Was the Northwest Florida Panhandle a “Unionist” Stronghold? – Part 2

Union Cavalryman from 1862
A Union Cavalryman

Since my post of 27 June, one man has been added to the list of members who joined the 1st Florida Union Cavalry. Bennett G. Senterfitt was the son of Jesse and Mary Faircloth Senterfitt, who were both members of Yellow River Baptist Church (YRBC) in 1840 when the church was founded. It is important to point out that the church did not list children of members as members of the church. In fact, they did not record them anywhere in the existing records. There is no record of children unless they reached an age where they could express their conversion and acceptance of Jesus. Therefore, while as children they likely attended with family, if they did not request to join based on their own conversion, they were never listed as members. Or they could have reached adulthood and joined another church.

My book The 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers in the Civil War goes into more detail on all of the individual recruits in the 1st Florida Cavalry Union (1st FCUV). This post will compare some statistics for this small group of men with statistics presented in the book on the composition of the regiment and see if looking at these men as a group might tell us anything about Oak Grove, Florida and the surrounding area of Northwest Florida and South Alabama during the Civil War. Yellow River Baptist Church was the earliest Baptist Church in the area of what is today Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton Co, FL and was likely the closest Baptist Church in the early years for the folks in southern Covington Co, AL. It therefore, served families outside of the area of Oak Grove, FL (upper Yellow River area in what is now Okaloosa Co, FL). Members came from as far away as Covington Co, AL and Walton Co, FL for the first several decades of its history.

The first member to join the 1st FCUV was Henry W. Steele. Henry was born in 1818 in Covington Co, AL so he was 42 at the start of the war and beyond the age of the first draft. That changed within a few months when the upper age was raised to 45. The draft age was raised again in February 1864 to 50. There is no record of him being drafted into Confederate service prior to his Union service. Henry joined the 1st FCUV on 30 December 1863, just a few months after the 1st FCUV was formed. He served throughout the war, primarily as a blacksmith for the regiment. There is no record of his serving in any of the regiment’s engagements. He returned to the area after being mustered out on 17 November 1865, continued to attend the church and served for many years as the church clerk.

January 1864 saw nearly half of the nineteen men from Yellow River Baptist Church joining the 1st FCUV. Henry H. Dixon, son of A. B. Dixon (postmaster and general store owner) joined on 13 January 1864. Allen Campbell joined the next day. On the 19th both Jasper Chestnut and Celestine J. Ward joined. Six days later on the 25th, Charles M. Campbell, James Millard and Seth Gaskin, and Archibald Smith joined the 1st FCUV. Four of these served until mustered out in November 1865. They were Henry Dixon, Allen Campbell, Charles M. Campbell and Archibald Smith. Two died during service, James M. and Seth Gaskin (brothers). Jasper Chestnut deserted in August 1865 after the war was over but before the regiment was mustered out and had his desertion charges dropped in 1884 and Celestine Ward deserted in February 1865. Nearly all of these men served with the Confederacy and deserted to join the 1st FCUV. Charles Campbell is the only man in this group with no discernible record with the Confederacy. Archibald Smith served with the 1st FL Reorganized Infantry, Co G, and James Millard Gaskin was drafted into the 5th FL Infantry, Co I but appears to have received a disability discharge shortly after reporting. The rest all served with the 3rd Florida Battalion Cavalry, Co D and deserted while the unit was still active. Only Henry Dixon was actually transferred to the 15th Confederate Cavalry when the 3rd Florida Battalion was merged with a number of other small units into the 15th. He then deserted soon afterward.

It was two months later when two more church members joined the 1st FCUV. Zebedee Greenwood and Bennett G. Senterfitt. Greenwood joined on the 23rd of March and Senterfitt joined 3 days later. Neither have any records in Confederate service. Both were in their thirties so by this point in 1864 they would definitely have been trying to avoid the militia rounding up conscription-aged men by hiding out in the nearby woods and swamps. On April 4, more men joined who would have attended the church: William L. Barrow, son of Richmond and Martha Senterfitt (she is the sister of Bennett listed above) Barrow both of whom were members of the church, joined on 10 April 1864. Eight days later William L. Richbourg joined. Then a week later Seaborn S. Baggett joined and a day later Nicholas Baggett joined. It is unknown at this point if Seaborn and Nicholas were related. In May 1864, two more joined; Moses A. George and Uriah Barton. The following month, David Allen Hart, son of John and Nancy Gartman Hart both of whom were members of the church, joined. Lastly William P. Clary, son of James D. and Mary Clary joined in October 1864.

Except for the men who were deserters from the 3rd FL Battalion Cavalry and joined the 1st FCUV at about the same time in January 1864, there does not appear to be a lot of coordination and support that you might expect if the church was supporting this “Unionist” behavior. Those who did not serve in the Confederacy at all may have found some support from each other while attending church but they did not join together. At one point in 1863, there is a note in the business records of the church that lists a number of men who were not attending church and needed to be visited. Several of the men mentioned above were on that list so it is likely they had already taken to the woods before deciding to join the Union. The decision to serve with the Union appears to have been a private one impacted by opportunity and circumstances. However, the concentration of these men in this area is interesting and deserving of more research.

Most of these men, once they joined remained in the service or died while serving. Ten (53%) of these men mustered out of the service in November 1865. Two (11%) died while in service. Three (16%) deserted after the war was over but before the regiment was mustered out and had their desertion charges dropped after the war. That leaves four (21%) who deserted. These percentages are very comparable to the statistics for the regiment at large and would not necessarily indicate a stronger Unionist sentiment than the general area from which the vast majority of men enlisting with the 1st FCUV came from (Walton, Santa Rosa, Holmes & Washington in FL and Coffee, Covington, Henry, Dale, and Baldwin in AL). Five of these men became Sergeants while in Union service: Seaborn S. Baggett, Henry H. Dixon, Celestine J. Ward, James M. Gaskin and Seth Gaskin. The majority of these men stayed in the general area and carried on with their lives after the war.

We are likely to never know if the church as a whole held Unionist sentiments since the existing church business records do not mention the war at all, an interesting absence given how much the war impacted this area of Florida and may be reflective of the awareness of the divisiveness of the topic for the community. It is somewhat telling that so many men came from this area of Florida and Alabama, attended Yellow River Baptist Church and returned to the area after the war and their service with the Union. Religion played a big part in the lives of the soldiers, both north and south, during the War. A number of these men went on to serve in leadership positions at the church or a neighboring church and one went on to be a Mayor of Florala, AL (Moses A. George). They were ordinary men who had to make some difficult decisions when the world around them became extraordinarily unsettled. They made decisions that we sometimes have difficulty in understanding when we look back in time. It is important though to try and understand the influences and impacts on their lives and not to take our own understandings and expectations from today and try to make them fit the past. Courage can take many forms, their courage may have been in their willingness to be different.

8 thoughts on “Was the Northwest Florida Panhandle a “Unionist” Stronghold? – Part 2

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