The American Civil War was different from the civil wars of other nations. When it ended, the losers just went home. There were no executions, except for the hanging of one prison camp commandant, no lingering guerrilla war, no bloody reprisals.
Two of Florida’s most famous and hardest fighting soldiers, David Lang and John J. Dickison, also went home. Each had achieved the rank of colonel, Lang after Fredericksburg and Dickison, officially, several weeks after the surrender. Destined to become general officers a few years after the end of the war, each, in turn, would become Adjutant General of Florida and would don the blue uniform of Major General of State Troops.
David Lang was a Georgian, born, bred, and educated. He moved to Florida as a young man to pursue a career in engineering and surveying. When the war began he volunteered, serving as a private and then as a sergeant in the 1st Florida Infantry. In 1862, upon reorganization of the regiment, he returned to Florida to raise a new company in the 8th Florida Infantry. The 8th Florida joined the 2nd and 5th Florida to form a Florida Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia.
Between the summer of 1862 and the surrender at Appomattox in the spring of 1865, there were no major battles involving the Army of Northern Virginia that did not include the Florida Brigade and David Lang. Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the battles for Petersburg: Lang was always there.
Lang was badly wounded twice, at Antietam and in the Wilderness. Then, due to the incapacitation of General Perry, the brigade commander, Lang commanded the entire brigade at Gettysburg and Spotsylvania. He commanded again during the retreat to Appomattox when the new brigade commander, Joseph Finegan, was transferred to other duties.
He gained considerable renown for his regiment’s defense of the river crossings at Fredricksburg and gained immortality, at the age of 25, leading his brigade into the Union lines during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.
With the election of his old brigade commander, E. A. Perry, as governor of Florida, Lang became Adjutant General. With modest help from the state, Lang was able to establish regular summer training camps for state troops, to obtain better arms and equipment and to designate the volunteer militia units as the official State Troops of Florida. Following his eight-year tenure as Adjutant General, he became private-secretary to the next two governors. He lived to see all Americans, North and South, wearing the same uniform and fighting a common enemy, the soldiers of the German Empire. He died an old and still proud man in December of 1917.
John Jackson Dickison was a different kind of man with a different background who fought a different kind of war than did David Lang. Dickison came to Florida from Virginia via South Carolina. He became a planter near Orange Lake, in northern Marion County. He was modestly wealthy by the standards of the time, but would los it all in the war to come.
Dickison’s first war service was with the Marion Light Artillery in northeast Florida during the early months of the conflict. Be he wanted to lead cavalry, and in July of 1862, he was eventually given authority to raise a company. Mustered in as Company H, 2nd Florida Cavalry, its members were from almost every county in the central and northern part of the state. They were destined, however, never to fight in any of the great or famous battles of the war. Their entire war was fought within the boundaries of Florida. But fight they did; in many small battles and skirmishes, nearly always against great odds, always victorious.
Throughout most of 1864, and until the surrender in 1865, Dickison and his men controlled the central part of the state. Every attempt to invade his territory of to try and capture him met with defeat and great losses in Union men and equipment. Dickison’s command rarely numbered more than three hundred men, and then only when reinforced by local militia or detached elements of other companies. Union commanders in Florida coastal cities came to call Dickison “Dixie”; the territory he controlled was known as “Dixieland.”
With reason to fear and respect his skill, Union commands, large and small, came to grief at the hands of Dickison and his men. At Gainesville in 1864 and near Cedar Key in 1865, large Union forces were soundly trounced by vastly smaller Confederate forces led by Dickison. Even Union gunboats were not immune. He ambused the Columbine and killed or captured all the men aboard.
But the war was lost; Dickison and his men surrendered and were paroled near Waldo in May of 1865. This wasn’t, however, the end of his Confederate career. Later that same month Dickison and several of his men helped former U.S. Senator, Vice President, and Confederate Secretary of War, John C. Breckinridge escape to Cuba.
Marginally involved in politics after the war, Dickison became Adjutant General during the first post-Reconstruction government of Florida. With little support from the state and almost none from the central government, he managed to establish a functioning state military organization, which his successor, David Land, with more support, would be able to turn into a modern military force.
Toward the end of the century Dickison wrote a military history of the war in Florida. It is still considered a valuable historical resource because many of the documents he used are no longer available. He probably helped write, or even ghost-wrote, the popular account of his wartime exploits, Dickison and His Men, ostensibly authored by his wife, Mary Elizabeth Dickison. He lived to see the beginning of a new century and died in 1903 at his home in Ocala.
- Hawk, Robert. Florida’s Army: Militia, State Troops, National Guard, 1565-1985. Englewood, Fla: Pineapple Press, 1986.
- Florida Memory (http://www.floridamemory.com), Division of Florida Library & Information Services, Florida Department of State