Just in case someone attempts to misunderstand what I’m going to say, let me be clear that I love Pensacola. I went to college there, I’ve lived there and I visit as often as I can. I also like Tallahassee. My paternal grandmother lived there most of my growing up years and I spent at least two weeks every summer with her before making it the rest of the way to Oak Grove to spend time with my maternal grandparents. That said, those of us with deep ties to the panhandle of Florida are clear on two things: 1) The rest of Florida seldom thinks about the panhandle unless they want to drive through on the way to somewhere else and, 2) The rest of the country only knows the following cities in the panhandle: Pensacola, Panama City Beach, and Tallahassee. We are a well-kept secret, less so these days than when I was a kid, and some of us would like to keep it a bit of a secret.
Same is true if we go back to the antebellum period in Florida. There were Tallahassee and Pensacola according to some authors and if you aren’t careful you think it was minimally-inhabited wilderness in-between. In actuality, the towns of Milton and Bagdad and the county of Santa Rosa were richer and better economically developed than either Tallahassee or Pensacola. Santa Rosa was the richest county in Florida in the 1860 census and Milton and Bagdad had diverse economies of trade, shipbuilding, lumber, textiles, and brick-making to name a few. So, it would not necessarily be surprising that when the Confederates withdrew from the panhandle and left several regiments in Pollard, AL to harass the Union in Pensacola and try and keep the rest of Florida out of the hands of the Union that Milton and Bagdad would become magnets for both sides. The lumber was a valuable commodity for both armies, and the rest of the goods produced in the area before the war were needed at various times by both sides. The residents of Santa Rosa County found themselves only slightly better off than the residents of the Shenandoah Valley or middle Tennessee. The skirmishes weren’t as numerous or as large, and the stealing/confiscation of goods wasn’t as bad but only because the armies were smaller. But folks in the Florida panhandle had the additional burden of gangs of deserters and draft-dodgers that also stole and plundered. It was not a backwater safe haven for residents trying to keep body and soul together.
The damages actually started with the Confederates as they were evacuating Florida in March 1862. Confederate orders were given to burn anything that might be of value to the Union. Not only were military stores burned but so were the local grist mills, production facilities and in some cases privately owned materials. It was quite a devastation that motivated Mr. A. C. Blount to write a blistering letter to the Governor describing the actions as “wanton and atrocious vandalism” (see below).
Once the Union retook Pensacola it was inevitable that the two sides would skirmish across the panhandle. The Confederates had withdrawn to Pollard, AL and left numerous encampments in the panhandle, generally manned by a company or two of the regiments assigned to Pollard. Initially, these troops were from the area (FL and AL regiments) but in 1864, once Brig. Gen. Asboth began enlisting men for the 1st Florida Union Cavalry, this became a problem of ongoing desertion and many of the men in General Clanton’s army at Pollard were re-assigned to Tennessee and more seasoned troops from elsewhere in the Confederacy were brought down to guard the panhandle and south Alabama.
The first documented expedition to Milton and Bagdad occurred in August 1862 with the 6th NY Infantry, Co A and B, conducting a reconnaissance mission to Milton and Bagdad. The 6th NY steamed up the bay to within two miles of Bagdad and weighed anchor to wait until morning to make contact with a Union man at Hunt’s Mill to determine where Confederates were located in the area. This Union man told the Federals where they could find some valuable naval stores. They then moved to Milton where they reconnoitered for Confederates and the naval stores. They left and sailed up the Blackwater to Union Hill where they picked up four Union families and their belongings. They came back to Milton and took several thousand dollars worth of materials. They also took some furniture that supposedly belonged to a “notorious rebel”. They returned to Bagdad and picked up some furniture belonging to known Union men. An interesting quote in the report mentioned the “valuable sawmills once so numerous in this section of the country” that had been burned along with “millions of feet of yellow pine and oak lumber”.
In late 1863 and early 1864, Brigadier General Asboth mentioned Milton and Bagdad twice in his reports. In November 1863 he indicated that Confederates had 120 to 140 cavalry east of the Escambia River with pickets at Milton, Bagdad, Partes (unsure where this might have been) and Floridatown. In February 1864 he again mentions the Confederate troops in the area around Milton after the mass mutiny was attempted among the troops stationed out of Pollard. He indicates there were 3,000 Tennessee troops at Pollard, 500 at Milton and some at Floridatown. He states that they guard the line from Floridatown along Pound (sic, that would be Pond!) Creek, Bagdad Factory, Crigler’s Mill and along the Yellow River.
On the 18th of October at Pierce’s Point south of Milton, Union troops were attacked by Confederates. This skirmish included the 1st Florida Battery Light Artillery and the 19th Iowa. This skirmish resulted in a Union loss that resulted in one dead and one wounded and likely led to the effort at the end of October to capture the Confederates around Milton and make it easier for the Union to use Milton and Bagdad as a source of materials. Lt Colonel Spurling was charged with this effort and his plan was to take half of his troops to Mulat Bayou and the other half were to land thirteen miles south of Milton and draft logs to draw the Confederates deep onto the peninsula. When the shooting started the men on Mulat Bayou were to gallop across the peninsula and capture the Confederates in a pincer movement. After settling the men on Mulat Bayou, Spurling joined his men south of Milton but found they had landed much closer to Milton. So when the shooting started the men galloping over from Mulat Bayou did not get to Milton in time. The conflict was a running battle up the eastern side of the peninsula through Bagdad with an extended skirmish at Pond Creek. From there the Confederates escaped up the Pollard Road. This engagement did not succeed in removing the Confederates from the Milton area.
In February 1865 the 2nd Maine Cavalry conducted an expedition to Milton. A total of 300 men, 50 mounted and 250 unmounted landed at Pierce’s Mill after repairing the wharf. They quietly moved up to Milton and six miles further out on the Pollard Rd to the Confederate camp. At daybreak, they attacked the camp capturing 19 prisoners, 29 horses, and 5 mules. Fifty stands of arms were destroyed.
As the Mobile Campaign started a detachment of men were sent to Milton in March 1865 to try and remove Confederates from the area in anticipation of a much larger force under Lt Colonel Spurling moving into Milton a few days later. This second wave of troops that included men from the 1st Florida Union Cavalry began their expedition in Milton and marched north through the panhandle to Andalusia then west to Evergreen to cut the railroad between Montgomery and Mobile prior to the final effort to take Mobile. They left Evergreen and marched to Sparta, AL to burn the warehouses there, then to Brooklyn, AL and finally to Pollard, AL where they met up with a second large force of men marching from Pensacola under Major General Frederick Steele. The combined forces marched through Canoe and Stockton then joined the Union forces outside of Ft. Blakeley for the siege that ended the campaign.
Today Milton and Bagdad are small communities nestled in the northwest Florida panhandle and few picture them to be as important to the history of the panhandle as they were. Both played a huge role in the wealth and industrial capacity of the young State of Florida during the late antebellum period. Their citizens were challenged to take sides, minimize damage to family and livelihood from both sides, and survive the never-ending skirmishes in the area. They picked up the pieces after the war but were never able to completely recover the industrial capacity and wealth.
Until next time when we will begin a quick genealogy-oriented lesson in researching Confederate (and Union) men in the panhandle, with some details on the regiments formed mostly from local men.
- Florida Memory, Letter from A. C. Blount to Governor Milton, April 8, 1862
- The 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers in the Civil War: The Men and Regimental History and What That Tells Us About the Area During the War, by Sharon D. Marsh, October 2016.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Carmel, IN: Guild Press of Indiana, 1997.
- Photographs are from the Photographic History of the Civil War, The Military Atlas of the Civil War and Harper’s Weekly.