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Doc. 148.-expedition to Jacksonville, Fla.

Report of Colonel Rust.

Hilton head, S. C., April 4.
Lieut-Col. C. C. Halpine, Assistant Adjutant-General, Department of the South:
Colonel: I have the honor to make the following [483] report for the information of the Major-General Commanding Department of the South:

In accordance with orders received, I embarked my regiment on the steamers Delaware and General Meigs at Beaufort, March nineteenth, for Jacksonville, Florida, where I arrived on the twenty-third ult., having been delayed by rough weather.

Major Heminway, with three companies on the General Meigs, had already arrived. When I reached there a rebel battery, mounted on a platform-car propelled by a locomotive, was shelling the town. The gunboat Norwich, which accompanied me, engaged it, replying vigorously, as did also a rifled Parrott thirty-two-pounder on shore. The enemy were soon driven back. He was, as I afterward learned, making a reconnoissance, which it was his plan to follow up by an attack in force after nightfall.

Every thing remained quiet during that night. The fact that our pickets had previously been drawn in at night to the edge of the town, encouraged this plan, which was frustrated by the arrival of the Eighth Maine regiment, and placing a night picket afterward at a distance.

On Tuesday night the locomotive battery again approached and threw several sixty-eight-pound rifled shells, striking several buildings, but injuring no one.

On Wednesday a reconnoissance in force, commanded by Colonel Higginson, and consisting of five companies of the Eighth Maine, under Lieut.-Colonel Twitchell; four companies of the Sixth Connecticut, under Major Meeker; and a portion of Colonel Higginson's colored regiment, advanced along the railroad upward of four miles, driving in General Finnegan's pickets, but were not able to overtake the enemy.

After proceeding as far as was deemed advisable, and the enemy showing no disposition to accept battle, our forces commenced to return. Soon after the locomotive battery appeared and threw several shells, but was careful to keep out of reach of our rifles. One of its shells killed privates Hoole and Goodwin, and severely wounded Willis — all of Captain McArthure's company I, Eighth Maine volunteers--who were the only persons killed or wounded after my arrival. On this occasion all the troops behaved exceedingly well. Colonel Montgomery, with about one hundred and twenty men of his regiment, accompanied by Captain Stedman of the gunboat Paul Jones, made a successful expedition to Pilatka, seventy-five miles up the river, taking prisoners a lieutenant and fourteen men with their arms. The lieutenant violated his parole of honor and escaped. A quantity of cotton, rifles, horses, and other property, amounting in value to several thousand dollars, has been captured.

In accordance with special order No. 162, received from headquarters Department of the South, I withdrew all the United States forces from Jacksonville, Florida, on the thirty-first ult., and embarked them on board transports, part of which had just arrived for that purpose.

While the evacuation was taking place, several fires were set — a portion of them undoubtedly by secessionists. The fires were not confined to the lines of any regiment. Perhaps twenty-five buildings were destroyed. On my arrival I found that many buildings had been burned — some by rebels, others by the Union forces — from a military necessity. Many Union families came away with us, our soldiers freely making all possible room for them on the transports. The expedition has all returned safely.

Much credit is due Captain Boynton, Eighth Maine volunteers, for the careful and prudent manner with which he administered the affairs of Provost-Marshal during our short stay at Jacksonville.

Captain Cannon, of the Delaware, and his gentlemanly officers, deserve mention for their kind treatment of officers and men.

John D. Rust, Colonel Eighth Regiment Maine Volunteers, Comd'g Forces.

A “National” account.

Jacksonville, Fla., March 29, 1863.
Three weeks since, in pursuance of authority from General Hunter to take and hold this place, the black forces from Beaufort came here and occupied Jacksonville under the most auspicious circumstances for the speedy acquisition of the entire State of Florida. There were known to be less than three thousand rebel troops in the State; and all who were conversant with the affairs of the State believed that the time had come when a small force could be made effective in opening it to the occupation of loyal citizens, and of creating an avenue of escape for the hunted negroes herded in the interior and watched with such malignant vigilance by the rebels.

Jacksonville was under the control of our gunboats on the St. John's, and it was unwise to make any movement for its occupation until we were prepared to hold it as a base of aggressive operations into the interior. It is the key to East-Florida, and its occupation by us would have immediately compelled the rebel abandonment of all the territory east of the St. John's, and have secured an immense amount of cotton, turpentine, and other rebel property to the Government. It presented a most promising field for the experiment (as it is still regarded by some) of testing the character and capacity of the negro troops, and as such it was seized upon with avidity by those having these forces in charge. They came and planted the flag, as was supposed, permanently here, and commenced gathering in the advantages within reach, when it was thought proper to make a more extensive and powerful movement, and for this purpose the Sixth Connecticut and Eighth Maine came to reinforce our army. These came with ten days rations, and were evidently intended only to remain long enough to strike a blow, and then return to assist in the movement on Charleston. They were delayed some days in reaching here, and were therefore scarcely debarked when an order came for their immediate return; and not only this, but for the recall of the black troops also, and the abandonment of the place. [484]

