Florida in the Civil War














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Florida in the Civil War

Florida in the American Civil War: A History

Introduction
 

Florida’s role in the American Civil War spanned the entire conflict. From the earliest days of secession in January 1861, when war threatened to break out in Pensacola, to the final surrender of Confederate forces in Florida in May 1865, Floridians experienced all aspects of the war that the South faced as a whole: economic hardship, naval blockade, internal dissension, battle, and final defeat. The following short history provides an overview of the Civil War in Florida and the service of Floridians in the war outside of the state.

Secession Convention

Florida’s Secession Convention began meeting in the state capitol on January 3, 1861. Delegates who opposed immediate secession, known as “cooperationists”, introduced a proposal to have the convention’s actions ratified in a statewide election, but it was not adopted. Instead the convention determined that it had the power to secede without ratification by popular vote. On January 9, the convention listened to a draft Ordinance of Secession, found it too ambiguous, and directed a committee to make revisions. The final version proclaimed Florida “a Sovereign and Independent Nation.” Cooperationists made a series of last-ditch amendments, but they were defeated. The final vote on January 10 showed 62 delegates in support and seven opposed to secession. On January 11, 1861, the delegates signed the document. An emotional moment occurred when cooperationist George T. Ward, who would die the following year at the Battle of Williamsburg, stated: “When I die I want it inscribed on my tombstone that I was the last man to give up the ship.” James Owens countered with: “Unlike my friend Colonel Ward, I want it inscribed that I was the FIRST man to quit the rotten old hulk.” With the document’s signing, Florida became the third state to withdraw from the Union and soon became a member of the new Confederate States of America.

Florida Governors in the Civil War

As the Civil War began, the governor of Florida was Madison Starke Perry of the Democratic Party. A South Carolina native, Perry settled in Alachua County in the 1840s, where he operated a plantation and became active in politics. In 1857, he ran against the American Party candidate for governor and won. Following President Lincoln’s election, Perry asked the legislature to convene a secession convention, which in early January 1861 voted overwhelmingly for disunion. Perry guided the state during the critical period in which it left the Union and joined the new Confederate States of America. His primary goals were the occupation of U.S. government facilities in the state, the establishment of relations with the central government, and organization of the state’s defenses.
 
After leaving the governorship, Perry helped organize the 7th Florida Infantry Regiment and, despite the fact that he had no prior military training or experience, was elected its colonel. The unit served in East Tennessee throughout Perry’s tenure in command, though it experienced little combat until later in the war. The former governor resigned in June 1863 and returned home to Alachua County. He took no further active role in the war and died at his plantation in March 1865.
 
For most of the Civil War, the governor of Florida was John Milton of the Democratic Party. Milton was born in Georgia in 1807 and moved to Florida in the 1840s, where he operated a plantation in Jackson County. He also became active in politics, serving in the state legislature and leading the Florida delegation at the 1860 Democratic convention. Later that year, Milton defeated his Constitutional Unionist opponent in the gubernatorial election, and remained governor-elect for a full year. When finally assuming the duties of governor in October 1861, Milton faced a variety of problems arising from the war. Early in his term, Milton's political opponents moved to limit the governor's authority, establishing an executive council to share power with the governor. He also faced a crisis when Confederate authorities withdrew most of the troops defending Florida, leading to the abandonment of parts of the state. Other issues facing Milton included the depletion of the state's finances, conscription, a growing Unionist sentiment in some areas, and the impressment of supplies by Confederate authorities. Though an ardent Southern nationalist, Milton criticized this seizure of property. Worn down by his duties and despondent over the imminent collapse of the Confederacy, Milton committed suicide on April 1, 1865. With Milton’s death, Senate President Abraham K. Allison of Quincy assumed the office of governor and presided over the state during the Confederacy’s collapse. He resigned the office on May 19, 1865, was arrested by Federal authorities shortly afterward, and in June 1865 was imprisoned at Fort Pulaski, Georgia, for several months along with other Confederate officials. Upon his release, he returned to Quincy, where he died in 1893.

