History and nature have combined in a little-known park that was once the major Confederate military base in North Florida.
In 1864, near the end of the Civil War, Camp Milton was the key to blocking Union advances toward Baldwin, a supply center and rail head. Florida was a big supplier of cattle, salt and other goods to the Confederate army.
Although no major battles were fought on the grounds, Camp Milton served as a base for skirmishes between the 8,000 Confederate troops and 12,000 Union soldiers in Jacksonville, about a dozen miles to the east.
Soldiers and slaves built massive wooden defenses, preventing the Union Army's spread into the interior of North Florida. Markers throughout the park detail its history.
Less than a decade ago, this 124-acre park on the far western edge of Jacksonville was destined to become a sludge dump. City and state agencies stepped forward to purchase the land, and now the park is home to towering pines, magnolias, saw palmettos and blackberries, plus foxes, bobcats, snakes, deer, armadillos, opossums and hawks.
Re-enactors tell tales
Youngsters skipping down a boardwalk into the woods on a recent afternoon to see the remains of earthworks built by Confederate soldiers in 1864 were more thrilled when they saw a small black snake slithering up a tree.
Re-enactors dressed in long, flowing period dresses also taught the children about life in Jacksonville in 1864, describing laundry, basket-weaving, spinning and toys.
Dressed as a Union soldier in military wool from his underwear to his outer blouse, Michael Meek, 24, described the life of a soldier in the waning days of the Civil War near Jacksonville. Meek described his muzzle-loading rifle, complete with bayonet, as the children peppered him with questions.
"It's an honor to talk to the little kids about their history," said Meek, who is descended from a Union soldier who spent time at Camp Milton.
Although Milton was built as a Confederate camp, Union forces from Jacksonville invaded and then abandoned the camp four times before it closed in July 1864.
The camp was named for Florida's Civil War Gov. John Milton, who committed suicide on April 1, 1865, when he realized the South had lost the war. "Death would be preferable to reunion," he said.
Designed by Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a specialist in defensive fortifications, the earthworks at Camp Milton were built of wood, instead of coquina rock or brick.
"These things were very tough to build. You can imagine what these guys went through, the humidity and the heat," said Fred Singletary, an amateur historian and historical re-enactor.
Not easy to find
The park is a mostly undiscovered jewel. There are no signs directing visitors from nearby Interstate 10, and it is not advertised in city tourism brochures.
Each year in February, the park holds a re-enactment of the events leading up to the Battle of Olustee with soldiers and women dressed in period garments.
The fact that the Camp Milton Historical Preserve exists is a testament to the work of amateur historians and sympathetic city and state lawmakers.
Their dreams came to fruition in September 2006, when Camp Milton opened to the public.
But other Civil War locations across the South, including some in North Florida, are being lost to development.
"We believe that the ultimate fate of nearly all Civil War battlefield land will be decided in the next decade," said Jim Campi, a spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust. The organization estimates that every day, "30 acres of hallowed ground is paved over, buried beneath concrete and lost forever."
IF YOU GO
Visiting Camp Milton
Camp Milton Historical Preserve is at 1175 Halsema Road, Jacksonville. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily and features an interpretive center, bike paths, nature trails and historical markers. Admission is free. For more information, call (904) 630-3586 or go to campmilton.com.