This is the third in a series of blog posts on the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States) in the Florida Panhandle (post 1) (post 2). Sorry it is a bit late. June was a challenging month!
We left off in the last post with the closure of the Florida Secession Convention and Florida’s departure from the United States. At the time that Florida left the Union, the Confederacy had not yet come to be. The Southern States would soon band together as the Confederate States of America. We should stop here and think about what might have been going through the minds of the people living in the Florida panhandle. We can probably put them in three categories. First, those who thought it was time to secede because the federal government was threatening the “Southern way of life”. Second, those who thought it was a bad idea either because they thought it was the wrong time or the wrong reason to secede or they were devoted to the country, not their State or a way-of-life. Third, those who weren’t particularly tuned into the politics of the moment and didn’t much think about what secession might lead to. They had lives to lead and crops to plant. If I had to guess on the percentage of each of these in the Florida Panhandle at the time, I would order as follows: 35%/15%/50%. The last category was the most fluid. They could be swayed with the right emotional messaging. The middle category, if the pressure is sufficient, will either pull back and be quiet or start thinking about moving elsewhere and both of these responses occurred. The first category was the most emotional and worked the hardest to cajole or force others to their view. Even then they were called “fire-eaters”.
If we look at the days preceding any war, we usually find that both sides will vilify the other side, propagandize the perceived weaknesses of the other side, make the other side into evil creatures pulled from the depths of hell, and will wax eloquent on the imagined belief that God is on their side. And both sides will create a fiction that they can beat the other side with one hand tied behind their back. The War for Southern Independence saw all of those things occur and it took less than a year to figure out that it would be a long and bloody fight. We should give up the illusion that all slaveholders wanted to secede, and all non-slaveholders were in the second two categories above. A number of slaveholders were business people first and could see that waging a war and maintaining control over an enslaved population would be much harder than some were imagining, and a war would impact their business negatively. Likewise, some non-slaveholders bought into the fear that was generated over the possibility of the Republicans freeing enslaved people and them then running amuck seeking revenge. They also intuitively understood that regardless of how poor they were, they were one step up from the bottom of the socioeconomic system. And some non-slaveholders believed that regardless of whether they felt strongly or not, if their country (read that as their State) told them to fight, honor meant they should fight. As with all things human, things are seldom an either/or. Most humans fall on a continuum of feelings, perceptions and situations they feel strongly about. We do not do our ancestors justice when we try to make all of them fit neatly into one or the other of two categories or worse into our conception of the world we know now. As we will see as we move through this series, situations changed and so did the tolerance for the war effort.
Even before all of the States had seceded and the Confederate States of America was formed, an effort was made to take over Federal property. One of the most important points for that activity in Florida was Pensacola and the three Forts there. Both the Federal Army and Navy were stationed at Pensacola, under two different commanders. Troops from Alabama and State Militia from Florida were sent to Pensacola to take over the facilities. They succeeded in taking possession of Fort Barrancas and McRee without a shot being fired. Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer thwarted the State troops from taking Fort Pickens. He moved the men under his command to Fort Pickens, began strengthening its defensive capacity and refused to surrender. He notified Washington that he was in a perilous position which the Buchanan administration did nothing to address. After Lincoln was inaugurated, his administration discussed solutions, including providing provisions to Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pickens in Florida. Ships set out to both locations in early April.
As we all know the initial conflict occurred at Fort Sumter in April 1861. In Pensacola, both sides settled into a siege and Fort Pickens was provided provisions by ship. The standoff stayed in place until October 1861 when then commander of the Confederate forces in Pensacola, Brigadier General Braxton Bragg, decided to attempt an assault on Fort Pickens. Troops from the 9th Mississippi, the 1st Alabama, the Louisiana Battalion, the 5th Georgia, the George Battalion and the 1st Florida Infantry moved during the night and tried to take the Fort from the east. Federal pickets discovered them, firing occurred and both sides experienced losses. After this, there were a series of mortar fire exchanges that did structural damage but accomplished little for either side.
The Federal strategy of deploying Naval ships to blockade the seacoasts began to slowly squeeze Florida with its extensive shoreline. The ground fighting wasn’t occurring everywhere, it was primarily in and around the area between the two capitols (the Confederate capitol had been established in Richmond, VA) and in Tennessee and Kentucky where both states were still perceived by the Confederacy as up for grabs but they were also along the boundary between the two sides. The men in Florida were needed in the Western Theater that encompassed southern Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Mississippi and northern Alabama. Florida was not seen as a strategic location for either side other than blockading the coastline for the Federals and holding, or taking back, the Federal forts. In March 1862, Braxton Bragg began moving his forces north into Tennessee. He was now commanding all of the Confederate troops in the Western Theater and most of the troops under his command were needed in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Some Florida and Alabama troops were left in Pollard, AL to harass the Federals in Pensacola and to maintain a minimal presence. As they retreated north, the Confederates employed a tactic of destroying anything that might remotely assist the Federals that would take over in Pensacola. It was devastating for the families who lost their businesses, livelihoods or possessions and some of the destruction further harmed families’ ability to feed themselves since many of the grist mills well into Santa Rosa County were damaged or destroyed. This did not sit well with the locals and would add to the general frustration with the Confederate conduct of the war that would eventually impact how the war progressed. Many left behind in Florida felt that they had been abandoned by the Confederate government and that eventually impacted the men on the fronts.
One thing the early actions of the Confederate States of America did was highlight the difficulty in maintaining a slave-based economy while conducting a war. When somewhere between 30% to 40% of your population are enslaved people and they aren’t nearly as happy with their situation as the owner-population liked to tell themselves, and your free population is not nearly the size of your opponent’s, things can get tricky. Especially when one of the strongly stated tenets of the newly minted Constitution of the Confederate States was States Rights. To fight a war requires strong strategy and coordinated tactics, especially if it is in your own backyard. Every state doing its own thing and setting its own priorities, or fighting the central government to do so, makes fighting a War a lot harder. As the southern troops were federalized by the new government, it left the lightly populated state of Florida with minimal military support. As Florida tried harder and harder to address that with State troops, the Confederate government would federalize the troops and then move them into Tennessee or Virginia. This increased the pressure on the home front since it created a better environment for constant conflicts between the minimal Federal presence and the minimal Confederate presence with the general population caught in the middle.
Up next we will cover 1862 and 1863 and another of the factors that soured the southern population on the Confederate cause: the hated draft. We will also take a deeper look at the Florida regiments that were formed during the first few years of the war.
Until Next Time
- The Civil War on Pensacola Bay, 1861-1862; John K. Driscoll
- Pensacola During the Civil War: A Thorn in the Side of the Confederacy; George F. Pearce
- Florida Civil War Blockades: Battling for the Coast; Nick Wynne
- Blockaders, Refugees, & Contrabands: Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 1861-1865; George E. Buker
- Letter from A. C. Blount of Pensacola to Governor John Milton, 9 April 1862; Created .pdf from files; Office of the Governor of Florida. Milton Letterbook: April 9, 1862. 1862-04-09. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.<https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/265933>