Military Preparations

Military concerns dominated state affairs from the earliest days of Florida’s secession. Even before the formal declaration of secession Florida moved to prepare its defenses. During an extended session from November 26, 1860, to February 14, 1861, the legislature passed a bill to reorganize the state militia, agreed to raise two infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment, and appropriated $100,000 for the purchase of arms and ammunition. On January 4, 1861, the first day of the secession convention, radical members of the convention met in private to authorize Governor Perry to seize federal military sites within the state. Governor Perry ordered state troops to seize the federal arsenal at Chattahoochee and Fort Marion at St. Augustine. Florida troops easily occupied the two undefended installations but failed to secure the more strategic federal positions at Key West, Dry Tortugas, and Pensacola, where Union troops remained in possession of Forts Taylor, Jefferson, and Pickens respectively.

Fort Pickens became the focus of particular concern between North and South as secessionist troops from Alabama and Mississippi rushed to Pensacola to reinforce the small force of Florida militia opposing the Union garrison at the fort. Similar to the situation at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, the military confrontation at Fort Pickens threatened to unleash civil war. The fact that the first shots of the war did not come from Florida was due to the South’s lack of a national government to coordinate strategy among the seceding states (the Confederate government did not exist until February 1861) and the hope that negotiations might secure Fort Pickens for Florida without bloodshed. When war finally came at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the standoff at Fort Pickens continued, but receded in importance as the focus of the war shifted to the front in Virginia. Despite a Confederate assault on Santa Rosa Island—the site of Fort Pickens—on October 9, 1861, the fort remained in Union hands throughout the war.

































(Map) Civil War Battles in Florida
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Union Military Operations and Raids in Florida




























The First Florida Regiments 

Weeks before the convention ended, however, enthusiasm for secession in Florida produced thousands of volunteers for the newly created state units and the Confederate army, which quickly absorbed the state regiments for service in and outside of Florida. The First Florida Regiment was Florida’s initial infantry regiment and the first Florida unit to enter Confederate service when it joined Confederate forces in April 1861 in their siege of Fort Pickens at Pensacola. In July, the Second Florida Regiment formed and left the state for Virginia. Florida produced two more infantry regiments, a cavalry battalion, and a number of independent infantry, artillery, and cavalry companies in 1861. By the end of the year, some 5,000 Floridians had joined the military forces of the Confederate States. While the vast majority served in the Confederate army, a small number served in the Confederate navy, which was headed by Stephen Russell Mallory, one of Florida’s prewar senators. Mallory served as Confederate States Secretary of the Navy for the duration of the war.

Florida Becomes a Confederate State

As Southern militias gathered in Pensacola during the first weeks of the siege of Fort Pickens, Florida, as one of the early seceding states, sent delegates to the constitutional convention that assembled on February 4, 1861, in Montgomery, Alabama, to establish the Confederate States of America. The convention produced a provisional constitution and government headed by Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president and Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia as vice president. On March 11 the convention made the constitution permanent and the provisional government, which relocated to Richmond after Virginia seceded, dissolved within a year. Davis and Stephens, who were reelected to their offices in November 1861, were inaugurated as the chief executives of the permanent Confederate government on February 22, 1862.

Florida participated in all of these political developments. On February 26, 1861, the secession convention in Tallahassee approved the passage of the provisional Confederate constitution and ratified the final version on April 13. The convention also endorsed the ticket of Davis and Stephens as the Confederacy’s chief executive officers and revised Florida's constitution to recognize Florida's membership in the Confederate States.

Blockade

Adapting an element of General Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” for a Federal victory, President Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade of the Confederate states in April 1861. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles established several squadrons to blockade the Confederate coastline. Created in early 1862, the East Gulf Blockading Squadron (EGBS) had responsibility for the blockade of the Florida peninsula from Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic coast to St. Andrew Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. In northeast Florida, Fernandina became a center of operations for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron after its capture by Union forces in March 1862. After its recapture in May 1862, the Pensacola Navy Yard served as an important depot for the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. The EGBS captured or destroyed over 280 blockade-runners valued at more than $7 million, heavily damaged the sugar and salt-making industries along the Florida coast, provided haven for Unionist refugees and escaped slaves, conducted raids, and participated in combined operations with Union army forces. EGBS vessels were generally stationed at St. Andrew Bay, St. Joseph's Bay, Apalachicola, St. Marks, Cedar Key, Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor, Jupiter Inlet, and Indian River. Some also patrolled the northern coast of Cuba and the northern Bahamas. The squadron headquarters was at Key West, which was also home to the prize court where captured blockade runners were condemned and sold at auction.

