"Halt! Who goes there?" the familiar challenge rang out from the picket line before the works at Jacksonville early one morning, near the end of March, 1864.
"Friends!" was the response from the distant treeline where they'd waited since twilight, observing the line until the sun illuminated the field before them. With the brush cleared, they dared not alert the shaky Federal videttes until certain their approach would be seen as genuine capitulation.
"Advance, friend, and be recognized!" the Buckeye responded, leveling his musket, thumb ready on the hammer.
Rebel Deserters as seen in Harpers Weekly
More deserters from Camp Milton. A regular sight for the garrison in Jacksonville, still on edge, with the whole host of Beauregard's rebels no more than a few hours march to the west. Questioning the latest arrivals, the provost reported the same thing they'd heard from the previous fugitives regarding numbers and disposition. The Confederate supply depot at Baldwin was drawing rations for 12,000 men. 10,000 were reported to be in the vicinity of Jacksonville, with two regiments in the neighborhood of Palatka, to say nothing of the partisans and cavalry patrolling all parts between. With Federal troops stretched across a 150 mile front, from Fernandina to Volusia, the concentrated Confederate force posed an existential threat to Federal designs in the state.
Making matters worse, the St. Johns River, the exclusive corridor for Federal gunboats operating between the bastions of Jacksonville and Palatka, was proving to be untenable for the navy. Drawing from the pool of engineers who had so adeptly labored to close Charleston Harbor from the might of the Yankee ironclad fleet, Beauregard ordered the placement of torpedoes, explosive mines, fitted with triggers set to ignite on impact with a ship's hull, above and below Jacksonville on the St. Johns River. In the early morning hours of April 1st, they found their first victim, when the steamship Maple Leaf struck a torpedo while en route to Jacksonville, igniting 70 pounds of explosives, sending her to the bottom of the channel. By the end of May, another two would be destroyed in the same manner, with a fourth disabled by artillery fire from the shore.
The high hopes for Florida, so bright in the eyes of Major General Quincy Gillmore and the Lincoln administration had all but faded. Facing resignations from his officer corps and the rapidly approaching, fevered summer months, the beleaguered commander gave up the ghost; lobbying the War Department for a transfer into another command. Detailing his subordinates to handle the situation in Florida, Gillmore left the state in early March, focusing his efforts on preparations for a new command in the killing fields of Virginia. His direct subordinate in the state, Brigadier General Truman Seymour, was himself replaced on March 24th, 1864, returning to New York after the ignominious mishandling of the Florida Expedition.
Taking over from Seymour, Brigadier General John Hatch, an aggressive cavalry commander, was temporarily appointed to salvage the situation. Hatch, like the Buckeyes, was a veteran of the Army of the Potomac, having fought throughout 1862 with the First and Fifth Corps until a rebel ball disabled his leg. Not to be deterred by rumors and uncertainties, upon taking command in Florida, he engaged his mounted commander, Colonel Guy Henry, to organize a reconnaissance in force, probing the approaches in the direction of Camp Milton and identifying the force to their front.
In the early afternoon of April 2nd, 1864, a courier from Col. Henry delivered orders to the headquarters of the 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, requesting their support in his movement toward Camp Milton. Within fifteen minutes of sounding the assembly, the Buckeyes were marching west, along the Plank Road, certain to meet their opponent before the day was out.
Through attrition and furloughs, Lt. Oscar Ladley found himself at the head of Company E during the action of April 2nd, 1864. Supporting Col. Henry's main push on the Confederate right flank, Ladley's command saw the only serious casualty from the regiment that day, when Abe Brubaker, a 26 year old Buckeye from Preble County, Ohio, was hit in the groin while advancing against the Confederate line.
Writing home to his family in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Ladley's letter reflects the glowing praise received by the regiment for their actions that day. No idle boast, the performance of the Buckeyes in the skirmish along Cedar Creek cemented their place as mainstays in the Department of the South and contributed to their selection for their next assignment at the end of April, 1864, when they were ordered by General Hatch to draw mounts and resume offensive operations against Confederate Florida.
Camp 75th O.V.I.
April 4th, 1864.
Dear Mother & Sisters,
I received yours of March 20th last night (Sunday). So you still have cold weather in Ohio do you? We have it very pleasant in this part of the world...
Well, we may have to go back to the Army of the Potomac, and there are a great many rumors flying around to that effect...
Well, one more fight to add to our already numerous category. Just after dinner on Saturday orders came to fall in to reconnoiter the enemy's position. The 75th were to support the 40th Mass. Mounted Infantry. In about fifteen minutes after the order came we were ready.
After marching about two miles the Regt. was divided, Col Harris taking the right wing and Major Fox the left. I was with the left, we took the road leading diagonally from the main road, with about fifty cavalry ahead of us, we kept up with them and when their advance were fired on, the cavalry halted and we were ordered ahead and Co. H. & my company were ordered to deploy as skirmishers which was done on the double quick and under fire, and the remaining Co. G. were in the reserve with the cavalry who limbered to the rear in a big hurry.
Well, we advanced slowly from one tree to another until we drove them quite a distance and as the orders were not to bring on a general engagement we halted and kept up the fire. The left of my company got so close that the boys could talk to each other. We escaped with only two wounded, one severely, and one musket disabled by a ball from the enemy.
We consider it a joke to be ordered out to support the cavalry or mounted infantry and then just as soon as the first gun was fired, they "right about wheel" and leave us to take care of any thing in front.
Col. Harris on the left had quite a brisk skirmish though we were separated so far that we could not hear each others guns. Had the enemy known our strength they could have played smash with us.
We were very highly complimented by Col. Henry cmdg Light Brigade. Col. Harris remarked just before we seperated that "we can't make quite as fine appearance on inspections as some of these Eastern troops down here, but when they want any little ticklish job done they know who to call upon."...
I will close. My respects to all inquiring friends.
OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 384.
Ladley , O. D. (1864). Letter, 1864 April 4, Oscar D. Ladley to Mother and Sisters [Catherine, Mary, and Alice Ladley].