Five Fateful Days in February 1865
The “Cotton Raid” and Ambush at Braddock’s Farm
By Jeff Grzelak
The state of affairs in Florida seemed almost too quiet compared to the larger campaigns that were being waged elsewhere in the South. As the New Year was marked on the calendar things were looking up for the weary Northern troops stationed throughout the state. News of General Sherman’s capture of Savannah and impending march through the Carolinas along with the capture of Fort Fisher, N.C.were celebrated throughout the state. Grant had Lee bottled up in Petersburg/Richmond, and what was left of Hood’s Army of Tennessee melted away into northern Alabama, no longer a threat.
In Northeast Florida things had settled down into a dull routine of scouting and small raids. Union troops were generally confined to the Jacksonville area, with the St. John’s River acting as a buffer between opposing forces. Union troops did hold Palatka on the west side of the river, but only because their gunboats offered support. There were scattered outposts as far south as Volusia garrisoned by elements of the 17th Connecticut Volunteers, which had been transferred to the district the previous February.
Florida in general was considered easy duty, and offered front line troops a chance to rest and regain their strength. The 17th Connecticut had seen a year of hard duty in the Army of the Potomac, losing many men at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. They then were sent to take part in the siege of Charleston, spending many days digging trenches where sickness became the biggest enemy.
The failure of the Olustee campaign resulted in their regiment being sent to Jacksonville to relieve the troops there. They immediately were marched to the front and remained there many weeks before being assigned to the St. Augustine area. The scope of their responsibilities was to maintain a vigilant guard along the river to prevent the Rebs from crossing and raiding the region. Thus they were thinly spread out at various posts along 100 miles of the river. This only invited attack with terrible losses to the regiment. 1
There were several raids along the river by Union troops, which proved successful in supporting the “loyal Union families” in the region, but they were of little military value. During January of 1865 things had gotten so bad in the area that deserters came into the lines almost weekly. Many families came into St. Augustine, where the authorities fed them, since many were on the brink of starvation. Mail service with Hilton Head was twice a month by boat and once a week from Jacksonville via Picolata on the St. John’s River.2
News reached St. Augustine through the grapevine that there was some cattle and cotton approximately 50 miles from town at the house of a known “secesh”. Volunteers were called for from the men in the ranks at dress parade. Several dozen men from various companies volunteered and were told to be ready with 3 days rations to march at dawn the next day (February 3, 1865). There would have been more volunteers except for a small party that was being given at the house of Solona several miles outside of town, where members of the regimental band were scheduled to play. The series of events during the next 72 hours would prove disastrous to the regiment.
The local Confederate cavalry commander, J.J. Dickison, had noticed that the Yanks seemed to be very casual about their affairs lately. He had learned of the distribution of troops through his network of spies and was planning to attack the post at Picolata. On the evening of February 2nd he had crossed the river near Palatka and moved towards Picolata. When he got close enough to the scout the fort, however, he deemed it foolish to attack and decided to swing wide towards Jacksonville and St. Augustine. On February 4th he came across the group at the house of Solona and captured them. Here he learned of the expedition that was gathering cotton and would be heading back to St. Augustine.
Braddock’s Farm was well known to Dickison and his men, as Braddock’s son rode with the unit. The group rode all night and arrived there on the morning of February 5th. From here the story takes several turns, depending on which side is telling it. From Dickison’s own official report only a few details can be gathered:
Headquarters South Florida Force
Walso, East Florida, February 9, 1865
MAJOR: I have the honor respectfully to report that on the morning of the 1st instant I left this encampment with the following detachment of my command: Company H, 2nd Florida Ca., 64 men, commanded by Lieutenant’s McCardell & McEaddy; Company B, of the same regiment, 33 men, commanded by Lieutenant McLeod; Company H, 5th Fla. Battalion, 23 men commanded by Lieutenant Hayes, Brantley, and Haile. On the evening of the 2nd instant I crossed the St. John’sRiver at Palatka and moved in the direction of Picolota. When within a mile of the post I found it impractical to make a successful attack. I then made a flank move in the direction of St. Augustine and Jacksonville, where I captured 17 prisoners, including a captain and lieutenant, with an ambulance. I then learned that a raiding party had left St. Augustine for Valencia. Dividing my command into two parties, sending one by the King’s Road toward Pallicier Creek, the other by Cowpen Branch, my advance met a small party of the enemy and captured one of them. We continued our march and met the enemy at Braddock’s Farm, where I engaged them, taking 51 prisoners (including a Lt. Col. & 2 captains), killing 4 men (including the adjutant), also 18 deserters & tories, 10 wagons & teams with seed cotton (about 9,000 pounds), and a number of small arms and horses. I re-crossed the river on the 6th instant without the loss of a man.
My officers and men behaved most gallantly, & deserve the highest praise for their conduct & obedience to orders. The march was very hard & fatiguing, having undergone hard travel both day & night to accomplish my design.
I sent in all 68 Yankee prisoners and 18 deserters. All of which is respectfully submitted.