Salt

A vital commodity used in the preservation of meat and fish, salt was one of the most important resources produced in Florida for the Confederacy. The war’s outbreak brought a blockade of Southern ports by the Union navy and the cutting off of the supply of salt from the North. Within a short period of time the price of the commodity had risen to an exorbitant level, and Southerners looked for new sources. Florida’s long coastline provided part of the answer, as seawater could be boiled to produce the necessary article. The largest operations were established on the central and northern Gulf Coast and, by 1863, the main Florida saltworks produced more than 7,500 bushels per day. However, the saltworks, with their vulnerable locations along the coastline, became the targets of raids by the Union navy. Federal officials complained that the saltmaking operations sprang up again almost as soon as the raiders had left. Nevertheless, the Union attacks were so worrisome that Florida Governor John Milton made efforts to station Confederate troops along the coast, and also authorized the saltmakers to organize themselves into military companies for defense. Despite the Union raids, the production of the vital commodity continued until the end of the war.

Cattle
 
In the years prior to the Civil War, cattle raising had developed into a significant industry in southern Florida and, by 1862, it was estimated that Florida had more than 650,000 head of cattle. In 1863, Pleasants Woodson White was appointed the commissary officer for the state. One of his goals was the acquisition of cattle to feed the Confederacy’s armies, especially after the capture of Vicksburg cut off the supply of cattle from Texas. In an effort to protect the Florida herds against Union forces, the Confederate government formed the 1st Florida Special Cavalry Battalion, popularly known as the Cow Cavalry, in 1864. That year, small-scale Union raids to disrupt cattle supplies became common in south Florida, and expeditions were launched to the Peace River Valley and the cattle-driving center of Fort Meade. Emboldened, Union forces also attacked Tampa and Fort Brooke. In February 1865, the Cow Cavalry launched an attack on the Union post at Fort Myers. While unsuccessful, the attack did lead to the post’s evacuation the following month. By then, however, the cattle driving season had ended for the year and the war was nearly over. The hope of Florida beef feeding large numbers of Confederates had not been fulfilled.

Lighthouses

At the time of the Civil War, there were 20 lighthouses and one lightship along Florida’s shores. In 1861, most came under Confederate control, though those in the Keys and the Tortugas remained in Federal hands. Early in the war the Confederates extinguished the beacons under their management, so as not to be of use to Union vessels. At Jupiter Inlet, the keeper continued to operate the light until August 1861, when a group of Confederate sympathizers took control and removed its equipment. They then also disabled the Cape Florida Lighthouse. Lighthouses that experienced significant military activity include the Egmont Key Lighthouse, the Cedar Keys Lighthouse, and the Pensacola Lighthouse which was damaged during an artillery bombardment in 1861. The St. Marks Lighthouse was the scene of much activity. It was shelled in 1862 and again in 1863, after which a Union landing party set fire to the lighthouse’s wooden stairs. In 1865, a large Union force landed there prior to the Battle of Natural Bridge and retreated back to there after their defeat. After the war, as their lenses were found and other damage repaired, the lighthouses were relit, the last not until 1872, when a new lighthouse was built at Dames Point near Jacksonville to replace the lightship.

Map of Civil War Railroads
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Civil War Railroads in 1861

Railroads

At the time of the Civil War, major railroads in the state included the Florida Railroad, which ran from Fernandina on the Atlantic to Cedar Key on the Gulf; the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Central, which ran from Jacksonville to Lake City; and the Pensacola and Georgia, which in 1861 completed a line from near Quincy to Lake City. Railroad mileage for the entire state totaled just 433, and important stretches had not yet been built. Also, the main Florida lines in the east had no direct connection with railroads in Georgia to the north. In 1861, construction began on a connecting line between Lawton, Georgia, and Live Oak, Florida. The state government authorized the taking up of iron from David Levy Yulee’s Florida Railroad to use for the Lawton to Live Oak connector. Yulee mounted a protracted legal campaign to protect his company’s property. The Confederate government ultimately prevailed and the iron was removed from Yulee’s line and used in the connector. The various delays, however, prevented completion until March 1865, just one month before the surrender at Appomattox and far too late for the railroad to have an economic or military impact.

