Restless natives extended a particularly warm “welcome” to the Maine snow bird who cruised to Jacksonville in Florida in late March 1863.
Seventeen months earlier, Capt. Henry Boynton had sailed to war with the 8th Maine Infantry Regiment, an outfit cursed with too many arrogant and madcap company officers who veered alternately between duty and mutiny. Exemplifying the typical 8th Maine officer, the supercilious Boynton made enemies almost from the moment he raised Co. D in central Maine.
Writing Gov. Israel Washburn from Virginia in late October 1861, Boynton claimed that the regiment suffered from “a remarkable degree of incapacity in field Officers.” He complained that Col. Lee Strickland, the 8th Maine’s first commanding officer, displayed “ignorant blundering” while drilling the troops.
“The military imbecility of the Colonel and Lt. Col. renders the Regiment a reproach instead of an honor to our noble State,” Boynton opined.
By early 1863, other 8th Maine officers detested their new commanding officer, Col. John D. Rust, whom many described as a drunkard in their correspondence. These men also despised Boynton; when Rust dispatched him and his Co. D to Jacksonville in March, his brother officers were glad to see him go.
After all, maybe a Confederate bullet would put him out their misery.
After disembarking with his men from the steamship Delaware at Jacksonville on Tuesday, March 24, Boynton “relieved Capt. Rogers as Provost Marshal,” he wrote Rust on April 1.
“On examination I found that a considerable portion of the town was in a state of desolation,” Boynton noted.
Confederate troops had supposedly burned “much property including the railroad buildings several valuable mills a fine hotel and many other valuable buildings,” he explained. The senior Union commander, Col. Thomas W. Higginson, also had burned other buildings “from military necessity as they obstructed the range of his guns and afforded cover for the approach of the enemy.”
The town seemed eerily quiet; including “several of the disloyal families [who] had recently gone beyond our lines,“ most Jacksonville residents had fled, Boynton noted. He “immediately established a Patrol to maintain order,” and the 8th Maine boys swiftly arrested several Southern sympathizers.
To close the St. Johns River and the adjacent Florida coast to Confederate shipping, Union troops had occupied Jacksonville and nearby Fernandina Beach in October 1862. Harassed by Confederate guerrillas and despised by many white Floridians, the occupiers had faced threats day and night.
During his first days at Jacksonville, Boynton encountered many civilians who, “in a state of destitution,” had “applied to me for relief.” He separated the wheat from the chaff; “I have issued food to suffering Union people while needy secessionists have been sent beyond our lines to their natural providers[,] their husbands fathers and brothers in the rebel country,” Boynton assured Rust.
After enemy troops strongly probed his inadequate defenses in mid-March, Higginson decided to evacuate Jacksonville. Amidst the ensuing confusion, Confederate sympathizers struck.
After dark on Saturday, March 28, “attempts were made by unknown persons to fire buildings in which Union soldiers were sleeping,” he told Rust. “Had they succeeded some of our men might have perished in the flames.
As provosts, the 8th Infantry soldiers maintained law and order within Jacksonville — and now served as firefighters. The alleged Confederate arsonists burned “perhaps 25 buildings,” primarily “brick blocks within the lines of the” 1st South Carolina Volunteers (a black regiment) “on and near Bay Street,” Boynton noted.
“The buildings burnt within the lines of the 8th Maine and 6th Conn[ecticut]. Regiments were for the most part cheap wooden structures in the upper part of the town,” he stressed. “Every possible effort was made by the Provost Guard to prevent the fires.
“We extinguished several but they broke out in several places at once and a high wind aided the spreading of the destroying flames,” Boynton vividly described the disaster. “The (8th Maine) Patrol were ordered to shoot down every person found setting fires.”
Confederate officers claimed that black and white Union troops torched Jacksonville. Writing a detailed letter to the Bangor Whig & Courier, Alfred Walton of the 8th Maine admitted that his comrades burned their barracks.
He, however, blamed the widespread fires on the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. Black troops also burned their barracks located “on Bay Street … consequently to windward,” the newspaper cited Walton’s letter. Thus the strong wind caught that fire and swept it across the town, Walton reasoned.
Boynton knew otherwise. As Union troops boarded transports moored in the St. Johns River on Sunday, March 29, he and his 8th Maine boys remained ashore to guard the evacuation. Finally, “after the Regiments were all embarked, I withdrew the Provost Guard,” he wrote.
The Jacksonville ruins still flamed and smoked as Boynton stood at the Delaware’s rail and gazed across his brief duty station. “The Court House and Episcopal Church were at considerable distance from and not exposed to the fires of the burning buildings and had no fires in, about or near them,” wrote Boynton, who could see these distinctive landmarks from the Delaware.
“Yet after the last Union soldiers had been withdrawn they were fired and burnt to the ground,” Boynton reported. “This therefore could not have been done by Union soldiers but must have been the work of rebels.
“I have reason to suspect also that the fire which consumed the extensive brick block on the North side of Bay street was set by secessionists,” Boynton told Rust. “At the time the fire broke out it (the buildings) contained some Union property which I think was saved.
“Many of the fires were set in the interior of buildings where they gained considerable headway and the perpetrators escaped before they could be detected by the Patrol,” Boynton said.
“Wild with excitement,” some civilians “encouraged the burning,” he wrote. “I saw no effort on their part to extinguish any fires.”
In fact, some Confederate sympathizers “were anxious for plunder,” the shocked Boynton noted.
Boynton stressed that “secessionists” had “previously intimated … that all property in which any Unionist had any interest would be burnt as soon as [the] secessionists could have a chance to do it.” Aided by comrades from Co. F, the Co. D men valiantly “spared no effort to save the property of Union people from destruction,” he assured Rust.
Then, after signing his letter as “your obd[ident]. servant, he sailed away from Florida.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Swartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.