I am, Major, yours respectfully,
Captain, Commanding Forces
Major H.C. Goldwaite
Assistant Adjutant General
The other Confederate source often referred to is that of Mary Dickison, his wife. She was not present at the engagement, but did hear the story told at the reunions over the years from various other members of the command. In the 1890 book “Dickison and His Men” (pages 113-135) she gives a fairly detailed though perhaps embellished story of the events leading up to the engagement. The details of how Dickison found out that Picolata was too fortified to be taken and the capture of the band, along with the various deserters and stragglers is given in detail and sets the timetable of events fairly well.
The details of the skirmish, however, such as the death of Adjutant Henry Chatfield can be found from the survivors. One of those was Captain Wilson French, who was captured during the ambush. He gave the following account on the evening of June 19, 1886 in the parlor of his Stratford, Connecticut house:
“In a town near Lake George, in Florida, was some cotton stored. Some of the citizens (called crackers), were stealing and selling it to the merchants in St. Augustine, Fla. The General in command issued an order to Lt. Col. Wilcoxson to capture that cotton if he thought it practical. Upon the strength of this Lt. Col. Wilcoxson called for a detail of 10 & drivers, & 31 men from the 17th regiment, then he gave orders to me to issue no passes to anyone to go outside the city on the day before the raid was to start. On February 3, 1865, the detail left St. Augustine about 5:0 AM for a 3 days raid. Wm. Mensher, a citizen of St. Augustine, acted as guide. This same day Capt. Henry Allen, issued passes to some of the boys, to attend a ball in the evening.3 On the way out, raiding party stopped at several places along the road & gathered up some cotton. On the way back Col. Wilcoxson ordered me to go out a little ways from the main road, to a cotton gin, & get some very fine cotton (the best I ever saw) & after I get it loaded report back in the road again and wait till the rest of the train comes up. After returning to the road they found they were obliged to stay out one night longer than they had expected, so removed the cotton from one wagon & loaded it on to others, leaving it empty. While reloading it with corn for their horses, the rest of the train was moving on, under the command of Capt. Betts, & was in advance of the train. Wilcoxson, me & Adjt. Chatfield were at the corn crib dismounted. The first they knew that there were any rebs near by, they heard a volley of musketry, & soon as we could we mounted our horses & started for the head of the train on a yell. The rebs thought it was cavalrymen so went for the swamp. Some of their horses (rebs) were wounded, then our officers tried to rally the men, while the rebs came up to battle a second time & to a hand to hand fight. The battle was fought on a (knoll), with swamps on either side. As Wilcoxson, Chatfield, and me came up on one side of the knoll, the rebs went down on the other side. During this hand to hand fight Adjt. Chatfield was on his horse & wounded and fell from his horse & was pounded, & died almost instantly. He spoke only two words, Don’t, Don’t & this was when he was being pounded. My horse was wounded in the fore shoulder and became unmanageable. Capt. Dickison’s surgeon told me that he meant to kill me and supposed he had when I fell from my horse. The second time that I was thrown from my horse I was carried under a tree, and when I fell one of Dickison’s men (an Irishman) struck me over the head with the butt of his gun & thought I was the head officer & asked some of my company if I was not. I think that Wilcoxson was poisoned, for I always understood the reble surgeon said that he would fix him. I left Andersonville to return to our lines on March 20th, & about the 25th Dickison told me while at Baldwin at the picket line with a flag of truce to give Wilcoxson’s wife his sword and belt. He was also detained about 6 weeks at Lake City. About 250 rebs attacked the train. Ben F. Brinkenhoff (of Company G) was clerk for me at St. Augustine & sent me $10.00, some socks, & a pair of pants, but some rebs got them all instead of me.”
In his memoirs after the war, Colonel Noble (who was not present, having been captured 2 months earlier between St. Augustine and Jacksonville) mentions how easy it was in the thick Florida woods to lay an ambush:
“The force was about starting on it’s return home, when it was attacked by about 200 of Dixon‘s (Dickison’s) mounted rifles.4 The attack was sudden and unexpected. They were easily made so in Fla., which was, pretty much one pine wood. A summons to surrender was unheeded by Col. Wilcoxson, and fire opened. Seeing no hope of escape Col. Wilcoxson and Adjt. Chatfield attempted to cut their way thro the enemy. Adjt. Chatfield was instantly killed and Col. Wilcoxson shot thro the shoulder of which afterwards he died at Tallahassee. The regt. in these two officers lost two gallant and able men. Two captains and about 50 men were captured and sent to Andersonville.”
Colonel Noble was no doubt writing from what he heard from the others who were paroled towards the end of the war and the subsequent reunions that were held afterwards. His memoirs were written some 20 years after the event.