General Robert E. Lee Commands Confederate Forces in Florida

Before his appointment to command of the Confederate force known eventually as the Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee served in several less prominent assignments. He first led troops in unsuccessful operations in western Virginia, before being appointed by Jefferson Davis to command Confederate forces along the lower Atlantic Coast, including Florida. With several recent Confederate defeats in the Western Theater, and in need of additional troops to check the Union advance, Lee advocated the abandonment of Confederate defenses in northeast Florida, which consequently opened the region to Federal invasion. Shortly thereafter, Lee was ordered to Richmond to serve as advisor to President Davis. In June 1862, he took command of southern forces defending Richmond. Over the next three years he won a series of spectacular victories and earned fame as perhaps the most successful battlefield commander of the Civil War.

Notice of Robert E. Lee's Assignment to Command of Confederate Forces on the Coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, 1861:

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Telegraphic Dispatch
Dated Richmond 1861
Received November 6, 1861

To Governor John Milton
 
Genl. R.E. Lee, C.S. Army, an officer of the highest ability and reputation left this morning to take command of the forces on the coast of South Carolina Georgia and Florida. I am sure he will do all which is possible, and commend him to your confidence & cooperation

Jeff Davis

Map of Florida Civil War Battles
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Florida Civil War Battlefields

Union Forces Attack Florida

In 1862 the Union launched its first attacks on Florida. The U.S. Navy wanted to control ports in Florida to support a naval blockade of the South. Federal troops landed on Amelia Island and captured Fernandina on March 4, 1862. A week later, St. Augustine fell to the North, whose troops then occupied Jacksonville on March 12. All of these actions were unopposed as Confederate forces withdrew from the state’s east coast under orders from General Robert E. Lee, the commander of Confederate forces along the Atlantic coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Lee, who was not yet a famous or popular general, believed that an interior defense was the only viable strategy given Union naval superiority and the small number of Confederate troops available for the defense of Florida’s immense coastline.

In any case, Lee had little choice in the matter. The Confederate War Department ordered the withdrawal of virtually all of the Confederate troops in Florida for duty in the West, where the Confederacy had suffered serious defeats in February 1862 with the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. The withdrawal of Confederate forces from Florida to other theatres, combined with the limited nature of the Union landings in Florida, created stalemate in East Florida for the next two years. Less than a month after they landed, the Federals evacuated Jacksonville; however, they remained in Fernandina and St. Augustine for the rest of the war. Union troops returned to Jacksonville three more times during the war: October 6-9, 1862, in the wake of a successful Federal effort to reopen the St. Johns River to Union gunboats; March 10-29, 1863, when a Federal force consisting of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina regiments, U.S.C.T. (United States Colored Troops) occupied Jacksonville as part of a campaign to free slaves and encourage Unionism in East Florida; and finally in February 1864 during the Federal offensive that ended in the battle of Olustee, which, despite being a Union defeat, left Jacksonville in Federal hands until the end of the war.

Florida’s Civil War Newspapers

Floridians followed the campaigns of the Florida brigades in the pages of their newspapers. At the beginning of the war, all Florida newspapers gave their support to the Confederate cause. Tallahassee was the site of the state’s most prominent Democratic and Whig newspapers. The Floridian and Journal, a Democratic weekly, was an ardent advocate of secession and the war for Southern independence. Although more cautious about secession, the Tallahassee Florida Sentinel supported the war and the policies of President Davis. Other notable Confederate newspapers in North Florida were the Fernandina East Floridian, the St. Augustine Examiner, and the Cotton States in Alachua County.

In South Florida, the Key of the Gulf, a Key West newspaper, was staunchly secessionist; however, its advocacy ended in May 1861 when the Federals, who remained in control of Key West, established martial law on the island. The Federal authorities shut down the Key of the Gulf and replaced it with the pro-Union New Era, which remained the principal newspaper in South Florida for the rest of the war. Other Florida Unionist newspapers arose as a result of Federal military successes in the state. Federal occupation of Fernandina and Jacksonville allowed Unionists to eventually establish newspapers in both towns. The Peninsula began publishing in Fernandina on April 18, 1863. In 1864, the Florida Union established itself as a successful weekly and continued to publish after the war as a daily.

Florida Unionists
 
While Federal troops in Fernandina, Jacksonville, Key West, Pensacola, and other coastal towns provided a secure environment for the operation of the Unionist press in Florida, the continued publication of Union newspapers in Florida reflected the existence of substantial enclaves of Unionist sentiment in the state. The presence of Federal troops on Florida soil combined with growing public dissatisfaction with Confederate conscription and impressment policies to encourage desertion. Several Florida counties in the Panhandle and southwest area of the state became havens for Florida deserters as well as deserters from other Confederate states. Deserter bands attacked Confederate patrols, launched raids on plantations, confiscated slaves, stole cattle, and provided intelligence to Union army units and naval blockaders.

