Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Florida's Confederate Governor did NOT commit suicide!

Governor John Milton of Florida
For nearly 150 years, a lie has been perpetrated on the people of Florida, the South and the United States. Governor John Milton, who led Florida through the War Between the States (or Civil War), did not commit suicide.

The governor died of a gunshot wound at Sylvania, his Jackson County plantation, on April 1, 1865.

Northern newspapers immediately leaped on the incident, claiming that Milton was so terrified of losing the war that he took his own life:

The late Gov. Milton, of Florida, was first a lawyer, then a duellist, then a preacher, then a politician, and, finally, a suicide. - Newport (Rhode Island) Mercury, May 6, 1865.

We learn through a gentleman recently from Barrancas, that a report reached there a short time before he left, that upon hearing of the capture of Petersburgh and Richmond, Gov. Milton, of Florida, committed suicide at his residence, a few miles from Marianna. The report was subsequently confirmed by a refugee directly from that place. - Trenton State Gazette (New Jersey), May 2, 1865.

Governor John Milton
The only rebel who has killed himself because of the killing of the Confederacy, is Gov. Milton of Florida. His name was John Milton, and as he thought paradise was lost, he shot himself...The world is rid of him. - Lowell (Massachusetts) Daily Citizen and News, May 8, 1865.

Gov. Milton, of Florida, has committed suicide. He did not want to be hanged. - Newport Mercury (Rhode Island), April 29, 1865.

Hundreds of such accounts appeared in Northern newspapers, almost all of them claiming that Milton killed himself after hearing of the fall of Richmond. This claim remains widely accepted today, even though it is completely false. Richmond did not fall until after the death of Governor Milton.

A newly discovered account of the governor's death tells a very different story. It appeared in an Extra edition of the West Florida News, a Marianna newspaper, on April 3, 1865:

Sylvania Plantation historical marker at Blue Springs
Gov. Milton has been killed by the accidental discharge of a gun. The Governor was in his home when he retrieved a shot gun in expectation of an expedition to shoot birds. The gun discharged and the Governor was killed.

The discovery of this long lost account confirms tradition in the Milton family regarding the circumstances of Governor Milton's death. Mrs. Bruce Milton Singletary repeated family legend of the Governor's death to me in a 1982 interview. According to her grandfather, Major William Henry Milton who was present when Governor Milton was killed, the shooting was an accident.

William Hall Milton, grandson of the Governor
Major Milton later told his son, William Hall Milton, that the Governor had returned home to Sylvania following the crisis surrounding the Battle of Natural Bridge and subsequent events. Under intense stress because of the inevitable collapse of the Confederacy, Governor Milton, but was badly in need of rest. Major Milton suggested to his father that they go out and shoot birds. According to his account, the Governor responded, "That is just the thing." He went to retrieve his shotgun, but when he removed it from its rack on the wall the butt of the stock banged hard against the floor and the gun went off. Governor Milton was killed.

The discovery of the 1865 Marianna newspaper account substantiates family tradition of how Governor John Milton died and confirms that he did not commit suicide, but instead was killed in "a tragic accident." This, of course, explains why the Governor was buried in the cemetery of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Marianna, since in those days suicide victims were not allowed to be interred on sacred ground.

Governor John Milton rests in sacred ground.

Note: Thank you to Albert Milton of Marianna for inspiring me to dig deeper into the story of Governor Milton's death. Our recent conversation about the Governor raised my curiosity and I began to look for a local account of the incident. I was able to find one and it changes accepted history.  - Dale Cox


Anonymous said...

It is nice to know that our beloved Confederate Governor did not commit suicide.Now,will the sign monument that dishonors him be changed to tell the facts instead of the lie that the North wanted everyone at the time to believe.

Russell Pace said...

The sign must come down. A new plaque needs to be erected with the truth.

Dale Cox said...

