MarketInsight | Escape from Florida
There are not many exciting Civil War stories that occur in this part of Florida, or anywhere else in Florida for that matter. Aficionados are quick to point out a handful of small battles and skirmishes that took place in this area. The most interesting of these was the Battle of Horse Landing that took place on the St. Johns a few miles south of St. Augustine. The hero of that battle was a man named Captain John Jackson Dickison, commander of Company H of the 2nd Florida Confederate Cavalry. J.J. Dickison was the most active Confederate fighter in our area during the Civil War and controlled the land west of the St. Johns near Palatka. Union soldiers referred to the area west of the river as “Dixie’s land” or “Dixieland.” Union forces tended to concentrate in Jacksonville and St. Augustine, leaving the hinterland to Dickison and his mounted guerrillas.
Dickison and his troops accomplished a feat that is unequalled in the annals of war. They are credited with being the only cavalry unit in any army to ever capture an opposing warship. On May 22, 1864, Dickison and his mounted troops captured the USS Columbine at Horse Landing on the west side of the St. Johns River south of St. Augustine, near Palatka. The night before, a Confederate spy named Lola Sanchez overheard Union officers planning to trap the Confederates. The local woman snuck out to Dickison to warn him of the danger. The Rebels set a trap of their own, hiding their cannon in the brush along the shoreline. When the Union gunboat drew close to shore, the Rebels opened up with their cannon, crippling the ship. The blood of the dead and dying ran red in the St. Johns as the boat grounded on a mudbank near shore. Dickison and his men stripped the ship of everything that wasn’t nailed down, including two large lifeboats.
They catalogued each item taken off the warship. It is a lengthy list. Dickison held onto one of the lifeboats. Less than a year later, that lifeboat would play a dramatic role in one of the final chapters of the war. In April 1865, Richmond fell and shortly thereafter Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and much of his cabinet fled southward. They were headed for Florida and then hoped to make it to Cuba. Davis was captured in Georgia wearing his wife’s clothes, but Secretary of War John C. Breckenridge continued alone. Breckenridge, a former vice president of the United States, was a veteran of both the Mexican and Civils wars. On May 20, he met up with Dickison in Gainesville. Dickison gave him the lifeboat taken from the USS Columbine.
Breckenridge and his party continued down the St. Johns River in the purloined craft. At Lake Harney they dragged the boat 12 miles overland to what is now Titusville before proceeding further south along the Indian River. Somewhere near Jupiter, they hijacked a larger boat with a sail. Breckenridge succeeded. The second stolen boat got him to Cuba. He would hide overseas for three years until he received a pardon from President Andrew Johnson.
Scott A. Grant is a local historian President of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra Beach. He welcomes your comments or questions at email@example.com.