In this post we will wrap up this series on the Florida panhandle during the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States). We’ve looked at the conditions at home, and the motivating factors for some of the responses of the men who were expected to defend the homefront by those in charge of the Confederacy. A civil insurrection within a nation does not fail to be a traumatizing event on the citizenry. It is disruptive, it creates shortages of basic items, it pits neighbor against neighbor, it injures and kills, and it hardens political positions in ways that makes it difficult to solve problems in a representative democracy both during and after the war is over. One hundred and fifty-six years after the war ended, there are some in our nation that still wants to fight this war over again. There is an old saying that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. Have we learned the appropriate lessons of the War for Southern Independence or are we rapidly approaching a repeat of history?
By the early months of 1864, Gettysburg and Vicksburg had occurred, severely damaging Southern morale and further decreasing the men available on the battlefronts. While the bread riots had decreased in intensity and some locations might have started trying a bit harder to help feed the families who were struggling, overall the effort to feed the armies and the homefront was increasingly difficult to nearly impossible. The fall of Vicksburg and the control of the Mississippi River by the Union meant that the beef and food production sent east from Texas had dried up. Virginia had been a significant farming area before the war but the constant battles up and down the Appalachian area of Virginia had interrupted planting, growing and harvesting of food crops. Horses were nearly non-existent except for the few with the Army and were, when spotted, the first to be confiscated. Beef production had moved to the Florida peninsula but the Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron (the Navy) and the 2nd Florida Union Cavalry kept up pressure in disrupting the movement of cattle north to be sent to the armies. England had failed to enter on the side of the South after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and worse for southern cotton growers, the English were cultivating the production of cotton in India, eliminating the hold southern plantation owners had on the cotton trade. For many, it appeared it was just a matter of time, though hope springs eternal for those with strong passions on a subject.
It is during this time period that the Union forces in Pensacola, including the 1st Florida Cavalry, Union Volunteers were actively engaged in the Panhandle, instigating engagements with the Confederates stationed at Pollard, AL and in the surrounding areas from Escambia Co, FL over to Walton Co, FL. They marched to Marianna over a long, circuitous route that was intended to create chaos and anxiety before they reached Marianna and battled with the home guard and few Confederate forces there. General Asboth was severely injured in Marianna and spent the last of 1864 and early 1865 recovering. They made repeated excursions toward Pollard and in the final days of the war rode north to Andalusia, over to Evergreen and cut the railroad, then rode to Ft. Blakeley to provide intelligence and food gathering for the men at the final battle at Mobile.
Humans often believe that if they can stop what appears to be causing great pain that things will go back to “normal”. The new normal is never quite the same as the old normal. By 1864, there may have been a significant number of Confederate families who just wanted the war to end so they could pick up the pieces of their lives and move on. This may have been one of the driving forces in the numbers of men who joined the 1st Florida Cavalry. Maybe they thought their joining the Union side would hasten the Confederates defeat and the carnage and hunger would stop. In some ways they were right. Every place where there was a significant backlash by the families on the ground weakened the Confederacy whether it was Jones County, Mississippi, the mountainous areas of North Carolina and Tennessee, northern Alabama or the Panhandle of Florida.
While there were some men who joined the 1st Florida and fought honorably in a number of the engagements in 1864 and early 1865, there was a sizeable desertion rate with this regiment just as there was in Lee’s Army in the eastern theater. Lee reported to President Davis that he estimated 25% of his army was absent without leave. My analysis of desertions from the 1st Florida Cavalry that I cover in more detail in my book on the 1st Florida Cavalry reveals a comparable percentage at 23%. One of the interesting factors impacting the 1st Florida was that they were not mustered out at the end of the war. That did not occur until 17 November 1865. A good number of what was initially reported as desertions occurred between April and November 1865. After the war was over, if the individual men applied for a pension and they had deserted during this period but served honorably up to that point, they were given an honorable discharge as of the date of their desertion. It isn’t surprising that many of these men were not interested in staying in the Union army after the war, even if they were still owed bounty. They were eager to get on with their lives.
