1861: The Florida Panhandle’s Role in the War for Southern Independence, Part 2

Last month I began a series about the Florida Panhandle in the War for Southern Independence and this month we are going to pick up where we left off, at the Florida Secession Convention and explore the early days of the War in 1861. In January 1861, the delegates chosen to represent the State at the Secession Convention opened the convention and elected John C. PELOT of Alachua County as Chair and B. Garden PRINGLE of Gadsden County as Secretary. The opening remarks by Mr. Pelot is instructive:

We meet together under no ordinary circumstances. The rapid spread of Northern fanaticism has endangered our liberties and institutions, and the election of Abram Lincoln, a wily abolitionist, to the Presidency of the United States, destroys all hope for the future. We have, therefore, been sent by the people of our State to devise the best means for our security. Their dearest interests are placed in our hands — to us is committed a high trust — upon us rests a heavy responsibility, and we are expected to meet the grave questions before us with calmness and deliberation; precipitation and rashness may prove disastrous. But, gentlemen, while prudence and a proper discretion should characterize all our deliberations, we must not forget that the important crisis demands great firmness. I trust we are fully prepared to meet the grave issues before us as true Patriots.

He goes on state his trust that though they may disagree on the best means of accomplishing the ends of protecting Florida’s interests that the delegates will be courteous to each other. The rest of the first day was filled with speeches and documenting delegates present.

Opening the second day after prayer was an election of a permanent President. John C. McGEHEE from Madison County was elected. McGehee proceeded to do the usual political thing, he gave a speech. A couple of his remarks are important to understanding what at least some of the delegates were thinking as they started this discussion. Some in today’s world like to put forth the premise that the War was not fundamentally about slavery. While some other issues may have been factors for some Southerners, slavery was the driving force behind the secession of Southern states. McGehee starts by blaming the current situation on those who raise passions in the North against slavery. He hypothesizes that it is just a matter of time until the slave-holding states leave the Union and form another Confederation. He rightly points out that slavery is allowed under the Federal Constitution and that it is a domestic institution (a State held responsibility, not the Federal government’s). He goes on to say, “At the South, and with our People of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property.” His speech is worthy of a close reading. Go to https://archive.org/details/journalofproceed00flor/page/6/mode/2up. It starts at the bottom of page 6 and isn’t too long. McGehee owned 100 slaves and had real property valued at $45,000. I am positive for him, his statement on slavery being the element of value was absolutely true.

The Convention moved on to a few more elections for positions at the convention and a bit more business in how they would govern their actions and came to a presentation from M. S. Perry that introduced representatives from Alabama and South Carolina, who were present, to the delegates at the Convention. South Carolina had also sent a representative, Edmund Ruffin III, that would become famous as the man who fired one of the early shots at Ft. Sumter and committed suicide at the end of the War because the South had lost. In the afternoon of the second day, the representatives from Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties presented their credentials and were seated.

The third day was spent during the morning in welcoming the representatives from the three states already mentioned and at least Mr. Ruffin addressed the Convention. Papers were also presented concerning the contested election in Holmes County. At the start of the afternoon session, the President of the Convention indicated that he had received an “important telegraphic dispatch”. The lobby was cleared, the doors closed, and the dispatch was read in closed session.

A.W. NICHOLSONEscambia CountyForeign Relations, Commerce & Trade
S. H. WRIGHTEscambia CountySea Coast Defenses
Jackson MORTONSanta Rosa CountyForeign Relations, Commerce & Trade
A.L. McCASKILLWalton CountyPrinting & Contingent Expenses
John MORRISONWalton CountyPublic Lands
James L.G. BAKERJackson CountyTaxation & Revenue
Simmons J. BAKERCalhoun CountyMilitia & Internal Police
Standing committees established with the following northwest Florida representatives on the named committees

The Convention then debated and voted on a Resolution stating that the individual States had a right to leave the United States if the people of the State were of the opinion it was “just and proper” to do so. They next voted on and formed a committee of thirteen to prepare ordinances for the consideration of the Convention. Northwest Florida men who served on that committee were: S. H. WRIGHT of Escambia Co, Jackson MORTON of Santa Rosa Co., and Simmons J. BAKER of Calhoun Co. This ended their third day.

After prayer the morning of the fourth day, they read the letter they had received the day before and met in secret session to read. The letter was from Florida Episcopal Bishop Francis Huger RUTLEDGE promising $500 towards defraying the expenses of the government for 1861, “whenever by ordinance she shall be declared an independent republic.” For those reading this who are students of the early history of the United States you likely recognize the name Rutledge. The Bishop was from the famous Rutledge family of South Carolina. His brother John served as President and Governor of South Carolina and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. His brother Edward was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The Convention then took up the contested seat from Holmes County. If you are inclined to the history of questionable political maneuvers, it is worth a read on pages 21-22. The Convention decided not to pass judgment on what Mr. JORDAN might have done to try to keep Mr. GOLDEN from being appointed, they just gave Mr. GOLDEN a seat in the Convention. It was also decided that they would add a standing committee on Postal Affairs and two more members on each of the other committees.

