by Tim Gilmore, 6/26/2017
If some poor hack set out to squeeze the military history of Jacksonville into 800 words, it would read like the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
You might start with Fort Caroline, the French fort built in 1564 and destroyed by the Spanish under Pedro Menendez de Aviles, unless began with thousands of years of Mocama and other Timucuan Indian relations.
Several skirmishes could be conveniently bypassed until the Battle of Thomas Creek on May 17, 1777, when the American Revolutionary War dips into what’s then East Florida, northern Duval County, as British troops and Indians kill three Georgia militiamen.
A young Isaiah Hart, who will be known as the founder of Jacksonville, comes of age in the “Patriot War” of 1812 in which the Republic of East Florida fights off the United States.
Beginning in 1816, General Andrew Jackson’s soldiers tear through Florida to capture and kill Seminoles, to enforce removal treaties, and the three Seminole Wars spread across four decades. Jackson never visits Jacksonville, but Colonel Dan Newnan, whose soldiers scalp Indians, gives his name to a street at the center of town.
In March 1863, black Union soldiers occupy Confederate Jacksonville for nearly three weeks. Throughout the Civil War, much of Jacksonville remains staunchly Loyalist. Former slaves and free blacks sign up to fight Confederates for the United States Colored Troops.
The town changes hands repeatedly. Federal troops, then Confederates, Federal troops, then Confederates. Every time one side leaves, it burns down the town all over again. The Union occupies Jacksonville four times.
In May, 1865, slavery is abolished, the Confederacy destroyed, Federal troops administer the city, and Florida Governor John Milton shoots himself in the head. He leaves his name to Camp Milton, which housed around 8,000 Confederate soldiers along McGirts Creek.
In early 1896, in the buildup to the Spanish-American War, future Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward begins running guns from Jacksonville to Cuba, which has just declared its independence from Spain, and the writer Stephen Crane sets out from Jacksonville as a war correspondent to Cuba on a boat that sinks, leaving him lost at sea for 30 hours in a dinghy, a disaster he describes in the short story “The Open Boat,” which he writes in a Jacksonville brothel.
The war leaves behind a fort that never saw action high on a bluff near Fort Caroline and Camp Cuba Libre where the neighborhood of Panama Park will be built.
They call World War I the “war to end all wars.” Doesn’t work. The National Guard had been practicing at Black Point on the St. Johns River in the vicinity of the former Camp Milton, so when Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914, Black Point becomes Camp Johnston, with more than 600 buildings and the nation’s second largest rifle range.
The National Guard returns with the end of the war in 1919, Camp Johnston becomes Camp Foster, the country trudges through the Great Depression until the creation of a new military industry in World War II yanks the economy from its long slog. Black Point is commissioned Naval Air Station Jacksonville in October 1940.
Just as America’s war buildup wholly reconstructs the American economy and the federal government, so too does it remake Jacksonville. A triangle of large military bases surrounds the city. After NAS Jax, NAS Cecil Field is commissioned in June 1941 and Naval Station Mayport in December 1942. More than 10,000 pilots land planes at NAS Jax during World War II.
Naval Air Station Lee Field is commissioned in Green Cove Springs in March 1943, but downgraded after the war to Naval Auxiliary Air Station Green Cove Springs, and decommissioned in 1960. Mayport is decommissioned, then becomes a Coast Guard base.
But World War II permanently changes and expands the American military and its entire industrial and economic complex and Jacksonville’s military infrastructure finds new purpose in the so-called “Cold War” with the Soviet Union. As the Cold War yields “hot wars” with Russia—by proxy—in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and Nicaragua, Mayport becomes a major East Coast helicopter base.
Ironically, perhaps, Mayport is redesignated a Naval Air Station in 1988, the year before the Berlin Wall falls and three years before the Soviet Union is dissolved.
Jacksonville’s bases serve the United States during the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. A Jacksonville pilot named Scott Speicher is shot down north of Baghdad. Conspiracy theories suggest Speicher is alive and the government knows it. Cecil Field closes for good in 1999.
Fighter planes called the Blue Angels begin air shows that roar through the sky from their home base at NAS Jax in 1946 and continue, as NAS Jax and Mayport aid American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to shake the town into the 21st century.