Friday, May 27, 2011

For Memorial Day, a tale of two wars

On this Memorial Day weekend we pause to consider two volumes about different wars, both of which affected Florida’s history. The first is a remembrance of the Civil War in Florida written by the wife of a Confederate cavalry officer. The second is an infantry drill manual in use several decades earlier during the Second Seminole War.

J.J. Dickison was a celebrated militia officer, whose exploits during the Civil War in protecting interior Florida west of the St. Johns River became the stuff of legend. His forces engaged in raids, battles, forced marches and scouting expeditions throughout the war. He is even said to have captured a Union general. His second wife, Mary Elizabeth, published a book called Dickison and His Men in 1890. A copy of it is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

The detailed accounts in the book led to some speculation that Dickison himself actually wrote the book and put his wife’s name on it to keep from seeming immodest. Such ideas didn’t deter the Ocala Banner from calling her “a gifted lady.” Publication of Dickison's book, Military History of Florida, nine years later seemed to give some credence to the notion that Dickison simply dictated the earlier book. Regardless, both volumes remain sought-after references for students of Florida’s Civil War history.

Dickison’s fame seems to have risen from his knack for successful tactics against the invading Union troops. Indeed, Southern newspapers dubbed him the Southern Swamp Fox after the Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion, because of his effective use of surprise attacks and swift action. Dickison’s forces galloped quickly up and down the western shore of the St. Johns River striking and repelling Union troop advances at will.

Perhaps his most famous exploit was the capture and burning of the Federal gunboat Columbine in the Battle at Horse Landing on May 23, 1864. It is said to be the only known incident in which a cavalry unit sank an enemy gunboat. Dickison’s troops waited hidden in the trees at a narrow bend in the river. With the gunboat less than 60 yards from shore, his forces, supported by artillery, fired barrage after barrage until the Union forces finally surrendered. The Federals had been devastated. Dickinson took 60 soldiers prisoner and captured weapons, large artillery pieces and food supplies.

Dickison was known for having few casualties among his men during the war. That record, however, did not keep his oldest son, Charles, from being killed by a captured Union soldier who had concealed a weapon.

Officers for a war less than 30 years earlier might have benefited from Dickison’s tactics, not that they would have listened. In 1830, Major General Winfield Scott headed an all-star officers’ board commissioned with the task of creating a training manual for infantry troops. The manual was in use when the Second Seminole War started in 1835, and gives with great detail directions on marching, loading, and advancing in line and close ranks, a style of fighting that had been popular in Europe for eons. A copy of Abstract of Infantry Tactics, Including Exercises and Maneuvers of Light-Infantry and Riflemen, for the Use of the Militia of the United States (whew!) is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

Given the Army's record in Florida against the Seminoles, Scott’s tactics might not have been anything to brag about. The Seminole War became the most expensive Indian war in history, and the Seminoles were never defeated. Nevertheless, Scott did go on to become a national hero, distinguishing himself in the Mexican-American War. Scott held the record of serving on active duty as a general longer than any other man in American history. He was known as “Old Fuss and Feathers,” and he once ran for president, although he wasn’t elected.

Also on Scott’s manual board was another stellar military man, General Zachary Taylor, who really didn’t do any better than Scott in the Florida wars, but also became a hero of the Mexican-American war. Taylor, too, ran for president and was elected. He was known as “Old Rough and Ready.” Maybe voters liked his nickname better.

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