April 1863 – April 1864: The Independence Experiment Begins to Falter and the Florida Panhandle Homefront Becomes Chaotic

Let’s do a thought experiment to open this month’s post. It is June 1863. You are a 32-year man who was born and raised in the Florida panhandle. You are married with four children still living. Your wife is a small woman with a strong will but losing a couple of children over the last decade has taken its toll. You and your family own 15 acres and a small dog-trot cabin in northern Santa Rosa County. No one in the family owns slaves. You didn’t rush to enlist when the war started, it wasn’t your fight. You had family to care for. At the time your mother and mother-in-law were dependent on what you could plant and harvest on your property and your mother-in-law’s property. When the draft started you made yourself as invisible as possible as you worked your plots of land, but the draft found you. You didn’t show up when they told you to, but they came to find you. Now you are in Virginia and the letters from home are gut-wrenching. Your mother-in-law passed away, then one of your sons. Your wife sounds like she’s ready to give up. She and the remaining children are hungry. You can’t get leave to go home anymore because so many men don’t come back. On guard duty one night, you see a chance to desert. Do you take it?

This is the fifth in this series on the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States) in the Florida panhandle (post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4). We are now entering the period in the War where the homefront became much more contentious and the battle front much more traumatic and devastating to the armies of the Confederacy. Deep studies of the Compiled Service Records of the men at this time show dramatic increases in desertion, while battle injuries and disease continued to take its toll on the regiments from Florida. Letters to the Governor of Florida expressed anger, pain, and fear as the women left at home struggled to keep their families alive and manage without the man of the household. Most of the animals on the farm were confiscated or eaten. Without a mule or horse, it was difficult to plant crops. Populations in areas of the homefront facing conflict between men from both sides stationed in the area continued to try and move to safer locations, causing stress and conflict in their new locales.

While the panhandle had the Union stationed at Ft. Barrancas from April 1862, during the rest of 1862 and most of 1863, their goal was not to engage the Confederates at Pollard as much as it was to keep them in Pollard and not threatening the Union’s foraging for materials in the surrounding area. Milton and Bagdad saw the most engagements, by far, because they were good foraging areas for military stores and household goods in abandoned homes. Families who were believed to be pro-Confederate were targeted by the Union forces and those believed to be pro-Union were targeted by the Confederate forces. It was during this time that Official Records for the war mention some families moving into the Pensacola area looking for safety from the Confederates. Many would try and get to the eastern end of Santa Rosa Island where there was a reported “Union” man who would take them by boat to Ft. Barrancas.

It is important to remember that there were not a lot of crop-oriented plantations in northwest Florida. And those crops had not been food crops before the war. There was some resistance to transitioning to food crops by plantation owners. With the Union firmly holding Pensacola and the three forts that was there, families needing help with food had few places to turn to. The blockade-runners generally did not bring in basic food crops. They brought in medicines and high-end foods that were mainly enjoyed by the wealthier who could still afford them. And to add insult to injury, both the Confederates and the Union would confiscate something they wanted or needed, or just destroy property because they were targeting people they believed were sympathetic to the other side.

In reality, we can’t separate the homefront from the battlefields in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Tennessee or Georgia. The battlefields became harder to physically and mentally slog through. Men wrote out their names and pinned it to their uniforms before a battle in case they died in the hopes that their loved ones would be told. The Confederate Armies got much smaller as the toll of wounded, diseased, death and absence-without-leave increased. While men were lost by the Union, their numbers were larger at the start and were always much larger because they had more population to draw from, though the draft was unpopular there as well. The Emancipation Proclamation, while not freeing all the enslaved persons, did began removing the support of the slave economy from the Confederates. When the areas along the Mississippi fell to the Union, foods from Texas were nearly impossible to move east and the Confederacy became more dependent on the few remaining areas that were producing foods. The cattle market depended on for meat used by the Confederacy moved from Texas to south Florida. And the major losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg during July 1863 made the prospect of losing the war much easier to imagine.

It became clear to the Union forces that there was a sizeable population of men in the northwest Florida panhandle and portions of the southern tier of counties in Alabama that were either avoiding the draft or AWOL. Into this situation came Brigadier-General Alexander Asboth (see picture above) to take command of the troops at Fort Barrancas. An early order given him was to form a regiment of local men to be stationed at Ft. Barrancas and help protect the area from Confederate troops. Asboth was eager to make a name for himself and set out on his mission with zeal. Early on he boasted that he believed he could form two regiments of men from the disaffected in the area, but he needed the right tools. He requested a boat to take him up-river to pick up the men, enough horses to mount all of the men (it was supposed to be a cavalry regiment), and enough funds to give the men their enlistment bonuses. He never got the boat but in the early months he used a boat piloted by a local “Union” man to bring men down. A deep look at where the men were located in 1860 would indicate that the river he went up was the Yellow River. The men did not get their bonuses at enlistment but at the time of their muster out in November 1865. And he may have had horses enough for a third of the men by the end of the war. From October 1863 until May 1864, Asboth did recruit enough men for 7 companies (700) for the 1st Florida Cavalry Union Regiment (1st FCUV), with a total of 704 enlisted through the end of the war.

The 1st FCUV was not the only regiment stationed at Ft. Barrancas during the war. There were a number of U.S. Colored Infantry that were stationed at Barrancas and fought along with the 1st FCUV. They included the 82nd, 86th and 97th U.S. Colored Infantry. The 2nd Maine Veteran Cavalry, the 19th Iowa, the 7th Vermont Veteran Volunteers, and the 2nd Illinois Cavalry all fought alongside the 1st FCUV in their skirmishes and battles in 1864 and 1865. More about those in an upcoming blog. It isn’t hard to imagine how this much military presence, both in Pensacola with the Union and in Pollard with the Confederacy would impact an area of farmers and small towns. People would struggle to have enough to eat, be concerned about whether they could trust neighbors any longer, never know when a contingent of troops would show up and demand something you didn’t have or didn’t want to give up. After 18 months of COVID-19, we might have a tiny inkling of the stress this situation would have created over the course of 4 years. Pensacola and Milton were nearly emptied of civilians and all industry stopped. The surrounding areas were trampled by both sides throughout the war. The route taken by the troops from Ft. Barrancas in their march to Marianna was certainly impacted in a number of ways. And during all of this time people struggled to have enough to eat and enslaved people looked for, and found, ways to escape their bondage.

As I did last month, I will post a second blog this month covering a few of the Florida regiments that were mustered into service during the last part of the war. And next month I will wrap up this long series of posts on the war.

Until Next Time


2 thoughts on “April 1863 – April 1864: The Independence Experiment Begins to Falter and the Florida Panhandle Homefront Becomes Chaotic

  1. Reading this takes the war from the abstract to the reality faced by our families. You have portrayed this so eloquently. I’ve recently read a transcript of witness testimonies of a relative in North Carolina shot as a confederate deserter. This, along with your articles, has brought me to the realization that many men were caught in a war they did not want or support and were not cowards but just trying to survive to get back to their wives and children. Thank you for this article.


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