Like a blister, Pvt. William Southerton, Co. B, 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, showed up at the regimental camp in Jacksonville just after the hard work of constructing entrenchments around the town had been completed. Detailed to a salvage squad left behind on Folly Island, S.C., he'd remained to collect the camp equipage and other shared property belonging to the regiment and forward it to their new post in Florida. Rejoining his pards, weeks after their arrival in February, he was undoubtedly greeted by jeers from his worn and weathered comrades as he settled into his new camp along the bank of the St. Johns River.
Recalling the scenes of those first days in Florida, some seven decades after they occurred, Southerton provides a glimpse into earliest battles waged by the regiment in their final theater of war. Initially engaged in pitched skirmishes against an aggressive insect and animal population, by March, detachments from the regiment began to see signs of a different adversary; an elusive, non-committal Confederate defender, ever watchful from the scrub. Though their first interactions were tainted by the hubris of veteran soldiers, the Buckeyes would learn to respect the "Swamp Fox" as their days in Florida elapsed into months.
The "hard hand of war" as seen from the St. Johns River during the Spring of 1864.
Rows of crumbled brick walls! Desolate heaps of shattered buildings! Tragic remnants after repeated shellings by our gun fleet. That was all I saw of Jacksonville as we filed through the edge of the city to our camp already set up a little to the south-west, on the west bank of the St. Johns River.
The first thing! Yes, you guessed it! Flies, mosquitoes, snakes!
We made quick work of the flies, which settled on the ceiling of our tent in thick black layers. Klum had the answer, good old lanky Klum! He got a cartridge fuse from the artillery. It was like a hollow hoe handle, wooden, with a wick inside and threaded at one end so that it could be screwed into the shell. Light the wick, swoosh! Fire shot out twenty to thirty feet! Klum brandished the fuse about so fast that the fire was like streaks of lightning. Flames never reached the canvas tent-top; the layer of flies was too thick. Once in a while the tent was burned up, for others used the same technique as we did.
Our bunks, three feet from the ground, were none too high to suit me when I saw how thick snakes were around there, adders, copperheads, rattlers. A canopy of netting was fitted over our bunks, so we fared pretty well from mosquitoes.
“Do you hear that buzzing?” Klum asked as our squad was sitting around one evening batting at mosquitoes and scratching the welts they raised. “These Florida mosquitoes carry whetstones under their wings, to sharpen their beaks on!”
Bill Phillips was a great snake man. Every one called him "Tom Cat." He fixed up a large box, put a glass cover on it, and one afternoon came into camp holding a huge rattler in his hands. He put it in the box and fixed the cover over it securely. Oh, golly! We were scared to death that the rattler might get out. Tom Cat fed it and called it his pet.
“Now for a big show!” he announced one day soon after that, when he brought in a large adder.
Dozens of our boys crowded around the box to watch when Tom Cat put the adder in. In less than five minutes the rattler closed his jaws over the adder's neck and sank his fangs in, but that was the last of such performances. Our officers put a stop to them...
The country west of Palatka, Fl. was a hotbed of Confederate sympathy in the state and provided the stage for raiding expeditions throughout the Spring and Summer of 1864.
Our work was to be raiding, and our first raid was early in March in a detachment under Colonel Barton sent to Palatka.
Embarking on transports, “Columbine” and “Ottawa”, at night, we occupied Palatka at early daybreak with no opposition. Detachments were sent out to various points, the one I was on was sent to Orange Springs to ascertain if there were rebel pickets in the area, and discover any enemy vessels on the river. We saw no Johnnies. We saw a huge alligator sunning himself on the bank of a millstream, snapping his jaws shut when he got a mouthful of flies.
One band of scouts reported enemy cavalry pickets at Nine-Mile Hammock on the Orange Springs road, and at a point on the Rice Creek road.
The expedition required a week...
Later in March our pickets were attacked by enemy cavalry and two of our men fell captive. As a result some fortifications were constructed on the bluffs, underbrush cleaned out, and a second expedition ordered, south of Palatka.
We had a lot of fun on this expedition up the St. Johns.
Colonel Harris was in charge of our detachment, and I was one in a skirmish line thrown out in the pine and palmetto woods for quite a distance. We discovered about twenty Johnnies, running from tree to tree, retreating before us, firing from ambush. We dislodged them from a clearing where they had hidden in and behind a small plank farmhouse. When we gained the house Bill Francis shimmed up a porch post to the roof, sat there crowing like a Shanghai rooster. Oh, did our boys cut loose! Some barked like vicious dogs, the rest of us yelled like maniacs. We got that idea from the Louisiana Tigers!
Such crowing, yelling, barking! Good for one big laugh. The Johnnies fairly flew through the woods, their blanket rolls, like stove-pipes, bobbed and flapped with every jump. They were a comical sight. The faster they ran the more we yelled and laughed.
We took possession of an orange grove we came to, and ate all the oranges we wanted, then played ball with some.
The USS Ottawa was among the most powerful gunboats then operating on the St. Johns River during the Spring of 1864. At 691 tons, with an armament of 5 heavy cannon, there was little Confederates in Florida could muster to counter her. As escort to the shallow draft steam tug, Columbine, the raiding fleet sent to Palatka in March, 1864, plied the waters into Lake George and the Ocklawaha River, capturing two small steam boats, then being used by Confederate authorities to haul cotton to and supplies from blockade runners slipping into inlets along the coast.
What We Did There, or, Swamp Angel. by William B. Southerton and Marie W. Higgins. 1937. Ohio Historical Society. Columbus. Ohio