Did Your Southern Ancestor Serve With the Union? An Exploration of the 1st Florida Union Cavalry Volunteers

The War for Southern Independence (aka the American Civil War or the War Between the States) was a difficult war as experienced by Floridians and south Alabamians. It was not just about “do I side with the Confederacy or the Union”, it was about the safety of families left behind and whether they would survive or starve to death. Early in the War, it was obvious that Florida would struggle with its role in the War. Though it was one of the first states to secede from the Union, the secession convention had not been a unanimous event. Seven delegates voted against secession. A number of them were from the Florida panhandle. Alabama had an even more contentious secession convention but in their case, the majority of the opposition came from the northern and more mountainous areas of Alabama.

Like most issues in a human society, there was a wide range of support and opposition. There were those who were from the start adamantly against or for secession and then there was the majority in the middle who may have had concerns or reservations but found it easier to let things evolve as they would and they would see what happened. Isn’t that what most of us usually do? The analogy of the frog being dropped into boiling water and immediately jumping out or being placed into a pot where the temperature rises slowly and the frog sits until cooked is an apt one for how most of us react to social, political and economic events. We chose not to react initially and then the slow-moving crisis overtakes us.

1856 Florida G. W. Colton
1856 Florida Map, G. W. Colton

Then there was the thin population of mostly yeoman farmers, especially in the Florida Panhandle. They did not have enslaved persons to fall back on for planting and harvesting and their families were much more dependent on what they grew than the plantation owners were. In other words, the war was harder on their families because they were not as heavily invested in the prevalent economic system in the South.

The initial stand-off between the Union and Confederacy in Florida occurred in Pensacola and continued into the Spring of 1862 when the Confederacy withdrew most of its troops from Florida and created a scorched earth policy as they did so. Industries, grist mills, food and cotton, and some family belongings in the area were burned. It was deeply felt and angered many left behind. Though the Confederacy withdrew just across the border of Florida and Alabama to Pollard, the majority of the Florida and Alabama troops that had been stationed in Pensacola and Jacksonville were removed to Tennessee. By this point, the Union had also begun its squeeze of the Confederacy with the blockade. Though Florida and North Carolina were able to continue running the blockade from tiny ports along both coasts, it was never enough and was primarily focused on what the military needed and what the runners thought would bring the most money. That wasn’t food for the average family.

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

The Union remained at Ft. Pickens from the earliest days of the War and once the Confederates withdrew they immediately moved back into Ft. Barrancas. But Florida wasn’t in a place where there would likely be a lot of fighting so the Union did not build up troops at the Fort. Skirmishes occurred between the troops in Pollard and those at Ft. Barrancas but they were not large engagements through most of 1863. Florida troops were sent out from Pollard to patrol and attempt to hamper the Union’s incessant raiding of the materials around Milton and Bagdad. They took up camps in a variety of areas around the two towns until there was a large scale attempted mutiny and desertion by the Florida Confederate troops. The Florida men were exchanged with troops from the state of Tennessee to hopefully bring the movement to an end. The Confederacy lamented the “quality” of men that were being drafted, which meant they had reached the point in the population where most of the men weren’t interested in fighting the War for any length of time.

The Spring of 1862 brought another reason to be angry with the Confederacy. The draft was implemented. Adjustments to the initial law allowed plantations to keep one white male at home for every 20 enslaved persons. And it allowed substitutes to be bought. This planted the impression that it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, as most wars often turn out to be. Men began to take to the woods and swamps to avoid the draft and as 1863 saw horrible conditions on the battlefields in both the Eastern and Western Theaters, men began leaving the field without permission, returning home and joining those already hiding in the woods. I was told early in my study of the War in Florida and the establishment of the 1st Florida Union Cavalry that these gangs of deserters and draft-dodgers were mostly made up of men from other states who found our woods and swamps a good place to hide. But my research into the 1st Florida Union Cavalry proved that the men who joined the Union who fell in those two categories were not generally from other states. The vast majority were Florida and South Alabama men. They were hiding out near their homes, which is a logical choice over removing yourself hundreds of miles from home.  Staying close to home meant they could draw on their extended families for help.