One of the most descriptive narrations, however, is from the regimental historian William Warren, who after the war set about trying to preserve the regimental history and gather from all known sources as much information as possible. Over the next 40 years he would research, take notes, conduct interviews, and amass a vast collection into journals and notebooks. Unfortunately the only known sets known to exist are in the Yale library, and in the time capsule at the 17th C.V. monument atGettysburg. The Bridgeport,CT library has only bits and pieces, but fortunately has his chapter on the “Cotton Raid”:
“On February 2, 1865, Wilcoxson started out with 35 or 40 men, and five teams and wagons to go to Spring Garden where it was reported was a lot of cotton. There was no false alarm this time. The cotton was there, secured and started on their return to St. Augustine. Co. A did not go this time, being at Picolota with three other companies of the regiment. So I am indebted to one of the comrades who was of the party and escaped capture and is at present a member of the Soldier’s Home at Noroton Heights. The expedition was on their return February 5th. They had reached a point about 21 miles from St. Augustine, a place called Dunn’s Lake, and halted for dinner at the house of a citizen nearby. Wilcoxson and Chatfield were having dinner in the house (Chatfield accompanied the party just for pleasure to see the country). The men were lounging the time away, when suddenly, a party of guerillas, a hundred or more, in command of Col. Dickison, appeared on the scene and demanded the surrender of the whole party. Some firing was had to enforce the demand, and hearing the firing Wilcoxson and Chatfield rushed out, mounted their horses and prepared to fight. Soon the Col. found himself face to face with Dickson, the leader, and after emptying his revolver fell exhausted from his horse from several wounds, and he was a prisoner. Chatfield also encountered one of the lieutenants and a fierce hand to hand contest ensued at the end of which he, too, fell exhausted and when prostrate on the ground the rebel demanded his surrender. “Never while I live” was his heroic answer, and a soldier brained him where he lay!!! Of the number who went on the raid, but three escaped capture. They took to the brush, and secreted themselves till it was safe to venture out, and made their way to St. Augustine and gave the alarm. The Lt. Col. was taken to Tallahassee, where he died in a few days. It was believed by many that it was a put up job to get as many officers and men as possible to go after the cotton, and then surprise them in the manner they did.
The loss of these two officers was a great blow to the Regt. Wilcoxson was a brilliant man. He was the first Adjt. on the organization of the regt., subsequently promoted to be Capt. of Co. I, and later to be Lt. Col. succeeding Fowler in that position. Chatfield was a remarkable bright young man, scarce 20 years of age. He left his college course to enlist as a private in Co. D. The Col. soon take him as his personal secretary, and soon he was made Sgt. Major, and at Chancellorsville was promoted 1st Lt. for meritorious conduct in saving the colors when the color bearer was shot down, and at the close of the campaign appointed to Adjutant. Major Henry Allen then became Lt. Col. and with the detachment at Picolata was recalled to St. Augustine, our place filled with colored troops, so after nearly 6 months of the best times in the whole 3 years of service, we bade farewell to Picolata.”
Major Henry Allen, in his report to his superiors on February 6th, which was based on the three men who escaped capture, wrote “He had gotten the cotton, and was about 7 miles from there on his return, when he was attacked by Captain Dickison, with some 80 men”. This leads me to believe that the affair did not take place at Braddock’s but rather somewhere between there and Haw Creek Ford. As stated this is sometimes referred to as Welaka, Dunn’sLake, and Braddock’s farm in various references to this incident.
Any number of smaller events molded the course of events that led up to the ambush at Braddock’s Farm. What if Dickison had attacked Picolata, or not captured the musicians at Solona and not learned of the expedition? Picolata played perhaps the most important role, since it was there that Dickison decided to change his plans and probe towards St. Augustine, thus taking the course he did.
Allen Peck, stationed at Picolata, wrote to his brother dated February 5, 1865. Peck’s letter doesn’t mention the Braddock’s Farm affair, only the events that led up to it:
“Our camp has been full of excitement yesterday and today for this reason–”Dickison” (the commander of the reb forces in this vicinity on the opposite side of the St. John’s river) made a raid on the country between here and St. Augustine early yesterday morning; and succeeded in capturing 14 enlisted men and two Commissioned officers belonging to our regiment, Beside a number of citizens and deserters from the rebel army—& portions of his force came within four miles of our camp, and captured a deserter and a number of citizens and came very near capturing the Captain commanding this post. The Captain was notified of the affair early yesterday morning by a woman at whose house one of the deserters had been captured, she coming into camp and giving the alarm as soon as possible. The Captain at once had a horse saddled, and taking three men with him started for a citizen’s house about 7 miles from camp–he had nearly got to his destination when he met the citizens he was going to see, who informed him that a rebel force numbered almost 150 men under the immediate command of “Col. Dickison”. Upon learning the force of the rebs he concluded he shouldn’t go any farther–but started back for camp–and was headed for 12 rebs lay in ambush about 2 or 3 hundred yards further down the road; and captured the citizen who gave to give the information in a few minutes after he left the Captain.
The woman who gave the alarm in camp only saw some Rebs from her house, and supposed there were no more—so the Captain thought he might scout them–but he had a narrow escape. A number of citizens who were captured were released by “Dickison” early this morning and were allowed to return to their houses after having been taken about 25 miles from home. They report that the rebs intended to have made an attack on this post early yesterday morning and were encamped within two miles of the post—learning that there was a dance at a citizens house about 12 or 14 miles from here they concluded to go there instead of coming here.
They captured a Capt and Lt. from this post, and ambulance with 8 or 9 men from St. Augustine among whom were 4 or 5 members of our string band who had their instruments with them having come out to play at the party. They got a number of deserters. “