Questions of Honor and Courage: Individual Decisions During the Civil War

Many of us with ancestors in the Florida panhandle know there was a Union regiment of Southern men that served during the Civil War at Ft. Barrancas. Many of us have ancestors who served with that regiment and we have family stories or reasons that they served that we hold to be true. But most of us don’t know for sure why they made the decision to serve the Union and not the Confederacy. I have one of those ancestors, James M. Gaskins, and in trying to understand how he, and many of his neighbors, made that decision, I came to write my book on the 1st Florida Union Cavalry. In this blog, I want to explore the issue of desertion during the Civil War.

After more than a century, it has become difficult to sort out the Unionist versus deserter versus draft dodger categories of descent from the Confederacy. Unless you are lucky enough to have letters from your ancestor in which they explained in detail their reasoning, we have to go on family stories, organizing the data that is available or guesses. Sometimes grappling with an ancestor who appears to be a Confederate deserter, who then joined the Union, is difficult and I have heard some interesting stories to explain the ancestor who joined the Union at Pensacola. One of my favorites was that he was promised by the Federals that he wouldn’t have to fight. Having served in the Army, I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen! Let’s start by setting some definitions that fit with the situation at the time.

A Unionist would be a person who was supportive of the United States and did not agree with the southern states seceding from the Union. That might have been based on opposition to slavery but more likely in the panhandle, it was based on other factors such as concern over the impact on personal finances or business interests or a belief that there was still room for negotiating and being in the U.S. would be better than being separate.  There are a number of areas throughout the South where it is known that Unionist sentiments were high: 1) western VA, which seceded from VA and became W VA, 2) the mountains of NC, 3) northwestern AL, and 4) the eastern half of TN. In addition, there were smaller pockets in other southern states. In the Alabama Secession Convention representatives from northwestern AL pushed hard to remain in the Union (they too fielded a Union regiment of local men who fought in the northern AL and MS area). The Florida Secession Convention did have both Unionist and Cooperationists in attendance but in the end, had only seven representatives vote against secession. Two of those were from Walton County.

During the war, the official definition for a deserter was someone who left their unit without authority and did not plan to return. As can be seen in compiled service records, many men would leave or overstay an authorized leave and then return on their own. They were trying to juggle family and military service or deal with the demons within themselves that made facing another battle difficult. We need to remember that until the Civil War, civilian men were not used to prolonged military service. Militia requirements were generally three months between planting and harvest, or after harvest and before winter. A dodger was someone who made every effort to avoid being drafted after April 1862. This could be motivated by Unionist sentiments or concern for family or disinterest in military life. They often took to the woods, and coupled with deserters, became an additional problem in some parts of the South, including the Florida panhandle.

The Florida Panhandle and South Alabama were both predominately yeoman farmers. The industrial exceptions (higher percentage of industrial capacity) to that was Santa Rosa County, FL and Baldwin County, AL and the plantation exceptions  (higher percentage of large plantations) were Henry County, AL and the eastern panhandle counties of Jackson, Calhoun, and Gadsden. Both the Florida panhandle and South Alabama had slightly less a percentage of enslaved persons than their respective states. And if you excluded the plantation system counties listed above, the percentage was even smaller. In other words, many in this area were not heavily entangled in the Southern slave economy from a financial standpoint and may have resented the advantage that large plantations had in marketing cash crops.

The war saw the beginning of a military draft for both sides. Initial enlistments were for 12 months but that proved insufficient.  By April of 1862, the Confederacy initiated an unpopular draft. It required all white men between 18 and 35 to be drafted for a period of 3 years. It also extended the terms of the 12-month enlistees to 3 years. By September of 1862, the draft was extended to white men between 18 and 45 and by February of 1864, the age range was extended again to men between 17 and 50. The law also exempted a number of occupations: railroad and river workers, civil officials, telegraph operators, miners, druggists, and teachers. In October of 1862, the law was amended to exempt anyone who owned 20 or more slaves and if a wealthy man was drafted he could hire a substitute. These last amendments were rescinded in December 1863 but the damage was done.  What had begun as an unpopular act because it limited or decreased individual freedom gave the appearance of the war being fought on the backs of men who had the least to gain from it.

Unlike the more wealthy, many men in the Florida panhandle did not have enslaved persons to do the work on the farm. Taking away the only adult male left the farming to women and children. This during the days of oxen and plow meant that many would not be able to sustain their farms, which was not only their livelihoods but where the majority of their food came from. The Confederate states made promises that these women and children would not go hungry, and some did try, but the general disruption of farms (produce stolen by opposing sides, conflict and inability to plant and harvest) and the poor rail transportation in the South meant that these families quickly were writing letters to soldiers and government officials begging for help before they starved to death.

After the Confederacy withdrew from Florida in early 1862, there was also the ongoing presence of the Union at Ft. Barrancas. Coupled with the gangs of deserters and dodgers, the blockade, and the agents of the Confederate government that confiscated farm produce from families already struggling to get by, things went from difficult to life-threatening. All of these problems, coupled with some plantation owners resisting growing food crops and continuing to plant cotton, resulted in severe hunger. In 1863, there was a series of “uprisings” by women across the South demanding food supplies be made more available. The closest one to the panhandle was in Mobile.

