Though it encompassed just four years of America’s lengthy history, the American Civil War continues to be viewed as among the nation’s most defining historical moments.
It was a war that quite literally tore the country apart, pitting northerners against southerners in a battle largely waged over the southern states’ rights to own human beings as slaves.
Florida seceded from the Union and became a founding member of the Confederacy in 1861 – the same year the war began. And so inevitably, the city of Jacksonville became involved in the Civil War just a couple of decades after its founding.
A couple of factors made Jax a somewhat important strategic location for troops on both sides. The most obvious one would be the St. Johns River; whoever controlled the river and its surrounding ports possessed a major supply advantage. Another was its supply of land that was largely undeveloped at the time, which allowed for sprawling camps and forts to be set up.
Almost from the outset of the war, the U.S. Navy maintained a blockade around the majority of Florida’s ports, including those in Jacksonville. This limited rebel troops’ ability to move cattle and supplies easily back and forth and forced their camps to set up more inland.
Several Confederate camps were established throughout the area of Jacksonville, such as Camp Milton which now stands as a historic preserve along the Jacksonville-Baldwin Rail Trail.
While Jax and its surrounding area was the site of many skirmishes, it hosted just two significant battles.
The first took place on land southeast of Jax’s city limits at the time, near the St. Johns River. The Battle of St. Johns Bluff, as it came to be known, was an important victory for the Union in 1864. A group of hundreds of Union soldiers traveled south to chase out a group of Confederate troops who had set up camp near the river; they easily overran the troops and reclaimed the land.
The second major battle, the Battle of Olustee, took place in Baker County to the west of Jax. It resulted in over 2,500 deaths between the two sides, with Confederate troops pushing the Union forces back into Jacksonville.
The city changed hands a few times during the war but spent the majority of it being occupied by the Union.
By the time the war ended, Jacksonville – like much of the South – had a lot of rebuilding to do. The various skirmishes and battles had torn through Jax and its surrounding lands, and the formal end of slavery in Florida meant major social reconstruction was necessary as well.
By the time Florida formally rejoined the United States a few years later, the city had already begun to bounce back. Northern soldiers who had traveled to Florida during the war spoke of its exotic, tropical environment, leading the North’s elite to start vacationing in coastal southern cities like Jax.
Unfortunately, the subsequent growth of Miami and two major epidemics of yellow fever killed that tourism boom within a decade or so.
Today, the Civil War is remembered here in a few different ways: a Confederate monument in Hemming Park and Confederate Park in Springfield herald the rebel cause, and the aforementioned Camp Milton Historic Preserve features placards that detail Jax’s modest role in the war.