Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Jacksonville is in Ruins" - The 1863 Union Burning of Jacksonville, Florida

Riverfront in Jacksonville, Florida
Photo by Brian Mabelitini
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the destruction of Jacksonville by Union troops.

Part of an expedition that had been conceived as a means of placing U.S. Colored Troops in East Florida to encourage an uprising by the African slaves in the state, the episode was disastrous for Federals and Confederates alike. Unable to accomplish the objectives of the expedition, the Union soldiers set far to the beautiful port city.

The following account was written from Jacksonville on March 28, 1863, by a correspondent of the New York Herald-Tribune:

Jacksonville is in ruins. That beautiful city, which has for so many years been a favorite resort for invalids from the North, has to-day been burned tot he ground, and, what is sad to record, by the soldiers of the National army. Scarcely a mansion, a cottage, a negro hut, or a warehouse remains. The long lines of magnificent oaks, green and beautiful, with the thickest foliage, the orange groves perfuming the air with their blossoms, the sycamores, the old century plants adorning every garden, the palmetto and bayonet trees, ever tropical in verdure, the rose and the jessamine - all that at this season...has made Jacksonville a little Eden, has been burned, and scorched, and crisped, if not entirely consumed to ashes, by the devouring flames.

Jacksonville as it appeared one year after the fire.
Writing from the upper deck of the U.S. transport Boston as he witnessed the burning of Jacksonville, the correspondent continued his description:

...On every side, from every quarter of the city, dense clouds of black smoke and flame are bursting through the mansions and warehouses. A fine south wind is blowing immense blaring cinders right into the heart of the city. The beautiful Spanish moss, drooping so gracefully from the long avenue of splendid old oaks has caught fire, and so far as the eye can reach through these once pleasant streets, nothing but sheets of flame can be seen, running up with the rapidity of lightning to the tops of the trees and then darting off to the smallest branches.

As the writer noted, the scene at Jacksonville proved that the war had descended to the depths of the vindictive and bloody fighting that had characterized European wars for centuries. Particularly shocking was his description of the burning of Jacksonville's Catholic church:

...Yesterday the beautiful little cottage used as the Catholic parsonage, together with the church, was fired by some of the soldiers, and in a short time burned to the ground. Before the flames had fairly reached the church the soldiers burst open the doors and commenced sacking it of everything of value. The organ was in a moment torn to strips, and almost every soldier who came out seemed to be celebrating the occasion by blowing through an organ pipe.

According to the account, the various Union regiments pointed fingers at each other to place blame for the destruction. The 6th Connecticut, the writer reported, blamed the 8th Maine, while the men of the 8th Maine blamed the soldiers of the 6th Connecticut.

The destruction consumed the homes and property of Unionist families along with that of their pro-Confederate neighbors. The expedition that was expected to turn hundreds if not thousands of Florida's slaves into soldiers for the North secured only 30 black recruits for the Union army. Jacksonville, however, was all but destroyed and untold millions of dollars in damage done.

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