Thursday, March 22, 2012

One of my favorite Civil War sites to visit is Camp Milton in Jacksonville.  Today it's a peaceful JaxParks site, but Camp Milton once saw occupation by 8,000 Confederate troops.

Camp Milton Historic Preserve.  This site sometimes features re-enactor events, as seen here.

This area of Florida proved critical ground to both Union and Confederate forces.  By 1862, the Union occupied many of Florida's port cities, including Jacksonville and St. Augustine; they conducted frequent raids on those they didn't hold.  This meant that they controlled much of the oceanic shipping routes into and out of the state.

This map shows Union activity in Florida. Blue dots, including those with white crosses, indicate occupation during the Civil War.  Photo courtesy Florida Department of State.

In spite of that early control of the state's perimeter, the Confederacy still claimed central Florida as a stronghold.  This allowed them to carry out one of Florida's essential roles to the Confederate effort: shipping supplies to troops fighting farther north.  During the course of the war, Florida used interior railways to supply Confederate troops with 75,000 to 115,000 head of cattle.  They also sent other crucial supplies, such as salt--important for curing meat and tanning hides.

Camp Milton (green tent symbol) provided protection for a railway at Baldwin, to the west (blue train symbol).  Image courtesy of Google Maps.

What became Camp Milton, a Confederate outpost featuring earthen berm fortifications, was originally the site of Camp Cooper--a rebel encampment with little to no alteration to the landscape. In early 1864, Union troops advanced toward what would become a landmark battle in Florida: the Battle of Olustee.  On the way, they took over Camp Cooper, occupying the site for a few days and taking over some of its armaments.  After a devastating defeat on February 20 at Olustee, Federal troops again used Camp Cooper as a resting point during their retreat back to Jacksonville.

This map of Camp Milton, taken from a plaque at the park, shows the extent of earthworks built in early 1864.  Image courtesy of JaxParks.

  The Confederates pursued Union troops as far as Camp Cooper.  Almost immediately, they received orders to fortify what would soon be renamed Camp Milton.  The camp was already partially protected by low, swampy ground and McGirt's Creek.  Both Confederate soldiers and more than 700 slaves labored for about a month to construct a long earthen berm around the rest of the site.  The earthwork was bolstered underneath by wooden posts in the ground and was lined on the outside (where enemies would approach) with a ditch. It originally stretched for three miles!

Side view of a reconstructed section of Camp Milton's original earthworks includes a ditch (left), wooden posts, and mounded earth.

 With a strong outpost between Jacksonville and the railroad, Camp Milton quickly amassed about 8,000 soldiers, effectively becoming a headquarters for Confederates in northeast Florida.  By this point, northeast Florida was rife with tension and bursting at the seams--only a few miles away in Jacksonville, more than 12,000 Union troops awaited orders.  Camp Milton thus met another strategic goal--to draw Federal forces out of Jacksonville, weakening its stronghold there.

Before the situation reached a breaking point, however, both sides were called to duty farther north, in battle fronts outside of Florida.  After receiving orders to travel to Virginia, Confederate General Beauregard, who had led Camp Milton's men, left orders for one last great push to defend the area: he ordered torpedoes to be placed in the St. Johns River.  This turn of events, of course, led to the sinking of the Maple Leaf--a Union steamship returning to Jacksonville from Palatka. 

Troops on both sides thinned drastically, and in the coming months Camp Milton would change hands several times due to skirmishes and changing strategies. Once a critical front in Florida's Civil War story, Camp Milton, as with the whole state, became an afterthought to both sides.

Onlookers watch a re-enactor cannon firing demonstration.  Tents erected by re-enactors give voice to an archaeological problem: with no permanent personal or shared spaces, we have a hard time piecing together the stories of troops at the site.

Archaeology at Camp Milton has proven challenging for a few reasons.  First, aside from the extensive berm, very little built environment existed there.  Troops mainly found shelter in tents, impermanently erected structures that leave no trace of personal space and activity.  Second, much of the original camp site had been turned into farmland; years of plowing disturbed much of what could have provided context.  Finally, the site for years has been a favorite spot for artifact collectors--so those things that were left behind have, in large part, been removed from the site.  As those objects can never be replaced where they were originally left, even more context slips away from us.

This profile map of defenses at Camp Milton derives from the early archaeology project done there.  Image courtesy of JaxParks.

Despite that sad news, two different archaeology projects have been conducted at the site.  The first, done in 1973, was carried out by an amateur archaeologist who strove to record part of the earthwork before a construction project destroyed it.  He excavated a five-foot section of the berm and mapped it, along with excavating a similar-looking feature along McGirt's Creek.  Excavations aided understanding of the structure and confirmed that its creekside counterpart, made solely of layers of sand and soil, was a not man-made.

The second project, conducted by professional archaeologists in 2003, actually enlisted the aid of metal detector enthusiasts in an effort to support a common cause of better understanding the past at Camp Milton.  Excavations included several trenches placed where the parking lot was to be paved.  Though very few artifacts were recovered from the site, the trenches proved exciting--they revealed nine features that were likely Camp Milton-era campfires.  In fact, if you visit today, these features have been interpreted in the landscape.  You don't have to imagine where soldiers sat around a campfire at night, you can actually see the places they would have gathered!

This cone marks the site of a Civil War-era campfire, discovered through archaeology in 2003.

Camp Milton is a beautiful place to visit, complete with walking and biking trails and plenty of interpretation.  You can still see about 725 feet of the original earthworks, in addition to a Cracker house and Camp Milton's education center.

For more on Camp Milton, visit the park's website.  For a lot more, plus sunshine and fresh air, join FPAN staff on Saturday, March 24 for a free, family-friendly bike tour!  If you'd like a glimpse of that before you join us, you can check out our recap of last year's tour here.

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