Florida’s Secession and how NW Florida Families Experienced the War – Part 3

For my last two blogs (Part 1 and Part 2), we’ve been looking at Florida’s Secession Convention and its Declaration in support of secession that led to Florida leaving the United States and within a short period of time becoming a part of the Confederate States of America. In this final blog in this series, I will explore how the Northwest Florida panhandle experienced the war and how those experiences drove responses in the panhandle.

1860 Map of Distribution of Slave Population by County

1860 Map of Distribution of Slave Population by County.  The light colored area in the panhandle and south-central Alabama corresponds to the counties that drew the majority of men who served in the 1st FL Union Cavalry.

As mentioned in the previous blog, Florida’s enslaved population was a slightly smaller percentage of the population than in other Southern states and the panhandle’s enslaved population was a slightly smaller percentage than the population in the rest of Florida. This was a factor of the soils in the panhandle west of Jackson and Washington counties not being as conducive to large plantations and therefore the presence of many more yeoman farmers than plantation owners. Instead, slaves in the NW Panhandle were more likely to be used in factories, carpentry, brick-making, and dock work. They were held by a small number of men and were hired out and used by the owners in their businesses. The remainder of enslaved persons in the Panhandle were in households who held a few slaves for help in the household and on the farm. A number of these men who held enslaved persons for artisan and factory labor were not as keen on secession as the plantation owners tended to be. But we must keep in mind that none of these groups were totally for or against. Humans bring their own sense of what is best for them and their communities and can and do have varying takes on a policy issue.

Troops from surrounding states came down to Pensacola to take possession of the forts and port while the secession conventions were taking place. They failed to capture Ft. Pickens, where the Union forces had consolidated when the forts on the mainland were handed over to the Confederates.  Pensacola nearly edged out Ft. Sumter for the first place for shots to be exchanged but the two sides spent the first year of the War just staring at each other across the Bay. It appears that recruitment went reasonably well in Florida during 1861. Then two things happened within a short time of each other. The Confederacy decided to focus its efforts in Tennessee in early 1862 and withdrew most of the troops from Florida. This created a scorched earth policy as they withdrew, burning ships in Bagdad; cotton; timber; personal belongings; mills and anything else the Confederates thought would be useful to the Federals. This spread from Pensacola to well east of Milton and north along the Blackwater. It created a lot of hardship and anger in the area. In April 1862, the first draft went into effect. Men who had enlisted for one year were now given the option to re-enlist for three years or the war. It wasn’t really an option since the men who decided to try and go home were usually drafted into another regiment pretty quickly. The draft was not appreciated in many places across the South because it took away the sense of free will and the policies allowing exceptions gave many of the men the sense that it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Some of Florida’s early regiments were stationed in Florida, or after March 1862 in Pollard, AL, but desertion rates were a problem and a mass desertion plan was uncovered among the troops in Pollard and an exchange was done moving these men to Tennessee and replacing them with troops from outside the area.


1st FL Union Cavalry recruits who also joined or were drafted into the Confederacy.

Many Florida men were in regiments in the Western Theater, which in 1862 and 1863 was under the command of Braxton Bragg. Bragg was a difficult personality who wasn’t necessarily a good field commander and had serious difficulties getting along with his Corp commanders. When things didn’t work out, it was always someone else’s fault. These Florida troops served in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and northern Alabama and saw few wins. By 1863, the desertion rates across the Confederacy had risen to a high enough level that both General Lee and Jefferson Davis commented on the problems that desertions were causing the troops in the field and made several attempts to convince, command and force the men back into the ranks. The reported rate was around 25% but I believe it was higher than that across all of the Confederate armies in the field. My study of the men who served in the Confederacy and subsequently joined the 1st FL Union Cavalry shows this same escalating pattern through 1863 (see above). The men were tired, their families were being threatened and starved at home, Florida had been left undefended in the eyes of many and the Confederate government wasn’t proving to be all that popular.

Food was scarce, the women had difficulty in planting and growing what was needed, prices were exorbitant, the Confederacy confiscated foodstuffs and animals needed by the family, and the gangs of deserters and shirkers in the Panhandle also took what they wanted. Many of the men, when given a chance, left and made their way home. For those men who had not wanted to serve in the Confederate Army, either because they were not inclined to prioritize the fight over their family or because they were not keen on the reason for the War, found while home that they had another option. In the last quarter of 1863, the Federals created a regiment for Southern men to serve in the Union at Ft. Barrancas. Many of the men from the Florida panhandle and the south-central part of Alabama who were laying out in the woods to avoid being drafted or picked up as a deserter headed to East Pass at the east end of Santa Rosa Island, or directly to Ft. Barrancas, and enlisted with the Union.

Here the pay was a bit more reliable and the dollars were a bit more desirable than the Confederate dollars were. They were closer to home and could go home on leave, keeping a better eye on their families. Of course, if captured by Confederate troops they were shot without a trial whether or not they had deserted the Confederacy. There is some evidence that a lack of enthusiasm for the Confederacy was more prevalent in some parts of the panhandle and may have grown over time as the War effort faltered. I will look in detail at one of these communities in my upcoming book on Okaloosa County’s Oak Grove and surrounding communities in the upper Yellow River area.  While some of these men did serve in several of the larger skirmishes and expeditions in this area, notably the Battle of Marianna and the final Mobile Campaign, they were mostly out of the areas of intense fighting. For some of the men who had seen some gruesome battles in Virginia and Tennessee that likely seemed a welcome change. But a large percentage of the men who served with the 1st Florida Union Cavalry do not appear to have ever served with the Confederacy. These men and their families could have had strong Unionist sentiments, however, they came to those feelings or when they came to them. As we do with our ancestors who served with the Confederacy we should honor their service and decision to follow their conscience.

