Tuesday, January 19, 2010

John Milton as a Defendant: The Murder Trial of the Future Governor of Florida

By Dale Cox

For more than a century the story has been told in Jackson County that John Milton had killed a man in a duel at some point in his early life. Milton, of course, was the first person from the county to ascend to the governor’s chair and is remembered primarily as the calm hand that guided Florida through the turbulent years of the War Between the States.

Thirty years before, however, John Milton was the defendant in a sensational murder trial that attracted attention throughout the South. The trial and his killing of J.T. Camp in Columbus, Georgia, is the basis for the duel legend that is a significant part of Jackson County folklore.

The incident took place when Milton was twenty-seven years old. A lawyer and militia colonel living in Columbus, he had run for a seat in the U.S. Congress on the Nullification or States’ Rights platform promoted by former Vice President John C. Calhoun. The “Nullifiers” as they were called drew severe criticism from the supporters of President Andrew Jackson, a national hero then at the height of his power and popularity. Jackson believed that the Union of the states must be preserved at all costs, while Calhoun and his supporters believed that each state was an individual nation that voluntarily made up part of the Union. As such, they believed the states had the right to secede from the Union at any time.

The political campaign in resulted in an angry dispute between Milton and the major in his militia regiment, J.T. Camp, that came to a head in 1834. A newspaper of the time described what happened:

…Col. Milton understanding that his life had been threatened by Maj. Camp, procured a double barreled Gun, and walked over to Nicholas Howard’s Store, and discharged the contents of one of the barrels into his back, and while falling discharged the other into his left breast. – Camp lived but a few moments after he was shot and spoke not a word…I was some distance from them, but can state that Col. Milton discharged his gun with more coolness and deliberation than any man I think would have done under similar circumstances – and left the spot with seeming unconcern.

The future governor surrendered himself to the authorities in Columbus and, as things moved much more quickly in that day, was brought to trial on charges of murder just two weeks later. After hearing from a number of witnesses, likely including Milton himself, the jury acquitted him of all charges.

Milton soon moved to Mobile, Alabama, and eventually on to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he practiced law until he was severely burned in a steamboat accident on July 1, 1845. The accident seems to have prompted his decision to seek a more comfortable life in a rural setting and by 1847 he had acquired thousands of acres surrounding Blue Spring. Naming the plantation Sylvania, because the main house stood in a grove of trees, Milton eventually expanded the farm to include more than 6,330 acres of prime Jackson County land.

He was elected Governor of Florida in 1860 and took office in 1861. The collapse of the Confederacy evident, he took his own life at Sylvania on April 1, 1865, having told friends that death would be preferable to defeat by the North. He is buried at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church cemetery in Marianna.

The historic marker pointing out the site of Sylvania was damaged on election night in 2008, but is now being repaired. To learn more about the life of Governor Milton and his plantation at Sylvania, please visit www.twoeggfla.com/sylvania.

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