A more fatal order for the place, the interests of the people, and the Government, could not have been made. Every body was taken by surprise, and every body was exasperated, save perhaps a few who feared the negro soldiers would achieve a reputation. Was Gen. Hunter crazy? Why occupy the place at all, if not prepared to hold it? Why come and embarrass the people, and hazard the lives and property of defenceless inhabitants thus wantonly? These and a thousand similar questions were suggested, and bitter expressions and deep-felt curses were uttered against fickle, capricious, and incompetent if not faithless commanders. But there was no alternative; the order must be obeyed instanter. In the midst of the harvest of patriotic hopes we were compelled to abandon all, and thus render the expedition a blight and a curse, rather than a blessing and a means of strength to the Union cause.

To add to the wanton cruelty of the enterprise, some of the soldiery were allowed to set fire to the town in various places; and now, as we leave, it is in a blaze. This last act of vandalism, I regret to say, was mostly perpetrated by the soldiers of the Eighth Maine--in some instances by the sanction of subordinate officers; but it is due to Colonel Rust to say that every thing he could do was done to protect the property and the people. One company of the black regiment were also implicated in firing one block; but they did it under the sanction, if not approval, of a white lieutenant. We are now leaving with such articles of value as can be most easily removed, and such of the citizens as have become so compromised by our presence as to render it certain that they would not be spared by the rebels.

And here I regret to be compelled to record acts of injustice and cruelty on the part of an officer for whom I have heretofore had the highest regard, and for whose character and reputation I had conceived the best opinion. At best there must be on such occasions much personal suffering and distress. Families suddenly compelled to abandon their homes and find refuge among strangers, must suffer under the best administration of affairs. Of this I do not speak. General Hunter sent sufficient transportation, as was supposed, for all who wished to leave with their personal effects. The steamer Convoy is under special charge of Colonel Higginson, of the First South-Carolina; it was loaded with Government property acquired by the troops, and such furniture as could well be taken on board — beds, bedding, and necessary articles for the comfort of the refugees, as they had time to get away. Col. Higginson comes on board and orders the upper deck to be cleared, claiming that he must have the room for his black soldiers. The order was carried out amid the tears and protestations of defenceless and unprotected women and children, and even the last mattress of one old lady with a family of three persons, was thrown off and abandoned, and she was coolly told she could “sleep on the ground, as the soldiers do.” This family now go forth from a comfortable home, well furnished with the results of long years of toil, to find a refuge among strangers, without a bed to sleep on, or a chair — with nothing but what they have on their persons. And this cruel wrong is not the result of necessity, because all the furniture could have been taken, and though the boat would have been crowded, every article brought on board could have remained without serious inconvenience, and would have made many poor women and children comfortable in their involuntary exile. It is now abandoned to destruction, and its owners to want and suffering. Col. Montgomery and Col. Rust both did all that could be done to mitigate the evils of the occasion, and I regret that unnecessary suffering should be thus inflicted, and Col. Higginson was the last person from whom I expected it.

If Gen. Hunter had desired to do the State of Florida and the cause of freedom and Union in the South the greatest injury — if he wished to paralyze the patriotism and destroy the loyalty of this people, and blight the hopes of the State, he could not have adopted a course more certain of success than the one he has adopted from the first in regard to this State. This is now the third time that the people have been cheated and the loyal sentiment placed at the mercy of the common enemy. Now this place — the best and most flourishing town in East-Florida, and the only place whose citizens and property-holders were generally loyal — has been irretrievably ruined, and its people scattered abroad without homes or means of present subsistence. Many loyal citizens further up the river, being assured of protection, have rendered service, and so identified themselves with the Union cause as to outlaw them with the rebels, and are now abandoned to their tender mercies. God save the country and the cause where such things are done in its name and by its friends! Nothing could have been more satisfactory than the conduct of the black soldiers, as a general thing. No white soldier could do better, and if left here and increased by such accessions as they could have secured, they would have gradually obtained possession of the State, and acquired a reputation that would have been a terror to Southern rebels and Northern copperheads.

The troops are now all embarked, with four-teen rebel prisoners and the trophies of war, and such of the citizens as can find place, on board the steamers Delaware, Boston, John Adams, and Convoy, and propellers General Meigs and Tilley, and we leave this devoted place a third time, and now in ruins, as the reward of the fidelity of its citizens to the flag which has been unfurled over them but to embarrass and ruin them. You will undoubtedly receive the official report of the expedition by the same mail which takes this, and I have no time for its details now.

New-York Tribune account.

