April 1862 – April 1863: War Begins in Earnest. The Impacts Become Noticeable

This is the fourth 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) (post 3). It will be followed within a few days by a follow-up post on some of the early Florida Regiments from this period. The focus in this post is on the impacts on the Florida Panhandle but to understand what was going on here, we will step back and look at some broader issues with the War and its conduct by the Confederate States government. Let’s start by looking at the withdrawal of Confederate forces from Florida in March and April of 1862.

Military Map #54. General map of southern Alabama and West Florida showing roads, railroads, towns, drainage, and a few names of residents along the Tensaw River. Source: Library of Congress.

Withdrawal of Troops to Tennessee

As mentioned in the previous post, the decision was made early in 1862 to move some of the Confederate nationalized regiments stationed in Florida north to Tennessee. The movement of troops was gradual over the first half of 1862 and included not only the troops from around Pensacola but also pulling troops from the 4th Florida Infantry that were stationed in East Florida over to Pensacola, then north. One of the many challenges that the South faced during the War was moving troops long distances. Rail gauges were not standardized. Each section that was paid for and maintained by a private company might have a different rail gauge which meant moving troops off, then on the new rail line to move to the next point. And railroads did not yet cover many extended areas. The plan was not necessarily to abandon Florida but to leave a minimal presence of partially filled regiments from the local areas stationed in Pollard, AL (and the same in east Florida and Tallahassee) to be able to harass the Union forces in Pensacola and create a sense of control over the area for the remaining population. Many families in the Pensacola area chose to pack up their belongings and move north with the troops rather than stay with their homes. This created a refugee problem that became worse as the War progressed.

As mentioned in the last post, the letter from A. C. Blount to Governor Milton in April 1862 was incensed over the destruction that was inflicted on the population as the Confederate troops withdrew. It created hardships for the families who remained behind, losses for the families whose property was damaged or destroyed and sowed some initial anger over decisions by the Confederate government. Following closely on the heels of the withdrawal came the draft, a decision necessary and difficult but one that would further anger those who did not feel strongly on the question of a new government to protect the Southern economic way-of-life.

The Hated Draft

The first Confederate draft was passed on 26 April 1862. It made all white males between 18 and 35 years old liable for three years of military service. Initially, anyone could hire a substitute. Both the law and the substitute provision were very unpopular. The substitute provision was repealed in December 1863. From the beginning of the war until the initial draft law went into effect, many men who enlisted were enlisted for one year, the rest enlisted for three. For these men who were already serving with Florida’s initial Confederate regiments they were cajoled, pressured, and enticed to re-enlist when their enlistment period was up. Most did. If they didn’t, they found quickly that they were drafted back into service within a short period of time. In addition to the law, a list of reserved occupations (mostly in teaching, medicine, communications, transportation and the ministry) were excluded from the draft. Then in October 1862, the truly hated exemption was passed, often referred to as the “Twenty Negro Law”. This allowed each plantation to keep one white male for every twenty slaves and if two or more plantations were within 5 miles of each other and together had twenty slaves, one white male could also be kept from the draft.

On 27 September 1862, the age limit was extended to 45 years old and over the remainder of the war, the Confederate government made several changes to the law. In May 1863, a change to the most disliked “twenty Negro law” was that any male exempted under it had to have been an overseer prior to 16 April 1862. The plantations that the rule applied to had to been under the supervision of a minor, a single woman, a person of unsound mind, or a person serving in the Confederate military to qualify, and  a $500 fee was required. In February 1864, the number of slaves was dropped from 20 to 15.

It isn’t all that difficult to see both sides of this very contentious issue. It was difficult enough to maintain control of a large, enslaved population without the added strain of a war in the midst of the population. The South had a much smaller white, male population than the North and quickly found that those without an economic stake in the slave economy were not as willing to leave their families and farms for what quickly became a war that would last more than one year. And then of course, conscripting men from farms, plantations and communities quickly made the management of slave populations that much more tenuous. But the law just heightened the sense among yeoman and poor farmers that the war was a Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight.

In many communities, non-slaveholding men were promised their families would be taken care of since being able to plant and harvest would be much harder for a woman and small children. However, in many communities this didn’t happen. Many plantations continued to plant cash crops, such as cotton, even though getting it to market rapidly became impossible. Coupled with the narrowing sea blockade around the Confederacy and the problems with moving anything by rail over long distances, and the failure to significantly increase production of food in most local areas, hunger became an ever-present problem. By the latter half of 1863, women were rioting from Virginia to Alabama for better access to food and writing to husbands that they would all be dead soon if he did not come home. This series of laws were the beginning of a slow decline in the willingness of the middle and poorer classes to support the war with their blood. Since they were the majority of fighting men, by the end of 1863 the Confederate Army was experiencing major losses of men from death, wounds, illness and absence without leave. At one point General Robert E. Lee estimated 25% of his Army was AWOL.

The Florida Homefront

While the men were being moved north to fight in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, at home the Union took possession of Ft. Barrancas. During 1862, the Union’s movements into the areas surrounding Pensacola were primarily to take supplies and stores from Bagdad and Milton and to engage the small camps of men on extended duty from Pollard. The Confederates had scattered camps throughout the panhandle and light skirmishes did occur during this period. But Pensacola was not a priority area for either the Union or the Confederacy so the encounters with troops by citizenry was probably only sporadic, especially once beyond Milton. That did not mean things were good. Farms left with only a woman and children struggled to have enough to eat. With the Union presence as close as it was, running the blockade would have been difficult and expecting food to come west or south from areas who were also struggling with hunger was not likely.

After April 1862, men were beginning to avoid the draft by taking to the woods to hide. They would gang together for protection and depend on families to help them avoid hunger. In some parts of the panhandle that was very thinly populated, hiding was likely not so difficult and being able to continue to help out family would have been possible if the surrounding community did not have many families who were strongly Confederate. But this dynamic would have made for some strained relationships among neighbors.

In my project writing a narrative and analyzing the records for Yellow River Baptist Church, the remaining records provide some glimpses into these struggles. While the church records do not mention the War with any regularity, what can be seen is an inability to have services (no one to preach, few to attend) and so few men that regular work in the church (all done by men at the time) couldn’t be completed. The church had made a habit of recording the members who did not show for services, and they would be visited by other members. That quickly became difficult and by February 1864, the clerk admitted that he wasn’t taking the roll because of how the war was “flustrating” (sic) the people in the community. We can only imagine what all was loaded into that one word. In the next regular post in September, I will discuss more about the community surrounding Oak Grove and how the men of the community responded to the war.

Next week I will post a brief look at some of our early regiments in Florida and how best to put some detail to your ancestor’s service. Until then, something to ponder. How is the response of some of the men to the Confederate draft the same or different from some people’s response today to mask and/or vaccine requirements/encouragements? How does an individual’s response potentially impact the greater good, either positively or negatively?

Until Then

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©2021 sdmarsh

One thought on “April 1862 – April 1863: War Begins in Earnest. The Impacts Become Noticeable

  1. Pingback: April 1863 – April 1864: The Independence Experiment Begins to Falter and the Florida Panhandle Homefront Becomes Chaotic | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

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