I don't think there will be any major problem with replacing the marker. We will need, however, to raise around $2,000 for that. Markers in Florida are privately funded instead of being paid for by the state. This might be a good cause for the Florida Division, SCV. I will ask some questions.


John W. Milton said...

Thank you Dale and Albert for bringing the truth to light. Your
article will serve well to keep the truth alive.
John W. Milton

Savez said...

Let me know if a new marker is to be erected. I would like to contribute.

Dale Cox said...

We are working on setting up a fund now and I will post as soon as it is ready so anyone who would like can make contributions. Thanks!

Digger said...

If the governor committed suicide, I wouldn't expect the family to say so. It seems unlikely he'd be the only Reb high official to kill himself. On the other hand, it's maybe even less likely he killed himself dropping a shotgun in the way described by the witness. That would require the shotgun to have been loaded, cocked and capped while hanging on the wall or in a cabinet, and also to have had a sensitive - not at all normal for a shotgun - or defective mechanism, as well as to fall in a way so as to shoot the governor. Add it all up, and the odds seem enormous that an accident as described would have been extremely unlikely. A suicide, however, explains the indoor discharge without resorting to improbabilities. Mathematically the odds are very high that it was suicide.

Dale Cox said...

Thank you for your thoughts. I disagree for several reasons. 1) The suicide story originated from Northern newspapers, but none of these had correspondents in Florida at the time. 2) The suicide story as printed in 1865 associated it with the fall of Richmond, but Richmond had not fallen at the time of Governor Milton's death. 3) The only contemporary account from a local source states that it was an accident. 4) The Governor was buried at St. Luke's Episcopal Church and the guidelines of the church in the 19th century forbade the interment of suicide victims in consecrated ground, regardless of their status in life. There is, in fact, another case in Marianna of a highly placed individual that died of a self-inflicted wound in the 1850s and was denied church burial. 5) The governor's writings and personal letters indicate no despondency or loss of hope in the Confederate war effort at the time of his death.

Two weeks later, I would be inclined to agree with you, but the great collapse of the Southern war effort in Virginia had not yet taken place and Florida was holding its own quite well on April 1, 1865 and was under no major threat at the time.

I always enjoy good discussion!


Civil War said...

Hello Mr. Cox,

I really enjoy following your blog, although I missed this interesting post.

I had no idea that the weapon that ended Gov. Milton's life was a shotgun. Never, in the many suicides that I have personally investigated, had anyone used a shotgun, and for obvious reasons.

Milton would have likely used a pistol, which remains the preferred weapon to end one's life.

An accidental discharge is also plausible, because for suicide, a sure shot to end it all fast would have been by way of a large caliber delivered up close and by pistol. With Richmond also falling after the fact, then that also doesn't fit the newspaper narrative of the time.

Suicides, such as Ed Ruffian, for instance, always leave a note explaining why. Aside from his fiery speeches, Ruffian STILL left a last diary entry and used a single shot musket to deliver a large caliber to the head.

Use of a shotgun and being absent a suicide note lead me to state professionally, that no suicide occurred, nor was it intended. Milton may have made comments while in session, such as death is preferred..., but this, often quoted euphemism, in no wise should supplant the necessary suicide letter that we find on or near the body.

And how long prior to death was the famous Milton quote? Months? And where, in what position, was Milton's body found? Because suicides almost always occur in a location that the individual feels comfortable in ending their life, such as the bedroom or while seated at a desk in the comfortable office.

Matt Parker

Civil War said...


Today, let' not forget that Governor Milton's death would be investigated to rule out homicide.

Who also had motive, opportunity, and means to murder Mr. Milton?

It did occur as the war was drawing to a close, so was it vengeance against a governor that the masses both loved and hated? Can you see the headlines with "Southern governor commits suicide" splashed across the Northern papers during the war's final scene? It would also promote sales while Lee, the ANV, and Richmond were still at large? (It actually makes for some good writing, and at the very least, some good fiction. I would buy the book!)