Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#91 Governor John Milton (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Gov. John Milton
(D) Florida
Governor John Milton is #91 on my list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida. Please click here to see the full list as it is posted.

Born in Louisville, Georgia, on April 20, 1807, Governor Milton was a descendant and namesake of the famed English poet John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost. The governor's grandfather was a soldier of the American Revolution and his father, General Homer V. Milton, served with distinction during the War of 1812 and Creek War of 1813-1814.

As a boy, the "Governor" - as he is generally known around Jackson County - studied at an academy in his hometown of Louisville and excelled in subjects that included Greek, Latin, English and mathematics. He was undoubtedly a bright and talented individual who was admitted to the bar in Georgia before he was 20 years old.

Leaving his hometown, Milton went on to practice law in Columbus, Georgia, where he was also elected to the rank of colonel in the Georgia militia (forerunner of today's Georgia National Guard). He ran for U.S. Congress in 1832 as a supporter of John C. Calhoun's theory of nullification.

Columbus, Georgia
The Nullifcation theory held that a state, by virtue of its sovereign status, could overrule or nullify actions of the Federal government that were not beneficial to the state. Milton lost that race, but remained an adamant supporter of states' rights and opponent of the growing power of the Federal government.

On August 11, 1834, Milton was arrested and charged with murder after he shot a man with whom he had been engaged in a personal and political dispute:

This day has terminated the controversy between Col. John Milton and Maj. J.T. Camp, by the death of the later. Col. Milton understanding that his life had been threatened by Maj. Camp, procured a double barreled Gun, and walked over to Nicholas Howards Store, and discharged the contents of one of his barrels into his back, and while falling discharged the other into his left breast. -

New Orleans, Milton's one-time home.
Photo courtesy of Brian Mabelitini
Milton turned himself in to local authorities, but was acquitted in a trial that began less than two weeks later. The jury determined that he had acted in self defense as Camp had threatened to kill him.

By 1835, Milton had relocated to Mobile, Alabama, where he continued his practice of law. He raised a company of cavalry during the Creek War of 1836 and took part in the movements that sent many of the Creek Indians west on the Trail of Tears.

Following the death of his first wife, Susan Amanda Milton, the future governor remarried Caroline Howze with whom he eventually had ten additional children. He and Susan had parented five children, but only one - William Henry Milton - survived the diseases of that day to become an adult.

Seeking more fertile ground for his law practice, the future governor moved to New Orleans and lived in Louisiana until 1845. It is believed that he was the same John Milton who was listed as having been badly injured during a steamboat explosion that took place on the Mississippi River at New Orleans on July 1, 1845. Among the "gentleman" passengers on the boat was a "John Milton" who was reported to have been badly scalded by steam.

Sylvania Plantation Marker at Blue Springs
Not long after this accident, Milton began his move from Louisiana to Jackson County. Through family connections he acquired the plantation of the late William Robinson at Blue Springs, which he expanded tremendously during the late 1840s and 1850s. Eventually his "Sylvania" plantation grew to include more than 6,000 acres of prime Jackson County land.

Always active in military and political affairs, John Milton was elected Major General of the 1st Division of the Florida Militia in 1849 and to a seat in the Florida Legislature one year later. Even though Jackson County was then a "Gibraltar" of the now-defunct Whig Party, Milton was a dedicated Democrat. His popularity is evidenced by the fact that he was elected to the legislature from a county controlled by party other than his own.

Old State Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida
In 1860, Milton was elected Governor of Florida by a commanding margin in the same November election that saw Abraham Lincoln elected President of the United States. In Florida, Milton received 6,994 votes in that election, compared to 5,248 for his opponent. Abraham Lincoln did not receive a single vote in Florida.

Although in those days the Governor-elect did not take office for nearly one year after being elected, Governor Madison S.Perry worked closely with his successor. It was Governor-elect Milton who announced Florida's secession from the portico of the Old Capitol on January 10, 1861.

Old Capitol as it appeared when Milton was Governor
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
Governor Milton assumed his office in October 1861. By that time Florida was part of the Confederate States of America. The governor would lead his state through nearly four years of war against the United States, even though he had been elected to his post while Florida was still part of the U.S.

His tenure as governor was remarkable as he was tasked with protecting the citizens of a state all but abandoned by the Confederate military. On their own and with little help from the Confederate capital in Richmond, Governor Milton and the Florida Legislature raised and equipped troops both for the Confederate armies and the defense of Florida.

Old Capitol Building in Tallahassee
The governor also stood up for the poor people of his state in the face of acts that reflected the growing desperation of the Confederate government. When Confederate commissary officers began seizing the last cows from the widows and children of Southern soldiers, Milton pleaded their case to Richmond. When the wives and children of a group of Unionists from Taylor County were seized by the Confederate army and placed in a concentration camp near Tallahassee, Milton secured their freedom and had them passed through the lines to their husbands and fathers.

Battle of Marianna Monument
Milton played a critical role in maintaining Florida's transportation systems during the war and in providing for the families of soldiers. His efforts helped secure the Confederate victory at Olustee on February 20, 1864, and when Marianna was attacked on September 27 of that year, he rushed forward to Chattahoochee determined to oppose the Federal advance in person if the enemy continued to advance.

On March 6, 1865, Confederate troops that included the Governor's sons - Major William H. Milton of the 5th Florida Cavalry and Cadet John Milton of the West Florida Seminary (today's Florida State University) - defeated a Union attempt to take Tallahassee and nearby Thomasville, Georgia. Dr. Charles Hentz, a Confederate surgeon who knew the governor well, remembered that things did not seem right with him in the wake of the dramatic victory:

Gov. Milton's grave at St. Luke's Episcopal Church
Governor Milton made an address to the soldiers in the Capitol. I had observed him when we were going down, walking up & down the Depot platform with an air of the most profound abstraction and dejection. I think he must have been suffering from some disease of the brain.

Less than one month later, Governor John Milton was dead. His life came to an end from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Sylvania plantation on April 1, 1865. While many of blamed Milton's death on suicide, recent research has produced a copy of a special Extra issue of the West Florida News from the week of his death that indicates the fatal gunshot wound was fired by accident. Milton was preparing for a bird-hunting expedition with his son when his shotgun accidentally discharged.

The Governor is buried at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Marianna, alongside his father and many other members of his family. The Milton family remains heavily involved in business, legal and community improvement efforts in Jackson County to this day.

To learn more about Governor Milton's life and administration, please consider my book: The History of Jackson County, Florida: The War Between the States. It is also available at a discounted price for Kindle readers.

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