Last Days of Rebel Florida: Confederate Gold, Suicide, Escape

150 years ago the Civil War was ending and events in Florida were starting to get dramatic, even though much of the state was still in Confederate hands.

On April 1, Governor John Milton, worn down by the stress of his office and depressed with the inevitable collapse of Richmond, went to his Marianna Plantation Sylvania and committed suicide with a gunshot to the skull.


John Milton felt Florida was treated poorly by Richmond.

Richmond fell two days later and almost a week later Lee would surrender at Appomattox, but the story for Florida would continue.   The Confederate officials were fleeing southward, some even talking about starting a new government in Texas, Cuba, or even the Bahamas.  All of this wishful thought involved reaching the poorly blockaded waters of Florida.

Florida also had a role in the mystery of the Confederate gold – an issue that has continued to cause debate between historians and treasure seekers.  What was left of the Confederate Treasury and the money from the banks of Richmond left Virginia in boxcars allegedly containing four Conestoga wagons and nine large buckboards of money and important records.

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What happened to all the treasure in the Carolinas and Georgia is full of conflict, but here is the Florida aspect of the story.  On May 15, a small wagon train crossed into Florida and by May 22 reached the Cotton Wood plantation of Confederate Senator David Levy Yulee outside Gainesville.  Mrs. Levy told them the sad news that President Jefferson Davis had been captured on May 10th near Irwinville, Georgia.

The disturbed soldiers gave Mrs Yulee chests and bags containing Rebel records and President Davis’s personal items.  She temporarily had this material buried in one of her stables.

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Site of Cotton Wood near Alachua

That night on the grade of the Yulee Railroad, the ten men that formed the unit, divided up the money, giving each soldier 400 gold sovereigns (c $1,940 in 1865) plus $55 in traveling expenses, and another $975 to two civilian scouts and five black servants.  The next morning Senator Yulee arrived and advised them to seek paroles, surrender and return home to their families.

People have speculated if the men hide their treasure before surrendering to Union forces in nearby Waldo or Baldwin. There were reports that Confederate gold was found around Gainesville.   Senator Levy had the Davis trunks taken to his Waldo railroad depot, where Union officials seized them.   When Captain O. E. Bryant arrived at Cotton Wood to locate the wagons and remaining content, Mrs Yulee gave the Captain Jefferson Davis’ French musket.  She told the soldiers there was no gold.

Meanwhile there was one Confederate leader who did make it to Florida.  Confederate Secretary of State Judah Phillip Benjamin had been with Davis as far south as Abbeville, South Carolina.  He then decided that Davis’ plans to resurrect the Confederacy in Texas was impossible and convinced Davis that he needed to escape to the Bahamas to organize Rebel officials who were in Europe.


Judah Benjamin: The Only Rebel Who Escaped

Although there are wonderful folktales of Benjamin disguising himself as a woman, the reality is the Danish Virgin Island born Jew pretended to be a Frenchman who knew no English.  Riding in a wagon and once an ambulance he reached North Florida but found all the ports filled with Northern troops.

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The Gamble Mansion In Ellenton

He fled south to Robert Gamble’s sugar plantation in Ellenton, on the banks of the Manatee River.  Gamble recruited blockade runner Captain Archibald McNeill to take Benjamin, who pretended to be a cook, to Bimini.  Despite two vessels catching on fire and several Union inspections, Benjamin reached England where he and his family spend the rest of their lives.

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Florida Has Largest “World Football” Stadium Now

In Florida – the land of college and professional football – it might be difficult for state sports fans to discover that the new Orlando City Soccer Team of the MLS is playing in the Florida Citrus Bowl (70,000), giving Florida the largest professional stadium in that sport.

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The Citrus Bowl Is Now Orlando City’s Home

Of course, football is king in Florida and lately the college teams have outscored the professional teams in championships.  In fact, the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (88,548) and Florida State University’s Doug Campbell Stadium (82,300) are larger in capacity than the biggest pro field: Sun Life Stadium (Miami Dolphins AND University of Miami) with its 78,468 seats.

