears was wounded and another killed under the Union banner. Nevertheless, that was quite a long time ago and I don’t think often about the Civil War. Still, living in an area where battles were fought and men died gives one the incentive to reflect. And having adopted the South for my home I have learned to appreciate both sides of the issues of those days.

One of the most stirring tunes of the day describes the Confederate spirit and loyalty better than any other description I have discovered. I’ve copied the lyrics below and a link where you can hear the music. You may have to click on the Advance and then the Retreat buttons to get the music started once you access the site. The music adds a new dimension to the study of those times. If you have interest in the music of that era there are any number of Confederate tunes on this site. The words to the music tell a story of the feelings throughout the Confederacy. Sit back and try to reflect how it must have been in those days some 146 years ago. I first heard this tune playing softly in a shop in downtown Savannah. The melody has haunted me ever since, until I finally found it on this web site. I was surprised by the title, but then, those were other times. It’s really a marching song.

by Carrie Belle Sinclair
(born 1839)

Oh, yes, I am a Southern girl,
And glory in the name,
And boast it with far greater pride
Than glittering wealth and fame.
We envy not the Northern girl
Her robes of beauty rare,
Though diamonds grace her snowy neck
And pearls bedeck her hair.

CHORUS: Hurrah! Hurrah!
For the sunny South so dear;
Three cheers for the homespun dress
The Southern ladies wear!

The homespun dress is plain, I know,
My hat's palmetto, too;
But then it shows what Southern girls
For Southern rights will do.
We send the bravest of our land
To battle with the foe,
And we will lend a helping hand--
We love the South, you know.--CHORUS

Now Northern goods are out of date;
And since old Abe's blockade,
We Southern girls can be content
With goods that's Southern made.
We send our sweethearts to the war;
But, dear girls, never mind--
Your soldier-love will ne'er forget
The girl he left behind.--CHORUS

The soldier is the lad for me--
A brave heart I adore;
And when the sunny South is free,
And when fighting is no more,
I'll choose me then a lover brave
From all that gallant band;
The soldier lad I love the best
Shall have my heart and hand.--CHORUS

The Southern land's a glorious land,
And has a glorious cause;
Then cheer, three cheers for Southern rights,
And for the Southern boys!
We scorn to wear a bit of silk,
A bit of Northern lace,
But make our homespun dresses up,
And wear them with a grace.--CHORUS

And now, young man, a word to you:
If you would win the fair,
Go to the field where honor calls,
And win your lady there.
Remember that our brightest smiles
Are for the true and brave,
And that our tears are all for those
Who fill a soldier's grave.—CHORUS

Curiously, another set of lyrics was set to the same tune. Check out:

We are a band of brothers, and native to the soil,
Fighting for the property we gained by honest toil;
And when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and far:
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!

Hurrah! Hurrah! for Southern rights, Hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star!

As long as the Union was faithful to her trust,
Like friends and like brothers, kind were we and just;
But now when Northern treachery attempts our rights to mar,
We hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

First, gallant South Carolina nobly made the stand;
Then came Alabama, who took her by the hand;
Next, quickly Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida --
All raised on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

Ye, men of valor, gather round the banner of the right;
Texas and fair Louisiana join us in the fight.
Davis, our loved president, and Stephens, statesman are;
Now rally round the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

And here's to brave Virginia! The Old Dominion State,
With the young Confederacy at length has linked her fate;
Impelled by her example, now other States prepare
To hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag, That bears a single star!

The Bonnie Blue Flag, a single white star on a blue field, was the flag of the short-lived Republic of West Florida. In September 1810, settlers in the Spanish territory of West Florida revolted against the Spanish government and proclaimed an independent republic. The Bonnie Blue Flag was raised at the Spanish fort in Baton Rouge on September 23, 1810. In December, West Florida was annexed by the United States and the republic ceased to exist, after a life of 74 days.

In 1835, the largest group of volunteers who came to Texas to help the Texans fight for their independence was from Louisiana [citation needed]. They came and fought under the Bonnie Blue Flag of the former Republic of West Florida. The Bonnie Blue in turn served as the inspiration for the original flag of Texas, known as the Burnet Flag. The Burnet Flag was identical to the Bonnie Blue except that the star was yellow. (Variants of the Burnet Flag with a white star, virtually identical to the Bonnie Blue, were also common.) It was replaced in 1839 by the currently-used Lone Star Flag, which also bears a single star. That's why many Louisianians like to say, "We hung the star over Texas!" [citation needed]
The single star of the Bonnie Blue Flag was also the inspiration for the red star in the 1846 Bear Flag of California.

Civil War usage
The original territory of West Florida was divided up among four Southern states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. When Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, as a sign of independence, the Bonnie Blue Flag was raised over the capitol building in Jackson. An Ulster immigrant named Harry McCarthy was present, and later wrote "The Bonnie Blue Flag" ("bonnie" being a Scottish word meaning "beautiful") which became a popular marching song, and led to the flag being used as an unofficial flag of the Confederate States of America. Typically, the refrain is:
Hurray! Hurrah!
For Southern Rights, Hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a Single Star!

On January 26, 1861, Mississippi officially adopted a new flag, which included the Bonnie Blue Flag in its canton and a magnolia tree in its center field (known as the Magnolia Flag). Ref: The Bonnie Blue Flag

© 2006 David Agniel

For my other stories visit: David Agniel's Stories

Dave. I so enjoyed this article. It must have taken lots of Bluff love and time to orchestrate it. I have known of and loved that Bluff for years and had no idea of its true history. I was not even aware of the etiology behind the name....not from Buffalos I see. I also, have seen the cypress stumps strategically placed along the rivers edge never aware that they were once a dock of historical significance. Thanks for educating my on your lovely homefront... Kimberly
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