Reconstruction in the South & the Florida Panhandle, Part 2

Until the last few decades, there wasn’t a lot written about Reconstruction that wasn’t either heavily weighted toward one viewpoint (Southern) or the other (Northern), if it was discussed in detail at all. It may be getting a bit better with at least some professors and history writers making an attempt to be balanced in their assessments of the circumstances surrounding the years of Reconstruction and delving into the details of those years. (See Part 1 in this series here)

It seems in digging around in history pieces of the time and in genealogical records that the first few years of Reconstruction were focused on unscrambling the tangled remains of families and communities and trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy. If the men made it home, the remaining family may have picked up and moved if all they owned had pretty much disappeared with the winds of War. In the study I completed on the men of the 1st Florida Union Cavalry, they mostly moved to areas where there were jobs, like the areas that had plenty of lumber to cut and mill.

Logging Train at Work - Pensacola, Florida, 190-?

Logging Train at Work – Pensacola, Florida, 190-?

Most of the Florida panhandle men stayed in Florida, though a number moved a county or two in either direction. More of the south Alabama men came south to Florida or west to Baldwin Co, AL. For much of the last half of the decade of the 1860s, women’s work stayed the same, primarily focused on the home and family – they cooked, cleaned, made clothes by hand, and gardened. But those who had lost their husbands often had to find work to keep the family alive. We see quite a number of women in the 1870 census in Walton County listed as employed as seamstresses, cooks, spinners, weavers and at least one woman plying the oldest occupation for women who have no other skills.

In years after the War, Black families were encouraged to contract as sharecroppers with their former owners. These contracts were written to benefit the land owner and many of these families found they were in the hole at the end of the growing season. (See previous post for a link to an example of a sharecropper agreement) After all the settling was done, they had nothing for their work. They often could not decide what to plant, had to purchase supplies from the land owner and the land owner was paid first when the harvest was sold.  This system was little more for these Black families than slavery without the physical shackles but replacement with financial ones. In the first case, you could be maimed or killed if you tried to break the shackles, in the second you could be sent to jail. Poor white families also found themselves caught in the sharecropping system. This system continued well into the 20th century before these families left farming and sought out better work.

As the Panhandle slowly moved away from the War and the destruction it caused, anger and animosities began to flare. Many of the Federal troops that remained in the South were Black soldiers. This, of course, fed that overwhelming fear Southerners had before the War about armed Blacks. Blacks felt the injustice of the sharecropper agreements and the work they put into farming that yielded nothing but debt at the end of the season. Whites were used to society being structured so that they had rights over Black people that they no longer had and Blacks expected to be treated with some dignity as human beings. The longer Reconstruction went on in a somewhat aimless fashion with no meaningful effort to assist Blacks to move away from the areas where they had been enslaved and white Southerners struggling with their worlds turned upside down, the better chance that violence would grow and people would die. It is during these early years after the War was over that the Klu Klux Klan rapidly took hold in many areas of the South. Founded in Pulaski, Tennessee on 24 December 1865 it had spread to all the Southern states by 1870.

It is my sense that many Northerners were more than willing to move on from the War, punish the South when they could, but not really solve the problems, or even just mitigate them some, that were created by the end of the War and the end of slavery. Promises were made to Blacks but not kept. Southerners, for the most part, weren’t interested in having outsiders create new power or economic structures for them. The simple fact was that the country wanted the cotton growing to resume as quickly as possible and for that to happen farm hands were needed in place in the South, not up North and not out West. Given these conditions, it is likely violence was more frequent than existing records indicate. As I mentioned in the previous post, the excellent book on Jackson County after the war gives some insight into what may have occurred in other areas of the Panhandle but records are not as easily located.

