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A sign with the words Way Down Upon the Suwannee River

Old Folks at Home and the Civil War

In 1851, a young musician was searching for a Southern river that would fit into a song he was composing. Searching an atlas with his brother, Morrison, he located a meandering river in North Florida that would fit his intentions. Taking out the “u” and an “n” to make it flow better with his song, Stephen Foster created one of the most well-known melodies in the world. Originally published on October 1, 1851, as “Old Folks at Home”, the song is much more familiar as “Way Down Upon the Swanee River”.

Due to continued growth, Suwannee County was created on December 21, 1858. The temporary county seat was designated by the Florida Legislature as “the house of Williams Hines”, the County’s first judge whose land was northwest of present-day Live Oak until permanent facilities could be determined and constructed. The community of Houston, one of only two or three decent-sized hamlets and located in the northeastern portion of the county, became the first permanent seat. The community was probably named for Edward Houston (sometimes spelled “Houstoun”), president of the Pensacola & Georgia Railroad that was being constructed through the area during that time. By the fall of 1859, County records were originating from Houston, probably written on the land purchased by the County Commissioners near the Pensacola & Georgia Railroad (now the location of the Suwannee County Country Club). The first county census, in 1860, showed a population of just over 2,300 people.

By the time of the Civil War, Suwannee County had instituted the rudiments of county government, and business was slowly expanding. At the northwestern boundary of Suwannee County, in the community of Columbus, stood the railroad bridge of the Pensacola & Georgia Railroad that served as the primary supply line for the Confederate forces outside of Florida. This railroad became all the more important after mid-1863, when the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, cut off Confederate supplies from Arkansas, Texas, and other western territories.

In 1864, Union troops under General Truman Seymour marched from Jacksonville to take or burn the railroad bridge, which would cut off the supply of badly-needed cattle to the rest of the Confederacy. At the start of the campaign, Confederate forces in Florida were heavily outnumbered, but eventually, numbers increased as troops from other states were moved into the area via railroad or forced marching. Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, in charge of the Confederate defense, was concerned that the Union forces would outflank him and attack the railroad bridge on the Suwannee River, where he only had thirty men stationed. The Union forces of about 5,000 were turned back at the Battle of Olustee, east of Lake City, on February 20, 1864, by a similarly-sized Confederate force under Finegan. It was the largest Civil War battle in Florida and had the third-highest Union casualty rate of any major Civil War battle.

Along the Suwannee River, the steamboat Madison (built in 1855) became well-known as a floating general store. When the Civil War started, she was commandeered for use as a makeshift gunboat. Commanded at times by her owner, Captain James Tucker, the steamboat protected Confederate interests along the river. By 1863, the fortunes of war were changing and Captain Tucker and his men were ordered to Virginia. Not wanting to see his steamboat captured by the Union, Tucker ordered Madison to be sunk at Troy Springs, where her remains lie today.

In 1865, Suwannee County native Lewis Thornton Powell was involved in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Powell, twenty-one years old at the time of the assassination, had joined the Confederate Army at the age of seventeen. After fighting in several battles, he was wounded and captured at Gettysburg. A female nurse apparently helped him to escape, and he joined Mosby’s Rangers. Eventually, Powell found himself in Washington, D. C. assisting John Wilkes Booth with not only the assassination of President Lincoln but also other prominent members of the United States government. Powell badly injured Secretary of State William Seward before escaping, only to be captured two days later. Powell was sentenced to death and hanged in July of 1865 alongside fellow co-conspirators Mary Surratt, George Atzerodt, and David Herold.

Other than the economic loss associated with the end of slavery, Suwannee County did not suffer directly from the Civil War. About 250 men served in the Confederate Army; those who survived returned home to find a different economic and political atmosphere. Many people were moving into Suwannee County from around the country, using the Pensacola & Georgia Railroad and other branches constructed during the Civil War. Many of those citizens stopped at the railroad junction of Live Oak, established in or prior to 1861 and named after a particularly large live oak tree that was a rest area for settlers and railroad workers. When a railroad station was constructed in 1861, it was only natural to name it after the large tree nearby.

Eric Musgrove, AuthorAbout the Author

Eric Musgrove is a seventh-generation native of Suwannee County, Florida. Growing up on the family’s country homestead, he quickly developed a love for history that has remained strong throughout his life. The 1996 salutatorian of Suwannee High School, Eric was also a December 1997 valedictorian of Montgomery, Alabama’s Faulkner University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in history at the age of nineteen. Returning home to Suwannee County in 1998, Eric began working for the Suwannee County Clerk of the Court. He remains there today as historian and records manager, among many other duties.
Eric has been the youngest member of the Suwannee County Historical Commission since he was appointed to it in 2003. He was treasurer from 2008 to 2014 and since October 2014 has served as its chairman. Eric is a frequent presenter of local history and has been mentioned in the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, among hundreds of other prominent national and international newspapers. In early 2012, Eric was awarded the 2011 Trailblazer Award by the Suwannee County Chamber of Commerce in recognition of his work in preserving and presenting local history. Since 2013, he has also published a weekly historical column for one of Suwannee County’s local newspapers, the Suwannee Democrat.

Eric married his college sweetheart, Sarah, in 1998, and they live near Live Oak on part of the old family homestead with their two children, Alex and Abby. Eric has authored five published books: Reflections of Suwannee County, Suwannee Memories, There Let Me Live and Die, Images of America: Suwannee County, and Lost Suwannee County.

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