All of these are political or social problems in the Confederacy that might cause a man to desert but for many, there was also the horror of the battlefield. Florida regiments were in both the Eastern theatre under General Lee and in the Western theatre under General Braxton Bragg. The Western theatre, unlike the Eastern, did not see many victories. Bragg was a difficult personality and did not get along well with many of his subordinates. His decision and communication skills appear to have been lacking. And when he failed, it was everyone else’s fault but his. He did have one friend, Jefferson Davis, so he remained in command until after Missionary Ridge. But the Florida boys in the Eastern theatre certainly did not have a much better situation. In several engagements, they were in areas of a battle where they took major losses, stripping the regiments to the bare bones.

Antietam, Maryland. Bodies of dead, Louisiana Regiment

Antietam, Bodies of dead Louisiana men

And finally, in addition to battles that were terrifying and maiming, there was the hunger and lack of clothing and shelter in the army. The poor rail system in the South not only impacted moving food around for the home front, it made it difficult to move supplies of all kinds to the front. The South had raised the cotton, they didn’t have the industrial capacity to make it into thread and clothes other than in small volumes and in the home. When my ancestors who served in the 6th Florida Infantry were transferred from Florida to Tennessee their commanding officer indicated they went without sufficient warm clothes and shoes, no blankets and few tents. Many Florida boys died of illness in the bitter winters of 1862 and 1863.

So, let’s put ourselves in some of our ancestors’ shoes. Most of them were oriented toward their local community, some to their state and fewer to the nation. Most were yeoman farmers or small merchants. Most were not heavily entangled in the slavery-based economic system. When the war started, many figured it didn’t matter which “nation” they were in as long as they were left alone to take care of their families. Some did feel an allegiance to the U.S. and felt that either this was not the time to try independence and/or it wasn’t the right reason to secede. Many probably shared some of the concerns the fire-eaters hammered home about the impacts of freed slaves on the South. So those that could justify the secession in their heads based on their own beliefs signed up for 12 months, those that couldn’t, stayed home and planned to see what would happen. But that didn’t work once the draft was in place.  Many of these men had to make a decision based on what they thought was best for them and their families. Some took to the woods and swamps.  Some were drafted and when their regiment was called up to leave the state, they deserted. Some went through a few battles, then deserted. Some got letters from home and then deserted.

Northwest Florida & South Alabama in 1860 with counties marked that contributed a significant number to the 1st Florida Union Cavalry

Stars are the nine counties contributing the most men to the 1st Florida Cavalry. The circled area is where a sizable proportion were in 1860.

In October 1863, when the Union decided to create the 1st Florida Cavalry Volunteers, many of the men who would ultimately join had already deserted or had been laying low since early 1863. Word spread that the Union was recruiting Southerners and would pay a bounty for enlistment. It started as a trickle and became a steady stream. By the end of the war, 704 men had joined, or attempted to join, the 1st Florida. Nearly, all of the men who joined were from the panhandle of Florida and South Alabama and a large percentage of them were from just nine counties: Baldwin Co, AL; Santa Rosa Co, FL; Walton Co, FL; Holmes Co, FL; Covington County, AL; Coffee County, AL; Dale County, AL; Henry County, AL and Washington Co, FL. And a large percentage of the men from these nine counties that joined the 1st Florida were from just four of these counties: Santa Rosa, Walton, Covington, and Coffee. They were not all deserters or dodgers but many were. Some were underage for the draft in 1863, but reached it by 1864, and decided to join the Union rather than the Confederacy. For some of these, their older brothers, who were in the Confederacy or already deserted, followed them to Ft. Barrancas.

This was not an easy decision. If captured by the Confederacy, they were immediately shot or hanged. The decision could threaten their families left behind though some came from communities that were sympathetic (see my post on Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL). The bounty wasn’t immediate, most had to wait until they were mustered out in November 1865 before receiving it all. Weighing all of the above, some made the decision to join the Union and stay until the end and fight when required to.

Is it more honorable to fight for a nation you’ve only known for a short time and don’t have a dog in the hunt or to make a choice that keeps you closer to home and better able to help your family? Which is more courageous? Was it Unionism, battle fatigue, concern for family, concern for their own persons, anger over the draft or some other decision, or a combination. I would guess for many it was a combination because even today, most of us do not make life-changing decisions lightly or by just looking at the polar opposite arguments. Why would we expect our ancestors to be any different?

I will be on a panel on October 6th (2:30-3:45 pm) talking about the Civil War in the panhandle at the Gulf South Historical Association’s History and Humanities Conference at the Pensacola Beach Hilton (GSHA 2017 Program). I hope to see some of you there.

Until next time.



1st FL hdcvr

6 thoughts on “Questions of Honor and Courage: Individual Decisions During the Civil War

  1. Pingback: The Intimate Connections Between South Alabama and Northwest Florida | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

  2. Pingback: Women in Family and Northwest Florida History | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

  3. Pingback: A Woman’s Work Is Never Done | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s