The fourth April of the war and the third under arms for most of the men of the 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
One year prior, the Buckeyes spent the month of April preparing to meet Lee's rebels north of Richmond. Now, camped along the banks of the St. Johns River, they watched as the rest of the Federal army in Florida prepared for a similar task. Anticipating a renewal of the Spring bloodletting, both Lee and Grant called for reinforcements from all available sectors to rally in Virginia, stripping the Florida front of nearly all the troops assembled since February. By the end of the month, most of the Confederate soldiers stationed at Camp Milton were marching north, with their Federal counterparts embarking steamships at Jacksonville for the same purpose.
Complicating this draw-down in troop strength was the matter of territory in Florida under Federal control and the fate of the people who sought refuge and protection within it. Abandonment of Jacksonville and the area east of the St. Johns River would expose the professed Union people and escaped slaves to retribution and reprisal from Confederate agents and open the Lincoln administration to immense political embarrassment in the coming November presidential election. With an eye toward the defense of eastern Florida, a token force of two brigades, just strong enough to hold the eastern shore of the St. Johns River, was left in defense of the state. With no orders for redeployment to Virginia, the Buckeyes found themselves assigned to this command.
Though spared from the horror of yet another campaign "on to Richmond," they knew their work was far from over when on April 18th, 1864, the regiment was directed to take possession of some 350 horses left behind by the withdrawing Federal army. Much like the Buckeyes, the old cavalry mounts were worn-down, depleted from overuse and abandoned in the Florida sun. Veterans in their own right, however, the critters were well drilled and accustomed to hard service. When matched with capable handlers, as the predominantly agrarian Ohio boys were thought to be, the result was as good a mounted force as the army could muster in the department. Testament to their ability, the regiment needed only two days of instruction before the first contingents were posted on the line. Within a week, most of them were riding south on their first large scale raid against the rebels.
"Well drilled in the tactics of infantry, and usually fighting as such, their swift movements made them exceedingly troublesome to the enemy."
-Wilber F. Hinman, 65th O.V.I.
Detailing those first days of mounted service in Florida, Private William Southerton remembers the closing days of April, 1864 in his memoirs. After a short introduction into the basics of cavalry tactics, he and his comrades were ordered more than 120 miles south of Jacksonville, as part of Brigadier General William Birney's raid into Volusia County. Tasked with confiscating cattle and deterring Confederates from crossing into the territory east of the St. Johns River, the raid proved to be a smashing success, depriving the Confederate government of an estimated $200,000 worth of property without losing a man.
Across the river from our camp, a horse infirmary was established, with about three hundred fifty broken-down cavalry horses from the North corralled to be restored to usefulness for our Department of the South. Raiding was slow business and dangerous work without horses. We had found the Johnnies in ever stronger positions, roads often barricaded. Even with a few pieces of artillery and a squadron of cavalry, we as infantrymen could accomplish little. Now, here were horses! We were going to be cavalrymen! We could fight lions, now! But, we were only mounted infantrymen.
We drew horses by companies, lots cast to determine which had first choice. Company D drew first, taking the cream of the corral. Each man chose a black horse. My company was the last to draw, and took what was left. I drew a bay. He was so rough, hard to ride, with no speed in him, that I traded him off for a roan. The roan was a clipper! I couldn't pull hard enough on the reins to hold him back. I rode him throughout the remainder of my service. Polk drew a fiery horse! Oh, golly, what a lot of dash that horse had!
Ben Morgan, recovered from wounds received at Gettysburg, rejoined our regiment in Jacksonville, and was assigned to our training in horsemanship. The drill ground was only fair, sandy, thinly wooded with pine, and too generous a sprinkling of palmettos. Those old horses knew more about cavalry maneuvers than we did. At the sound of a bugle call, no one could hold back a cavalry horse!
Ben gave the instructions, "quarter wheel to the right" when the bugle would sound. Klum was on the extreme right, I was next to him. Polk, mounting his fiery horse for the first time, was on the extreme left. Polk had just put his feet into the stirrups when the bugle blared! His horse dashed around that turn as fast as a race horse! Polk's feet flew out of the stirrups, his thin bare legs sticking out beyond his trousers legs. He clung desperately to the horse's mane. His cap flew off, his white hair flapped in the wind. His eyes almost popped out of their sockets. Then his horse hurdled high to clear the prickly palmettos. Polk's legs flew out in every direction. His eyes were glassy!
Oh, what an uproar of shouting and laughing! The louder we laughed and yelled the madder Ben got. He was furious!
“This is a regular Morgan's raid!” Klum yelled, at the top of his lungs. We almost went into hysterics.
“Call it what you damn please! Form into line!” Captain Morgan's expression of disgust and anger were too much for us. He cut loose with the gol-darndest yells.
Poor Polk! He never made much of a cavalryman. He filled a saddle. That's about all anyone could say.
Our first expedition as mounted infantrymen was to St. Augustine. What a dinner we had there! Fresh beef, sweet potatoes, a feast!...
At Volusia we picketed the fords and ferries, then went on to Lake George where we found two schooners of cotton ready to run the blockade. We sent them north. We found another schooner of cotton, we burned that. Clouds of black smoke shot skyward! I didn't like that very well, it was dangerous. Then we came to a clothing factory where there was considerable machinery; bales of Confederate uniforms, blankets, stacked on the floor. We set the place afire, hurried back to Lake George. Oh, those clouds of smoke could be seen for miles around! Oh golly!
