Reconstruction in the Florida Panhandle, Part 1

I spend a good bit of my reading and studying time focused on the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States) so I am very clear that it was a horrible war that brought a great deal of destruction to much of the South, including the Florida Panhandle. But I sometimes wonder which was harder for the families in the Panhandle, sending their fathers, sons and brothers to Virginia or Tennessee and having letters going back and forth sharing the difficulties and suffering that was occurring on both battlefield and homefront or was it harder, at least psychologically, at the end of the war to re-build and get on with their lives? The South was faced with Federal troops enforcing peace and social transformation, as well as farms damaged and livestock gone, little spendable currency and in some cases no man to help with moving on or one that was physically or emotionally injured and struggling to be what was expected of him.

If there are current military veterans returning to your households, you may have a small window into what the transition for the men returning home would have been like. There is a difference though.  A current veteran has to come home and re-built their civilian and family life, a Civil War soldier came home to rebuild their lives, their families’ life, their farmstead and in some cases their community.  But the physical and emotional scars would be very similar.  I also wonder if the fact the War was between two parts of one nation, rather than a foreign adversary, made the return to some level of normalcy easier or harder. Looking at how Reconstruction stumbled forward and failed, is instructive for our understanding of how we arrived at the point we are in, both the good and the bad. Let’s trace the course of Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877.

I’m going to be brutally honest about my take on the War and Reconstruction in case someone wants to defend or demonize one side versus the other. I don’t romanticize the War. It was brutal, on both sides. It was uncivilized, on both sides. It nearly destroyed the country and both sides contributed to that. Both sides were wrong about some things and right about others. Both sides contributed to the excessive vitriol before the War and both sides contributed to the bungled effort at “Reconstruction”. Both sides were dug into their view of the other side which made listening and hearing nearly impossible. It was not one of America’s shining moments.

For the Florida Panhandle, the end of the War brought men home from both the Eastern and Western Theaters of war and probably from most of the more notorious Northern Prisons (see photos above). Transportation was very fragmented in the South because every short line built by a company to connect X to Y might be on a different track size than the track going from W to X that was built by a different company and a third track size might go from Y to Z. And during the War, Sherman had done a fine job destroying rail lines across Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina severely decreasing rail into lower Alabama and Florida. So, whether the men were given the Oath and sent home from the field or from a prison in the North, they had to find their way home by walking, hitching rides with folks traveling to a nearby town or being able to catch a ride on a train. Some may not have made it home due to poor health.

1st FL hdcvrThe Panhandle had a different kind of homecoming for the men who were stationed at Ft. Barrancas and who fought for the Union. Some of them were from small communities in NW Florida and South Alabama that likely supported them joining the Union and welcomed those who came home. Some, however, likely returned to communities where the predominant fighting was for the Confederacy. Some of these communities, like Elba in Coffee Co, AL or Marianna in Jackson Co, FL may have held some animosity toward these men because many had them tangled up in their minds with the gangs who roamed the area or a battle that had taken place there. There is certainly evidence that men did move from the gangs to the Union and sometimes back to the gangs so that tangling can be understood. And for the women who lost husbands, brothers or fathers who fought for the Confederacy, I would guess seeing these men who fought for the Union come home might have been difficult, to say the least.

Many men from both sides chose to start again somewhere else, even if that was just down the road a piece. The war had been so traumatic, and looking into the pained and sunken faces of people you knew was so difficult, that starting over in a place where you didn’t have a history might have been the easier route. With most of the men of the 1st Florida Union Cavalry, the moving was minimal. They stayed in the South almost exclusively but many moved just a few miles away. Two of the most popular places after the war for these men were Baldwin Co, AL and Holmes Co, FL.

While the Panhandle and South Alabama did not experience the environmental devastation that parts of Tennessee and Virginia suffered, they did experience emotional trauma and a loss of farming equipment and animals that were necessary for family survival. The latter was the result of two armies fighting with each other and for control of the countryside and resources, the Confederate impression agents, and the gangs of deserters and draft dodgers that roamed the Panhandle taking what they wanted. For the poorer whites scrambling out of the economic hole was a real struggle. For blacks, it had to have been nearly overwhelming to try and make a life in freedom starting with next to nothing and dealing with the anger and hostility from many in the white population.  For the plantation owners, they faced running their plantations with black sharecroppers, which proved an uphill climb for both the plantation owners and the black families. Black families were being encouraged by the Federal government to stay put and contract to work for the same plantation owners that had held them in slavery a year before. I think most of us can imagine that this scenario wasn’t likely to work out all that well. And we would be right, it didn’t. Frustration and anger led to violence and it was usually black men who were on the receiving end of the violence.

Click here for an actual Freedman’s Contract from Jefferson County, 1867

One of the few books on the period of Reconstruction in the Panhandle is Daniel R. Weinfeld’s book, The Jackson County War: Reconstruction and Resistance in Post-Civil War Florida. It is a well-researched book in which he paints a picture of a county struggling with the changing power structure and the descent into violence that plagued some parts of the Panhandle. This was a time period where newly enfranchised black men voted and some were elected to office, though most of the elected positions went to what Southerners called Carpetbaggers (Northerners who came South after the War) and Scalawags (Southerners) who decided to work with the Republicans to reintegrate the South into the Union. Anytime I read about Reconstruction I always think of the old saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It can also be paved with greed, expediency, and violence.

Next time we will continue looking at the 12 years of Reconstruction.

Until Next Time.

Resources:

One thought on “Reconstruction in the Florida Panhandle, Part 1

  1. Thank you 😊 It’s refreshing to see someone present both sides in this fashion. Our family was on both sides of The War. Looking forward to more.

    Like

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