May 18, 1864
Camp at Palaciers Creek
12 miles south of St. Augustine
Dear Mother & Sisters,
I have received three letters from you, and can just imagine that I was well pleased to hear from you. The mails have been delayed on some account.
I have just started on another scout. The word came in that the enemy had just crossed the river and I was sent out with twenty five men to learn more about it. I am waiting at this place for forage which will be up this evening. I expect to go around Smyrna where I left fifteen men on the last expedition. I heard from them to day. They have captured ninety eight bales of cotton and have hauled it to the river ready for a boat to take it off. This was over and above what was on board the Schooner we captured, besides the cotton they got another Schooner a few days ago.
Yesterday I received notice from the Adjutant General of Ohio that I had been commissioned a captain in the 75th O.V.I. and the commission had been forwarded to the Comdg. Officer of the Regt. So I drop the "Lieut" after this.
I am very glad to learn that the militia have, or are about to be, of some service to the Government. They will not have any thing to do of consequence, but they can garrison forts and such things as well as any lady, as long as there is no enemy at hand.
This letter is short as the man who takes it back is ready to start. I got three Mercuries on March 27, April 2 & April 9th.
Give my respects to those who would be likely to wish to hear from me.
Ladley's typically steady hand appears visibly hurried toward the end of this letter to his family. While it was likely haste to meet the outgoing post rather than concern for the mission, the urgent desire to send what might be a final letter home before departing Federal lines speaks volumes about the situation the Buckeyes found themselves in during the month of May, 1864. Scattered across a score of posts from the St. Marys River, north of Jacksonville, to the lonesome village of New Smyrna along the Atlantic coast, the little detachments and picket posts were isolated in an enemy country with only a handful of comrades nearby for assistance. They were easy picking, and they knew it. With the St. Johns River the only barrier between their lines and the rebels, the Buckeyes looked out over the lazily flowing blackwater for any movement on the western bank.
Across the river was 'Dixie's Land.' Not simply the place of rebellion and bondage, but the sector under the watchful care of Confederate Captain John Jackson Dickison, commanding Company H of the 2nd Florida Cavalry Regiment. Known as 'Dixie,' 'The Swamp Fox,' 'The Grey Fox,' he was Florida's Colonel John Sartoris. The Francis Marion of the Southern Confederacy. A darling of the Lost Cause, his contributions to the defense of the state have remained legend since the war, and for good reason. With a command that never exceeded 200, and typically numbered closer to 60, Dickison's men made a habit of attacking and routing larger Federal forces throughout the war. By means of ambush, subterfuge and superior local knowledge, his men would seemingly appear from nowhere and vanish just as quickly as they made their presence known.
In reaction to Brigadier General William Birney's raid in April, 1864, Dickison proposed an aggressive response to his superiors at Camp Milton. On May 11th, Dixie was set loose, receiving orders to "strike the enemy wherever you have opportunity of doing so to advantage." Without hesitation, his men crossed the St. Johns River and took captive the entire garrison stationed at Welaka on May 19th, Ft. Butler on May 21st, and ambushed and sank the armed gunboat U.S.S. Columbine at Horse Landing on May 23rd. In aggregate, his operations during May, 1864, saw 121 Federal soldiers captured and a further 25 killed, all without a single loss within his own command.
Recalling the sentiment of the Confederate countryside during the summer of 1864, a newspaper column attributed to the Lake City 'Columbian' praised the weight of Dickison's name in Florida following his actions in May, 1864:
"The name of 'Dickison' on the banks of the St. Johns is a host of itself, and such is the confidence reposed in him and his command, that there is felt a perfect security from the advance of the enemy, in every bosom while they are between us and the river."
Rebel feelings of "perfect security" aside, Dickison's name was measured with equal weight by the Federal soldiers and Union people in Florida seeking refuge east of the St. Johns River. As reported to Federal headquarters in late April, 1864:
"A refugee from the east side of the Saint Johns, opposite Fort Gates, reports that a rebel cavalry force of 400 has been at Fort Gates since about Friday last; that they had raised one lighter and were repairing another, for the purpose of effecting a crossing and making a raid toward Saint Augustine for the purpose of driving off all the horses and cattle on the east side and arresting all the Union men. It was said the Union men had taken to the woods, but that 17 were caught and hung on the spot. My informant was one of 13 refugees that got safely into Saint Augustine."
With the violent reputation of their foe known to all, Ladley's scouting column rode for a week in search of their quarry before returning to Ft. Peyton empty handed. By the end of summer, however, each of the Buckeyes in Florida would know the weight of Dickison's name and attest to his ferocity as a warrior.
Dickison's capture of the gunboat Columbine on the St. Johns River.
May 23, 1864
Ladley , O. D. (1864). Letter, 1864 May 18, Oscar D. Ladley to Mother and Sisters [Catherine, Mary, and Alice Ladley].
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1896) Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66.
Portrait of Confederate Captain John Jackson Dickison. Black & white photoprint, 8 x 10 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
Capture of the U.S. gunboat "Columbine" on the St. Johns River - Horse Landing, Florida. Black & white photoprint, 8 x 10 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
Dickison, Mary Elizabeth. Dickison and His Men: Reminiscences of the War in Florida . Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing Company, 1890.