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Ben Hill Griffin – Home of the Gators

Everbank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaquars, is in fourth with 76,867 seats, while Raymond James Stadium, which hosts the Tampa Bay Bucs and the University of South Florida is sixth with 65,647 seats.

But guess what?  None of these sports venues can match the sports stadium with the largest capacity in Florida.  The Daytona International Speedway with 167,785 seats rank second only to the Indianapolis International Speedway as the largest sports sit in the United States.

floridatraveler Daytona-Speedway

167,785 seats plus standing room

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Apalachicola’s Great American Botanist Lived A Wild Life

Dr Alvan W. Chapman was born in Massachusetts in 1809, educated as a physician at Amherst, and came to Quincy, Florida, at the age of 26.  A few years later he moved to the booming, port village of Apalachicola, where he would become a pioneer in many directions.

His friends included Dr. John Gorrie, who is the father of refrigeration and air conditioning, developed during a plague at the port, and planter and naturalist Hardy Bryan Croom, who got Chapman interested in botany and Florida’s unique plant environment.  On one excursion into the wilderness in 1840 looking for plants, Chapman has chased for miles by Seminole Indians.

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Dr Alvan W. Chapman

Chapman discovered the Chapman Rhododendron, the wild Florida azalea, the skullcap, and the custard apple.  His book Florida of the Southern United States became the classic plant book for 100 years.

When the Civil War came Apalachicola was often occupied by Union warships and Chapman’s Yankee background made some Southern vigilante groups suspicious he was a  backer of the Union.  There were times when Chapman was forced to hide in the historic Trinity Episcopal Church, a prefab made in New York.

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Trinity Episcopal Church as Hiding Place

Chapman survived the Civil War and became County Judge, Mayor, Customs Collector, and doctor while still traveling across Florida and the South in search of plants. His home on Broad and Chestnut, one of the oldest residences in Apalachicola, had become the White House Boarding Place by the 1930’s, but today the Greek Revival home has been restored to its appearance when Chapman lived there.

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The Chapman House in Apalachicola

In his later years he extended his work across Apalachicola.  His first herbarium is in the New York Botanical Garden.  His second one is featured in the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.   When he died in 1899 he was known as the Nestor of American botanists.

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The Chapman Botanical Garden on US90, Apalachicola

In the 1980’s local planners decided the best way to honor Chapman and his work was to develop Chapman Botanical Gardens, four blocks north of downtown of US90.  Besides being one of Florida’s best small town gardens, the park connects several of the port town’s historic old buildings.

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Florida’s Most Challenging Public Golf Courses

There are 1,481 golf courses to choose from in Florida if you have the time and money, but a lot of vacationers assume that the best golf courses are private bastions of the rich.  Here are some famous public courses where you can get reservations to face some of the most challenging holes of golf in the nation:

TOURNAMENT PLAYERS CLUB Sawgrass  110 TPC Boulevard, Ponte Vedra; (904) 273-3230′ 5 miles south of Jacksonville

You will quickly recognize this Pete Dye Oceanside masterpiece by the infamous 17th hole green which is an island with a narrow causeway.  Deane Beaman bought the 400 acres in 1978 for $1 since it was a swamp. This explains the deadly rough, narrow fairways, and doglegs around manmade lakes.  It is expensive to play and you must make reservations well in advance since this is the 2nd ranked course in Florida and listed as one of the world’s Top 100.


One of the Most Famous Holes In The World

WORLD WOODS Pine Barrows and Rolling Oaks Courses, 17590 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Brooksville; (352) 796-5500; 40 miles north of Tampa

This 1992 Tom Fazio complex has two of the nation’s top public courses and the #1 golf practice facility in the world – a 22 acre practice range, par 3, 4, and 5 hole practice links, and monstrous practice greens.  The rugged terrain of huge, natural hills and open pastures of Pine Barrens will shock you, and while Rolling Oaks is more laid back without tons of bunkers, you will believe you are playing in the hills of West Virginia.


