The Confederate 'Swamp Fox' and the Battle of Horse Landing
Updated: Aug 19, 2022
Ask any historian what the most noteworthy Civil War battle in Florida was and they might say the Battle of Olustee. With nearly 3,000 wounded or killed, it was one of the bloodiest encounters in Florida. However, the lessor known Battle of Horse Landing was one of few instances where Confederates suffered no casualties and was also the first battle in United States history where a cavalry unit sank an enemy gunboat.
Confederate Forces on the shore of the St. Johns during the Battle of Horse Landing
Captain John Jackson Dickison, and the men from the Second Florida Cavalry and a battery from the Milton Light Artillery, disabled and captured the Federal gunboat Columbine from Union forces and burned it while it sat grounded on the mud shore. Reports of the number of survivors are conflicting, but over 150 men, including twenty-five of the 35th United States Colored Troops were aboard during the attack.
Dickison, also known as the Swamp Fox, the Knight of the White Camellia, War Eagle (to his men) or just plain “Dixie” to Federal troops, held the area west of the St. Johns to such a degree, it became known as “Dixie’s Land.”
His use of guerilla warfare to raid federal troops and recapture African Americans made him a thorn in the side of Union forces and prevented them from taking control of the St. Johns, an important link in Confederate resupply chain.
Born in Monroe County, Virginia, Dickison received his education in South Carolina and eventually joined the South Carolina Militia and was commissioned an officer in the cavalry.
In 1844, he married Mary Margaret Lester and had a son, Charles Bannister. When Mary died in childbirth, Dickison married Mary Elizabeth Ling and had two more sons, Robert Ling, John Jackson, Jr, and a daughter, Mary Lucile.
In 1857, Dickison moved his family to Ocala, Florida where he purchased a plantation he named “Sunnyside” and with the use of slave labor, became a prominent planter in the area.
Captain John Jackson Dickison, 1864
In 1861, Dickison became a Lieutenant under Captain John M. Martin and served in the Marion Light Artillery at Fort Clinch. In following year, he was made a captain and created Company H of the Second Florida Cavalry.
On the morning of May 23rd, 1864, under Dickison’s command, Confederate troops laid artillery guns down on the banks of St. Johns and silently waited for the Columbine to make its way across the river. They’d received a tip from Lola Sánchez, whose home near St. Augustine had been occupied by Union forces when her father was falsely accused of being a Confederate spy. Sánchez overheard Union officer’s plans to launch an attack on Confederates and move on to St. Augustine to raid supplies. Her sisters distracted the solders while Sánchez took a horse to warn Dickison who was camped just a mile and a half away.
The next morning, Dickison and his men ambushed the Columbine when it came within 100 feet of the shore. The first shots tore the vessel's wheel chains and destroyed its steam lines. Completely disabled, it floated down river before running aground. Unwilling to give up, Union Colonel William H. Noble and crew waged a firefight that went on for thirty or so minutes. By the time Noble raised the white flag in surrender the decks of the Columbine were already washed in blood.
Noble was wounded in the ambush and taken prisoner. The rest of the Union soldiers were either captured or killed. Only sixty-six of 148 men on board survived. Dickison later reported only five African Americans were wounded in the battle, but the high casualties among the Columbine’s crew would make that number unlikely. Dickison himself recorded that his forces had taken sixty-six prisoners of the Columbine’s men. Many were sent to the Confederate stockade in Andersonville, Georgia. The rest were either killed or drowned during the battle.
Dickison and his men participated in several skirmishes with Union forces near Palatka in the following months. On August 2nd, Dickison forced a Union company into surrender. Unaware that some of the prisoners had hidden weapons, his own son and fellow soldier, Charles was shot through the heart and killed. His second son, Robert Ling Dickison also joined his father’s company toward the end of the war at the age of 14.
Dickison was eventually captured near the town of Waldo and imprisoned. After his release he was promoted to Colonel and helped Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge flee to Cuba by providing him with the lifeboat taken from the Columbine.
A marker was placed on the site where Dickison and his men captured the Columbine by the Florida Confederation For The Preservation Of Historic Sites, Inc.
CivilWarTalk.com. 2020. The Swamp Fox of the Confederacy – John Jackson Dickison. [online] Available at: <https://civilwartalk.com/threads/the-swamp-fox-of-the-confederacy-%E2%80%93-john-jackson-dickison.170566/> [Accessed 18 August 2022].
Museumsouthernhistory.com. n.d. Museum of Southern History_The Confederate Swamp Fox. [online] Available at: <https://www.museumsouthernhistory.com/The%20Confederate%20Swamp%20Fox.html> [Accessed 18 August 2022].
STIER, W., 2019. J. J. Dickison: Prologue to Gainesville | HistoryNet. [online] HistoryNet. Available at: <https://www.historynet.com/j-j-dickison-prologue-to-gainesville/> [Accessed 17 August 2022].
Vince Murray, V., 2002. Captain J.J. Dickison: Marion County's Civil War Hero. [online] Ocala.com. Available at: <https://www.ocala.com/story/news/2003/01/01/captain-jj-dickison-marion-countys-civil-war-hero/31271710007/> [Accessed 16 August 2022].