Although most deserters formed their own raiding bands or simply tried to remain free from Confederate authorities, other deserters and Unionist Floridians joined regular Federal units for military service in Florida. The Union army formed two regiments in Florida: the First Florida U.S. Cavalry and the Second Florida U.S. Cavalry. Recruitment for the regiments began in December 1863 and continued into the summer of 1864. The First Florida (US) was organized in Pensacola and operated in West Florida and South Alabama. Meanwhile in South Florida, the Second Florida (US) was organized principally from enlistments at Key West and joined in Union operations along Florida’s western Gulf coast from Key West in the south to St. Andrews Bay in the north. In addition to the First and Second regiments, independent Union units organized in Florida included two company-sized units (the Florida Rangers and the First East Florida Cavalry) as well as several bands of deserter-irregulars. See also Notable Citizens and Generals of Florida in the Civil War (1861-1865).

Conscription and Impressment 

Conscription became law in Florida when the Confederate government passed the first of three conscription acts on April 16, 1862. 

While many poor Floridians doubtless welcomed state and local assistance, national government policies often met popular resistance. The two Confederate policies which caused the most unrest were conscription and impressment. Conscription became law in Florida when the Confederate government passed the first of three conscription acts on April 16, 1862. The first act called for the enrollment of all white males between the ages of 18 and 35 in the military service of the Confederate States for a period of three years. While most Southerners seemed to accept the military necessity of conscription, just as many resented the inequalities of the first act, which allowed substitution (wealthier men could pay poorer men to serve for them) and allowed planters to exempt overseers on plantations that held twenty or more slaves. By the time the Confederate government organized conscription in Florida (during the summer of 1862), most white males of conscription age in the state were already serving in the Confederate forces. Given the few men who remained eligible for the draft, Governor Milton believed it would be better if the Confederate government exempted Florida from conscription. Although he expressed this view to President Davis, Milton made it clear to the Confederate president and to the Southern public that he would make every effort to comply with the draft laws. During 1863-1865, Confederate conscript officials scoured the state for eligible men but only managed to obtain a few hundred draftees: the rest of the men (most) were either already in military service or avoiding the draft by hiding out in Florida’s vast, under populated countryside.

The Confederate impressment policy was just as unpopular with Southerners as conscription. In March 1863, the Confederate government passed an impressment law intended to ensure the adequate supply of its military forces. The law authorized impressment agents to locate foodstuffs and other supplies and established fixed prices for the necessary items. Farmers across Florida and throughout the South protested the impressment system, which deprived them of their produce and livestock for payments in increasingly depreciated Confederate scrip. 

Wealthier planters also decried impressment when it entailed the loss of valuable slaves to Confederate service. Although the impressment act required agents to pay owners at least thirty dollars a month for each slave employed in work for the Confederate government and called for the reimbursement of owners should a slave be injured or lose his life while working in Confederate service, slave owners were reluctant to give up their slaves for war work: the slaves would no longer be producing for the plantation, and owners might lose expensive slaves to injury or death during their employment on Confederate military projects. The Confederate government, however, was not reluctant to forcibly impress slaves if owners refused to provide slaves for war work.

The War at Home

The deserter issue was one of many internal problems that confronted Confederate Florida during the war. Faced daily with the possibility of receiving news of the death or wounding of a family member or friend, Floridians on the home front also had to cope with constant shortages of food and domestic goods, higher taxes, the possibility of abandoning or losing their homes due to military action, Confederate impressments of agricultural goods, and Federal confiscation of property, including slaves. Before the war, Floridians, like most Americans, had little interaction with government beyond the local level: taxation was minimal, government services few, and military service limited to irregular musters of the state militia. 

Civil war brought dramatic change to Americans’ relationship with their state and national governments. In Florida and the other Confederate states, destitution brought on by shortages and the loss of fathers and sons to the battlefront left countless small farm families (the vast majority of the white population) with little means of feeding and clothing themselves. Florida’s state government reacted to the crisis by implementing unprecedented policies to assist the ever increasing number of needy families. The state enacted legislation to allow county governments to raise property taxes to pay for the relief of indigent families of soldiers in their respective jurisdictions. Relief money was used to provide food and clothing for women and children as well as clothing and provisions for the men of poor families who had been called up for military service. 

