Saving a Floridian Civil War site
By RON WORD The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, August 19, 2009
CAMP MILTON - History and nature have combined in a little-known park which was once the major Confederate military base in north Florida near the end of the Civil War.
Children walk on a pathway through the woods at Camp Milton. In 1864, Camp Milton was a key Confederate installation aimed at blocking Union advances toward Baldwin, a supply center and rail head. Florida was a big supplier of cattle, salt and other goods to the Confederate army.
Although no major battles were fought on the grounds, Camp Milton served as a base for skirmishes between the 8,000 Confederate troops and 12,000 Union soldiers in Jacksonville, about a dozen miles to the east.
Soldiers and slaves had built massive wooden defenses.
Less than a decade ago, this 124-acre park on the far western edge of Jacksonville was destined to become a sludge dump, until city and state agencies stepped forward to purchase the land.
Now the park is home to towering pines, magnolias, saw palmettos and blackberries, plus foxes, bobcats, snakes, deer, armadillos, opossums and red-shouldered hawks.
Youngsters skipping down a boardwalk into the woods on a recent summer day to see the remains of earthworks built in 1864 were thrilled when they saw a small snake slithering up a tree.
Period re-enactors dressed in long, flowing dresses taught the children about life in Jacksonville in 1864, describing laundry, basket-weaving, spinning and toys. Some 1,750 children have visited the preserve this summer.
Dressed as a Union soldier in military wool from his underwear to his outer blouse, Michael Meek, 24, described the life of a soldier in the waning days of the Civil War near Jacksonville. Meek described his muzzle-loading rifle, complete with bayonet, to the children while they peppered him with questions.
"It's an honor to talk to the little kids about their history," said Meek, who has learned that he is descended from a Union soldier who spent time at Camp Milton.
Although Milton was built as a Confederate camp, Union forces from Jacksonville invaded and then abandoned Camp Milton four times before it closed in July 1864.
The camp was named for Florida's Civil War Gov. John Milton, who committed suicide on April 1, 1865, when he realized the South had lost the war.
Designed by Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a specialist in defensive fortifications, the earthworks at Camp Milton were built of wood instead of coquina rock or brick.
"These things were very tough to build. You can imagine what these guys went through, the humidity and the heat," said Fred Singletary, an amateur historian and historical re-enactor.
The park is a mostly undiscovered jewel. There are no signs directing visitors from nearby Interstate 10 and it is not advertised in city tourism brochures.
Each year in February, the park holds a re-enactment of the events leading up to the Battle of Olustee with soldiers and women dressed in period garments.
The fact that the Camp Milton Historical Preserve exists is a testament to the work of amateur historians and sympathetic city and state lawmakers.
Their dreams came to fruition in September 2006, when Camp Milton opened to the public.
But there are other Civil War locations across the South, including some in north Florida, which are being lost to development.
"We believe that the ultimate fate of nearly all Civil War battlefield land will be decided in the next decade," said Jim Campi, a spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust.
Camp Milton was saved using a combination of about $1.7 million in city and state matching grants to purchase land and fund amenities.