Joseph A. COLLIERJackson CountyMilitia & Internal Police
E.C. SIMPSONSanta Rosa CountySea Coast Defenses
R.R. GOLDENHolmes CountyPublic Lands
Adam McNEALYJackson CountyPrinting & Contingent Expenses
S.S. ALDERMANJackson CountyEnrollments
Jackson MORTONSanta Rosa CountyPostal Affairs
These men from Northwest Florida were added to the standing committees

After a bit of miscellaneous business, Mr. SANDERSON of Duval County and chair of the Committee on Ordinances made the report of the committee. A few highlights are instructive:

  • The committee stated that they regarded the Constitution of the United States a compact “in solemn form entered into between equals.”
  • At the formation of the United States, the individual colonies were free and independent states. These colonies enumerated in the Constitution the rights they were transferring to the Federal government and all other rights were reserved to the States/people.
  • No clause in the Constitution prohibiting States from re-assuming these delegated rights and when the Constitution was ratified by New York, Virginia and Rhode Island, those States clearly confirmed their right to take back the delegated rights.
  • Since Florida was admitted to the Union with equal status to all existing States, Florida retained the same right to re-assume rights delegated to the Federal government.
  • The committee fully concurred in the opinion that “the consideration for which Florida gave her assent to become a member of the Federal Union has wholly failed – that she is not permitted enjoyment of equal rights in the Union” because she has not be able to ensure prosperity and all of the rights of life, liberty and property and the pursuit of happiness.
  • “A compact broken in part is broken in whole.”
  • The committee advised the adoption of the Ordinance of Secession submitted.
  • Only two representatives on this committee were from the panhandle, McQueen McINTOSH and Simmons BAKER, both from Calhoun County, at the eastern edge of the panhandle.
  • Mr. PELOT from Alachua County moved that the ordinance be taken up and acted on which was not agreed to.

Here began lengthy discussions and committee meetings to work out the Ordinance of Secession. The Judiciary Committee after meeting for an hour put forth a substitution.

Two amendments were put forth linking the Ordinance taking effect with the secession of Georgia and Florida and the second linking the Ordinance to the governor of the State being officially notified of Georgia and Alabama’s secession and if either did not secede that the Ordinance would not take effect until it was submitted to legal voters for a vote. Both of these failed to pass.

A third amendment was offered to put the Ordinance to voters and it too failed. A fourth amendment was put forth by Jackson MORTON of Santa Rosa County that the final passage of the Ordinance would not take place until the Convention had reliable information that Alabama had declared her determination to secede. That also failed. A final amendment was proposed that consideration of the Ordinance be postponed until the 18th of January. It also failed. At this point they called it a day and adjourned.

On the sixth day the Ordinance of Secession was passed. Those voting against were: BAKER of Jackson Co, GREGORY, HENDRICKS, McCASKILL, MORRISON, RUTLAND and WOODRUFF. Three of the seven (Baker of Jackson and McCaskill and Morrison of Walton) were from the panhandle. We will wrap up this brief visit to the Secession Convention by looking at the actions of MORTON from Santa Rosa County on the following day. He presented a paper that he requested be included in the Journal:

The undersigned were not listed in the Journal.

Much of the remainder of the Convention was spent in setting up structure for this new entity, such as establishing a Constitution, a Supreme Court and a Post Office.

What does this glimpse into the Florida Secession Convention tell us? Several things. 1) Many of the representatives who were not eager to move rapidly on secession were more concerned about moving in concert with Georgia and Alabama than whether or not Florida should secede. 2) The Representatives chosen did believe that the individual states had a right to secede under the Constitution (I am one of those who believe that the original States, and succeeding States, did hold the right to secede from the Union because the Constitution did not explicitly address the issue and all governing not given explicitly to the Federal government was left with the State. I would have voted against secession because it was not the right reason or time. I don’t believe this should be undertaken lightly or without a vote of all registered voters. How the secession of the majority of the Southern States unfolded is a wonderful example of what happens when a national issue can not be discussed and negotiated because people’s passions are out of control.) 3) Florida’s Convention was much less contentious than Alabama’s. Were these men more in lock-step on the issue of secession because they were in fundamental agreement or was it driven by the perception of unity in a small State? Any major disagreement like that which occurred in Alabama would have likely torn a small State apart.

Next up the period between the Convention and the Confederates withdrawal of most of the troops in the State to be used further North and how that was perceived by Florida panhandle families.

Until Next Time

Resources:

https://archive.org/details/journalofproceed00flor/page/n5/mode/2up

https://archive.org/details/proceedingsofcon00flor

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