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Governor Milton

The U.S. Navy retained the name of the ship that had been given to her by Confederate forces at the time of her capture.

(Sidewheel Steamer: tonnage 68; length 85'; beam 20'; depth of hold 4'8")

The wooden-hull sidewheel steamer G. W. Bird, completed in 1858 was seized by the State of Florida and renamed Governor Milton. During the early years of the Civil War she operated in the service of the Confederacy “entirely in transporting guns and munitions to St. John’s Bluff,” on the St. John’s River, Florida.

On 4 October 1862, Comdr. Charles Steedman, commanding the Navy’s St. John’s [River] Flotilla, learning from “an intelligent contraband” [Governor Milton’s former pilot] of the prospects “for …capturing the small steamers lately employed by the enemy,” proposed sending an expedition up the St. John’s River for that purpose. Brigadier General John M. Brannan, commanding the U.S. Army’s Department of the South, agreed with Steedman’s plan. They ordered two 24-pounder howitzers transferred from the gunboat Paul Jones to the sidewheel steamer Darlington, together with 25 men from Paul Jones under the command of Acting Master Benjamin W. Loring. Darlington also embarked Company E, 47th Pennsylvania Regiment of Volunteers [Capt. C. Hart, commanding].

Darlington-- Lt. Comdr. Edward P. Williams, the executive officer of Paul Jones, in command of the expedition – departed Jacksonville, Fla., on 6 October 1862 and soon reached Palatka, where the armed steamer E. B. Hale joined her. The two ships remained there overnight, then, having procured a supply of wood to provide Darlington with sufficient fuel, set out the next morning [7 October]. While E. B. Hale provided cover, the soldiers and sailors from Darlington destroyed “all boats and scows that could be found” there.  

Pushing on, they reached Walaka at noon. Lt. Comdr. Williams, after noting that E. B. Hale’s draft would not permit her to proceed into Lake George, proceeded ahead in Darlington to “search for rebel steamers,” and left the transport’s consort to blockade the mouth of the nearby Ocklawaha River. Sending a boat ashore at 5:00 p.m. to bring off the ferryman at Volusia, Williams learned from him that rebel steamers had in fact passed that point. Retaining the ferryman on board, the little expedition continued on.

A party of men from Darlington, put ashore at Hawkinsville, a town 168 miles from Jacksonville, found “traces of the steamer Governor Milton.” Searching the houses, the landing party found that “everyone had left, leaving their beds warm and fires burning” -- evidence of precipitate flight at the sight of the Union ships standing up river. “Judging from appearances here that the [rebel] boats,” Lt. Comdr. Williams later related, “were probably in a creek a few miles above, and that the [rebel] party ashore had heard our approach and taken another route to burn the steamers, I hurried my men on board and proceeded in chase.”

Having the pilots run Darlington “as far into the creek as [they] could take her and get her out again,” Williams left Acting Master Loring in charge of the ship and, with Darlington’s only boat, manned by eight sailors and eight soldiers, taking a canoe (with six soldiers embarked) in tow, “pulled quietly up a creek.” Having told Loring to bring up the ship in support if he heard firing, Williams and his intrepid party of tars and troops soon came upon Governor Milton tied to the bank.

Williams’s sailors and Pennsylvania volunteers, finding two of Governor Milton’s engineers on board, took the ship without a shot being fired. Third Assistant Engineer James H. Chasmar, who had accompanied the expedition, immediately began stoking the fires below. Williams, meanwhile, seeing the boilers and engines intact, employed the new prize’s boat, together with Darlington’s, in proceeding further up the creek under the command of Lt. Bacon, Brigadier General Brannan’s aide, to see if any other Confederate steamers lay in proximity.

Fifteen minutes after capturing Governor Milton, meanwhile, Williams had her get underway along with Darlington to follow the boats, which returned soon thereafter, the men telling of undisturbed plants in the water – a clear indication that no steamer had passed there. Steaming back out into the St. John’s River in Darlington, Williams placed Acting Master Loring in charge of Governor Milton, leaving eight seamen and 35 soldiers on board the prize. When the latter could not keep up, however, Williams ordered her to anchor “clear of the woodlands” and proceeded ahead in Darlington.

Williams learned, going ashore at the landing at Lake Beresford, of the recent passage of another steamer. He realized, however, that finding a second prize could consume “a day or two to find.” With his men not having rations for an extended period, and conscious of the fact that the Confederates could fell trees to block the narrow river and obstruct their passage, Williams opted “to give up the chase and return with the prize.”  Reasoning that “the whole rebel force [lay] between me and the squadron… [the rebels] knowing that we must be without any vessel to cover us, required that we should use all dispatch in getting down the river as far as Welaka” and rejoining E. B. Hale.

At 4:00 a.m. on 8 October 1862, Darlington stood down the river, with Governor Milton steaming astern. The landing party went ashore at Hawkinsville and “brought off all [of] the stores and destroyed the rebel property,” and did the same at Volusia. Meeting E. B. Hale at Welaka, Darlington embarked a Mr. Allen (who had “given us some useful information concerning the rebel steamers”), after which she got underway at 3:45 p.m., the two steamers proceeding under cover of E. B. Hale.