I will be speaking at the West Florida Genealogical Society in Pensacola on 2 March 2019 about the 1st Florida Union Cavalry. This is WFGS’s regular meeting at the West Florida Genealogy Library located at 5740 N. 9th Ave, starting at 10:00 am. Would love to see some of you there. I will have a few books available for purchase.

Until Next Time


6 thoughts on “Florida’s Secession and how NW Florida Families Experienced the War – Part 3

  1. I suggest you read ‘Colonial Plantations and Economy in Florida’ by Jane Landers; if you haven’t already. This subject is complex. If the North would have boycotted cotton rather than profit from the war. Only Alabama and South Carolina had more slaves than New Jersey, when the war began. Georgia began as an abolitionist state, and is far less guilty of slavery than most of the north. Slaves has more rights in Florida than in the north, as well. And you will also find the African princess, Anna Madigigine Jai Kingsley, didn’t free her slaves in her will. and that Africans fully believed in slavery. Yes, the practice needed to end but the path to ending it was very much in question. The North gave birth to the ghetto–was that a solution?


    • I am very aware of the hypocrisies that existed on both sides and I’ve never believed that a war was inevitable. Slavery in America was an economic system, as I pointed out in the first two blogs in this series, taken a step further by being entangled with our views of race. I am aware of both Native Americans and Blacks who owned slaves. Free Blacks in the North, and South, had varying degrees of “rights” prior to the war and the 13th – 15th amendments but slaves in the South, including Florida, had few rights and little to no freedom. The slave laws on the books in every Southern state ensured that.

      As far as New Jersey is concerned, they were the last of the Northern states to free their slaves. Slavery was abolished in 1846 in NJ, allowing gradual emancipation but they allowed “apprenticeships for life” that still held about 18 people who were freed by the 13th amendment in 1865. According to the excellent website, Slavery in the North, New Jersey had about 2/3 of the remaining slaves (total 3,568) in Northern states in 1830. I’m pretty sure any of the Southern states had more than 18 slaves in 1865 and I’m sure that goes for every other Southern state from 1845 on.

      Georgia wasn’t an “abolitionist state” since they weren’t a state at the time they changed their laws to allow slavery and their decision to not allow slavery had nothing to do with abolition. For 15 years between 1735 and 1750, the colony did prohibit black slavery.

      Ghettos exist in every major city in America, north, south, and west and often contain both Blacks and poor Whites. That is a reflection of our long-standing American problem with race and poverty not anyone’s “solution” to slavery. The subject is very complex and fraught with information that can be conflated and misconstrued, something everyone should remind themselves of each time they attempt to discuss it.


  2. Making a shot comment is difficult, I knew Georgia was a colony and I was noting NJ slavery as a general time period. But the North certainly created the ghetto. The North also created Liberia. Lincoln didn’t have a plan on how to handle the newly freed slaves. Read Zora Neale Hurston’s essay, The Pet Negro, and you will see she didn’t care for the North’s elitist attitude, she preferred Floridians. The North demonized the South because they won and that reflects on race relations, in the years since the war. My main point is that the South shouldn’t continually be demonized. Look at the money motive for each side and you will see the South saw problems that disadvantaged their families. Textile manufacturers, up north, got away with not paying for their cotton.


  3. There is more than enough bad behavior and horrendous mistakes on both sides. I don’t believe I ever suggested the South should be demonized but neither should the North. Both demonized each other enough long before the war started. Continuing to do it doesn’t solve anything. The simple fact is this country was built using a great deal of slave labor. The whole country benefited from that fact and I pointed that out in the blog series. My series focused on the Florida secession, the reasons expressed at the time for secession by several of the Southern States and the impact and response in the panhandle not to endlessly debate who was most at fault for the war.


  4. Hello– been swamped & just had a chance to read this series & it’s fascinating. Ty for researching/writing it– am doing the geneo for someone from an old Walton Co. fam who settled on Shoal R. in 1842, & reading the series helps me better understand the historical backdrop to some of the choices they made.

    As it happens, this family– call ’em “the Jones”– were part-Creek/part-white, & came down from AL to FL to avoid the forced removal to the Indian Territory that in began in the early 1830’s & ran on thru the early early 1840’s. I imagine in that time-frame, the N parts of Okaloosa/Escambia/Walton were a refuge for many similar families, hoping to keep a low profile in the backwoods & make a scanty living there as best they could w/out drawing undue attention.

    I’ve often wondered how the Civ. war 20 years later affected the Jones, & your series helps me “get” why 1 brother joined the CSA & another the Union. The Jones did not hold enslaved people, they were freerange stockraisers out in the woods & poor smallfarmers, tho their ancestors did. The “Jones” matriarch descended from a very powerful Creek/Scots chief who held many people enslaved– his wife was mixed also, her mother a Creek woman & her father a Scot, descended from a long line of Scotsmen engaged in the Indian trade who’d been marrying NA women since the early 1700’s.

    I guess my general point here is that knowing what I’ve now learned of the Jones fam. history, set against the larger history of this country, has been a real eye-opener for me. This blended family had/has red/black/white branches & likely there’s a great many other old fams w similar backstory. So discussing race is complicated,yet as somebody who loves both the “geneo” & the “history”, am really appreciative when people make the effort to do so, rather than just avoid a sensitive topic. — so thanks for writing this, & will go back & read the 1st 2 parts again–

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ann, thank you for sharing this story. Yes, the multi-racial families were not that uncommon in this area. I have some of my own in the Holmes County area who also moved into FL in the 1830s and 40s. The panhandle is a complicated area that gets little attention from folks who tend to focus on the peninsula of Florida. Glad to see more folks trying to bring it to light.

      Liked by 1 person

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