1864 was also devastating on the battlefield. General Grant took command of the entire Union army and created a strategy to put massive consistent pressure on the Confederate forces. He confronted Lee and chased him and his army from one end of Virginia to the other with awful casualties on both sides. While Grant’s casualty numbers were higher than Lee’s in most of these battles, he could replace the losses, by this point Lee could not. In a number of these battles, Florida troops found themselves in devastating combat that decimated their regiments (see the blog posts – here and here – on Florida regiments for some insight on what was left of some of these regiments at the end of the war). Of course, not all of these men were killed. Some were wounded and would not heal before the war was over, some were taken prisoners and spent the remainder of the war in a Union prison camp, and some deserted and hid out for the remainder of the war. By April 1865, Lee was clear that he could no longer put up a fight that would have any meaning and determined his best course was surrender.
Men straggled home for the remainder of 1865. Some walked, some managed to catch a ride on a train though if they had to go through Georgia where Sherman’s army had enjoyed taking up tracks and twisted them around trees that wasn’t an option, some came home in wagons and some did not come home at all.
We see how post-traumatic stress syndrome manifests itself today but in 1865 it was not recognized as an actual condition. So, besides any physical injuries they came home with many likely came home with psychological issues as well with no place to go for help other than a bottle of whiskey. Some managed to re-build their lives and some didn’t. Some women managed without marrying again if they were widowed and some didn’t. An analysis of Walton County’s census from 1870 showed a much larger percentage of households headed by women than had occurred prior to the war. They were listed as farmers (usually with an older son in the household to help), innkeepers, keeping a mill (mill owner), spinners, weavers, seamstresses, midwives, and at least one woman listed as “harlot”. I never fail to imagine when I see it how that piece of information was conveyed to the census taker.
As we look back on this war, we should be careful not to romanticize it. It was a brutal war. We can study and honor our ancestors’ choices and service, regardless of which side they were on, without imagining that the war was entered into wisely, with enough forethought, and conducted well. I think one of the reasons that a good number of the wealthier, slave-holders were initially expressing caution in galloping into war was their understanding that fighting a war while trying to establish a government based on a slave economy and keeping those enslaved persons in bondage with a war raging around them, while trying to encourage a lot of poorer men with no enslaved persons and little to fall back on to leave home and fight, would not be the piece of cake some imagined at the outset of war. While businessmen and women are generally conservative, even today, because they want stability and as few constraints on their businesses as possible, they also tend to be rational and level-headed because those are skills necessary to be successful in business and never doubt that plantation owners were first and foremost business people. They produced wanted goods using enslaved labor. And regardless of the stories they told in public, I think most, in private, knew their enslaved population would jump at any chance to be free. Pulling off the success of this war was going to be a real challenge, and it was that for four long, bloody years.
As has been my habit over the last 5 years, I will be taking November and December off. While I won’t have my Mom to spend time with, I do have some activities to focus on, including trying to finish up the initial draft and formatting of my narrative history of Yellow River Baptist Church and hopefully some visiting with friends and family. I will be speaking to the Santa Rosa Genealogical Society on 16 October 2021, 10:00 a.m. at the Milton Library Annex, 6275 Dogwood Dr. on the experience of the war in the Florida panhandle. It will be good to get back into some speaking engagements.
For me, 2020 and 2021 has been difficult, challenging and painful at times, but like my ancestors who came through the war we’ve been discussing, I too am working to create anew and move on. I have a great deal to be thankful for, including those of you who read my blog regularly and occasionally comment. Have a wonderful and blessed holiday season of fellowship, endings and beginnings, and love, regardless of your reason for celebration. May we all take time to slow down, take a deep breathe and give thanks for all that we have. I love you all.
Until Next Time.
- A Small But Spartan Band: The Florida Brigade in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, by Zack C. Waters and James C. Edmonds
- The 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers in the Civil War: The Men and Regimental History and What It Tells Us About Northwest Florida and South Alabama During the War, by Sharon Marsh
- The Battle of Marianna, Florida, by Dale Cox
- Pensacola During the Civil War: A Thorn in the Side of the Confederacy, by George F. Pearce
- Blockaders, Refugees & Contrabands: Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 1861-1865, by George E. Buker
- The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida, by William Watson Davis
- Guerrillas, Unionists, and Violence on the Confederate Homefront, by Daniel E. Sutherland