The Hidden History of the Florida Panhandle During the Civil War, Pt 2

We left off last time exploring which States the men of the 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers were living in during the 1860 census. Let’s pick up from there and dig a little deeper.

Today the Northwest Florida panhandle consists of the following counties: Bay, Calhoun, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton, and Washington and South Alabama consists of Baldwin, Coffee, Conecuh, Covington, Dale, Escambia, Geneva, Henry, Houston, and Mobile. We can ignore Okaloosa County in Florida and Escambia County in Alabama because they both came into existence after the war. Of these twenty counties, only nine contributed a significant number of men to the 1st Florida between October 1864 and the end of the war. It is actually an interesting distribution of men that may tell us a little about the families and the communities in these nine counties. Four of these nine counties were in Florida. They were in order of number of men who joined: Walton, Santa Rosa, Holmes, and Washington. Five of these nine counties were in Alabama. They were in order of number of men who joined: Coffee, Covington, Dale, Henry, and Baldwin. Total numbers can be deceiving because they don’t sound like a large number of men. If those numbers are presented as percentages of the male population that would have been expected to serve during the war, it is a bit clearer how large a factor these men may have been in their individual counties.

Look at the map and list of counties above. You might notice two counties absent from that list that would seem logical to have contributed men to the regiment, one in Alabama and one in Florida. Escambia County, Florida was where Ft. Barrancas was located but the county provided very few men to the regiment, just eight in total. Conecuh County, Alabama just above Santa Rosa County provided just eleven. In actuality, in analyzing where they were located in 1860 we find an interesting distribution of a significant number of the men who served. At least forty-two (42%) percent of the total number of men who served with the 1st Florida came from the upper areas of Walton, Santa Rosa, and Holmes and the lower areas of Coffee, Covington and Dale. This then could be seen as an area of discontent with the Confederate government and/or conduct of the war or a place with some Unionist sentiment that was encouraged once the Federal government began recruiting.

We get a hint of that when Brig. General Asboth indicates in one of his early reports on progress to form a Union regiment of local men. He asks for a boat to go upriver to pick up the men who he believed were interested in joining. The river he was referring to wasn’t the Escambia River, it was likely the Yellow River. The river runs from southern Crenshaw County in Alabama, through Coffee and Covington Counties and down into Florida near Florala in what is now Okaloosa County, eventually joining the Blackwater River and emptying into Blackwater Bay in Santa Rosa County. The upper part of the Yellow River not only held a significant number of men who would join the 1st Florida, it likely also was a good hideout for anyone from an area with less natural cover. The area has plenty of heavily wooded, swampy locations that were more so in 1864 than today. Whether any men from outside the area chose this area because of its known proclivities in the issue of the war or the presence of these outside men changed minds on the ground can’t be known with the documents we have at the time, but it is clear that this relatively small section of the Florida panhandle and south Alabama figured largely in the success of recruitment of men for the 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers.

The problem for Brig. General Asboth was he never got that boat he requested. Nor did he get the bounty money and horses he needed to encourage recruitment and field a cavalry regiment. He did make several excursions up the river in the early period of 1864 but a problem with the private boat he was using (loaned for use by a “good Union man”) soon put that route of getting the men down out of reach. Over the course of the next year, Asboth opened a recruiting station at the eastern end of Santa Rosa Island to be a bit closer to the men making their way down and he sent at least one detachment to the area to pick up men interested in joining the 1st Florida. More about that detachment in next month’s blog. There was a steady stream of men joining throughout 1864 and early 1865. Let’s explore their roles in the war prior to joining the 1st Florida.

These men were a mix of Confederate deserters and men who avoided the draft until they were able to join the Union. As with most genealogical searches for records, not all of these men were easily found in Confederate compiled service records. Names could have been different: initials versus given name, middle name instead of first name, and a very common name all created problems and often led to being unable to narrow down the search to one record. Those men were assumed to have possibly served in the Confederacy but the confirmation was absent. They totaled 147 (21%) out of the 704 men. Those with matching Confederate records totaled 256 (36%) which left 301 (43%) men who did not appear to have any Confederate service record. Of the men who served with the Confederacy we have only 38 enlisting in 1861 (see above slide). Most were likely drafted after April 1862 and nearly all had deserted or been discharged by the end of 1863.

Given the resources the Confederate government put into rounding up men who had been drafted, it seems extraordinary that nearly half the men who served with the 1st Florida Union Cavalry did not serve with the Confederacy, or have any draft record, at all. We might chalk that up to their creativity in hiding or the remoteness of the areas where they lived, or both. Some of these 301 turned eighteen years of age in 1864 and this was where I saw an interesting pattern emerge.

William Lafayette Barrow

A younger sibling turned eighteen in 1864. He already had one or more siblings who had either served in the Confederacy and had already deserted and were likely hiding out in the general area, or he had one or more siblings who was still serving in the Confederacy. Then the availability of Union service presented itself and one by one the siblings would join the 1st Florida. Sometimes it would be the youngest brother first and the older ones would join over the next weeks or months and sometimes it was an older brother that started the process. In total, there were at least 78 family relationships in the ranks of the 1st Florida Union Cavalry (not counting future brothers-in-law). Most often it was brothers but in the case of one of my lines, it was an uncle and a nephew that joined within two weeks of each other. Bennett SENTERFITT joined first and his nephew, William Lafayette BARROW, who had recently turned eighteen joined two weeks later. This then is another possible indication of possible Unionist sentiments within some of the families in the area. The opposite also occurred within families. In researching one generation up and down for each man, I did find fathers on one side and sons on the other, as well as siblings and cousins on opposite sides.

There is a recurring statement surrounding the 1st Florida Union Cavalry that the men just joined for the bounty money, implying they were being bribed or they were just desperate for money. It should be noted that in some areas of the South, bounties were also offered to men to enlist in the Confederacy so that alone would not likely motivate someone who felt allegiance to the Confederacy unless they were really desperate for money. There were a handful of men who enlisted and then when it came time to take the oath and be mustered in they developed a serious case of cold feet. All served time at Fort Pickens and those who were released before the end of the war deserted soon afterward. So while bounty would have certainly provided some assistance in deciding to join, it wasn’t likely the only motivator. First, it wasn’t paid to these men until they mustered out in November 1865. It would not have taken long for that to be known to men who were being encouraged to join. Second, the patterns of desertion while these men were in the regiment don’t appear to support that hypothesis other than the few men mentioned above. We will pick up next month looking at how these men served while in the 1st Florida Union Cavalry.

Until Next Time


©2020 sdmarsh

4 thoughts on “The Hidden History of the Florida Panhandle During the Civil War, Pt 2

  1. Hello, Sharon,

    I happily follow your blog since you spoke some time ago at the Genealogy Society of Santa Rosa about your book, and I am always impressed by your insights and scholarship. Would you consider speaking at our April 18 meeting about your latest projects and discoveries. We also have members who were not with us when you met us just after you book came out.

    I hope you will consider meeting with us once again. We meet in the same place at 10 AM.

    Look forward to hearing from you,

    Gayle Cowley

    Get Outlook for iOS ________________________________


  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

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