Governor Milton and the legislature also encouraged planters to turn more of their plantation fields to the growth of edible crops rather than cotton, in order to increase food production. One unforeseen consequence of the subsequent rise in corn crops was an increase in alcohol distillation, which some farmers turned to in order to reap profits from the increased wartime demand for whiskey. In 1862, the state, concerned that so much corn was being drunk rather than eaten, banned alcohol production in Florida. Only licensed producers, who found a lucrative market for their product through sales to the Confederate government, could continue to supply alcohol for medicinal purposes and the relief of the South’s overburdened soldiers and sailors.

Florida in the Eastern Theater

The 2nd Florida Infantry Regiment reached Virginia in July 1861, barely missing the Battle of First Bull Run (First Manassas). It fought in the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days Battles Around Richmond in the late spring and summer of 1862 as part of the newly-organized Army of Northern Virginia. At the Battle of Seven Pines, Virginia in May 1862, the unit performed heroically in capturing a Union artillery battery but suffered heavy casualties. The Floridians fought at the Battles of Second Bull Run Second Manassas) and Antietam (Sharpsburg) in that summer and fall, as well as at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December. In the summer of 1862 they were joined by the 5th and 8th Florida Regiments, and before the end of the year a unified Florida Brigade was created under the command of Brigadier General Edward Perry. The unit fought at the Battle of Chancellorsville in April-May 1863 and at the Battle of Gettysburg that summer. With Perry sidelined by illness, Colonel David Lang commanded the brigade during the latter campaign, during which they launched an assault in support of Pickett’s Charge and suffered heavy losses. The following year the brigade took part in the Overland Campaign, losing Perry to a wound at the Battle of the Wilderness. By the end of the Overland Campaign, reinforcements from Florida commanded by Brigadier General Joseph Finegan reached the Army of Northern Virginia and joined their fellow Floridians. The additional troops were organized as the 9th, 10th, and 11th Florida Regiments, and Finegan assumed command of the Florida Brigade. At the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia, in June 1864, the Floridians again performed heroically, driving back a Union attack that had briefly penetrated the Confederate lines. For the remainder of 1864 and early 1865, the Floridians suffered in the siege lines around Petersburg. In March 1865, Finegan returned to Florida, and Brigadier General Theodore Brevard commanded the brigade during the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg and the subsequent retreat westward until his capture at Sailor’s Creek on April 6. Colonel Lang commanded the survivors who surrendered at Appomattox three days later.

Map of Civil War Battles in the Western Theater
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Western Theater of the Civil War

Florida in the Western Theater

In April 1862, the 1st Florida Battalion fought in the Battle of Shiloh, where it suffered heavy casualties. In the aftermath of that battle, a new 1st Florida Regiment was established, consisting of the survivors of the Florida Battalion and six new companies. Soon other Florida regiments were sent to reinforce the Confederate army in Tennessee, including the 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 7th Florida Infantry and the 1st Florida Cavalry. They took part in the 1862 Confederate invasion of Kentucky, with the 1st and 3rd Regiments being heavily engaged at the Battle of Perryville in October. After Perryville, the 1st and 3rd Regiments were consolidated together and, along with the 4th Regiment, suffered heavy casualties in the subsequent Battle of Stones River (Second Murfreesboro), after which they participated in the Siege of Jackson. In September 1863, the Florida troops fought with the Army of Tennessee in inflicting a severe defeat on the Federals at the Battle of Chickamauga. After this battle, the various Florida units were merged into a single Florida Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Jesse Finley. They then took part in the unsuccessful siege of Chattanooga and the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Missionary Ridge. In 1864, they defended Atlanta and participated in the Tennessee Campaign and the disastrous Battles of Franklin and Nashville. The remnants ended the war in North Carolina in the spring of 1865, surrendering just 351 men.

Florida and the War in 1864

By 1864, however, there was little difference in the military situation in Florida from what it had been in the spring of 1862. The Union continued to control Key West, Pensacola, St. Augustine, and Cedar Keys—Federal troops occupied Cedar Keys as early as January 1862. Confederate strategy in Florida remained concentrated on blocking Union access to the interior, protecting the coastal salt works, and ensuring the supply of Florida beef cattle to the Confederate army. It was Florida’s importance as a food source for the Confederacy and its burgeoning significance in Northern presidential politics that led to the Union’s decision to launch what would prove to be its largest military expedition in the state during the war.

