A hundred and sixty years seems like a lot and plenty of time to heal wounds and move forward. And yet, today’s political climate tells us it was either not enough time, or we didn’t bother to use the time wisely. We are still struggling with some of the same issues today that our ancestors in the United States, Florida and the panhandle struggled with in the late 1850s and that lit a powder keg on 12 April 1861 and left lingering issues up to today. Let’s visit what was happening in Florida and the panhandle as the beginning of the war approached and then engulfed the country.
Almost from the moment we became an independent nation with a Constitution ratified by the original 13 colonies, we began having social, economic and political issues that divided the country into political factions. If we look at the original Constitution, we can see that the Founding Fathers did not anticipate “political parties” and their power to energize and create division within the country. They imagined a more fluid grouping of advocates around an issue that would then re-arrange around a different issue. To quote George Washington from his last address to the Nation as President:
There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.
Beyond political parties, we also had two very different arenas for economic activity. The North was primarily small, yeoman farmers and an industrial and merchant economy. The South was primarily a large-scale farming economy, and that farming economy was based on the enslavement of peoples primarily from Africa. Of course, these enslaved people also did a fair amount of the heavy labor outside of Southern farming and their enslavement (capture, migration and sale) had significantly benefited the northern economy until the ban on foreign importation of slaves went into effect in 1808. But the Northern states had found various means of freeing the enslaved persons within their jurisdiction and the South had not.
If you read materials written by both sides in the late 1850s you come away with the feeling that the opposition to slavery by some in the North was less about the enslavement of human beings and more about the perceived power the slaveholders had politically in Congress. Abolitionists were never a large percentage of the North in the general population but in Congress the “Radical” Republicans did drive power for a brief time at the end of the War. There does not appear to have been any serious effort to discuss the emancipation of enslaved persons outside of the North. A major reason for that was the concept of “States Rights”, something we still hear about when it suits the side bringing it into the conversation. Slavery was a domestic institution governed by the individual slave states. However, the same states wanted Federal intervention when it came to capture and return of runaway slaves. To the Northern states that seemed a bit hypocritical since they generally didn’t want any part of capturing and returning slaves. By the late 1850s everything involving slavery and the role of the Federal government was cause for a fight and the “solutions” often just laid the groundwork for the next fight, essentially kicking the can down the road.
Florida during this period was thinly populated and a young state, having joined the Union as a State in 1845. While the state did attract people from the North, especially in the larger cities of Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and Pensacola, for the most part it was settled by Southerners. Taking a broad brush to where our immigrant families came from, we see that the eastern and central part of the northern part of Florida was settled by folks from North and South Carolina and Georgia. Georgia and Alabama contributed most of the early settlers in the Northwest Panhandle, although South Carolina did contribute some. Larger plantations were more common in the eastern and central part of the state and yeoman farmers and small industry and service providers were more common in the Panhandle. The Northwest Florida panhandle had a smaller percentage of enslaved persons than the State as a whole and they were concentrated in the more populated areas working more as artisans than as farm laborers. Santa Rosa County was the richest county in the State in 1860 and that was supported by the industry in the county and the work of enslaved artisans.
Many of the enslaved that worked in crafts, industry and construction worked more on an hourly basis than the field laborers on plantations who worked from sun-up to sun-down. These artisans were sometimes allowed to keep a percentage of the money they earned for the owner and had relatively more freedom in movement than did farm laborers. But it was still slavery.
When President Lincoln was elected in November 1860, the Southern states began to reach the conclusion that it was now or never in separating from what they believed was a country that was moving toward making slavery illegal and depriving them of their economic and political strength and livelihoods. The Republican party was against slavery in the western states, again not necessarily because they were concerned about human bondage, but because freedom from plantations and slave labor was popular with the small yeoman farmers who wanted the west for their settlement and did not want competition from large-scale farming operations. If the Republicans were successful in eliminating slavery in the west the slave states would lose political power in Congress. They would become a perpetual minority and be unable to achieve their desired goals. They would also loose financially. With slavery in the West, the eastern slaveholders had a regular market for their excess slaves, which was often a significant asset to plantation owners who had worked their land planting tobacco and cotton until it lacked fertility. Which was then a driving force in moving them further south and west.
Florida moved quickly to have a secession convention so while we had a smaller percentage of slaves than the larger and more established slave states, we also had our fire-eaters (partisan supporters of secession) and given our geographic location keenly aware of not being in lockstep with the bordering states of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Failing to stay in concert with them would leave Florida in a particularly vulnerable situation. We have to remember from our position well into their future, they did not know how Georgia and Alabama would vote, though I doubt they truly thought it was a toss-up. Alabama certainly had more debate in their convention. The northern counties were strongly opposed to secession but still I think it was pretty clear how the two states would go and of course, Florida already knew of South Carolina’s secession.
So, we get to Florida’s Secession Convention. The governor called for the election of delegates to a Florida Secession Convention in December 1860. In January 1861, the delegates voted to secede from the Union. The Journals from the Convention are available online and are interesting reading for anyone interested in the War. Before we get to the Convention, let me lay out some genealogical groundwork.
There were seven counties in the Northwest Florida Panhandle in 1860. Escambia, Santa Rosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington, Jackson and Calhoun. The following information on the delegates from these seven counties was extracted from the article by Ralph A. Wooster entitled “The Florida Secession Convention” in The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol 36, No 4, 1958, pp. 383-385.
|County||Delegate||Birth Location||Owned Slaves||Vote of Secession|
|Escambia||A. W. Nicholson||SC||4||for|
|Escambia||S. H. Wright||FL||not known||for|
|Santa Rosa||Jackson Morton||VA||132||for|
|Santa Rosa||E. E. Simpson||SC||73||for|
|Walton||A. L. McCaskill||SC||2||against|
|Holmes||R. R. Golden||GA||1||for|
|Holmes||Richard D. Jordan||GA||not known||?|
|Washington||Freeman B. Irwin||GA||2||for|
|Washington||Daniel McLean||NC||not known||for|
|Jackson||S. S. Alderman||FL||not known||for|
|Jackson||James L. G. Baker||NC||111||against|
|Jackson||Joseph A. Collier||SC||32||for|
|Calhoun||Simmons J. Baker||NC||55||for|
We will pick up next month with the Convention and then visit Ft. Barrancas and Pensacola and their key role in the early conflict before Ft. Sumter and their role in the aftermath until the withdrawal of Confederate troops from Pensacola.
Until Next Time
- The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861; David M. Potter
- The Road to Disunion, Vol II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861; William W. Freehling
- Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859; Elizabeth R. Varon
- The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It; Hinton Rowan Helper
- Florida in the Civil War; Lewis N. Wynne
- Florida in the Civil War; A State in Turmoil; Sandra Friend
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