Tuesday, February 23

Jacksonville's Two Civil War Burnings

Union troops hanging out at Bay and Ocean

At some point, most of us who live in Jacksonville learn about the fire of 1901 that destroyed most of the city. That's why I was surprised to learn of two other fires in the city's past, both during the Civil War. Neither fire was as destructive property-wise, but I think the argument could be made that both of these fires were more destructive to relationships between locals that extended to the rest of the country. These fires were burnings rather than an accidental fire like in 1901. 

The first Civil War fire was on March 11, 1862. Federal troops were moving in on a city controlled by the Confederacy that had at least some Northern sympathizers. While Confederate troops looked to burn supplies they couldn't take away, the local residents had another idea. "Local mobs, angered by the presence of the city's sizable pro-Union population, torched Northern-owned businesses and homes." Just like today, a lot of people in Jacksonville were from the North, and they paid the price for their perceived or actual loyalty to the Union. 

I'll just give my general impression of Florida during the Civil War that I have shared with my kids (it may not be totally accurate). Florida was considered a Southern state that had Confederate soldiers, but some men also formed Union regiments from within the same state. There was some fighting, at least among the residents, but neither the North nor the South really saw Florida as an important state beyond its food resources, especially beef. Basically, the South couldn't/wouldn't really defend the coastal cities and instead tried to keep the center of the state free to make food. This led to four occupations of Jacksonville by Union troops, none of which were repelled or terribly important once established. My apologies to the history buffs who wish my generalizations were better, but that's just how I see it. Florida had a small population, half of which were slaves, and some of which preferred the Union. 

On to the second Jacksonville fire of the Civil War. About one year after the first fire, the Union Army once again took Jacksonville for a couple of weeks in March of 1863. This time, however, the Union Army set fire to parts of the town as it left for operations in South Carolina. While it was fairly apparent that soldiers from Connecticut started the fire, blame was also attributed to the two Black regiments that also occupied the city. You can imagine how news of this fire spread like, well, wildfire across the South. Here's a description of the damage from a witness:

"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)."

The Judson House referenced in the second fire is one of the places burned in the first fire for being a Northern-owned business. It's interesting to consider whether the Union soldiers were made aware of the anti-North burnings, and whether or not that knowledge (or prodding from pro-Union locals) influenced the second burning.

Really interesting side note: The 1st South Carolina is more than likely the first Black US Army unit, forming back in early 1862 at Hilton Head. Talk about some bad-ass guys: forming a Union regiment in South Carolina early on in the war. In fact, the Jacksonville occupation and burning happened about a month after the official muster of the 54th Massachusetts of Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick (Glory) fame. You can imagine how Southerners wanted to see something sinister when it came to these Black regiments. So a witness saying that the Black troops eventually joined in with setting the fires evolved into the 1st and 2nd South Carolina being responsible. Conversely, Northerners intent on getting more Black soldiers fighting might have argued that only the white soldiers had started fires. 

Speaking of setting fires, the two Jacksonville burnings were both well before the eventual Northern campaign to burn through the South, and you have to wonder if both of these anti-civilian fires can be attributed to retribution. I read that Jacksonville's population was divided in thirds back in 1862, with 1/3 being Southern whites, 1/3 being Black slaves, and 1/3 being Northerners (or at least not Southerners, and I assume whites). That's not just a few slaves or a few Northern business owners peppered in with the Southern masses. If a portion of those Southern whites targeted the Northern whites in 1862, then it makes a lot of sense that the white, Southern MINORITY would be targeted in 1863, whether the fire was set by white, Black, or even paid-off soldiers.  

Possibly some irony exists in the fact that all of those places that were set on fire in 1862 and 1863 more than likely burned for good in 1901 in a fire that began between Lee and Davis Streets. 

Fast-forward to today. Jacksonville is still 30% Black and probably 30% non-native (military or transplant). We have varying points of view on issues such as Confederate names on buildings, as well as a vision for the future of the city. Part of that future probably involves delving into the past. For example, did you know that in 1893, streets such as Jefferson, Lee, Davis, and Stuart had names such as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th? At some point between 1893 and 1901, these numbered streets were renamed, and while it's unclear whether Jefferson refers to Thomas Jefferson or Jefferson Davis, the other three re-namings are clear. But I also have to admit that the number-street system in Jacksonville didn't make much sense back then, as there were three 1st Streets (one is now Ionia and the other is Davis, I think) that were nowhere near each other, whereas all three 1st Streets should have crossed each other within two blocks. But that's grid / postal address discussion for another time. 

It's possible that after the Civil War (but more specifically after Reconstruction) that Jacksonville evolved into a traditional, racist, Southern city, reaching a pinnacle in the 1959 naming of Westside High as Nathan B. Forrest High School (yes, THAT Grand Wizard of the KKK). But we might be back to the Jacksonville that was a bustling city before the Civil War (minus the slaves, of course). A city ready to finally rebuild part of downtown, which seems to have been abandoned since the 1901 fire. A city that names streets, schools, and sports teams after non-controversial objects or animals. A city where we don't burn down our neighbors' homes just because of their political yard signs. And a city that welcomes people from all over the country and world to live and work here together. 

The image from the beginning of the story is of Union soldiers hanging out at Ocean and Bay where there's a cigar bar and Cowford Chop House today. Luckily, we don't need a Civil War to ensure that all of us are allowed to hang out there today, though I'm not sure I can actually afford to go inside Cowford's myself. 

I got a news feed about women with Jacksonville ties for Women's History Month, and at least one woman from the list was part of the group who torched Jacksonville. Susan King Taylor wrote her memoires as a nurse during the Civil War. She was a Black woman who served with the 33rd Colored Regiment, which is the same thing as the 1st South Carolina. Interestingly, her memoires make no mention of a burning of the city. You'd think that would stick out, and it was certainly national news when it happened. 

What I did learn from her memoires was that the Confederate soldiers initially wore black face as they retreated in order to fool the Union soldiers, and then opened fire. They also sent a truce flag daily for a week in order to establish where the Union headquarters was located in order to better bombard it later on. And Taylor also felt the rebel wives in Jacksonville were "bitterly against our people and had no mercy or sympathy for us." 

Taylor wrote the book in 1902 while living in Boston, so it's really odd to me that she did not address the burning at all. Even if she left before the last of the men, her husband, who was serving with the regiment, would have surely told her what happened and who was responsible. 

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