I don’t know about you but my knowledge of Reconstruction from school could be summed up as follows: the War ended, Lincoln was assassinated, Johnson wasn’t a very good President, the North sent troops into the South and required new Constitutions that accepted the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments and then it ended when troops were withdrawn in 1877. It was just a bit more complicated than that. Many Northerners came South, some tried to help “reconstruct” the South and some came to create a little fiefdom they could benefit from. Blacks did briefly vote and elect members of their communities into political office. Whites fumed and boiled for a while and then some decided if violence was what it would take to dislodge the Carpetbaggers and Black politicians, then that was what they would do. Northerners reacted to that by attempting to stamp out the KKK and did weaken it but it continues to resurface when anger takes hold over common sense and some need to look for and find a scapegoat for the troubles impacting the country. Riots did occur in various Southern states and over the course of the twelve years of Reconstruction the White Democrats slowly took back power in the South. The garrisoning of troops in the South was costly and little meaningful change came from it so over time the whole idea of trying to reconstruct the South into something that really didn’t exist anywhere in America to any great extent, or change the minds of those that had lost the most during the War, lost favor. And then the Presidential election of 1876 came along and Florida played a big part in this final drama of Reconstruction.

I became interested in the 1876 Presidential election by accident. I was reading about the end of Reconstruction and the article mentioned that Rutherford B. Hayes won the election against Samuel Tilden. That caught my eye because back up my tree is Nathaniel Tilden who migrated from England to Massachusetts during the Great Migration in the 17th century. I spent a bit of time chasing down Samuel’s background and found he too went back to Nathaniel. Being related made me want to know more about how he lost the election since it was a bit controversial. Here is what happened in a Cliff notes version.

They were both governors. Hayes was governor of Ohio and Tilden was governor of New York. After the first count, Tilden had won the popular vote and had 184 electoral votes and Hayes had 165. There were 20 votes in four states not included in these numbers. The states were Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida and Oregon. One of the electors from Oregon was declared illegal and replaced and the three Southern states couldn’t agree on who had actually won each of the states.  Each party reported their candidate won.  For Florida, it was the 19th century version of the problem of “hanging chads”.

According to an election results by county map at Wikipedia, in the NW Panhandle only Escambia County voted for Hayes.  Just using a cursory look at the map leaves me with the impression that the areas in Florida that went for Hayes were primarily where plantations had been before the War and therefore where there were more Blacks voting and/or where it is likely more Northerners had settled during Reconstruction. After much vociferous discussion in Congress, where the election wound up for settlement, the Compromise of 1877 gave the election to Hayes and soon after he took office he withdrew troops from the Southern states, allowing the return of white Democrats to power. Many believe it was a backroom decision.  The South would agree to Hayes being declared President in return for the withdrawal of troops from the Southern states.  So, Florida got its start in being central to a controversial Presidential election in 1876, not 2000.

We have to ask ourselves if anything good came out of Reconstruction. Short term, Black men experienced one of the most important parts of freedom in a representative democracy, the citizen responsibility of voting and in some cases holding office. Long term, that was taken from them with the series of Jim Crow laws enacted across the South over the remainder of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Some Blacks found a new beginning in the West utilizing the Homestead Act that was passed during the War in 1862. Public schools statewide were started during Reconstruction and managed to remain after the troops were withdrawn and the judicial systems in the South were improved  According to the University of Houston’s Digital History site, approximately 20% of Blacks owned property by 1880. I have found that to be very close to the percentage in my research for my upcoming book on the little community of Oak Grove in Okaloosa County.

Studying history makes it painfully clear to me that as a Nation we do not travel a continuous upward trajectory of progress. More like a spiral that goes up a while, then down a while. The War for Southern Independence and Reconstruction were both definitely downward slides. But I’ve also learned on a personal level that I generally learn more from a failure than a success, if I put my heart and mind into learning something from the failure. If we take the time to study history, we can learn from it, not only what worked but what didn’t and maybe how not to repeat a similar error. As Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”. Before our history between 1860 and 1877 finds a way to rhyme with our current events, we need to learn from the past and make some different choices.

Until Next Time


2 thoughts on “Reconstruction in the South & the Florida Panhandle, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Southern Farmer Unrest, 1865-1905 | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

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