In October 1861, after using his skills as a lawyer, John Milton successfully advocated for the secession of Florida from the Union and became its fifth governor. Rather than sending men, the state then became the major supplier of food and salt for the Confederacy. With the war ending soon in 1865, in a final message to the legislature, he declared that death would have been preferable than a reunion with the North. Not long thereafter he was found dead from a gunshot to his head. At the time, it was unclear whether this was a suicide or hunting accident. Recent research of the event suggests that the death was accidental as he was preparing to go hunting.
Milton was the son of a prominent Southern family and named after the famed English poet. As skilled as he was as a lawyer, he was also known to be a wily politician. He guided Florida through the war demonstrating a unique concern for all residents of the state.
Both politics and military service were in his blood. His father, Homer Virgil Milton, was an officer who fought in the War of 1812, and his grandfather, John Milton was a Revolutionary War hero and former Georgia Secretary of State.
Near Louisville, Georgia, he was born on April 20, 1807, and married Susan Cobb of the area in 1830. Together they had four children and resided in both Georgia and Alabama. Susan Cobb passed away in 1842. The cause is unknown. In 1844, he married Caroline Howze from Alabama and they went on to have ten children together. Residing in Alabama, and New Orleans, they finally settled in northern Florida in 1846. One of their sons, Jeff Milton was an Old West lawman, and one of their grandson’s William Hall Milton, served as a United States Senator from Florida (1908 – 1909).
Quickly becoming involved in the Florida political scene, in 1848, he served as a presidential elector for the state, and in 1850, was elected to the Florida House of Representatives. That same year, he became governor and was a delegate to the 1860 Democratic National Convention. He was also a strong supporter of states’ rights.
Found by his son, William Henry Milton, on April 1, 1865. His family, church, and the West Florida News reported the incident as an accident. The New York Times on the other hand assumed it was suicide with the prospect of a Union victory and a Republican government. Later in the day, Abraham K. Allison was sworn in as governor. He asserted that Milton had stated to the legislature that he did not want to live under the prospective of oppression from a lost cause. From this statement, the New York Times writer drew his conclusions.
As with many families of the era, Reconstruction was an economically difficult time for the Milton family. His youngest son, Jefferson Davis Milton, moved to Texas and later Arizona. He became a Texas Ranger and later the police chief of El Paso, Texas. For over twenty-five years, he served as America’s first border agent.
Governor Milton is buried at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Cemetery in Marianna, Florida.
The photographer is unknown and is part of the Florida Photographic Collection.