The Hidden History of the Florida Panhandle During the Civil War, Pt 1

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

Today outside the ranks of the intensely interested students of the Civil War, many do not know of the Southern participation in the Union Army. Many Southerners are unaware that every Southern state, except South Carolina, had at least one white regiment fighting for the Union. For those of us in the Florida panhandle and descended from some of these men, we may know but not be versed with the possible hows and whys there were pockets of Southern dissenters during the War. Some of these pockets, like the mountainous areas of North Alabama, Tennessee and Western North Carolina, are well known; others are not, like the two Florida Union regiments in the war. These two regiments are often dismissed as not really being in the Union army. That might apply a bit more to the 2nd Florida Union Cavalry but the 1st Florida Union Cavalry were definitely in the Army, outfitted in uniform and expected to follow Army regulations. Let’s spend some time exploring our particular pocket of descent in the Florida panhandle.

The War began in April of 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter. Many outside the Florida panhandle don’t know that Fort Barrancas in Pensacola, Florida was also in the running to be the first site for an exchange of gunfire at the beginning of the War. Troops from a number of bordering Southern states were sent to take the Forts around Pensacola soon after the election of Lincoln. Fort Barrancas was taken without a fight but some of the Union troops recognizing what was happening had moved to Fort Pickens, across the Bay, and did what they could to ready the Fort and resist the Confederate takeover of the Union facilities. They managed to settle in and hold out but also notified the Federal government that they needed help. The help was on its way in April 1861, when the Confederate decision was made to fire on Fort Sumter rather than allow the Union ships to re-supply the Fort. For the next year, there was a tense stand-off between the Confederates on the mainland in Pensacola and surrounding areas and the Union force on Santa Rosa Island. There was one brief and bloody exchange between the two sides in October of 1861 in which neither side made a significant impact on the stalemate.

In March 1862, the Confederate government made the decision to withdraw the majority of its troops in Florida to Tennessee and Kentucky, leaving the State of Florida to the few regiments they pulled back to Pollard, AL and a few militia units that had not yet been mustered into the Confederate Army. In the withdrawal, the Confederates set fire to anything that was believed might be useful to the Union forces they knew would immediately replace them at Barrancas. Lumbar; ships being built at Bagdad, FL; cotton; grist mills and in some cases personal belongings all were set ablaze. Particularly hard hit were parts of Pensacola, Milton and Bagdad. This significant destruction did not sit well with the locals and may have contributed to responses later in 1863. The troops left at Pollard and in the outposts in Florida were mostly Florida regiments. For the remainder of 1862 and most of 1863, this was the situation in the panhandle. Local Confederate troops tried to keep an eye on the small Union forces in Pensacola and surrounding areas. Neither side had a large force in the area so exchanges of fire generally occurred when Union forces would march or take a ship over to Bagdad and Milton for naval stores, lumber and other materials they would take from houses of “known Rebels” or conduct reconnoiter toward Baldwin and Mobile counties in Alabama. There are also a few mentions of “good Union men” and their families being picked up and brought back to Pensacola for safety.

Alexander Sandor Asboth
Brig. General Alexander S. Asboth

The situation began to change in October of 1863 when Brigadier General Alexander Asboth was assigned as commander at Ft. Barrancas. He was a proud man, with military experience, who wanted to accomplish something while commanding the Fort. He was ordered to form a regiment of Southern men as one of his first orders, which he relished and began work on immediately. According to Asboth’s reports, he believed there was enough interest in the men in the area to form two regiments. All he needed was a boat to go upriver and enough horses and the money to pay the bounties to the men who volunteered. He unfortunately never got all of what he requested. For a time he used a local captain (a good Union man) and his boat for ferrying men into Pensacola from up the rivers but the boat eventually needed repairs. A recruiting station was set up on the eastern end of Santa Rosa Island to assist men coming in by locating a safe spot closer to their starting points. Many men who served with the 1st Florida Union Cavalry spent some time stationed there and a number died there.

From October 1863, when Asboth was given orders to form a regiment and May 1864 he managed to recruit about 600 men from the surrounding areas of Florida and Alabama. In total, the number of men who were recruited, or attempted to join, was 704 men. The men who I was able to find in the 1860 census and who were living in Florida totaled 219. The men who were found in the 1860 census who were living in Alabama totaled 258. The remainder were scattered in 3 other Southern states. There were 8 from Northern states and 1 was from Missouri (all officers). I was unable to confirm 208 of the men in the 1860 census, primarily due to name issues (too many with the same name, initials only in either service records or census, etc). In the 1850 census, I found 147 in Alabama, 100 in Florida, 52 in Georgia, 9 in other Southern states (NC, SC, MS and TN) and 6 in Northern states. This reflects the migration patterns found in the early part of the 19th century and follows the general pattern found in the area of migration from the upper, coastal Southern states into Georgia, Alabama and Florida. If we look at where either the compiled muster rolls or the census indicated birth locations, we see this even more clearly. Alabama was the birth state of 287 of the men, 99 were born in Florida and 169 were born in Georgia. South Carolina was the birth state of 44 of the men and North Carolina was the birth location of 36 of them. The rest were scattered over the U.S. that existed at the time and a number of foreign countries.

The migration pattern that populated the northern part of Florida was generally South and North Carolina primarily populating the eastern end of the state and Georgia and Alabama provided much of the settlement of the northwest panhandle. A number of families moved from one of the Carolinas, stayed for a time in Georgia, then moved into Alabama and Florida. South Carolina provided much of the settlement of the central panhandle, the areas that had the most and largest plantations, because the soil was fit for that kind of production, and where secession was advocated more strongly than in some other areas of the state. We may be able to infer from these settlement patterns that families came to Florida with accepted social and economic beliefs and that like-minded families tended to settle together or find each other when moving to a new state. That isn’t much different today when most folks still tend to gravitate to places where there are like-minded folks that will be neighbors.

Let’s go back briefly to the point that Brig. General Asboth was instructed to begin formation of a Union regiment of Southern men as one of his first commands. What does that tell us? The Federals already knew there was a significant population of men in the surrounding area who were unwilling to serve with the Confederacy or had been drafted and then deserted. Enough to potentially fill a regiment. Asboth seemed to believe he could manage two regiments if he had a way to get them down to Pensacola, provide them with the bounty money promised and a horse. Even without any of these items at any consistent level he fielded one regiment. We will never know if there was even more interest if the inducements and assistance had been there.

Next month we will stay with the 1st Florida Union Cavalry and look in a bit more detail at another aspect of their service.

Until next time.


©2020 sdmarsh

5 thoughts on “The Hidden History of the Florida Panhandle During the Civil War, Pt 1

  1. Pingback: The Hidden History of the Florida Panhandle During the Civil War, Pt 2 | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

  2. Pingback: The Hidden History of the Florida Panhandle During the Civil War, Pt 3 | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

  3. Pingback: The Controversial Excursion of 2nd Lt. Joseph Sanders of the 1st Florida Union Cavalry Volunteers | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

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

  5. Interesting read. I am a native of Pensacola, Escambia County, State of Florida. I have searched the census rolls for my family name. Very interesting!


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