On February 7, 1864, Federal troops once again captured Jacksonville. This time, however, the Federals were determined to hold the city and push into the interior. The objectives of the Union campaign were to gain control of agricultural resources (especially cotton, timber, lumber, and turpentine) in East Florida, recruit slaves for service as troops, interrupt the supply of Florida beef cattle to Confederate armies out-of state, disrupt the Florida railroad system, and facilitate the restoration of Florida to the Union. The last objective was the result of Florida’s potential as a source of electoral votes in the upcoming presidential election of 1864. If Florida could be restored to the Union before the Republican nominating convention, either President Lincoln, who would be running for reelection, or Secretary of the Treasury William P. Chase, who hoped to secure the Republican nomination himself, could benefit from Florida’s votes.

Florida Civil War Map
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Map of Principal Civil War Battles in Florida

The Union’s East Florida Expedition

Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, the commander of the Union army’s Department of the South, which was the headquarters responsible for Federal operations in Florida, gave the command of the East Florida campaign to Brigadier General Truman B. Seymour, who led the Federal expedition that landed at Jacksonville on February 7. Seymour’s command consisted of some 6,000 troops organized into four brigades (three infantry, one cavalry) and supporting artillery units. After occupying Jacksonville, Federal cavalry conducted raids towards Lake City and Gainesville. The raiders reached the outskirts of Lake City on February 11 but retreated after encountering Confederate forces blocking their advance to the west.

Cautious after the Federal repulse at Lake City, General Seymour consolidated his position around Jacksonville, which included control of the important railway junction at Baldwin, a community about twenty miles west of the port. Now confident that Jacksonville was securely under Federal control, Seymour decided to move the bulk of his small army, about 5,500 men, from Baldwin towards Lake City. He hoped to push past Lake City to destroy the railroad bridge of the Pensacola and Georgia Railroad at Columbus on the Suwannee River. Seymour’s force began its march for Lake City on the morning of February 20.

The Union landing in Jacksonville and subsequent advance against Lake City created panic in Tallahassee. Governor Milton telegraphed the Confederate war department that “all will be lost” in Florida unless Richmond immediately dispatched reinforcements to the beleaguered state. At the time of the Union landing in Jacksonville, there were only some 1,200 Confederate troops in the Department of East Florida, the Confederate command responsible for the defense of Florida east of the Suwannee River. Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, the Confederate commander in East Florida, ordered his scattered forces to concentrate at Lake City, where he planned to block the Union advance. If he had been forced to rely solely on the few troops available to him in Florida, however, Finegan would not have been able to withstand the Union advance.

Luckily for Finegan, General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, who had overall responsibility for the command of the Confederate Atlantic Coast south of North Carolina, recognized the threat the Union expeditionary force posed to the continued supply of food from Florida to his and other Confederate armies and potentially to Florida’s future in the Confederate States. Both Beauregard and Governor Milton feared the Union advance from Jacksonville might be only one wing of a Union offensive against Florida. They saw the potential for disaster should the Union follow up the Jacksonville landing with a landing on the Gulf at St. Marks and an attack on Tallahassee. Beauregard therefore rushed reinforcements from South Carolina and Georgia to East Florida.

The Battle of Olustee

The Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond) was the largest and bloodiest battle fought in Florida during the Civil War.

When Seymour’s brigades began their march on the morning of February 20, Finegan had over 5,000 troops assembled at Olustee, a station of the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Central Railroad located ten miles east of Lake City. Most of the Confederate force consisted of two brigades of Georgia troops under the command of Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt and Colonel George P. Harrison. Finegan positioned his force in a mile and a half long line running from Ocean Pond (a large, bowl-shaped lake) in the north to a large swamp south of the railroad. When his cavalry reported the Union advance on the morning of the 20th, Finegan ordered a portion of Harrison’s brigade and eventually all of Colquitt’s brigade plus supporting artillery to advance towards the oncoming Federals, engage them, and draw them towards the prepared defensive positions at Olustee.

Colquitt and Harrison’s men were fully engaged with Seymour’s troops by the afternoon. The Georgians were unable to fall back to the Confederate defensive works at Olustee. Instead, the battle occurred in an open pine barren flanked by swamps about two miles east of the main Confederate defensive works. During the first stage of the battle, confused orders exposed two Union regiments to intense Confederate musket and artillery fire that resulted in heavy Federal casualties and the rout of Colonel J. R. Hawley’s brigade, the first infantry brigade in the Union line of advance. The breakup of Hawley’s brigade allowed a Confederate advance all along the line. Union resistance stiffened, however, and hard fighting continued into the late afternoon. By this time, the rest of Finegan’s army arrived on the battlefield and managed to push back the Union flanks.