Jacksonville, Fla., March 28, 1863.
Jacksonville is in ruins. That beautiful city, which has been for so many years a favorite resort for invalids from the North, has to-day been [485] burnt to the ground, and, what is sad to record, by the soldiers of the National army. Scarcely a mansion, a cottage, a negro-hut, or a warehouse remains. The long lines of magnificent oaks, green and beautiful, with the thickest foliage, the orange groves perfuming the air with their blossoms, the sycamores, the old century plants adorning every garden, the palmetto and bayonet trees, ever tropical in verdure, the rose and the jessamine — all that at this season, indeed, I might say through all seasons, has made Jacksonville a little Eden, has been burnt, and scorched, and crisped, if not entirely consumed to ashes, by the devouring flames.

I am now writing on the deck of the fine transport-ship the Boston. Three gunboats — the Paul Jones, the Norwich, and the John Adams — are lying out in the river, with guns shotted, ready to fire the moment a rebel appears in sight. The transport vessels — the Boston, the Delavan, the General Meigs, the Tillie, and the Cossack — are at the wharves, filled with troops. All are on board, except about two hundred of the Sixth Connecticut, who are on picket-duty. Three blank shots from the Paul Jones have just been fired, as a signal for them to come in.

From this upper deck the scene presented to the spectator is one of the most fearful magnificence. On every side, from every quarter of the city, dense clouds of black smoke and flames are bursting through the mansions and warehouses. A fine south wind is blowing immense blazing cinders right into the heart of the city. The beautiful Spanish moss, drooping so gracefully from the long avenues of splendid old oaks, has caught fire, and as far as the eye can reach through these once pleasant streets, nothing but sheets of flames can be seen, running up with the rapidity of lightning to the tops of the trees, and then darting off to the smallest branches.

The whole city, mansions, warehouses, trees, shrubbery, and orange-groves; all that refined taste and art through many years have made beautiful and attractive, are being lapped up and devoured by the howling, fiery blast. One solitary woman, a horse tied to a fence between two fires, and a lean, half-starved dog, are the only living inhabitants to be seen on the streets. Fifty families, most of them professing Union sentiments, have been taken on board of the transports and provided with such accommodations as the tubs will afford. Some of them have been able to save a bed and a few chairs, but most of them have nothing in the world but the clothes upon their backs. Is not this war — vindictive, unrelenting war? Have we not gotten up to the European standard?

Yesterday the beautiful little cottage used as the Catholic parsonage, together with the church, was fired by some of the soldiers, and in a short time burned to the ground. Before the flames had fairly reached the church, the soldiers burst open the doors and commenced sacking it of every thing of value. The organ was in a moment torn to strips, and almost every soldier who came out seemed to be celebrating the occasion by blowing through an organ-pipe. To-day the same spectacle has been repeated, only upon a much grander scale. There must have been some understanding among the incendiaries with regard to the conflagration. At eight o'clock the flames burst from several buildings in different parts of the city, and at a later hour still more were fired. The wind then rose to a stiff gale, and the torch of the incendiary became unnecessary to increase the fire. The only mansions of any value left standing as we move down the river, are the elegant mansions of Col. Sanderson and Judge Burritt, both rebels of the deepest dye. Why so much property, known to belong to Union men, should have been destroyed, and the mansions of these notorious rebels left standing, it is hard to understand.

It gives me pleasure to report that the negro troops took no part whatever in the perpetration of this vandalism. They had nothing whatever to do with it, and were simply silent spectators of the splendid but sad spectacle. The Sixth Connecticut charged it upon the Eighth Maine, and the Eighth Maine hurled it back upon the Sixth Connecticut. After the fires in different parts of the city had broken out, Colonel Rust ordered every man to be shot who should be found applying the torch; but the order came too late. The provost-marshal and his guard could not shoot or arrest the wind. No human power could stay its ravages.

Six o'clock P. M.--Mouth of the St. John's--A fierce north-east storm is raging upon the ocean. Gunboats and transports are lying here in safety, waiting until it abates. Again we are witnessing a conflagration. Some of the soldiers have gone ashore and fired a fine steam saw-mill at May Port Mills, said to belong to a Union man in Maine. Much indignation is expressed on board. The white soldiers again are the criminals. The blacks have not been off their transports.

April 1st.--We arrived in this harbor early this morning, after a splendid run of fourteen hours from the mouth of the St. John's. Below I give you a list of the families we brought with us, whose dwellings were burnt, and who are now utterly destitute. Many of them, before the war, lived in luxury and independence. Now they are subsisting upon the rations of the commissary department. Gen. Saxton has set apart several of the largest mansions in this city for their occupation until their friends at the North can come to their assistance.

The following is the list of families referred to above: Mrs. Divees and family, Mrs. Cole and family, Mrs. Wallace, Mrs. Dunbar, Miss Jordan of the Crespo House, Dr. Emery and son, Mrs. Poetting, Mrs. Hague and family, Mrs. Poinsett, Miss Poinsett, Mr.Thomas and Mrs. Thomas, Mrs. Church, Mr.Gower and Mrs. Gower, Mrs. Curvick, Mrs. M. Leonardy and family, Mrs. R. Leonardy and family, Mrs. Shaddock and daughter, Mrs. Foster, Mr.Syprel and Mrs. Syprel and family.

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