Contemporary pencil sketch of a "Cattle Raid" by Alfred Waud
Jim Andrews, Oregon, Klum and I were detached from the main raiding party, and sent out to gather up cattle and drive them to Jacksonville. We rounded up quite a herd, and started north. They were the slowest I ever drove! One bull stood in the middle of the road and refused to budge. I prodded that old bull! That infuriated him! He hooked the cattle right and left. A fierce stampede was on! Bellowing! Headlong scrambling! I edged out of the way just in time, and just as Klum shot the bull. The injured animal dashed into the woods and was gone. The herd ran in every direction, completely out of control. The next morning we rounded up all we could find, about half of the herd.
The second night we came to an abandoned farm, turned the cattle in to browse in the straggly cornfield, butchered one of the calves for supper, just as a force of our men drove up two four-mule-team wagons with forage and grain. We broke into the log house to sleep that night, and found stored there five beautiful grand pianos with locked lids. In no time a lid was broken open and we had some fine music.
Tethering our horses by threading their halters through chinks in the logs, we tried to get some sleep. Gray timber wolves howled, came up to the cabin, prowled around, scared the cattle and horses. Next morning, there wasn't a morsel of the calf's carcass left. Not a gol-darned thing left by the cattle in the cornfield but sand and dust.
We finally made it to Jacksonville. But, Oh God! I'd rather fight a battle!
Writing home to his family in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Lieutenant Oscar Ladley also recalls the details from the Buckeyes' first mounted campaign in Florida. Foreshadowing things to come, Ladley found himself in a similar fix as Southerton; detached from the main party and sent on an independent mission into rebeldom. Despite knowing little of the country and roads in his front, Ladley, along with Company E, was responsible for the signature success of the campaign, capturing two blockade runners preparing to sail from New Smyrna.
May 10th, 1864
St. Augustine, Fla.
Dear Mother & Sisters
In my last I told you of starting on an expedition but at that time I did not know what it was for or anything about it.
I returned last Saturday after an absence of 13 days in the scrub, pines and swamps of Florida. We marched from Jacksonville to this place in one day, on the next we marched in the direction of "Volusia" from there to "Spring Garden Lake," from the latter place to "Enterprise," where myself and company were detached and sent over on the coast to a place called "Smyrna," opposite Musquito Inlet.
I got instructions from Gen. Birney to proceed to this place and capture all cotton Schooners, Sloops, citizens and any thing belonging to rebels. I started and bivouacked at eleven o'clock at night within four miles of Smyrna. Before daylight we were on the road as we came in sight I sent ten men to the right and left of the place to look out for the flanks and then dashed in at a gallop. We captured six men, two of them were Masters of Blockade runners and their Vessels loaded with cotton. They had cleared from Nassau for Hilton Head but instead of going there they were loading with cotton for a British port. Their
papers were British.
We have a blockading vessel lying off this place but she does no good. The Captain of one of the vessels said he could run past her any time he chose. The name of the vessels were Schooner "Shell" and "Fanny." The master of the Fanny was a Portuguese, a regular pirate of a looking fellow. Gen. Birney came in soon after and sent the schooner to Hilton Head.
The regiment is scattered all over Florida, there are four companies at Jacksonville and mine is here and the rest have not yet come in. When we returned we drove all the cattle that we could find. I had about one thousand head of nice fat cattle but coming through about twelve miles of "Scrub" and Swamp I lost about half of them.
We killed a rattle snake seven feet long with nineteen rattles and shot a number of alligators.
We have not had a mail for one month. I can't see what is the matter.
Well, I will close.
Following the raid, a third of the regiment was posted around Jacksonville under the command of Major G.B. Fox, while Colonel Andrew Harris took the balance and established a post in the vicinity of St. Augustine to guard the approaches from the south. Making camp at the abandoned Seminole War vintage cantonment, Fort Peyton, their position on the King's Road provided a convenient location for the ongoing scouting and picket duty delegated to the newly mounted troopers. Writing to his hometown newspaper, The Eaton Register, from his new headquarters, Harris recalls some of the unique obstacles encountered by Buckeyes on their first mounted raid, as well as a tally of the damage they inflicted.
May 20, 1864
Camp Paton, 75th
The regiment is well and in camp about 7 miles from St Augustine, Florida.
In their late raid south, they went nearly to the head of the St. Johns River above Lake Harney and near Cape Cannaveral. They found the wildest and most uninhabitable country they had ever seen, people and animals alike. Alligators, lizards, scorpions and musketoes were thick. At one place near Lake Harney they undertook to swim their horses over the St. Johns where it was wide and 15 feet deep. Having driven the horses in and intending to carry the men over in a boat, they had gone but a short distance before the horses were so frightened by alligators, that they broke back for shore, reached it and breaking through the guard line left for the north. They were caught some time next day and the party, 250 men in all, went on their way satisfied with their attempt to a raid west of the river.
During their raid they destroyed 235 bales of cotton, 19 barrels of turpentine, 2 salt works besides capturing 2 schooners and 100 bales of cotton which they saved. They also drove in 3,000 head of cattle. When the people became so tame as to be approached, they found them all for the Union.
They are feasting on sweet potatoes and fish.
St. Augustine, Florida, 1864.
What We Did There, or, Swamp Angel. by William B. Southerton and Marie W. Higgins. 1937. Ohio Historical Society. Columbus. Ohio
Ladley , O. D. (1864). Letter, 1864 May 10, Oscar D. Ladley to Mother and Sisters [Catherine, Mary, and Alice Ladley]
Preble County, Ohio And The Civil War. Compiled and Edited by Audrey Gilbert, 2000