This is the third in a series of blog posts on the 1st Florida Union Cavalry and the Florida panhandle (and south Alabama) during the War for Southern Independence (aka War Between the States or Civil War). You can find the first blog here and the second one here. Again, let’s pickup where we left off; looking at how these men served the Union while in the 1st Florida Union Cavalry.
In trying to arrive at an understanding of who these men were, what some of their motivations might have been, and their journey toward joining the 1st Florida, it is important to not only look at whether or not they served with the Confederacy prior to joining the 1st Florida Union Cavalry but to look at how they served while in the Union Cavalry. It is important for us to remember, when looking at service for either side during the War that men in 1862 were not accustomed to being drafted for three years or the War with little opportunity to go home to take care of family business, or to plant and harvest.
Prior to this War, men served in militia units that met regularly, practiced some military functions, then went home afterward, somewhat like our National Guard units today over long weekends and during the summer. When there was a war, they would enlist for three or six months, then be discharged to go home and take care of family. Sometimes, men re-enlisted multiple times during a war. For those of us in the Southeast, and particularly in Florida, we can see that clearly in our ancestors’ service in the Seminole Wars (Part 1, Part 2). If you look hard enough, it is likely if your ancestor served once, he served more than once, and it would very often be in a different regimental unit. This was what our ancestors during the War for Southern Independence were used to. The militia units were just as much male social groups as military units. They elected their officers and spent time together on a regular basis. Sometimes they were called on to clear an area of Natives but the call to fight was not ongoing and generally not very disruptive of their home responsibilities. That changed in the War for Southern Independence.
In 1861, men enlisted for one year. Longer than most were used to but not too substantially difficult to manage. Many who enlisted were young men up for an adventure or men who felt very strongly about the need for Southern secession. That changed in April 1862 with the Confederate draft. The men who were already enlisted were encouraged to re-enlist for three years or the War. Most of these men did finally re-enlist. The group and government pressure was substantial and if they didn’t re-enlist with the regiment they had initially joined, they would likely be drafted into another regiment in short order. The Union also eventually had a draft and it wasn’t substantially more popular with men in the North than the Confederate draft was in the South. The New York draft riots in July 1863 are a good indication of the resistance to the draft in the North. So, these two sets of circumstances; what the men were used to in serving in the military and their responses to the draft are important at looking at both the men of the Florida panhandle and south Alabama service in the Confederacy and subsequently with the Union.
In the second of these blogs, I presented some data on the men of the 1st Florida Union Cavalry and whether they were deserters or draft dodgers. This gives us some insight into how much the Confederate draft may have impacted these men’s decisions. To reiterate these findings; thirty-eight of the men of the 1st Florida Cavalry Union joined in 1861, 6 (16%) had left by the end of 1861, 9 (27%) had left by the end of 1862. These two categories would have been either desertions or failures to re-enlist. Fifteen (39%) had left by the end of 1863 and 8 (21%) had left by the end of 1864. All of these men had enlisted of their own free will before the draft so it seems fair to assume they deserted because it wasn’t the adventure they were wanting, dissatisfaction with how the War was being implemented, or some impact of the War itself such as PTSD. For those joining (either volunteering or being drafted) in 1862, 34 (33%) had left by the end of 1862, 52 (50%) had left by the end of 1863, and 18 (9%) by left by the end of 1864.
These men were a mixed bag. Some may have enlisted but the majority were drafted. This would mean they were less willing to serve either because of family commitments or because they did not agree with the war or did not appreciate the draft. The final group were all drafted in 1863. This group of 114 men clearly show that the draft gathered up men who were committed to NOT fighting. One hundred and four of them (91%) had deserted by the end of 1863 and 10 (9%) had all deserted by the end of 1864. Many of these men never made it out of Florida before deserting. There is a pattern here. The year 1863 was a turning point in the War, not only from the situation on the ground with the armies in the east and west but in the hearts of men who were not necessarily committed to the War effort. This is seen not only in these small numbers but in the records of Lee’s Army in the east. In 1863, he complained of the desertion rate being excessively high (over 25%) and creating difficulties in his ability to counter the North.
Let’s turn now to how they served during their time with the 1st Florida Union Cavalry. The slide above shows the details. I will point out a few highlights. Only 19% of these men deserted and did not have their desertion charges dropped after the War. An additional 63 (9%) had deserted after the end of the War (April 1865) and after the War, if they petitioned for their desertion to be dropped it was if they had served honorably up to that point for a particular length of time. Their end date was then set for the date of their desertion. This allowed these men to apply for and often receive a pension. The two men missing in action were brothers and I found some evidence that one of them was wounded during one of the battles around the Florida/Alabama border and was taken home by his brother. He died either on the journey or soon after arriving home. The surviving brother did not return to service. In total 332 or 47% of the men who enlisted served their term of service and were honorably discharged on 17 November 1865.
If we do a bit of calculation on those who served honorably, were killed in action or by Confederate Home Guard, died of illness, had desertion charges dropped and men who were honorably discharged for disability or resigned, we get a desertion rate of 23%. Not necessarily an excellent rate but we do need to remember that people generally aren’t motivated by just one thing in making life decisions. Not the least of these motivators would have been family, whether serving with the Confederacy or the Union. We should not look back on our ancestors and inflict our belief systems and worldview on them. Just as most of us would prefer being able to make our own decisions that will affect our lives and that of our family, we should give our ancestors the same courtesy.
Next month, I am going to delve a bit into the excursion of Lt. Joseph Sanders and his small group of men into northern Santa Rosa and Walton Counties and southern Coffee and Dale Counties. Lt. Sanders is a very controversial character with the 1st Florida and the events in Dale County in 1864 are a part of our story of the War in this area.
Until Next Time
- The 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers in the Civil War: The Men and Regimental History and What It Tells Us About Northwest Florida and South Alabama During the War by Sharon D. Marsh
- Blockades, Refugees, & Contrabands: Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 1861-1865 by George E. Buker
- Pensacola During the Civil War: A Thorn in the Side of the Confederacy by George F. Pearce
- Civil War on Pensacola Bay, 1861-1862 by John K. Driscoll