“At 5:30 p.m. of the 9th instant [9 October 1862],” Williams reported later, “reached Jacksonville with the prize, having been over 200 miles into the enemy’s country, destroyed all boats that could be found, and captured one of the enemy’s most valuable steamers.” He praised the energy and zeal of the officers and men “engaged in the expedition.”

Comdr. Steedman, Williams’s superior, in reporting the successful enterprise to Rear Adm. Samuel F. Du Pont, Commanding the South Atlantic Squadron, called Governor Milton “one of their [the rebels’] best boats.” Steedman considered it “a most important capture,” and asked Brigadier General Brannan to leave the prize “with me for the present,” fully intending to fit her out and arm her “to destroy such salt works [salt being an invaluable commodity for the South] as may be found.” Brigadier General Brannan, for his part, on 12 October 1862 acknowledged the Navy’s “zeal and perseverance in every instance,” and recommended that Steedman’s “conduct in this expedition…be brought to the attention of the Naval [sic] Department in Washington.”  The following day, Capt. Sylvanus W. Godon, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, transmitted the general’s letter to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, observing that “such acknowledgements [as Brannan’s] speak well for the tone and spirit of both services…”

The sidewheel steamer Governor Milton
The sidewheel steamer Governor Milton, as depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper after her capture in October 1862 with the U.S. ensign over the Confederate colors.
State Archives of Florida via Bill Gonyo

Comdr. Maxwell Woodhull, commanding officer of the gunboat Cimarron, reported to Capt. Godon on 21 October 1862 that he had had “the prize steamer Governor Milton” armed with a pair of 24-pounder howitzers. Placed under a Capt. Lathrop, she had transported 50 men, together with Cimarron’s marine guard, the expedition under Lt. Comdr. Bushrod B. Taylor, to Cedar Point “to destroy the salt works in the locality.” The landing force discovered “the works…to be of larger proportions than generally believed,” and completely destroyed the six cast-iron boiling pans and a 17-foot tubular boiler, together with their associated furnaces.  Comdr. Woodhull considered the undertaking an “entire success.”

Woodhull also reported that since the departure of Paul Jones, he had kept E. B. Hale and Governor Milton “constantly cruising” between the anchorage at St. John’s River and Yellow Bluff.  He opined, however, in a letter to Capt. Godon, that “more force” would be needed to hold the river “throughout its whole extent.” To that end, Woodhull wrote on 21 October: “The [Governor] Milton can not be much relied upon, and I fear to trust her beyond signal distance.”

Later that same day, however, [21 October 1862] the gunboat Seneca arrived off the bar with orders from Godon, senior officer present at Port Royal, that directed that Governor Milton be made ready to proceed to sea “without any unnecessary delay…” An engineering casualty, however, delayed her departure until the next morning [22 October] at 11:00 a.m., when she stood out, equipped with a 12-pounder howitzer from Cimarron “with sufficient ammunition to aid in her protection should an effort be made to intercept her,” in addition to a week’s provisions for her crew.

Although Comdr. Woodhull had expressed his reservations about Governor Milton’s capabilities the day before, he wrote in an altogether different vein on the 22nd, after her departure.  “The little steamer is a great loss to us,” he lamented in a letter to Capt. Godon, “as she could be made very useful in various ways; besides, with the battery I have placed upon her (two 24-pounders), she could have aided me much in keeping possession of the river.” Woodhull reiterated his opinion of the 21st, however, that “we ought to have an additional vessel if it is desirable to keep the [St. John’s] river open to its whole extent. Without that addition it will, I fear, be an invitation to the enemy to put further difficulties in our way…”

On 3 November 1862, Brigadier General Brannan asked Rear Admiral Du Pont if Governor Milton could be appraised.  Brannan proposed that one-half of the prize money be given “to your arm of the service,” paid out of the Quartermaster’s Department. The army would then take the vessel. Du Pont acknowledged the general’s “very liberal proposition” the next day [4 November]. He pronounced the proposal “entirely agreeable,” and wrote that the vessel would be returned to Hilton Head, S.C., to be at the general’s disposal.  

In the meantime, a board composed of Lt. John Irwin, Acting Master Townsend Stites, Third Assistant Engineer Hillary Missimer, and Carpenter Charles Boardman [“efficient officers” all], having received the admiral’s order on 3 November 1862 to appraise the vessel, found the four-year old sidewheeler to be in need of “extensive repairs.” They did, nonetheless, place her value at $2,000.00 (steamer and fittings, value of engines and boiler). Additionally, they figured her worth at $15 per ton, and estimated that the copper on her bottom was worth $110.

Rear Admiral Du Pont subsequently reported to Secretary Welles on 11 November 1862 that, “like the Darlington and Planter she uses wood as fuel and is therefore of very little use to the Navy.” He related General Brannan’s desire to employ her with the Army, and reported her appraisal by the board that he had appointed for that purpose.

Governor Milton’s naval career appears to have ended at that point, but she had played her part in the U.S. Navy’s riverine campaign in Florida. Lt. Comdr. Williams, the leader of the expedition to capture the ship, survived the Civil War. Tragically, he perished with the steam sloop Oneida when she was run down and sunk by the British steamer City of Bombay off Yokohama, Japan, in January 1870.

By: Robert J. Cressman