Was the Northwest Florida panhandle a “Unionist” stronghold? – Part 1

In my last post I provided a list of 18 men who were from the northern Santa Rosa and Walton County area during the Civil War who fought for the Union for at least some part of the war. They were 15% of the 120 men from what was then Santa Rosa and Walton County who fought for the Union in the 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers. I go into much more detail on the panhandle counties in my book The 1st Florida Union Cavalry Volunteers in the Civil War that will hopefully be published this Fall. The word “Unionist” can be tossed about pretty loosely when talking about the war so it might be helpful to explore the concept a bit more before we look at these men’s service.

The most obvious definition of the word would be someone who was opposed to the secession of the southern states for the purpose of independence. There is some evidence of this sentiment in the Florida panhandle in the months leading up to the war. Both delegates to the Secession Convention from Walton Co, FL voted against secession, as well as a handful of other delegates from other counties in the state. But most of these men were more often opposed to Florida secession before Georgia and Alabama and were, and are, often referred to as cooperationists. They were more concerned with Florida being cut off if either of the states to their immediate north did not secede than they were opposition to the war.

Sometimes it appears there is some confusion between being a Unionist and being opposed to slavery. Nothing is further from the truth in most cases. Being a Unionist, when it occurred in the South, was generally more a matter of business and the impact of a war on an individual’s business ventures than on opposition to slavery from a moral or ethical viewpoint. In fact, there were more than a few “Unionists” who were also slaveholders. Some of these men were recent arrivals from the north and many owned slaves but it wasn’t completely uncommon for plantation owners to not be keen on a war and some exhibited a desire to benefit themselves with either side as the war progressed.

Once the decision to secede occurred most folks who had voiced opposition for the most part got pretty quiet. By this point passions were high throughout the population and any reservations were best kept to a small circle of trusted friends and neighbors. Our idea these days that speaking your mind is a right in a democracy was not so well conceived in the South in 1860, and was only barely better in the North.

Once the war got underway and the political needs of the new Southern government meant making unpopular, and sometimes central government, decisions, the second form of “Unionism” became apparent. For individuals, the first test likely came with the draft in 1862 and for the states, some of whom were passionate about states’ rights, it was the transfer of state regiments into the Confederate Army. We will focus on the individuals. The draft began to sort out those who the government felt were needed more at home and those who were not critical to the government anywhere other than the front. The draft did not take into account whether the man was the only male at home old enough to manage the farm work. As the draft was amended over the remainder of the war, it also allowed the wealthy to purchase another man to take his place and allowed plantations to keep a male at home, depending on the number of slaves, to keep order. This last provision was particularly hated by those without slaves and a steady increase in desertions can be seen in the numbers after the draft was initiated.

Part of the promise made to yeoman farmers and the poor to persuade them to leave their families was the promise that food would be provided to the families since the planter and harvester would be at the front. Some parts of the South did better at this than others but the women’s riots in 1863 from Mobile to Richmond showed that it never worked as well as the promises. More than a few letters left the home front and begged the soldier to come home before his family starved. Compounding this problem was impressment agents and the general destruction of a war that did occur on the home front in south Alabama and northwest Florida, as in many other parts of the South. The draft and the home front conditions motivated many men to desert and come home. The militia and the efforts to round up deserters made it extremely difficult for them to stay at home.

Finally there were those who stayed at home until the draft came and when drafted they either showed up and deserted as soon as possible or they managed to use some of the underground means to get disability discharges (see Lonn, Ella, Desertion During the Civil War, Bison Books edition, 1998, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press ). It is certainly possible that these men were opposed to the war or they could just have not been motivated by its purpose or execution. And since those who were drafted and then deserted within a year or two may have been driven by some of the other reasons for not fighting with the Confederacy, any conclusions must be tentative at best.

Next post (end of July) we will begin to look specifically at these 18 men who were members of Yellow River Baptist Church and enlisted in the 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers at Pensacola, Florida.

A correct map of Pensacola Bay showing topography of the coast, Fort Pickens, U.S. Navy Yard, and all other fortifications

A correct map of Pensacola Bay showing topography of the coast, Fort Pickens, U.S. Navy Yard, and all other fortifications.

 

2 thoughts on “Was the Northwest Florida panhandle a “Unionist” stronghold? – Part 1

  1. Pingback: So You Think Your Know Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL – Part 3 – Northwest Florida History

  2. Pingback: Yellow River Baptist Church, Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL – Northwest Florida History

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