Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Did the Florida Civil War Governor Commit Suicide or Not?

Dale Cox over at the Civil War Florida blog has posted what he considers evidence that Florida governor John Milton did not commit suicide. Read his full post here. This of course flies in the face of nearly 150 years of belief that Milton killed himself in the face of certain Union victory.

Cox's claim that Milton was dead before the fall of Richmond is true but of little importance in the debate in my opinion. It was clear by April 1, 1865 that the war was over for the Confederacy. It was only a formality and waiting for generals to surrender their armies. I would find it hard to believe that Milton thought the war effort would continue long. The inaccuracies in reporting can be explained away several ways. Perhaps editors didn't hear of this news until after the fall of Richmond and thus made an assumption (perhaps a logical one) that Milton killed himself after hearing the bad news. It is also possible that reports were written this way in order to sell newspapers. Journalistic sensationalism didn't start in the 20th century.

The Milton family has for years proclaimed John Milton's death to have been an accident. Their claim is that he was gathering his rifle to go bird hunting and when he accidently dropped it the rifle went off killing him instantly. This is certainly a plausible story and similar accidental shootings have happened hundreds of times since Milton's death.

As Cox shows in his post an article in a local Florida newspaper confirms the accidental death story. The story in the April 3, 1865 West Florida News says: A TRAGIC ACCIDENT!Gov. Milton has been killed by the accidental discharge of a gun. The Governor was in his home when he retrieved a shot gun in expectation of an expedition to shoot birds. The gun discharged and the Governor was killed.

For Cox this account and the oral history told by family confirm for him that the death was accidental and not suicide. He further bolsters his belief by stating that Milton could not have been buried St. Luke's Episcopal Church Cemetery had his death been by suicide.


Here are my issues with this theory. Family lore and oral history always have to be taken with a grain of salt. No family wants to have the stigma of suicide attached to them. This would particularly be true for a prominent family such as that of Milton. It would certainly be more honorable in the eyes of the family to proclaim that the death was an accident while preparing to go hunting. In addition, any concerns regarding where the governor could be buried would be set aside by proclaiming the shooting to be an accident. There appear to have been no other "witnesses" to this event other than Major William Milton, the son of John. His claim certainly should be questioned. My concern regarding the Florida newspaper article stems from the same concern. Was this a story planted by the family in order to save face? You can't brush aside the death of the governor of the state. It appears that no other news outlets picked up this accidental death story instead. Now of course newspapers in the Confederate states were nowhere near as common as those in the Union states. That COULD explain part of the fact that the accidental death story didn't take hold as opposed to the suicide story.

I don't think there will ever be a definitive answer on the death of John Milton. Supporters on both sides can point to evidence and make their case. What is known is that in the days leading up to the end of the war Florida governor John Milton died under what can be considered mysterious circumstances. For those who now study the war they will have to determine for themselves what they believe.

Some sites such as the NPS give the death of Milton little coverage and do not dip into the controversy. Ridgeway Body Murphee in his Ph.D. Dissertation, discussing the leadership of Milton and Joseph Brown of Georgia, covers the controversy slightly but does not take a definitive stand either way. An online tribute to Milton and some genealogical information can be found here. A search of online book sites does not turn up a biography of John Milton.

*I have tried to load a photo of John Milton but for some reason Blogger is not letting me add photos. Please click here to be taken to the Florida State Archives page and see a portrait of Milton.

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