Moonscape World Woods

BAY HILL CLUB and LODGE  9000 Bay Hill Blvd., Orlando; (407) 876-2429; 3 miles sw of downtown; open to guests of the Lodge

Arnold Palmer bought this 27 hole complex in 1976 and often shows up at the 19th hole.  The Champion course is Arnold’s favorite and in 2009 he made the greens closer to the water and put in more sand traps.  This is a real tournament golf course open to the public.


Orlando’s Bay Hill

STREAMSONG RESORT Red and Blue Courses , 1000 Dunes Pass, Streamsong; (863) 354-6980; 50 miles se of Tampa; open to the public

Get out the GPS to locate this amazing Polk County resort built on 16,000 acres of converted phosphate mine.  Ben Crenshaw designed these courses with their piles of grassy spoil forming towering 100-foot moon-shapes and deep manmade lakes. Both courses are challenging with their contoured greens.


Streamsong Is The Unknown Resort

TRUMP NATIONAL DORAL GOLF RESORT Blue Monster, 4400 NW 87th Avenue, Miami; (800) 936-7259; 8 miles nw of Miami; public may make reservations

You can play the famous Blue Monster with its scary 18th hole facing the ocean breezes and water along the entire left side of the fairway.  In 2012 Donald Trump bought the popular golf course and had Gil Hanse enlargen all the lakes and add more bunkers.  The Donald must have been having a bad hair day by upping the course’s challenge to golfers.


The Doral Is Still A Miami Landmark

PGA NATIONAL RESORT Champion, 400 Avenue of the Champions, Palm Beach Gardens; (800) 863-2819; open to public with reservations

 The Champion course, started by George and Tom Fazio in 1981, is a 7158 yarder with a 70 par viewed as very tough by PGA pros.  In fact, the Par 5 18th has been continuously voted as the toughest finish hole in the PGA tour and if you encounter wild ocean winds, you will believe that selection.  Most new players elect to have a local caddy explain all the dangerous elements of Champion.


The PGA ChampionBay Hill

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Extreme Florida Vacations Are Just A Click Away

Most Florida tourists and snow-birds are satisfied with a trip to Disney World and a good beach, but thousands of others take advantage of Florida’s climate and terrain to engage in extreme sports and unusual adventures.  Floridians, of course, get these opportunities every month of the year.

Just minutes from Walt Disney World you and your family can take a lesson in the flying trapeze, German wheel, or trampoline at Orlando circus schools like Circus Arts or the Orlando Circus School.

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Orlando Circus School Performance

If that is too tame for you, may I suggest the Covert  Ops School in the Miami area where you will learn from top instructors counter-terror warfare tactics.  These include using an assault rifle and mastering Israeli Krav Maga martial  arts.

If you want to spend some time on the water (or over it), you can take lessons in flyboarding, a popular sport where you stand on a board with a long hose connected to a watercraft and are jet packed 15 meters into the air.

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Its You Flying On Your Vacation

You can take lessons on flyboarding all over Florida: Sofloboarding

in West Palm Beach or Flyboards Orlando or Flyboarding Sarasota.

If water is not your thing – you can take to the air flying a combat plane at Warbird Adventure at Kissimmee Gateway Airport or learn to do some recreational aerobatics at Wing over Aerobatics in Leesburg to the Wrong Brothers Flight Training in Pensacola.


Orlando is Down – War Birds Are Up

You might wish to get your urge for speed closer to earth so a good choice might be learning to drive an offshore speedboat going across Sarasota Bay at speeds that will impress your friends.  Visit International Performance

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Offshore Speedboating

I haven’t even mentioned learning to drive an airboat in the Everglades or  that Spy Camp outside Gainesville with the Lamborghini, or space flight training over at the Clearwater-St Pete Airport.  I guess I will have to do another extreme sports list in the near future.


