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.
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.
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
- West Florida Genealogical Society upcoming meeting
- Library of Congress, Map of Distribution of Slave Population by County for the Southern States
- The 1st Florida Union Cavalry Volunteers in the Civil War: The Men and the Regimental History and What That Tells Us About the Area During the War, Sharon D. Marsh. (Available in ebook format here)
- Pensacola During the Civil War: A Thorn in the Side of the Confederacy, George F. Pearce
- The Impending Crisis of the South, Hinton Helper
- Desertion During the Civil War, Ella Lonn