That doesn’t mean these gangs did not wreck their own havoc in the Panhandle. Citizens in the area already had the impressment agents and the tax-in-kind agents on the Confederate side and the Union army on the other. The gangs were the third source of slow-leaching and sometimes violent taking of foodstuffs, animals and pretty much anything else of value. With the primary heavy laborer on the farm gone, planting and harvesting were difficult at best. If the family was lucky enough to still have an ox or a mule or a horse to pull the plow that might make it doable, these animals were fair game for all of these external forces and few families got through the war with their animals still on the farm.

Some of the men who joined the 1st Florida Union Cavalry were in one or more of these gangs prior to joining. Some were notorious and had already made enemies among people who had once been neighbors and didn’t much care for the looting and destruction. Then when they joined the Union, the Union took on that taint. If these men showed up in their home area again, with or without a Union uniform and it was known they had joined the hated Yankees, as far as the locals were concerned the Union was now using terrorist tactics. This is understandable. When humans don’t know all the details, they will fill in the gaps with some creative guessing. We all do that. That’s not to say that Union troops did not do some destructive things in the local area. They did, but likely not as many as history has blamed them for doing.  Certainly, in some cases, the destruction was not ordered or condoned by the Union.  A case in point is the story of Joseph Sanders, one I detail in my book.  He was not following orders when he took his handful of men into south Alabama and was trapped for an extended period of time.  His fighting led to destruction in Elba and his being allowed to resign “for the good of the service”.  But many still blame the Union for what happened.

The men who joined the 1st Florida Union Cavalry after laying out and possibly running with a gang fall into two categories. Those who were draft age but were not drafted based on records available or did not show when drafted and there was a sizable space of time between that and joining the 1st Florida Union Cavalry. The other category is those men who deserted a Confederate regiment sometime in 1862 or early 1863 and there was a sizable space between that event and joining the 1st Florida Union Cavalry. The draft dodgers could have been disinclined to fight for the Confederacy for any number of reasons; family, hated Confederate policies (i.e., the draft), fear of what they were hearing from the front or some level of what some might call “Unionism”. The deserters also likely had multiple reasons for desertion; family, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger with field command (high death rates), or fatigue. While in the early stages of the War it might have been easy to get on board with the propaganda being disseminated about the need for war, when it had gone on too long and nothing was getting resolved the men may have felt they were losing and desertion was a viable option, especially if they really didn’t have a dog in the fight.  For some, it had become apparent by 1863 that the Confederacy was not a vast improvement over the Union in terms of the impact on the common person.

stats for service
1st FL hdcvr
My book on the 1st Florida Union Cavalry Volunteers

While some of these men did desert the Union after briefly serving, the analysis gives a desertion rate of about 23%, most served from enlistment to mustering out and provided a variety of services. Some stayed at Ft. Barrancas and provided administrative activities or maintenance services, some acted as scouts on expeditions, some fought in the nine engagements the 1st Florida Union Cavalry participated in. As Floridians and south Alabamians, we’ve not done a good job of acquainting ourselves with the totality of events and circumstances in our area and acknowledging these men’s service. Trying to understand why and how they came to make the decisions they made is what led me to write The 1st Florida Union Cavalry Volunteers in the War: The Men and Regimental History and What That Tells Us About the Area During the War. I had family who served in the regiment and I’ve met a lot of folks over the last couple of years who also had family who served. Many are just beginning to sort out their ancestor’s service and develop a better understanding of what their ancestor was being motivated by. If you have an ancestor who served, I invite you to start your quest with the resources below.

Until Next Time


One thought on “Did Your Southern Ancestor Serve With the Union? An Exploration of the 1st Florida Union Cavalry Volunteers

  1. Pingback: Updates and Links to My Posts on the 1st Florida Union Cavalry Volunteers | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

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