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Florida’s Most Walk-able Tourist Towns

It’s Spring Break time in Florida and the streets are packed with automobiles and tired, disgusted tourists.  Last weekend cars lined up for ten miles trying to get onto Clearwater Beach.  After two hours in a traffic jam, they found that the island’s 2,000 parking spaces can’t handle 10,000 automobiles.

The solution?  Book a hotel or motel or historic inn next to one of Florida’s best, walk-able tourist destinations and spend your time enjoying the sights and people at street level.

Here are my favorite destinations:

SAINT AUGUSTINE: Stay at one of the bed and breakfast inns just south of the downtown Plaza and walk into the Historic District.  When the tourists drive out to motel row of US1, you will be amazed how delightful the restaurants and bars of Saint Augustine can be.


Take a Ghost Tour at Night in Saint Augustine

FORT LAUDERDALE’s Las Olas Boulevard: You can even get here by Beach Taxi. It’s a great strip of downtown shops, cafes, nightclubs, and galleries in the daytime, but at night Las Olas is magical.


Fort Lauderdale’s Favorite Street

FERNANDINA BEACH: Small towns can be fun if you have sixty blocks of amazing Victorian mansions and homes, topped with two dozen excellent bed and breakfast spots.  Downtown is compact, but full of interesting food stops including the Palace Saloon, oldest drinking place in Florida.

KEY WEST: Stay as close to Mallory Square as you can afford and avoid hotel row on the north side of the island.  There’s so much action and noise along Key West’s main streets that it would make the people jealous over in Havana, Cuba.


This Is A Fun Spot But Hemingway Drank Next Door

ORLANDO Lake Eola Downtown:  WDW is great for kids but adult tourists are finding the classic hotels and restaurants of downtown Orlando’s lakeside area a great weekend getaway.  And there are no character breakfasts!


The Hotels and Restaurants Of Lake Eola

MIAMI BEACH South Beach:  People who cruise crowded Ocean Drive are not really experiencing Florida’s Riviera.  Rent an Art Deco room and cafe sit and travel the streets of Sobe when they are full of people.  This is nightlife tropical.

SARASOTA: Palm Avenue:  Downtown Sarasota is noted for the arts, its galleries, and upscale dining.  You can even walk there from a Ritz Carlton on the waterfront.  Go to a play or an opera and dine before or after the show all within a block of each other.

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Palm Avenue in Sarasota is For Lovers

There are other walkable towns which we will cover with later blogs.  My advice is simple: get where you want to be early and get out of that automobile.

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Disney’s Flower Power Even Surpasses The Gardens of Versailles

The 2015 Epcot Flower and Garden Festival just opened at Walt Disney World and thousands of flower lovers are arriving to see the new Disney character topiaries and blooms.

A few years ago Alain Baraton, head gardener of the famous Gardens of the Palace of Versailles, wrote a best seller about the activities of the 48 permanent gardeners who maintain the French attraction.  Versailles with its 800 hectares almost seems like a backyard garden when compared to Walt Disney’s gardens.

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Mickey and Minnie Greet Epcot Visitors In Their Greens

Disney has 750 full-time horticultural staffers, 400 of whom spend time in planting 30 million new blooms and servicing the 700 gardens each year for the Epcot show.  This year the cast of Frozen joins 100 other Disney character topiaries on display.

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An Interactive Character Topiary

If  you have ever visited Walt Disney World, you’ll realize that all the Disney parks, resorts, and byways are always manned by gardeners and workmen.  The 47 square mile amusement giant has 175,000 planted trees, four million shrubs, 13,000 rose bushes, and three million annual plants.

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Beauty and the Beast Stroll Paris

The yearly purchase of maintenance equipment for all this gardening and landscaping goes into the millions.  Unlike Versailles, Disney has not cut back on any of its daily watering, not with 2,000 miles of water pipe and 65,000 sprinkle heads ready for usage.

Even if you are going to Walt Disney World to see the shows and rides, you should spend a moment and look around at the spectacular details of Disney’s gardening empire.

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