Faced with renewed Confederate pressure, General Seymour decided to withdraw his exhausted force. He deployed his reserve brigade, which consisted of the famous 54th Massachusetts regiment as well as the 35th U.S. Colored Infantry. The two black units managed to delay the Confederate advance long enough for Seymour to execute his withdrawal. As night fell, the Union army was in full retreat towards Jacksonville. A poorly executed Confederate pursuit failed to hinder the Federal retreat. All of Seymour’s army reached the Federal lines around Jacksonville by February 22.

The Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond) was the largest and bloodiest battle fought in Florida during the Civil War. Given the small numbers of troops involved, overall casualties for the battle were high: the Confederates lost 946 men (93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing); the Federals lost 1,861 men (203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing). Based on the percentage of loss (29.9 percent) for the force involved, the Union casualty rate at Olustee was one of the highest for any battle of the war. The large number of Union missing included dozens of wounded or captured black soldiers, whom the Confederates, angry at seeing former slaves fighting as Union soldiers, killed out of hand. Although the Federal expedition succeeded in recruiting a number of slaves for the Union army and disrupting the movement of Confederate foodstuffs out of Florida, the defeat at Olustee ended any Union plans to bring Florida back into the United States in 1864. For the South, the battle temporarily boosted morale in what was otherwise a bleak winter for Confederate military fortunes. Florida remained in the war but returned to its pre-Olustee status as a low priority area for the Confederacy.

Further Fighting in Florida

Olustee may have been the largest Civil War battle fought in Florida, but it was not the last. In September 1864, Brigadier General Alexander Asboth, the commander of Union forces in West Florida, led a raid from Pensacola to Marianna in Jackson County. Aware of the Federal raiders, the local Confederate command hastily assembled a “Cradle and Grave Company” of militia composed of boys under 16 and men over 50 to defend Marianna. The resulting engagement was brief but intense: Confederate losses included 10 killed and over fifty captured, while the Union force suffered 8 dead and 19 wounded, including General Asboth, who was shot in the face.

The last significant battle of the war in Florida came in March 1865, when a Union force landed on the Gulf and threatened Tallahassee. After landing near St. Marks on March 4, 1865, Brigadier General John Newton and some 600 Union troops marched to the town of Newport with the intention of crossing the St. Marks River and attacking the port of St. Marks and its Confederate-held fort from the rear. Confederate forces in the area destroyed the bridge at Newport which prevented a Union crossing of the St. Marks at that point. The next day, General Newton and his force marched to Natural Bridge, where they hoped to cross the river and proceed to St. Marks. On the morning of March 6, Newton tried to move across the St. Marks at Natural Bridge, but a Confederate force positioned on the opposite bank blocked his crossing. The Confederates, commanded by Brigadier General William Miller, consisted of a motley collection of regulars, militia, and a company of cadets from the West Florida Seminary—one of two state military academies in Florida (the East Florida Seminary was in Gainesville)—in Tallahassee, which was about twelve miles north of Natural Bridge. Miller’s Confederates prevented several Union attempts to flank their position. Unable to dislodge the Confederates, Newton withdrew from Natural Bridge and retreated to the coast, where the Federal flotilla evacuated his force.

The Last Days of Confederate Florida

Although Confederate Florida proclaimed Natural Bridge a great victory, celebration in Tallahassee was short-lived. Three weeks after the battle, on April 1, 1865, Governor John Milton took his own life at his plantation home in Jackson County. While he left no explanation for his suicide, Milton was physically and mentally exhausted after leading his state during three and a half years of war. The prospect of Confederate defeat and Union occupation of Florida was too much for him. A week after Milton’s death, on April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant following the Union general’s capture of Richmond. The end of the Confederate experiment was now at hand. For Florida, the end came on May 10, 1865, when Union Brigadier General Edward M. McCook arrived in Tallahassee to accept Confederate Major General Samuel Jones’ surrender of all Confederate forces in Florida. In a formal ceremony held in Tallahassee on May 20, McCook ordered the United States flag to be raised over the Capitol. Florida’s civil war was over.

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